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Sermon for March 19, 2006

Lost and Found: The Sheep
Luke 15:1-7

(NB: I stole this opener from Dylan at Sarah Laughed, and made a few editorial changes)

Once there was a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them went astray from the flock. The shepherd's colleagues figured this was probably due to some carelessness on the shepherd's part. After all, when the shepherd used to be a farmer, he had been seen tossing seed in the middle of paved parking lots and seagull hangouts without much thought as to whether anything would actually grow there. He acquired a reputation for being a little impractical.

The ninety-nine sheep, wanting to be helpful, immediately sprang into action ... or discussion, anyway. One loudly announced that the Historic Flock never included more than ninety-nine sheep, and therefore the stray was probably a goat, or perhaps a musk ox, and should not be bothered with. If a wolf got it, that's what it deserved for straying from the flock, or for being a musk ox, or whatever its problem was.

Factions gathered in response to that announcement. Some suggested that perhaps a letter could be sent to the stray that if she were to stop being a musk ox and become a sheep, or at least learn to bleat like one, or perhaps if she stopped making...what noise is it that musk oxen make? Cries immediately went up for a subcommittee to study that issue. Anyway, if she could become more like a sheep, she could rejoin the flock. A website and glossy magazine ads were put in place to further this effort. A committee instituted a series of dialogues, in which each member of a panel of three sheep would present its view of what species the strays were, followed by discussion and concluding with a very nice and moving liturgy.

Another faction formed to try to win over the first group. They poured their resources into a public relations campaign in the flock to celebrate the contributions of all sheep, even the ones reputed to be musk oxen or goats. When rumors arose that the stray sheep was being attacked by wolves and a voice in the flock suggested that perhaps something ought to be done, another of the ninety-nine sheep produced a marvelous-looking PowerPoint presentation documenting the decline in wolf attacks by well over 30% over the last fifteen years. He noted, "There used to be 78 strays per year. The fact that we've got it down to one is most impressive!" The faction responded with a loud cheer and dashed off to a fundraiser to cover the cost of a digital camera to supply graphics for future presentations.

All of this “pro-stray” rhetoric greatly annoyed the planners of the campaign to convince the stray to return to Historic Flock, and the sheep who didn't want the stray back in the flock at all were furious. They threatened to leave the flock. Uproar ensued. If you could somehow manage to listen beyond all of the loud bleating and blaring loudspeakers and committee deliberations and rousing choruses of "Bringing In the Sheep,” you might notice that the shepherd was gone, as one silhouetted figure left to find the stray as some wolf howls echoed in the distance.[i]

In a culture that sanctions every individual's right to seek his or her own path to perfection, self-righteousness can seem like a mere irritating character flaw. One person decides that steaming vegetables is the responsible way to eat and turns pale when her friends order meat. Someone else discovers the aerobic benefits of running and begins to hound all his lazy friends. We all do it on some level. We find something that gives us life and we want everyone else to have it too. We want to share the good we have found, whether it’s as simple as a new way of losing weight or as profound as a new way of approaching God.

But when I turn my good into your duty and judge you for your failure to perform it according to my standards, then my wish for your well-being becomes something darker and more dangerous.

In today’s reading, Jesus dines with tax collectors and other “sinners.” Maybe there are some prostitutes there, or some camel or donkey drivers. There may be a Jewish terrorist or a public activist in the crowd. They have two things in common. They are judged as polluted people by the churchgoers of the day, and they have a good time with Jesus. The religious people also pass judgment on Jesus. Pharisees and teachers of the law sneer, "This man welcomes scumbags and eats with them." The religious people are so full of their precious values and so defended against those who do not share them that even the dynamite of the gospel has little effect on them. So, Jesus tells a story.

"I want you to imagine that you have one hundred sheep and that you lose one of them. Now, wouldn't you go out after the lost one until you find it?" Or imagine it this way: Which Basketball coach among you, will not leave the varsity team to practice on their own for the season, and go, and search out that student in chess club and take him onto the court and spend every afternoon running drills with him and personally coaching him so that at last he is prepared to try out. And when that student makes it onto the JV team, will you not run to the entire coaching staff and all the first-string players and say, ‘Come, party with me! The one who is a klutz has made it onto the team! Be happy! Rejoice and be glad!’ Which one of you would not do that?”[ii]

None of us would do that. (Certainly not if we want to keep our job as basketball coach.) And that's the answer to the question about the shepherd too. Nobody in the sheep business has one hundred sheep, loses one, leaves the ninety-nine to the wolves and coyotes, and goes chasing off after the idiot that wandered away. That would be just plain stupid. You would never leave the 99 sheep unprotected in the wilderness to go after one lost one. You cut your losses, forget about the lost sheep, and go on with the ninety-nine.

At this point, the scribes and the Pharisees smile to themselves. They agree with the story. God always goes out to find the lost. God looks for the people outside their church. God wants people to get their lives in line with the rules and traditions and religious values. “Yes, let’s get these tax collectors and camel drivers to clean up their lives so they will go back to church.”

Then Jesus says, “Let’s just say you go ahead and look for the lost sheep, although everyone you tells you it’s stupid. What would you do with the sheep if you found it?” The shepherd puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and goes to his house. Jesus does not say that the shepherd goes back to the ninety-nine and puts the sheep back in the flock. He leaves the 99 other sheep back in the field, and he goes home. He carries the lost sheep right into the living room and says, “Hey, I just found my sheep.” His wife says, “Get that sheep out of my living room. It’s going to make a mess. I just vacuumed in here.” This is a crazy thing for a shepherd to do with a lost sheep. But he’s so happy, he has to bring it in, even though it’s making a stink. He says, “I want him right in my living room. This is my lost sheep. I just found him.”[iii] And then Jesus says: There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who don’t think they are lost, who don’t think that they have any need to get right with God.

By the end, the people of the tradition wonder, “How many lost sheep are there? One or 99?” The Pharisees sense Jesus directing this parable in their direction, and they don’t like Jesus implying that they are the lost ones. The Scribes and Pharisees are the most religious of the people: they attend worship every Friday night. They make big financial contributions to the synagogue. They don’t eat certain foods. They don’t use four letter words when they hit their thumbs with hammers. They attend all the potluck dinners. They know, without a doubt, that they are the “found” ones. The scoundrels outside the synagogue, outside their church -- they are “lost.” Jesus tells them that God is willing to leave them and put them all at risk just to go save one stray sheep. God is willing to bring one lost sheep home. Meanwhile, there are 99 sheep that God does not rejoice over.

The question is: can you come to church every week, be generous in your offerings, say all the right prayers, show up for all the potluck dinners, and still be lost? Can church actually distract us from our relationship with God? If we become so comfortable with our self-righteous defense of our traditions, will we lose our way?

The story for today is not about the 33% of Trumbull residents who don’t belong to a church and we the church are to go out and gather the lost sheep. It’s not about the lost sheep who live outside the walls of the church and we need to go and find them. The story for today is not intended for someone else; someone like your son or daughter or brother or sister or mother or father or work associate. I’m not preaching so we will leave here and think, “I wish that so and so was in church to hear this sermon. I know someone who needed to hear it.” No, this story is about you and me -- when we get lost from God -- when we wander away from God and we don’t even realize it.

There is a line in Psalm 23 that says, “He restores my soul.” It can also be translated, “God causes my soul to return,” or “God causes my soul to repent.” The Psalm pictures David wandering from the “paths of righteousness,” and being turned back to those paths by the Lord Himself. Jesus leaves the invitation open ended. The pathway begins in front of us. It turns us back to the life God has for us. Or we can choose to stay where we are, clinging to beliefs that feel secure but don’t give us life. There are some Pharisees who refuse to walk the path of new life. They exclude themselves from joy. They would rather not be with a God who chooses to eat with tax collectors and sinners. The story about a lost sheep communicates God’s invitation for us to turn back to God, and hold onto God, and talk with God, and walk with God and pray with God. God gets such great joy when we finally come to our senses, wake up, and return to a loving and living relationship. Maybe it’s time for you and me to be found...again.

[i] http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/inclusion/index.html
[ii] http://www.pilgrimcongregational.org/Pubs/Sermons/2004/09/26/Page_01.htm
[iii] Bill Lane Doulos, Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation. 50.

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