Finding the Small Things

Nine Coins

Luke 15:1-10 | Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

A shepherd finds one sheep that was lost, a poor woman finds one coin that was lost, and they stop to celebrate something found, something redeemed, something made whole.

One sheep out of a herd of a hundred, one coin out of a collection of ten—these are not great losses. You might expect to loose a sheep or two over a season. As to the coins, while a ten percent loss is noteworthy, it is not unheard of. Ask anyone who has money invested in the stock market.

CoinsfromJarVertYet in these two stories Jesus tells, the losses matter. A shepherd goes out into wilder places looking for one lost sheep. Is it because this sheep matters more to him, or because this sheep needs him more? Jesus makes the odd claim that anyone hearing his story would do the same thing, but would they? An old woman turns her household upside down to find one lost coin, and Jesus claims there is nothing notable in her determination to find it. And both the shepherd and the woman are delighted to find what they have lost, calling friends and neighbors to celebrate such good fortune.

Maybe Jesus included his audience ironically. How many of them would have gone into dangerous places to find one sheep, or would have put so much energy into finding one coin? Some of them would have, but many would not. Most of them would have at least noticed what they had lost. Would we?

These stories speak to the way we value things. In our modern state of distraction, our telephones ringing and chiming, our jobs and families and televisions pulling at us, we lose things. Small things go missing. We lose parts of ourselves, our time, our focus, and in our distraction we fail to notice the loss. If we do notice, we find ourselves carried along by the current of demands so that we fail to stop and look for things, fail to reclaim our time, our interests, the small cutaway bits of well being that go missing, get lost, or are stolen.

Perhaps that is how we modern folk tend to die, not like a hero in the climax of a story, but little by little before we go altogether, not noticing what we lose and let go, until at the end there is nothing of us left but the expectations of others. We become what the world has expected that we will become, a small shriveled thing about to disappear entirely, and along the way we tacitly agreed to the loss.

Small things matter. That is one message of the stories Jesus tells these people. Small things matter to us, should matter to us, and we should not allow the world to shove and bully us into submission. Hold onto the good bits of your lives, he is saying, and don’t allow them to be lost, sloughed off, eroded like a stone turning slowly into sand.

There is another message here. We are all small things, one sheep among many, at best one coin in the collection. Take a walk down the busy streets of New York or Calcutta, and part of you is lost to the elbows of passersby and to the realization of smallness that slips into the mind of any reasonable human not suffering a Napoleon complex.

Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa was just proclaimed a saint by Pope Francis. If any of us have been saints, surely she was. Going out into streets and searching for the lost things was her occupation. She found lost sheep, picked up small coins, and treated the least of them with compassion, dignity, recognizing their importance. She made the outrageous claim that each person matters to God, that in each small, wrinkled, dying human face, she saw the same Jesus who told these stories.

That is also one of the messages. We small things matter to God, despite much evidence that the world would suggest proves otherwise. Where was God when this happened or when that tragedy befell? Where was God when refugees lost their homes to war and to famine, when governments failed and gave way to pirates and violence, when floods and earthquakes and now even the lowly mosquito come bringing doom?

Saint Teresa would tell us that God is present in each person lost, and that God watches it all, seeing it through our eyes. Rather than ask where God is, we do better to ask where we are, where our feet have carried us and what our hands are doing, how we are looking after the other sheep, even the ones who are strange to us, and where we are putting our coins.

The Coins We Give Away

Mark 12:38-44 | Proper 27 (32)

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

The Coins We Give Away

It’s not about the money. We try to make it so — to turn this passage into a lecture on giving generously, to make it about donating to churches and to charities — but it was never about the money.

Two copper coins, half pennies, that is what the poor woman put into the collection box. Jesus saw her do it. At least, it sounds like he saw her. It’s possible that he just picked a woman and made up the story as a way to teach his followers, but that isn’t the plainest reading of the text. Mark writes that Jesus saw her putting two tiny coins into the collection and knew that those coins were “all she had to live on.”Coins Vertical

Was Jesus knowing about the coins a God thing? Secret divine knowledge? It may just be that he was paying attention to a poor woman, which is the sort of miracle we need to perform more often.

Either way, he knew what she had done. She gave everything. It wasn’t just money. It was everything she had left to keep her alive, her ‘living’ —the word is the one that gives us the English term ‘bio’ as in biography or biology. All that kept her alive, that is what she gave.

The rich people gave large donations. That was good, so far as it went. The money kept the temple operating.

And we should give to support our synagogues and churches, our mosques and temples. We give to support all the things that sustain love in this world, and God would have us love our neighbors as ourselves. Love the poor. The sick. Love the stranger in our midst, a command found at least 36 times in scripture. Those things need our coins. They also need our time, and they need our voices as well.

This woman threw herself out into the sea that is God, trusting she would be lifted by a different kind of whale than Jonah’s. That was good. Her gift caught the eye of Jesus and thrilled the heart of the Almighty. Perhaps being at the end of her purse, only two half pennies left, it was easier to let go of them. Somehow I think it was not. The sound of those copper coins dropping was a prayer.

“I lay down my life,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John. He doesn’t say that he dies, but that he lays down his life. Christianity is so full of people trying to explain the crucifixion, focusing on the death of the Messiah, that we miss the life. That is what Jesus gave—his life. He laid down all that he had and let the sea of humanity flood across him.

It is not the death of Jesus that saves us. It is the life. It is all that is God. Faith cannot be solely about something that happened two thousand years ago, or millions of years ago, or days. It’s fairly easy to love the past. We shape it in our minds to suit us. It’s harder to love the present, full of complicated, aggravating, conflicted people, but they need our love, and our voices, and our time. And we need to open our hands, let some coins drop, and reach out. In touching one another, we touch something of the Spirit of God.

Coins Wide

The Coin We Pay

The Coin We Pay  |  Matthew 22:15-22  |  Lectionary Project

PennyWideTaxes are as certain as death, we say. Those are the only two things we tend to say it about, death and taxes. Saying it may be more of a confession than we know. It may be that those are the things we believe are true.

Conniving tricksters came and asked Jesus whether it was right to pay taxes. They weren’t seeking clarity and insight, and they certainly didn’t have the courage to rebel and refuse to pay their taxes. They just wanted to throw Jesus under the express bus to Rome.

“Give to caesar the things that are caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus told them.

Separate what is God’s and what is of the world. That is the plainest meaning of what Jesus told the fellows trying to get him on the wrong side of the emperor. It is worth a second reading, though. Jesus saw through the deception, but he may have laid a trap of his own. What if there was another meaning to his answer?

Jesus asked what likeness was on a coin. The tricksters thought Jesus meant the one in his hand.HourGlassCoins6x4

What if the point was to get us to recognize the coin we use? The old challenge is to put your money where your mouth is. Maybe this challenge is to recognize the price we pay. The trick is to see that the coin we use is stamped with our own likeness.

Everything comes with a price. Each day, each choice. Every yes contains a no, as the saying goes. For every choice, we pay the price in time, in thought, in energy, and in the effect on who we are and who we might become. That is the price we pay.

The coin we use is life. And we pay it either for something ephemeral or for something that lasts. When we look in the mirror and see someone wrinkled and spotty looking back at us, what do we have for the price we paid? What did our coins get us? Where did we invest our assets?

The face on the coin is our own. The currency is measured in time, our time, our lives, and there is a hole in our sock. There is less in the bank every day, whether we buy anything with it or not.

Let the world collect its gold. It never was ours. If you don’t believe me, try dying and see what happens to the dollars you’ve got piled up. Our wealth melts away even faster when we move on than when we were alive, and after a couple of exchanges nobody remembers what hand held it.

Our lives are not like that. Even if we believe that after death there is nothing, there was still this life. We may feel that our lives are inconsequential, of no account, but we have a real effect, good or bad, on the people around us. Their lives are different because of ours, and ours changed because of them. We can’t see our own legacy. Perhaps that is God’s work.

And if we believe that life continues after death, then we carry that sum of choices with us, the transactions of our souls. Each moment continues to be an opportunity, a new investment.

The coin we pay is life. Shop well.