In the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a trilogy of parables that deal with getting lost and being found: the lost sheep and the shepherd who leaves the 99 to find it, the woman who searches for her lost coin, and the “lost son” – better known as the prodigal son.
The common theme and main point of the parables, as Jesus explicitly states, is the rejoicing that takes place when that which is lost is found. However, these parables, read together as a unit, have a secondary theme regarding the different ways a person can be “lost.”
Although only the third parable deals explicitly with a human being getting “lost,” all three are meant to symbolize a human soul having somehow gone astray from God and needing to be brought back. When read carefully, these parables suggest three ways that we as God’s children can be lost.
Interestingly, it’s only the son who can be said to have gotten lost intentionally and rebelliously (though unaware of the future consequences). A sheep that is lost does not become so intentionally, and if it’s too far out of range to hear the shepherd’s voice, it can’t be expected to find its own way back.
But what about this “lost coin” sandwiched between those two? How does a coin get lost? It doesn’t, at least not on its own. Coins and other inanimate objects don’t get up and walk off (well, they seem to in my house!). Coins don’t get lost; we lose them. Coins are brushed off the table or dropped in an act of negligence.
We can all probably think of friends, family members or coworkers who are lost sheep (who don’t know any better) and lost sons (those willfully and destructively rebelling).
“We must sweep our house by transparently and swiftly addressing any accusations of misconduct by those in positions of authority, and quickly removing those found guilty.”
What about lost coins, though? Do you know any lost coins? I do. I have met plenty of lost coins who got swept off the table by self-righteous, judgmental, hateful, superstitious, patriarchal, authoritarian, Pharisaic versions of church.
Most painfully, there are many who have been the victims of horrific sexual abuse by ministers. Clergy sexual abuse has happened in all denominations and traditions, though most notably with Catholic priests, with the most recent revelations coming from a grand jury report from Pennsylvania.
As much as lost sheep cannot be blamed, how much more so for a “lost coin”? These people, equally created in the image of and loved by God, often stay far away from anything called “church” or “Christian,” and quite understandably so. Many have rejected the hateful, petty, judgmental or nationalistic god they’ve been handed. They have been abused emotionally, spiritually and sometimes physically, and the church bears 100 percent of the blame.
Is it even possible (or advisable) for those of us who love the church, and know what it can and should be, to try to reach these injured souls with the true gospel of love, grace, mercy and justice? I believe so, but it requires three things of us, and they are embedded in the lost coin parable.
Jesus says that the woman, upon realizing that the coin is lost, will “light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it.” This phrase reveals a three-fold formula for what is required for the church to restore these relationships and repair this broken trust. These three things are not easy and require the church to humble itself and take responsibility.
Light a lamp. Clearly, the church has too often failed to shine the light of Christ – the love, grace, mercy and justice of our God. This part can be a call for us to shine that light, but there’s an even more important part. It may be too easy for us to move on and say, “We’ll do better.” We also need to “light a lamp” on the consequences of our own sin. This means, in large measure, giving voice and airtime to those we’ve been all too happy to silence: those who have been hurt, disenfranchised and even abused by the church. We need to hear the shame, repression and pain, and to do so without trying to offer an excuse or justification. Lighting a lamp in this way will reveal a mess we’d rather not face, but light it we must (or someone else will).
Sweep the house. For the church to even begin to restore its supposed moral authority, we must sweep our house and remove from our midst the prejudice, xenophobia and even hatred that has invaded the church’s public witness. One example of this step is the ecumenical “Reclaiming Jesus” statement. We must sweep our house by transparently and swiftly addressing any accusations of misconduct by those in positions of authority, and quickly removing those found guilty. As abuse survivor Marie Collins put it, “‘Working on it’ is not an acceptable explanation for decades of ‘delay.’” As Bill Leonard has noted, we must sweep the house by bringing repentance out of the realm of private reflection and into the realm of public, clear and concrete institutional changes.
Search carefully. One must tread lightly and gently with these who have been hurt and thrown off the table. They’re not going to come back quickly or easily. Platitudes, one-liners and certitudes will fall on deaf ears. Searching carefully involves letting another lead us, laying down our agenda and treating even those who criticize and ridicule the church as the valuable image-bearers that they are. Remember, people who are lost coins often adopt the language of the lost son as a defense mechanism. The output of pain often mimics rebellion.
At the end of the parable of the lost coin, Jesus says, “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” May we realize that the one in need of repentance is sometimes the church itself.