Sunday, September 15, 2013

One Lost Sheep - and 99 Others: Sermon, September 15, 2013

Preparing to preach on these Scriptures, I came across the Summer/Autumn 2004 issue of the United Church of Canada worship resource Gathering. The sermon starter for these texts, written by staff from the church's London Conference, proposed asking "What if we are not the lost and found? What if we are the 99?"

The Scriptures are quoted from the Common English Bible.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So he appointed me to ministry even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. Our Lord's favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners"—and I'm the biggest sinner of all. But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I'm an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.
1 Timothy 1:12-17

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn't he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I've found my lost sheep.' In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

"Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won't light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I've found my lost coin.' In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God's angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life."
Luke 15:1-10

I don’t know how many people are familiar with dowsing or divining. In rural New Brunswick my grandfather - who knew all kinds of things that have been forgotten these days, like how to see fairies if you got up very early in the morning - would cut a branch shaped like a wishbone or the letter Y from a willow tree and hold it while moving around until it would start twitching to indicate something we were looking for was nearby. I was reading The Last Crossing, by Canadian novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe. One of the characters in the book has a great description of her grandmother, who dowsed lost things. Her neighbours would come from miles around, asking for help to find lost valuables, rings, cufflinks, watches, brooches, earrings, cash, and the woman would walk through homes and barns and fields with her stick until the sap in the wood would quiver with the tug of lost silver or gold. And the character’s mother had a different gift, with her stick bending to find water in wells and springs.

Jesus tells two little stories about finding lost things, but not with divining. A shepherd who cares for a hundred sheep leaves the rest of the flock and searches for and rescues one lost animal. A woman with ten coins loses one and searches the whole house to find it. One of the Bible commentaries I have, by William Barclay, says that in the time of Jesus “a coin was easily lost among the straw in a dark corner of a windowless Oriental house.” Well, it seems just as easy to lose things in our house, 20 centuries later. Today Jesus would talk about searching the chesterfield cushions.

A lost sheep. A lost coin. What great images, so simple, so easy for us to relate to, so powerful. Chevrolet even adapts one of these in a commercial for its Silverado truck. A rancher finds a broken fence, and the hoofprints of a calf in the mud. He drives his pickup past his grazing cattle and out onto his land, getting up to the high places and looking through binoculars for the calf as a storm approaches. It’s raining, and he comes to police warning that a flash flood may take out the road, so he heads off on another track. The rain is coming down harder, and it’s getting darker, as he pushes through the bush with a flashlight, until he finds the calf and gently takes it in his arms back to the truck. The announcer says, “This is a story about a man, a lost calf, and the truck that lets him search for as long as it takes.” Now, a farmer might notice that the ad shows a Holstein calf when the man’s herd is all longhorns, beef cattle, but still…

And when the sheep and the coin are found, there are celebrations. That same commentary notes that in the time of Jesus flocks of sheep were often communal, owned by the whole village, and looked after by several shepherds, as they still are in parts of the world. So when the flocks were brought home and the villagers told that one shepherd was still out searching for a lost sheep, everyone would wait for the shepherd’s return. When they saw him coming back, carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders, a shout of joy would go up, just as Jesus describes. Jesus says that’s what God is like; when a sinner changes their life, God’s joy is like the joy of a village when the shepherd emerges from the gloom with the lost sheep, like the joy of a woman who has lost the money that she needs to feed her family, and finally sees the glint of the coin in a dark corner of her house.

In these two images Jesus tells us that God is kinder than people are. Respectable society, the Pharisees and legal experts who grumble at the unsavoury characters associating with Jesus, would dismiss these sinners as hopeless, too far beyond and too undeserving of God’s love to be rescued. But God doesn’t write them off. God doesn’t give up on them. God loves them, and will celebrate when a lost soul is found and returns to God.

As I said last week, when we hear these stories Jesus tells, we think about who the characters in the story are supposed to be: who is like God, and who is like us. Who are we like? Like the lost sheep? Sometimes we are. Sometimes we have wandered off, distracted by flashy, seductive things.

Should we be lost like that, we will be found. There will be rejoicing when we are brought back into the fold. So we are comforted that God is kinder than people. But what if we are not the lost and found? What if we are the 99 other sheep? What if we are the ones safe and secure, behind the walls of the sheep pen? What if we are the ones disturbed that the shepherd is heading out into the night in search of one sheep that has strayed? What if we are the Pharisees and the legal experts, muttering about those seedy, suspicious folks who don’t deserve to be saved? Today’s Pharisees look at a person’s clothes, or hairstyle, or tattoo, and make assumptions about their moral behaviour. Today’s Pharisees point to the rare examples of fraud and cheating in the system as being typical of families on social assistance. Today’s Pharisees gripe about refugees, who have fled war and persecution, receiving health care. Today’s Pharisees feel bitter when an aboriginal person in line ahead of them at a store uses the status card that exempts them from sales tax.

We can sometimes – too often – be like the 99 sheep, like the Pharisees and the legal experts to whom Jesus tells this story. We can be angry and resentful. If we are honest with ourselves and look deep into ourselves, we admit that there are times when we find it hard to love others, when the attitudes our society teaches crowd out love in our hearts, when we see our neighbours not as God's children but as the wrong sort of people.

Look at our other reading today, the First Letter to Timothy. The writer says that he used to speak against God, he had been proud, and he had attacked God’s people. We may be doing these things, too, when reject others, when we complain that God does not share our judgment of people as being hopelessly lost. And yet, the writer of First Timothy says, Christ didn’t give up on him. Christ didn’t stop loving him. Christ showed mercy to him. Christ showed patience – endless patience, the letter says. The writer tells us, “Our Lord's favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus.” He changed his life, and was judged to be faithful, and trusted with a ministry, to be an example of that mercy and grace and love. He was a lost sheep, but was brought back to the flock. He was a lost coin, but was found.

In our anger, in our indignation, in our moaning and complaining, in our prejudices, we ourselves are lost, just as much as, maybe even more lost than, the people we may resent. We can all be lost. The letter to the Romans says, we have all sinned and fallen short of what God intends for us. Yet we are sought, searched for with a divine diving rod that twitches and bends as our true selves are discovered, hidden underneath all of our attitudes and biases. There is celebration when we are found and we change our lives to be disciples of Jesus, living as he lived, loving as he loved. And then, whether we have been lost and found, or we have been safe the whole time, we are called to join the shepherd in the search.

1 comment:

Kevin Fitzpatrick said...

Good message Dan,sometimes we can all put ourselves with those 99 sheep, being resentful and jealous of others and yet God asks us to love each other as brothers and sisters. We are all sinners and yet as lost as we are when we are found, God rejoices! Blessings Kevin.