There is No Away
There is No Away
Luke 15: 1-10
How many of you recycle? How many of you feel good about the fact that you recycle?
How many of you feel down right virtuous when you go to all the trouble of really cleaning out the peanut butter jar or the cream cheese container that is growing its own chives or chipping off the spaghetti sauce that gets all crusted around the mouth of the jar, (you know what I’m talking about, right?) before you dutifully putting it in the recycling bin? I know I do. Which is why it’s so disturbing to learn that the recycling system in our country is broken. It’s a total dumpster fire…literally.
How many of you have heard the phrase, “There is no away,” with regard to trash and recycling? Good. If you haven’t, I’m not going to horrify you with statistics this morning.
But I will tell you that if you google that phrase and do just a little digging, you’ll discover pretty quickly that a huge percentage of the plastic we think we’re recycling, the clothing we think we’re up-cycling, the electronics we think we’re sending back to apple to be melted down and magically transformed into brand new iPhones, etc. etc. is ending up in our landfills, being incinerated and polluting our air, getting dumped in the nearest ocean,
or being shipped half a world away to developing nations who are putting all the stuff we don’t want into their landfills, incinerating it and polluting their air, or giving up and dumping it in the ocean nearest to them (https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/03/13/fix-recycling-america/ or if you’d rather listen to John Oliver click here https://www.hbo.com/video/last-week-tonight-with-john-oliver/seasons/season-8/episodes/156-episode-215/videos/march-21-2021-plastics).
Given that we’re all sharing the same earth, breathing the same air, and connected by the same oceans, this a huge problem. All of our trash and recycling has to go somewhere and the truth is, we’re running out of places to put it. In fact, developing countries have become so overrun with our refuse that they are refusing to accept any more and it’s starting to come back to us.
It turns out there is “no away,” when it comes to the stuff we don’t want in our lives any more, the containers we’ve let go, the plastic we’re done with and ready to discard.
And strangely enough - maybe you saw this coming - I think the same can be said for people.
There is “no away” when it comes to the people we don’t want in our lives anymore, the people we’ve let go, the people we’re done with and ready to discard. And I think we all know at least someone who falls into that category. We can ghost such people or write them off. We can turn our backs and close our hearts.
We can go so far as to put half a world between us and them, at least we can while we’re here on earth. But ultimately, if God’s goal is to redeem all of creation, if God’s dream is to bring all things on heaven and earth back together in the fullness of time, if God won’t rest until all people find their way back home to God, then for you me and “those people,” ….ultimately there is “no away.”
I don’t know which is more disturbing to me, the truth about trash or the truth about people. Probably the people, which is why it’s so good we have Jesus around to teach us how to love them, because it’s not always easy.
Just look at the Scribes and Pharisees in today’s story. They were good, religious people, just like you and me. They were the sort of people who worked hard to support their families and raise their children and yet still found the time to pray every day, get the family to worship, coach little league and serve on the town council. They looked out for their neighbors, volunteered at the Survival center, and attended to the common welfare.
They weren’t anything like the tax collectors and sinners who gathered around Jesus that day in the market. As you may know, tax collectors were reviled because the money they collected from their own community didn’t go to support their own community. After the tax collectors had skimmed all they could off the top, they sent the rest straight to the Rome which only increased the power of the Romans to intimidate and oppress the Jewish community.
And in this case the word for “sinners,” according to Amy-Jill Levine, was not code for the n’er do wells on the corner, but would have referred to wealthy people who did not attend to the needs of the poor in their community.
Which is to say that Jesus isn’t slumming it here with the outcast and needy, but hobnobbing with some real power players here - crooked lobbyists and self-serving law makers - the sort of people who somehow always manage to get richer while everyone around them gets poorer. When the scribes and pharisees saw Jesus with these people, they grumbled. And I’ll tell you right now, I’d grumble too.
So Jesus told them all some stories, the sort of stories good people like you and me would do well to pay attention to. Luke present the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin as stories of repentance and we often hear them as good news for the people we consider lost.
We think of God as the Good Shepherd. We delight in the gentle subversion of picturing God as a women who lost her coin. And we take joy in the idea that no matter how far a person strays, God will never stop looking for them. We rejoice that when God finds them or they find God, they can always repent, come back, and party with people like us.
And that’s a fine interpretation as far as it goes, but when you read a parable and hear it primarily as an important lesson for other people or those kind of people, as in not really about you or your kind of people, it’s probably a good idea to read it again.
In “Short Stories by Jesus,” Amy-Jill Levine challenges us to do just that. She points out that Jesus original audience would not have associated God with the shepherd or the woman because God doesn’t lose us.
Nor would the people have associated the lost sheep or the lost coin with sinners. After all, it’s not the coin or the sheep’s fault they got lost anymore than it is within their purview to repent.
I mean honestly, whose responsibility was it to look after the sheep? (This is not a trick question) The shepherd.
Whose responsibility was it to safeguard the coins? The woman.
So think about this with me for a moment. If God isn’t the shepherd or the woman and if the sheep and the coin are off the hook, that leaves people like you and me holding the bag, that leaves you and me holding the crook.
In which case, maybe these stories are meant to remind people like you and me of our responsibility toward one another… remind us that every one matters…everyone counts. Friends, what if Jesus told these stories in an effort to get good people like you and me to stop, look around, and ask: who is missing? Who have we written off because they were too this or too that? Too little or too much?
It’s never a bad thing to stop, take stock, and ask: who feels welcome in our lives, our community, our church, and who have we lost? Whose voices do we hear from the pulpit, at the school board meeting, on the television? And whose voices have been silenced?
A parable like this makes you wonder how our lives, our communities, and our church’s might be different if Christians lived in such a way that every one’s voice mattered - not in spite of our differences of gender, race, class, or creed, history, orientation, mobility, or education - but because of all those differences (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2007-09/gods-party-time?code=EQsHRHJCHg110NXVN7wK&utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=6433cc9ef7-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_SCP_2022-09-05&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-6433cc9ef7-82656707).
Mattered so much that we ensured that everyone had a place at the table? Mattered so much that we noticed when they were gone? Mattered so much that if we lost them, we’d go way out of our way to find them whether we liked them…or not?
Which brings us back to the parable. Jesus goes out of his way to exaggerate the search process of both the shepherd and the woman. The truth is, no shepherd in his right mind would leave 99 sheep to go search for one. He’d risk losing them all. Which means this guy is actually a terrible shepherd. But that’s not the weird part. The weird part is that he lets everyone know what a bad shepherd he is when he invites the whole neighborhood over to celebrate that he managed to find his lost sheep.
Likewise, no woman, having turned her house upside down to find one coin, would then invite everyone in her neighborhood over for a party that would end up costing more than the coin itself was worth. She’d not just careless with her precious money, she’s terrible at managing it.
Friends, it’s one thing to make a mistake and lose something. It’s another thing to broadcast your negligence to the whole neighborhood, unless what you’re really doing is trying to change things; which is what repenting is all about. When we repent we change our minds. When we repent we change direction. When we repent we move in a new way.
What’s so striking about these two characters is that their repentance is personal but they refuse to keep it private. And that is such an important detail.
Because you see, if we can own our mistakes and admit to one another where and how we have failed to hold on to one another …If we can make room at the table and admit that we’re not complete without each other, if we can truly celebrate whenever someone returns, then we don’t just change ourselves, we begin to change the dynamics that led to all this lostness in the first place.
Together we begin to create a culture of restoration and reconciliation that sounds a lot like heaven.
And believe me, I know this is easier said than done. If you have all these “but what about’s” arising in your chest - but what about the people who do this or the person who did that - I get it. I know this all sounds a little too “kumbaya,” especially on a day like September 11. I mean if it’s all but impossible to invite your Trump loving relative to Thanksgiving or forgive someone who really hurt your feelings, how can we even conceive of reconciling with people who want us dead?
But when I think back to that day 21 years ago, I think about the fact that when those planes hit those towers, 3000 people entered the spiritual world all at the same time. Now of course, I don’t know what happens when you die. I know the terrorists were as certain they were going straight to heaven as most Americans were certain they were going straight to hell.
But I’ve always wondered if God didn’t keep them all -the terrorists and the victims - together. No pearly gates or fires of hell. Just a big space where God held them all until they could see that ultimately everything they’d been taught about hate and division was a lie.
Until they could see that everything that separated them on earth was temporary. Until they could all see each other as children of the same God. Until it became clear to every last one of them that there is “no away” when it comes to people.
Of course we didn’t see it that way down here. We retaliated with even more violence, and entered into the longest war in our nation’s history, only to withdrew 20 years later leaving the very people in charge who we had sworn to eradicate. Maybe Jesus is right that vengeance is not the answer. Maybe it’s time to replace “never forget” with “never give up.”
Friends, I know none of this is easy, but I do think it is worth thinking about. And that’s why I think Jesus taught in this way. He told weird little stories we could enter in to and turn over in our minds, not so much to give us the answers as to give us the opportunity to keep questioning and changing and growing.
The work of reconciliation is hard and it’s not always under control. There will always be people we can’t go back to because it’s not safe, people whose lives or choices keep them far from us, people who couldn’t face the hard work of reconciliation or confrontation, people lost to us not because we don’t want to find them but because they don’t want to be found.
But if Jesus’ parables work best, not when we apply them to others -but to ourselves - perhaps our job is simply to keep the light on and our hearts open.
Amy-Jill Levine closes out her chapter on this parable by saying this:
The sheep and the coin did not repent, but the celebration occurred nonetheless, because the man and the woman were able to rejoice at the finding of the lost and the restoring of the collection to wholeness. … (So perhaps we are simply to) Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others… Don’t wait until you receive an apology, (she says) you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster up the ability to forgive; you may never find it. … Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you will have done what was necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness” (p 75 Levine).
You will have lived (and this is me now) into the reality that in God’s Kin-dom, there is “no away,” just a whole bunch of lost children doing our best to walk each other back home.