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 Care of Sheep

Wolf Looking Back by Lauren Bell

Fourth Sunday of Easter  |  John 10:11-18

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, one who lays down his own life in the care of his sheep.

Why? Why does this shepherd care so much for these sheep? In answer, Jesus claims, “I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

Knowing someone: it changes everything.

Think of a terrible news story, some natural disaster—a tornado or flood or earthquake. So long as we hear only the background, the big picture, we are safe from those people. Our hearts are free to leave them. It is terrible, we think. Perhaps we make a small donation, a few dollars in a jar.

Wolf Shadow by Lauren Bell
Wolf Shadow by Lauren Bell

Linger with the photographs, and we slip. See an image of a father trying to hold to his children, and we are lost. See tears in the wide eyes of an orphaned child, and we cannot turn away, not entirely, not without taking something of that pain with us, not without losing something of ourselves in the turning.

Likewise, imagine those people who appear to have brought their troubles on themselves. So long as they are at a distance, we blame them for their plight rather than see their needs.


How about those North African migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, getting themselves into danger? So long as they are a concept, an idea, a problem, many of us can turn away from them. Perhaps we think that rescue operations only encourage these people to persist, which is a little like thinking that feeding people only encourages them to be hungry. Stop to gaze at a photo of a woman nearly drowning in the surf, or listen to a man’s story of why his family would take such risks, and we cannot turn away without losing something of our own humanity.

Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell
Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell

I am the good shepherd, Jesus says, because I know them.

How about boy soldiers in Africa? Far away, and none of our concern, perhaps. Refugees in Syria? They destroyed their own country with civil war, didn’t they, and isn’t the UN doing something? More than that, they are far away. Even gazing into their eyes in the photos or reading their stories in interviews, we remain removed from them.

We cannot know them, not truly. Not knowing them, we can walk away. How are we to care when the wolves come?

If we haven’t already turned away from this bit of writing, let’s try something closer to where we live.

How about a homeless person? Not the persistent panhandler with a sign, the one we are fairly certain is less than honest about his goals. Try the one quietly asking for help, or people not asking us for anything, the family living in a car, the man waiting behind a bush for the shelter to reopen. We avoid knowing them so that we can walk away. If we know them, we no longer have that option.

So here is our Gospel question: do we get to know people because we are good shepherds, or do we become good shepherds because we get to know people?

That is applied spirituality, practical theology.

Backing away from the practical for a moment, there is also a theological bombshell buried in this passage: I lay down my life in order to take it up again.

What? In this season of resurrection, it is worth a second thought.

Why did Jesus die? Oh, come on, we know this one. If we’ve ever been near a Sunday school class, an evangelical sermon, or a hand painted roadside placard, we know why—to save us from our sins, right?

One problem—that is not what Jesus himself is recorded as saying, not here, perhaps not quite anywhere in the Gospels. I lay down my life in order to take it up again. I die for the purpose of living. And what do we make of that?

If nothing else, let’s agree that God may be up to something greater than our memorized explanations. We’ve built an entire system of thought to explain God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but our ideas about God are not God. Our explanations of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus are not Jesus.

Like the Christmas Grinch who thought of something he hadn’t before, what if the Gospel, perhaps, means a little bit more?

If we merely have ideas about God, we are still free. God remains a concept, dangerous enough but a step removed from us. We are protected from God by our own system of thought. Theology becomes a barrier, our seawall, an end in itself, our human-made substitute for a God we do not see and perhaps do not wish to see.

If we know God, if we open ourselves to the possibility of knowing something greater than ourselves, we walk dangerous ground, swim in deep waters. Knowing God, we can no longer turn away.

We may even find ourselves counting sheep.

Wolf Looking Back by Lauren Bell
Wolf Looking Back by Lauren Bell

Recognizing a Voice

Fourth Sunday of Easter  |  John 10:1-10

Sheep are usually trusting creatures.

Goats 2 017Sheep, goats, cattle, all of them recognize the people who care for them, and they recognize the ones who do not. They know the voice that they trust. Animals may have a deeper wisdom than we, an older wisdom.

My dog is wiser than I. He sleeps more often than I, and better. He enjoys his food and the sunlight and the joy of a friendly touch much more than I. And he knows my voice, though he sometimes chooses not to listen to it.

Jesus says that he is a shepherd, that his own will know his voice. He also says that he is the gate for the sheep, mixing the elements of the analogy.

Word pictures for God—John’s gospel gives us plenty of these. At different points, Jesus is described (or is portrayed describing himself) as light, bread, water, a man, the way, the gate, the shepherd, a vine, a servant, a fisherman, a king, other things. All of these images are true, of course. None of them is complete. If we take any one of these images, however beautiful and true it may be, and hold it to the exclusion of the others, we do not take away a true understanding of Jesus. The same is true of the other people in our lives. They are more, and sometimes less, than the way we think of them.

Take another example, the explanation of the crucifixion. In the gospels we hear what Jesus did, what was done to him, told in story form. Elsewhere in scripture, there are references, surprisingly brief descriptions of the crucifixion, comparing it variously to a sacrifice, or a ransom, or to a judicial penalty, among other things. Outside of scripture on the other hand, entire books have been written to explain what happened on the cross (often minimizing everything else), and Christianity has divided itself into camps based at least in part on one or another of these explanations, as though the others are untrue.

It is like trying to understand a home only by what we see on the outside, or the life of the deepest ocean by watching from the shore. Much may be learned that is true, as far as it goes, but we know that the rest remains a mystery.

It must be the same for sheep and goats. Their shepherds guide them, feed them, keep them safe, and so the animals know much about their shepherd. They know when the shepherd comes, what the shepherd does, and they know the shepherd’s voice. The rest remains unknown to them, but the sheep do not seem to dwell on it or let it displace their faith. They respect the boundaries of mystery.

If a sheep were to sit and to write a detailed explanation of the other aspects of the shepherd’s life, explaining the motives and reasons that the shepherd does what a shepherd does, it would make interesting reading. Other sheep may find themselves agreeing or disagreeing. Focusing on the explanations might even be enough to distract a sheep so that it does not hear the shepherd’s voice.

That is a problem with being immersed in religion. We become so distracted, and content, explaining God that we do not even perceive God’s presence. We exchange our faith in God for a collection of ideas about God. Christianity does not promise that we are saved by means of our understanding. The promise is that we are saved through the love of God, saved by means deeper and more mysterious than we can comprehend, and saved from and to something perhaps more profound than we know.

Jesus went to the crucifixion like a sheep to slaughter. As we have said, animals have a deeper wisdom than we. Even though the sheep’s trust may be misplaced, it remains more noble and more whole for trusting than does the person who betrays it. There is a mysterious power in trust and in submission, even when proven wrong, and how much more power when the trust is fulfilled.

Perhaps this Easter season is a good time to remember one of the oldest confessions of faith in Christianity. The Nicene Creed, named for the place where early church leaders met in the fourth century, doesn’t explain much. It does assert a great deal, but by way of sharing the story and preserving the mystery. We learn as much from the way it is told as from what it contains.

The Nicene Creed ª
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

ª This translation is from The Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. You can find the online version here: