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.

As If

Child Walking Through Tall Grass

Proper 6 – Season After Pentecost |  Mark 4:26-34

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


Note — This post was written in June of 2015. Reading headlines this week, June of 2018, I am appalled to see scripture twisted to support indefensible policies of the present US government. The founders of this nation were wise — one might even say inspired — to separate church and state.

The more I gaze into the face of headline Christianity, the more I understand why people reject anything that smacks of faith. Listening to a politician using faith-speak to galvanize voters (right or left wing, though usually the right — this bird flies in circles, it seems) is enough to repel any thoughtful person.

There are some wonderful public voices in the Christian world. While I am not Catholic, Pope Francis often gives me joy. Rachel Held Evans’ journey has resonated with many Christians as they examine their own beliefs. People like Nadia Bolz-Weber (to the extent that there is anyone like Nadia Bolz-Weber) are inspiring (and entertaining.)

Most of Christianity is quieter, more in keeping with the part of the iceberg that is under the water. We can’t see it, but that massive body of crystals beneath the surface is the only reason any ice rises up at all.

Jesus told parables — stories, illustrations thrown alongside our lives to help us think. The kingdom of God is like seed scattered on the ground, he said, growing into a field of grain. The kingdom of God is like mustard seed, he said, tiny and almost unnoticeable, yet growing into a plant somewhere between knee high and over one’s head, depending on which scholarly opinion one accepts regarding the plant Jesus meant.

There is nothing spectacular about grain growing, nothing that would make a front page article or a popular tweet, except that from it we get the bread that we eat. Nothing about mustard is impressive — tiny seeds and a plant that may be large enough to shade birds but that is nothing more than an overgrown shrub at best.Maple seeds

Scattered, tiny seeds. An unremarkable plant. Such is the kingdom of God, Jesus says. What a remarkable journey, though, from germination to plant. We pass by each day without noticing the process until one day the field is full of grain, or flowers have grown from what looked like nothing.

The kingdom of God — what is with that expression anyway? Do we really imagine God as a radiant old king, someone made in our image, sitting on a throne, gazing down at the disc of the world? Many have. Many still do. It is an image that says more about our limited imagination than it does about God.

With bird feederThe small things, the things we overlook, those are what tell us about God. A child who knows kindness grows into an adult with a good heart; that is of God. A victim offers forgiveness, regardless of the effect on the offender, lightening the burden and opening a new future for the one who forgives; that is of God. Small things and things that cannot even be seen, these are where God is present.

Life grows around us, even without our notice. The universe takes the smallest things and makes something of them. We breathe, stardust and unseen wonder all around us, and a plant uses the carbon dioxide we exhale, growing from what seems nothing. The world is connected in ways we barely understand. On the other hand, our greatest efforts are sometimes the most harmful: scars on the planet that one can see from space, scars within us that God can see from anywhere.

Food for a hungry neighbor, kindness toward a child, a sense of gratitude for being alive — these things matter to God, even when we do not see how such things may change the world. From small things, unseen and unnoticed, come the beauty and wonder around us.

“The kingdom of God is as if…,” the parable begins. As if what?

In field of grasses