Suppose you are carrying around one hundred $10 bills, and you notice that one of them is missing. So you drop your wallet with $990 in it, and go racing off in search of your missing $10. You find it, and go home waving it triumphantly, calling all your neighbors (or perhaps, you post it on Instagram and text everyone you know) to come party with you tonight, because you found your $10.
You laughed, didn’t you? It’s foolish to make all that fuss about $10, and especially to abandon nearly $1000 in search of a mere one percent of the cash.
But if that’s a story about repentance, I’m even more lost.
Just so, Jesus tells us, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
It’s ridiculous to think that a ten-dollar bill represents a repentant sinner. Cash can’t repent. Neither do sheep, in the original Jesus story, and Jesus knows that.
But Jesus tells this story of the shepherd abandoning the many to find one lost sheep, and a woman who abandons her necessary daily work or much needed rest to find – right now! – the ten percent of her savings that she’s misplaced.
Luke tells us that this is about sinners, Pharisees, and repentance;
and we are left to find the relationship, the connection that makes nonsense into the truth at the heart of our relationship with God.
What the stories today have in common is extravagant: the abandonment of everything else in the pursuit of one thing missing, and the insistent celebration when the missing is found.
But why all that fuss for one little thing?
Often, in the gospels, in the absurd logic of God, what matters is completion, as if that one thing – one sheep, one coin – is the last piece of a puzzle. While you can see the picture with one piece, one pixel missing, that little random hole is frustrating, haunting, and finding the missing piece and putting it – completing the puzzle – provides a satisfaction all out of proportion to the work or the rational value involved.
Its absence is what keeps us awake at night.
It’s what we lose when someone dear to us dies.
It’s what allows us to move on from tasks and relationships when we have to let go.
And wholeness, completion, is the defining goal in God’s relationship with us. Scripture is full of stories about how God has been seeking the wholeness of creation and humanity above all else, from the very moment of our beginning.
And that’s where Jesus’ stories about the sheep and the cash began today, too. The Pharisees – the ones most faithful and careful about our righteousness and God’s – complain that Jesus is damaging God’s righteousness by welcoming and eating with sinners, with people who don’t belong to God’s community, because they care only for themselves.
And Jesus tells them stories about missing pieces and completion.
It seems that those people –the ones who obviously have no use for God, those people, the ones who disrupt and even hurt the community – those people are part of the whole of the Kingdom of God.
And God is so serious about that wholeness that Jesus will welcome them, eat with them, treat them as family, even while they are still sinners, still so focused on their own advantage that they don’t care about the community, and just as incapable of repentance as a $10 bill or a sheep.
That’s a shock for the Pharisees, and a shock for us when we apply that sense of completeness not so much to tax-collectors as to our own century’s betrayers of the community good:
terrorists, Congress (more particularly, the politicians of the “other party”), corporate executives who ship jobs overseas, or quadruple the cost of a life-saving epi pen; protestors who snarl traffic or seem to question our national values, or police who break their our trust.
To imagine that God welcomes, that Jesus seeks out those people, before they repent – even if they never repent! – to imagine that neither heaven when we encounter it, nor God’s reign on earth, is complete without those people, unchanged, is messy and a little bit offensive.
But it begins to make sense if repentance is about completion. About finding the missing parts in our community, in our work, our families, our selves – even the ugly, awkward missing parts –and celebrating the finding.
It is definitely the work of repentance to seek wholeness.
And seeking the wholeness of our community sometimes requires sacrifice, requires letting go of the good we’d like to hold on to.
Elsewhere in the gospel stories Jesus encounters a rich young man: a man who has kept all the commandments since childhood, a man with all the signs of God’s favor, but incomplete.
“What must I do to receive eternal life?” he asks.
“There is only one thing you are missing,” Jesus answers: “Sell all that you have; give the money to the poor, and come follow me.”
One thing missing. But that one thing is a transformation.
Let go of the much that you have in pursuit of the one thing you’re missing. Put the wholeness of the community ahead of yourself, and come, follow me.
What would Jesus tell you, us, is the one thing lacking, between us and wholeness, eternal life?
Who are the people who don’t seem to fit here, but without whom we cannot be complete?
It might be color, or physical handicap, or sexuality – the obvious divisions in our culture – that separates us from the people our community is missing, but it might also be political opinion, activism, behaviors that threaten our own sense of righteousness and security.
This may be a particularly important question today, this week, as we remember, and grieve, and reflect on the changes in our world, in our definitions and expectations of wholeness, after the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
It might be a particularly good time to ask ourselves: What do we have to let go of to welcome those missing people to the table without insisting that they change to fit in?
And ask yourself: what is the part of your life that keeps you from following Jesus with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength?
It might be a part of you that you have denied, because it’s uncomfortable, and doesn’t fit.
Or it might be that your missing piece is hiding behind something you want to hold on to.
What do you have to let go to embrace that missing piece?
Pursuit of the one, small, missing thing, because it is not a small thing, it is the only thing that matters, when it makes the difference between wholeness and wrongness; between integrity and brokenness.
And that – the foolish, glorious, commitment to the pursuit of wholeness – produces overwhelming joy in heaven, and delight in the heart of the God who brought us into the kingdom, into eternal life, before we were ever ready, or repentant, or whole.