Lent is among the oldest observations on the Christian calendar. The early Christian communities of the first century only observed Easter, the promise of the Kingdom which morphed into eternal life as Jesus’ return became more distant. As the church, now increasingly bureaucratized, moved into the second century, the church fathers – and they were all men – realized the importance of creating a special season leading up to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of the Lord.
Irenaus, the Bishop of Lyons, who lived in the middle of the second century spoke of a period of repentance prior to Easter, but the period only lasted two to three days. It was not until the Council of Nicea in 325 that a 40-day period was envisioned; by this time, since people were usually baptized at Easter, Lent became a period of preparation as well. It wasn’t even called Lent at that time but a Latin term for forty. Fasting and deprivation became symbols of repentance.
The three parables in Luke 15 were among the readings traditionally used for this time of year because in the church’s view, they symbolized God’s search for lost souls, those who would be redeemed by faith in Christ’s Resurrection. Each of these parables is about a search, whether for the one who went astray, the one who was lost, or the one who lost himself. And each needs to be found.
Lenten practices waxed and waned over the centuries. There are those of us who may remember when school lunch menus shifted on Fridays during Lent. By the time I was in school, I lived in suburban Maryland, a state initially established by Roman Catholics from a grant by Charles II, the Restoration King seeking to protect Catholics from the Church of England, still intent on ferreting them out.
The Lenten tradition of fish on Fridays still held even though the state by the mid-1950s was full of all kinds of Protestants, especially Southern Baptists who asked why we were eating this Catholic food. It wasn’t that the food was particularly Catholic but like many school cafeterias of the day, it was not very palatable. I was really grateful that by the time I reached fourth grade, I could go home for lunch and eat what my good Lutheran grandparents prepared for me.
In that time, of course, religious differences were pretty dramatic and very few of us crossed lines to other churches. Certain religions were swept under the rug, probably like that lost coin. It wasn’t until I was in the fifth grade that I met the first girl who identified herself as Jewish. As Southern Baptists, we were supposed to evangelize and save lost souls; we were encouraged to scour our neighborhoods for the lost, search them out, and bring them to God, and to celebrate the fact that now our efforts led to someone’s salvation.
Though we didn’t realize it, we Southern Baptists were probably as self –righteous as those Pharisees and scribes who commented that Jesus ate with publicans and sinners. We were supposed to get close, but not too close, to the unchurched and bring them to God. After every evangelization program, the old pastor would thank God for our efforts, and praise God that we were saved.
There were times, of course, when I felt more like that coin that the woman was searching for. There are probably times when all of us have felt like that coin. It’s not like we deliberately “went astray,” as the parable of the lost sheep put it, but that in the hustle and bustle of life, we just ended up in a corner or under a rug, forgotten until someone realized that there were only nine coins instead of ten.
Some of us were the middle child, others, the one not listened to, and still others, it seemed like we were only the extra seat at the dinner table. But we had this deep feeling inside of us, that we had a value. Like the coin, we were just as equal as the other ones, whether they were dimes or drachmas.
Those old Puritan ancestors of Congregational churches that became the United Church of Christ would probably shudder at the thought that we sinners have a value -- not just as souls for Christ, but as human beings in today’s world. It seems that there are times when we find ourselves caught between much of the traditional understanding of our worth and the admonition to be humble.
“It’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt,” sings Mordred in Camelot. And, often, though we laugh when we hear the lyrics, we should take pause for our society really does only give the meek the dirt instead of real value.
The question for us becomes: Who has value in our society? Of course, we would say: Everyone! But that’s not the way our society functions, to be sure. Last weekend, a group of teenagers from MOSAIC , which is the acronym for Mobilizing our Students for Action to Build Interfaith Community – good thing we have acronyms – came to Old First and packed clothing for a midnight run into Manhattan on one of the coldest nights of the year to distribute food and clothing to the homeless, truly one of the lost coins in our society.
On an abstract level, we can explain the causes of homelessness, and even be amazed at the numbers just in New York, almost the population of Middletown, but like the coin that the woman found and cleaned off, you have to look in the faces and hear their voices. You need to hear their gratitude for the crumbs we give them – yes, the clothing and food really are crumbs compared to what we as a society could give.
They disappear into the corners, under the rugs of our vision, like the coin. We only see them from time to time as we bustle out of Penn Station and wonder why they are there. It is a national shame that the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill or emotionally disturbed, or just people lost from their moorings, live like this. And, who of course, wants a shelter in their neighborhood? Certainly not the residents of Crown Heights or Queens. And, can you even imagine the furor if the city suggested Staten Island?
Shifting our gaze to the lost coins here in Monmouth County, there are 20 organizations, more or less, that work to address homelessness here. Most are clergy associations working with Family Promise, which shelters people moving them week to seek from one church to another. A few are housing authorities that provide low cost – oops, the preferable term is “affordable” – housing; those are primarily in cities with low income populations, like Red Bank, Asbury Park, Freehold, Long Branch, and Neptune.
Middletown does have 96 units at Port Monmouth for seniors, but look at any housing complex built for low and moderate income persons and you will see that the requirements include all kinds of evidence of income and assets, in other words, the kind of paper trail that the truly homeless do not have.
In light of the current governor’s attempts to dismantle COAH, the Council on Affordable Housing, and its mandates, I was surprised why Family Promise decided to honor Kim Guadagno, unless the “Hope Award” is a hope that she will support affordable housing. Scouring her website and news articles provides no information on how she would address homelessness in New Jersey.
We need to find the lost coins of the homeless, the mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, the developmentally disabled, and we need to celebrate the fact that we have found them just as the woman celebrated the fact that she had found her lost coin. If we do not do so, then we, too, become just as lost as those we do not see.
One could complain that Jesus didn’t intend to talk about homelessness or poverty when he told this short parable and that he was talking about saving souls, just as my old Southern Baptist preacher thought. This parable, like the one before it of the sheep was told in response to the Pharisees asking why he was eating with the outcasts of so-called good society.
As it’s related that Jesus said in another context, he came to heal those who needed a physician. What the Pharisees didn’t realize is that they needed to be healed as well – healed from their convictions that they were better than others. We need to be healed from our traditional approaches to the enormous needs of people who can’t quite make it, who fall between the cracks, and who need to be searched out as was the coin.
Our midnight run last weekend dealt with some immediate needs – food and warm clothing, but all the midnight runs do not really address the real issues that we face as a society in caring for the homeless. We need to do both – take care of the immediate needs and commit ourselves to an intensive program of affordable housing. Shelters may take care of the immediate need for a night out of the cold but having a real place to live and have your needs taken care of is what is really called for as a society or those coins will never be found.
Let us pray: Holy One, who cares for us all, help us to be imaginative and caring for all the lost coins. In the name of him who cared for all, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.