“Don’t Cut Your Losses”

In our house, there’s an exchange that happens a couple of times a day. One of the children says, or I say, “where is my [fill in the blank]?” The missing item might be keys or shoes, that scrap of paper with the shopping list. It might be someone’s swim googles, their mittens, or the lovely plastic toy that they got as a prize at the dentists’ office. It could be a homework assignment, a dress for one of the dolls, a library book, or a tiny Lego part that has been gone for weeks and is suddenly essential to have right now. When this happens, my spouse Jen says, “Have you looked in the [place where the item should be or usually is or might have been left]?” And Eliza, or Alice, or I say, “oh yes, we looked! It isn’t there!” I always know, in my heart, as I say this, that I didn’t really look well enough. Frankly, I lack something in the finding department. I am not observant, nor am I patient about the search. I’m not sure if I’m supporting Jen in exercising her strengths or if I’m just profoundly lazy. But more often than not, Jen goes to said location, digs methodically, and, lo and behold, there the lost thing is. If it is not there, then we are all in trouble.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been looking to Dr. Amy-Jill Levine and her book Short Stories by Jesus for a fresh perspective on the parables. Levine points out that the interpretive frameworks the Gospel writers offer for the parables are often problematic, for several reasons: they constrict and “tame” stories that Jesus intended to be provocative; they contribute to an anti-Jewish view; and, more often than not, the interpretation that is offered simply doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make sense.

You might recall, for instance, that in regards to the sheep, lost and found, in Luke, the Gospel writer portrays Jesus drawing the following conclusion about his own story: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7) Levine says:

It is unlikely that a first-century Jewish listener would hear the first two parables and conclude that they have something to do with sheep repenting or coins confessing. Sheep eat, sleep, poop, produce wool, and give milk—but an awareness of sin or a sense of eschatological salvation is not part of ovine nature. . . . Neither sheep nor coins have the capability to repent. . . . If any blame is to be assigned in the first two parables, then the shepherd and the woman are at fault, for they “lost” respectively, the sheep and the coin.” (p. 29)

Both parables portray people who have significant resources. One hundred sheep, in those days, was an enormous flock. Those listening to Jesus’ stories were probably peasants who were lucky to own a couple of sheep. A quick reading of Wikipedia suggests that a drachma coin might have been equivalent to a skilled worker’s daily pay.[1] So a savings of ten silver drachmas likely was not nearly as much wealth as one hundred sheep. But it would have provided a safety net that the poor simply didn’t have.

The way in which both owners behaved is supposed to be surprising. Noticing the missing item is the first surprising thing. If the woman didn’t count up her coins, one by one, she might have glanced at a tall stack of silver and not even realized that one had disappeared. And, similarly, it seems quite difficult for a shepherd to discern, gazing at a hillside dotted with sheep, the absence of a single animal. The diligent searching of the owners is the second surprising thing. Wouldn’t it be best for the shepherd, in particular, to “cut his losses” and focus on keeping the other ninety-nine sheep safe and healthy? While the shepherd is out combing the bushes for the one, predators could attack the rest of the flock. Left to their own devices, the sheep were likely to wander and scatter. The shepherd’s actions challenge logic and good economic sense. And yet, he prioritizes finding the lost sheep. For him, the flock is not complete if one is missing. The good of the whole and the good of each individual are intertwined.

All this makes me think about a certain Southern Baptist uncle of mine. I have a vivid childhood memory of him sitting at the picnic table in our yard on a summer morning. Everything is intensely green; it’s hot outside already. The air smells like summer—wet grass, fragrant flowers. In front of my uncle, on the table, the Bible lays open. His head is bowed. There’s something that has always drawn me to this man, some common sense of reverence. I like this guy. I really like him. He’s warm, gentle, and kind. He’s profoundly generous, funny and smart. And yet, the faith we each place at the center of our lives has led us down utterly diverging paths.

I suspect that his belief system does not really, at the end of the day, allow him to affirm me as a whole person, or to see my family as having the same right to exist as his. In the eye of my faith, the current presidential administration’s values and actions violate all I hold sacred. For him, I suspect the opposite is true—this president embodies what he sees as a Christian worldview. My uncle and I have together lost each other and lost our completeness. We cannot to connect beyond the surface level, nor are we able to be related in any real way. And this kind of alienation is not unique to my family. I hear you talk about it all the time, in your own families. We are often so polarized that we not only disagree with each other, we have come to hate each other.

Those with power are exploiting our fear. They are keeping powerless by “slicing and dicing” us one from another, by zip code, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, and income. We are all suffering profoundly because we are divided in these ways. We have an epidemic of depression and anxiety among our children and teens, and on college campuses. African American boys are taken away in shackles when they skip school. The children of our Muslim neighbors are under the surveillance of hate groups. More than 5,400 children have been separated from their parents at the Mexico border since July 2017.[2]

In my neighborhood in north Minneapolis, around the Lowry Bridge, a shingle and asphalt recycling plant emits particulates that cause people to get sick with lung cancer, asthma, and other respiratory diseases at a 330% higher rate than elsewhere in Western Hennepin County.[3] Most of my neighbors are poor or are just getting by. They are stretched in every way and have little time and energy available to organize politically. And we are an exceedingly diverse community so we find it difficult to talk to each other (sometimes literally, because so many languages are spoken). Therefore, those willing to make a profit that is not responsible to the common good just keep on polluting our air.

At an ISAIAH meeting on Thursday, Imam Mohamed Omar, from Dar Al Farooq mosque in Bloomington, said that non-Muslims, “beautiful people” as he put it, come and stand outside their mosque with signs that say “love your neighbor.” “Loving your neighbor in this moment,” he told us, firmly and fiercely, “is organizing.” Shortly after he spoke, ISAIAH organizer Alexa Howart clearly named the consequences of whether or not we organize. The next 3–5 years, she said, will determine which path we’re going to go down as a global society, perhaps irrevocably. We face a fork in the road—politically, economically, and ecologically—a choice between a future of physical and spiritual death and a future in which we all have agency and dignity and we all have enough. She reminded us that in 2017, 3,500 people caucused in Minnesota with our ISAIAH faith agenda, calling for a democracy that honors every person’s dignity and a caring economy that allows all to thrive. In so doing, we changed politics in the state. Now when people in the governor’s office and Minnesota legislators are making decisions, or are trying to figure out what’s politically possible, they take ISAIAH, and our faith agenda, into account. We are halfway up a hill, Alexa said. It’s time to bring even more people to caucus for our agenda. In so doing, we will shape the environment for the 2020 Senate elections. We will prove decisively that fear and division will not work as a political tactic in Minnesota. We will unleash a politics of possibility, joy and abundance.

The final surprising element of Jesus’ parable is that the woman and the shepherd express such incredible joy at the recovery of their property. This happiness is so big and so wild, it seems almost unbelievable. Why invite their neighbors to feast and celebrate? That costs money! These people just worked their butts off to recover their wealth and now they’re going to turn around and spend it on a party? It turns out that in God’s economy, sharing, generosity and celebration is not a waste of resources; it is salvation. It is the thing that completes us all. It is the point. It is the meaning of life.

This moment in our world is pivotal. None of us can bear the stress of this time alone. And that’s why I’m grateful to be rooted here, with you. Here, we take stock of our losses. We search diligently for what is missing (yes even those of us who are challenged in the finding department).  And then we celebrate. Even though pain is always a part of our journey, we are intentional about rejoicing that God has so many ways to restore us. For all these reasons, our family offers an intentional portion of our resources to support this congregation’s ministry each year. We give and share in order to be more whole, to live with more joy and to make God’s economy more real. Will you join us? Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_drachma

[2] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/more-5-400-children-split-border-according-new-count-n1071791

[3] from a mailer published by Bottineau Neighborhood Association