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The Value of Something Lost

from the “Seasons of the Christian Life” collection

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

September 12, 2004
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

New people in Boston know a great deal about getting lost. Those of you new to the University this academic year surely must have noticed that many streets do not have name signs. Sometimes, traveling down a street, the cross streets will be named but not the one you are on. If you do by chance know the name of the street you are on, it might not last because likely the name changes every few blocks. And if you ask a native how to get to the Boston Library, for instance, they will say, “go past Kenmore Square to Copley Square and it’s across from Trinity Church.” If you protest that you don’t know where the squares are or how to get from one to the other or what Trinity Church looks like, they’ll say this means you probably are not from Boston, a misfortune from which you might not recover. The only remedy, I know, for being lost in Boston is to root for the Red Sox through enough near-miss seasons as to enter into total mental empathy with native fans who know how to get from Fenway Park to anywhere.

Jesus’ point in the Gospel reading from Luke was not about being lost, although that too would be worth a sermon, but about losing something you value and the effort you expend on finding it. In our text he told two parables. One was about the shepherd who lost one sheep and left all the others to go after it. He risked ninety-nine sheep for the sake of finding the lost one. The second parable was about a woman with only ten coins who scours her house to find one that is lost. She did not risk her nine remaining coins to find the lost one, but she worked hard to find it. In both cases, Jesus emphasized the great joy that comes from finding what is lost, a greater joy than enjoying what was not lost. He editorialized on both parables by saying there is greater joy in heaven for the recovery of a sinner than for all the righteous people who are not lost. People who think of themselves as righteous are always uncomfortable with these parables.

Jesus knew about this discomfort, of course. Immediately following our reading today in Luke is the parable of the Prodigal Son. As you know in that story, a father loses his younger son who wanted to leave home and seek his fortune; the son squanders away his fortune in riotous living—not at all like going away to college, you understand--and he returns home to be a slave in his father’s house. The father receives him with the greatest possible joy, dresses him in the best robes, and kills a fatted calf to give him a party. It was like finding the lost sheep, the lost coin, but far more joyous because it was the father’s child. It was like heaven rejoicing at the salvation of the sinner. Then the elder brother comes in from the field where he had been working and throws a fit at the festivities for his brother. He complains he has worked like a slave all his life for his father who has never once given him a party, not even a goat, let alone a fatted calf. He refuses to come in, and the father goes out to mollify him, saying that the elder son would be his inheritor and that he too should welcome his brother home because the boy had been dead and was brought back to life. Jesus stopped the story there and did not say whether the elder brother ever came in to accept his brother, or his father’s love.

The most dramatic part of the parable of the Prodigal Son is that it has no ending. So we are prodded to ask, what is the story really about? It is not only about the prodigal who lost his wealth and came crawling back to heaven. Nor is it really only about the loving father who accepted him back and rejoiced more over his return than over his long-suffering eldest son. The parable is about the righteous elder brother who lost his innocence: he was jolted to discover that his years of righteous obedience and service to his father were morally ambiguous, motivated in part by selfishness and pride in being superior to his brother, not only by the love he protested.

In Luke’s gospel, the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son go together. Just before those parables, Jesus had been addressing a large crowd of his disciples and just afterward he returned to addressing his disciples. But these three parables, in chapter 15, are addressed to Pharisees and scribes who had been criticizing him for socializing with known sinners. The Pharisees and scribes were like the elder brother, representing the tradition of faithfulness and strict observance of religious obedience in the large household of Jewish faith, of which Jesus and his disciples, as well as critics, were members. What kind of righteous people could they be to object to Jesus ministering to sinners? On the other hand, what is the point of righteousness if the recovery of sinners is so much more important than the congratulation of the righteous? Why should anyone be righteous, they might ask, if it is better to be a sinner and repent in the nick of time?

The answer, of course, is that you should be righteous, not for the reward or congratulations, but because that is the righteous thing to be. The proper motive for righteousness is in the righteousness of the deed, not in having an identity with status. When the motive for righteousness is to have an identity that prides itself in being better than the identity of sinners, then the moral ambiguity of that righteousness corrupts the righteousness itself. Taking pride in one’s righteousness is an innocence well lost.

Americans these days know something about this kind of loss of innocence. No matter what you think about the upcoming Presidential election, things are vastly changed since the Presidential campaign four years ago. The United States now occupies two countries that did not attack us or provide a greater threat to American security than any number of other countries. This was justified by a new doctrine of “pre-emptive war,” which everyone knows deep down is just another name for a war of aggression when no immediate threat is present. So the American innocent sense of being the righteous defender of peace and justice is made ambiguous by our occupation of foreign territory.

In the grief and confusion after 9/11, the third anniversary of which we remembered yesterday, the government made the perhaps understandable mistake of declaring a “war on terrorism.” War is what you fight to conquer or hold territory and control a government. Terrorists duck when attacked and hold no territory, and they govern no peoples except themselves. What was needed was a massive international police action against the criminal terrorists. But misled by the rhetoric of war we attacked and conquered Afghanistan instead, driving out an admittedly bad Taliban government, which no more could control Al Qaeda than Mr. Karzai’s puppet government can. We pray that Mr. Karzai’s government can bring stability, but Al Qaeda still flourishes in the hills, as do the Taliban forces; the tribal leaders, whom our press calls warlords, have more power than the central government.

In respect of Iraq, our government either deceived itself or attempted to deceive the nation about connections with Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction. Surely someone in the government knew how terrible war is and should have insisted on making certain about the need to go to war before doing so. Some Americans believe the government deliberately lied about its motives for war, and others believe it was only incompetent with regard to intelligence. In either case, Americans’ traditional innocent pride in their government has become morally ambiguous.

Our soldiers, for the most part, have fought valiantly, taking care to minimize civilian casualties where possible, and coping with the shock of being hated by many people whom they thought they were liberating. But the prison scandals have cast a pall of ambiguity over the integrity of the military and the American tradition of procedural justice.

Both Presidential candidates call for outcomes that would make it the case that our fallen soldiers are not dying in vain. Would to God that were so! The same thing must be said for the Iraqi soldiers who died under the rain of our bombs. No soldier’s death should be in vain. But what else could those deaths be but vain in some very profound sense, if the war should not have been fought in the first place? Deep down, everyone knows this, and the attempts to find something good to come out of the war only confuse the nation’s tortured conscience.

Our country has so lost its innocence that it seems to be more sharply divided than at any time since the Civil War. Deep down everyone knows the sad tale I’ve sketched, though it is told with many spins. Some people so sharply mourn the loss of innocence and life that they insist our course must have been right somehow, despite the evidence, and are ready to believe anything that reinforces that view. Other people are so angered at the loss of innocence that they rage that their righteous nation has been stolen from them. Debates about economic, environmental, and welfare policies occupy a lot of middle ground. Even the so-called “culture wars” of the last two decades were fought over a broad middle ground. But the sad tale of American military adventures has so divided the country that even our sense of being a united people has been made ambiguous. Honest and wise people differ over where to go from here, and no easy solutions present themselves. What is certain is that, wherever we go, it will be without the innocence we felt four years ago.

Without suggesting anything about what Jesus might say concerning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I do believe that Jesus would say our loss of innocence is a good thing. You can lose a sheep and find it again. You can recover a lost coin. You can even have an estranged child return to you. All of these losses recouped are like divine joy at the redemption of sinners. The deeper meaning of Jesus’ parables here, however, has to do with the false righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes, as Luke describes them. Their sense of moral superiority blinded them to the value of Jesus associating with sinners. In a like manner, the accursed innocence of American false righteousness has blinded us to the necessity to work for peace and justice, prosperity and security, with sinners, among whom we are.

We struggle to transcend partisanship and hear the gospel in the turmoil of our divided politics. Where is the Holy Spirit in the political racket? I believe at least four promptings of the Spirit can be discerned.

First and most obviously, we need to respect, honor, and love those with whom we disagree. When no common ground can be identified, this is difficult, especially when the dispute is fueled by grief and anger. But we all have the common ground of loss of innocence, whether we admit or deny it, with the consequence that we have to work together to make the best of a morally ambiguous situation.

Second, the gospel prompts us through the Golden Rule systematically to look at ourselves from the perspectives of those who oppose us. This means we each must empathize with all the divided perspectives within American politics. More importantly, it means we must look at America through the eyes of its opponents: our “insurgents” are their “freedom fighters,” our “liberation” is their “foreign occupation.” Christians especially should aim for a God’s-eye view, and God sees through every perspective, loving all the sinners on all sides.

Third, the gospel prompts us to be with and help the people who are hurt, the grieving families of fallen soldiers (on all sides), the civilians maimed or grieved, the economies shaken, the elderly, sick, and uneducated whose lives could have been improved were it not for the cost of our wars. Irrespective of political or national stance, each hurting person is like a lost sheep or an estranged child for whom we have responsibility. Every bombed house is someone’s lost coin.

Fourth, the Spirit insists we must come to terms with our loss of innocence. We can ask forgiveness of our own failings in the measure we forgive others. We can be wise about policies only when we are transparently honest. We can go forward only if we know the costs will be high and the outcomes ambiguous. And as redeemed sinners, we cannot under any circumstances back away from the hard issues on our watch just because we know we might fail or do evil in some respects even as we win for the good in others.

The gospel calls us to love the whole creation, despite its ambiguities and pains. The Christian way to the joy of heaven is through the wilderness of crosses. This is a hard lesson for students, especially new ones, who, like the grieving and angry, want a clear path to righteousness. Let me invite you, however, into the company of redeemed sinners whose innocence is lost, the company of Pharisees and scribes who have heard and understood Jesus’ parables. In this company, the griefs and rages of ambiguous life can be borne with heavenly joy. May God receive and bless us all.


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