SEPTEMBER 12, 2010 ~ A Meditation on Luke 15:1-10 ~ Two parables about the ways we get lost and the searching, seeking spirit of God.
But sometimes we throw caution to the wind. And this is one of those stories. Sometimes we feel something, some strange kinship; and we can’t bear to sit still. So we grab a few essentials and head for the hills, into the ravines, wherever it is he’s wandered off to. Something about that sheep. Something about his being out there all alone.
This story’s about the way God is with us. And maybe it’s about the way we can be with one another.
So there we were in Bethlehem, this summer, twenty-three of us, Jews and Christians. On a steamy Sunday afternoon, twenty-three of us walking along a broken path in the shadow of a wall, a wall that separates 21st century Israel from occupied Palestine. Actually, calling it a wall doesn’t really begin to describe this hulking, looming, threatening barrier. It seems to me more like an obscenity, more like an angry sneer.
On the far side: Israel, a thriving economy, watered lawns, tourism and holy sites. On this near side, the Bethlehem side: a strangled economy, no water for the past 21 days, Palestinian neighborhoods depleted and hopeless.
Scribbled across this concrete wall: all kinds of graffiti, poems of protest, even the symbol of our own United Church of Christ. Not much is clear here, but there’s this. Everybody’s lost. On both sides of this huge grey wall. Generations raised in fear, guns and rockets like toys in kids’ hands, walls. And everybody’s lost.
It must have been close to a hundred degrees, that Sunday in July, and the ground was hard and broken. We wandered beside the huge wall and stepped around chipped forgotten graves marked in Arabic. Down a hill, we followed our Palestinian guide into the U.N.’s Aida Refugee Camp. What do you say about a 40, 50, 60-year-old refugee camp? Broken bottles in the streets, the wall snaking through neighborhoods, families who’ve known nothing but a refugee camp for generations. And no water, for kids, for families, for hospitals; no water at all for 21 days.
Leading the delegation, I found myself paying attention to reactions, emotions, interactions among our twenty-three Jewish and Christian delegates. And as we passed through a huge gateway, into the camp itself, I noticed subtle and not so subtle reactions. For some, the heat had become unbearable, oppressive, like a brutal burden that made every step hard and heavy. For others, the experience felt sadly voyeuristic: climbing stairs in an old building, looking past open doors into refugee apartments, making awkward eye contact with Palestinian families. A few others became noticeably angry, confused: why is this place still here? don’t these folks have other places to go? why do they hang around doing nothing? Twenty-three Americans in a Palestinian refugee camp, a long, long way from home.
It may have been the most difficult, upsetting day of the whole two-week trip. And it wasn’t over. It was insanely hot, terribly stressful, everything about it; and the history in occupied territory is brutal, complex and intrusive. I heard more than one or two of us say something about needing a vacation from the vacation.
We were joined, somewhat later, by six Palestinian students – young adults who shared with us their experiences in Palestine and their perspectives on the future there. They were young, 18, 19, 20 years old. And occupation is all they’ve ever known: refugee camps, waterless weeks, barrier walls. Several were thoughtful, mature, even courageous. They had lively hopes, good ideas, bright, warm smiles.
But one young Palestinian was different. He was angry, defiantly anti-semitic, and hateful. The five delegates in his small group were puzzled at first, then disheartened, offended and infuriated. He offered that Jews probably got what they deserved in the Holocaust of the 20th century. He insisted Jews are the heart of the problem now, in the Middle East. And he said it wouldn’t bother him at all if Israel was driven out to sea and simply ceased to exist.
Just the third full day of our journey, and we’d landed suddenly, unexpectedly in a mess of bitter history, ethnic hatred and occupied hearts. It hit each of us in different ways, but it hit all of us. By the time we boarded our bus for dinner, we were frustrated, exasperated and tense. A few were disappointed by the delegation’s failure to understand the young Palestinian’s rage. Still more were incensed at his hate-filled speech and callous indifference to Jewish history.
All along, it was our commitment to speak honestly and listen carefully around our differences of opinion and perspective. And when we met that evening, after dinner, feelings were raw, and differences were real. There wasn’t a whole lot of small talk that night. Some recalled faces in the U.N. refugee camp, the father who couldn’t find water for his family, the kids without playgrounds. Others shook, frankly, with rage, disappointment: recalling the young Palestinian and his cruel, dismissive hatred. I’ll never forget a particularly sharp exchange around whether or not it was appropriate to call the young man “a monster.” Yes, said some: he’d frightened us and meant to hurt us with his words. No, said others: he was a young man with a story, a young man wounded by life. It was our calling to see behind his insensitivity to his humanity.
What pleased me that night – in the midst of the pain, the tears, the disappointment – was our delegation’s tolerance for discomfort and disagreement. From the beginning, we’d talked about compassion, about receiving new experiences and encountering new voices and doing all of this with compassion and tenderness. It became quickly apparent that we’d need to be compassionate with one another: that we’d see things very differently, experience conflict in wildly dissimilar ways.
And that Sunday night, after a long day in Bethlehem, we were tested. Tested. And delegates responded tearfully, sometimes angrily, but always compassionately. There were hard moments. Before us, like shards of broken glass, scattered on the floor: the faces of fathers and daughters roaming refugee camps, searching for shade and water and hope; and the angry words of angry souls, determined to hate, eager to provoke; and images on an ugly wall, symbols of division and brokenness and human cruelty. It was an awful lot to take in. And delegates – Jewish and Christian – held it all with a kind of broken-hearted tenderness.
Now there’s more to this story: I kind of think the best part. But first I want to make contact again with the provocative parables we’ve read in Luke this morning. Because they give shape to a kind of touchstone in our angry, divided, occupied world. It turns out that Jesus has a lot to say about lost souls, and broken communities, and defiant sheep. And this touchstone, I think, is always relevant for us. Luke 15. These parables never get old. If we’re honest. If we bring our whole selves, our whole lives, our whole world to them.
So imagine that one sheep, distracted again, lost again, wounded and angry and off the map again. Imagine that it’s not the first time, or the second, or the third. This one sheep’s got a knack for getting lost, a tendency to wander off from the others, a reckless urge the others resent. Does the shepherd leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness or not? I guess that’s the question Jesus lights this morning – like a match to a fuse, on a stick of dynamite. Who among us will leave the ninety-nine to go after the defiant lost sheep – a second time, a third time, a fourth? Who among us will risk peace of mind, the opinion of well-meaning friends, even personal safety – to search the caves of Palestine, and the sun-baked hills, and the dangerous ravines – for the reckless sheep?
Now, if you’ve read these parables a hundred times, the answer seems obvious. But I’m not so sure. Think about reckless sheep, defiant sheep, lost sheep. How about the Reverend Terry Jones at that little church in Florida thinking about burning all those Qur’ans? Now there’s a reckless spirit, a defiant soul. This isn’t the first time he’s wandered off, either, recklessly endangering the rest of the flock. If you’re the shepherd, what do you do about him? Do you go after Terry Jones? Do you love him enough, cherish him enough to risk your reputation chasing after him, searching the caves, the hillsides for Terry Jones? It’s a tough call.
Or how about the bitter drunk two doors down – the guy you know is beating his wife and wasting his breath? No one in the neighborhood gives a hoot about the drunk. But if you’re the shepherd – the shepherd in Jesus’ story – do you get after him? Do you see in him something sacred, something precious – and do you set aside all the other worthwhile things you’re doing to search him out?
It’s not so obvious, is it? We take it for granted, I think, that God loves everybody. But Jesus is so far from satisfied with the theological cliché. Jesus gets restless when the best we’ve got is dogma, even liberal dogma. Jesus is saying, Don’t miss the passion here! Don’t miss the divine heartbeat! Jesus is saying, God goes after the lost! Sure, God loves everybody. But that’s just the beginning. Because God sets convention and routine aside to seek out the lost and the reckless. Sure, God loves everybody. But that’s just the beginning. Because God risks reputation and even the feelings of the ninety-nine to chase after the lonely, odd, even defiant sheep. God’s heart beats a little faster. God’s palms sweat a little warmer. God’s light shines a little brighter when that one sheep wanders off at night.
We’re given to calling these two short parables: the parables of the ‘lost sheep’ and the ‘lost coin.’ But when we do, maybe we miss the radical heart of these stories. Maybe we should be calling them the parable of the searching, seeking shepherd, and the parable of the still sweeping woman. These are first and always stories about the divine heart, about the kind of heart that feels your pain and mine, about the kind of heart that knows, that experiences the loneliness we know and experience. These are stories about God’s heart and God’s persistence, God’s desire, God’s delight in finding us. In lifting us out of the caves where we hide. In joyfully bearing us – back to safety and community.
Heaven throws a party, Jesus says. Heaven throws a party when the whole human family comes together at last. Heaven rejoices, Jesus says, when every last, lost one of us finally arrives. There is no one so lost, so bitter, so defiant as to be outside the reach of God’s amazing grace. There is no one so mean, so angry, so brutish as to be forgotten and unimportant in the eyes of God. Heaven throws a party when the whole human family comes together at last. Salvation, for Jesus and for us, has something to do with the reunion of every last, lost one of us. When we’re all home at last. God is satisfied with nothing short of this. The shepherd doesn’t rest. The housekeeper keeps sweeping. Until we’re all home – at last.
So just last week, our delegation gathered again to think a bit about our experience this summer and plan for a couple of community events in October. There was lots to talk about. And we came back to that Sunday in Bethlehem, and our encounter with the strange and angry Palestinian student.
One delegate, a Jew, spoke quietly and thoughtfully. It was pretty clear she’d been thinking about that student a lot. And she said some things last week that I’ll never forget, things that captured the whole purpose of the trip.
She said that she was so angry that day, in Bethlehem, so disappointed in the young Palestinian, that she’d not even registered his saying that he’d been attacked and beaten by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint and that this had happened right in front of his girlfriend. He’d mentioned it; but she’d missed it, ignored it, rushed on by.
She said that she was so threatened, as a Jew, so angry, that she’d not even registered his saying that his brother had been murdered by Israeli soldiers, some time before. This young man had a story. And it didn’t excuse his hatred; it didn’t erase his bitterness. But it made him human. And looking back now, she said she understood him – a little bit.
She mentioned a class she’s been taking on leadership and diversity: that it’s pretty clear sometimes that we have to work a little harder, listen a little closer, to hear the stories and perspectives of those whose pain is so different from ours.
And that’s what brings me back to the touchstone. Somehow our faith calls us to a kind of patience and persistence. This isn’t to say the lost and the angry won’t infuriate us. This isn’t to say the defiant won’t exasperate us and even bring us to tears. But somehow faith insists that we hold our anger lightly, gently – and that we hold out hope that even our anger can be transformed into understanding, compassion, maybe love. That’s what I saw happening with that one delegate last week. Anger – justified, real anger – was transformed by reflection, kindness and wisdom into something so much more human, so much wiser.
I don’t know about you; but I think there’s so much riding on these parables. For churches and cities and nations and families. God knows – when even one of us is lost, when even one of us is out there wandering and hungry and alone, in the dark ravines of Palestine. And Jesus encourages us – not to judge to harshly, not to return hate for hate, not to forget the humanity of the lost. Heaven throws a party, Jesus says. Heaven throws a party when the whole human family comes together at last. It’s our calling, it’s our privilege, it’s our vocation – to set the tables and open the doors. It’s our calling to show up.