Sermon: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 15, 2013

I was baptized at two weeks of age, and I’ve been a Christian all my life. This fact baffled the mostly-evangelical Christians I knew in high school and college in Mississippi. Everyone there has a tale of “I once was lost, but now am found.” They could draw dramatic “before” and “after” pictures of their spiritual lives, similar to the ones magazines use to advertise weight loss programs. Some of you have similar stories about coming to faith in Jesus.

My guess is that there’s a variety of faith journey experiences in this congregation. Some of you have always had a church home—for some of you, it’s always been Trinity! Some of you are encountering God for the first time. A number of you have probably had revolving door experiences with God—sometimes in, sometimes out. All of us have stories to tell.

Though I don’t have a dramatic “come to Jesus” tale—or maybe because I don’t— I have numerous stories about my waffling across the lost and found line. Sometimes, like the lost sheep in today’s Gospel lesson, I know I’m lost. I bleat and stumble around, desperately trying to get back to the shepherd and the other sheep. Sometimes I’m lost like the lost coin. I have no awareness that I’m not where I’m supposed to be, no idea that my being under the couch cushion is distressing anyone. I have no intention of taking any steps to be anywhere else. My before and after pictures can look pretty much the same!

Whatever our stories about being lost and found, I think it behooves us to look at the story from Exodus, in which it is perfectly clear that from the get-go that even God’s beloved, faithful, well-intentioned people sometimes get lost. God has to keep going out in the desert to find us and bring us home. We have a long and illustrious history of missing the mark even when we think we’ve got it right.

I think that is precisely the attitude that Jesus is struggling against in today’s Gospel. The good religious people are murmuring amongst themselves. Any time the people are “murmuring” in Luke’s Gospel, it never bodes well. But there they are, all looking fit and well-coifed in their “after” pictures, concerned that Jesus is spending way too much time with the “before” set–tax collectors and sinners. The good churchgoing folks are offended that Jesus is not religious enough! I love it!

But how does Jesus respond to their murmuring judgment of his chosen companions? Well, you know the stories of lost and found that he shares. They are familiar parables. Probably so familiar that it’s hard to hear them with new ears. For that reason, I’d like to offer this marvelous interpretation of the first parable, from an Episcopalian scholar named Sarah Dylan. Maybe you’ll recognize some of the characters in it.

“Once upon a time, there was a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them went astray. The shepherd’s colleagues figured this was probably due to some carelessness on the shepherd’s part. They knew this guy, and when this shepherd had been a farmer, he had repeatedly been seen tossing seed in the middle of paved parking lots and around pigeon hangouts without much thought as to whether or not anything would actually grow there, so he had acquired a reputation for being a little loopy.

The ninety-nine remaining sheep, wanting to be helpful, immediately sprang into action–or at least into discussion. One loudly announced that the flock had never included more than ninety-nine sheep, and therefore the stray was probably a goat, or maybe a marmoset, 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 marmoset, or whatever its problem was.

Lots of other sheep rallied to his side. But factions began to develop in the flock. Some suggested that perhaps a message could be sent to the stray that if she were to stop being a marmoset and instead become a sheep, or at least learn to bleat like one, or perhaps if she stopped making…what noise is it that marmosets make? (cries immediately went up for a subcommittee to study that issue) she could rejoin the flock. A panel of three sheep was created, each of which would present views on what species the strays were, followed by discussion and concluding with a very lovely and moving liturgy and coffee and pastries.

Just then rumors arose that the stray sheep was being attacked by wolves. A voice in the flock suggested that perhaps something ought to be done; however, 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. “And there used to be 78 strays per year,” she noted, “so getting it down to one is most impressive!” Her faction responded with a loud cheer and rumbled off to a celebratory ball and fundraiser to cover the cost of a digital camera to supply graphics for future presentations.

Meanwhile, all of this “pro-stray” rhetoric was annoying the planners of the campaign to convince the stray to return to sheep-hood. The sheep who didn’t want the stray back in the flock at all were furious, threatening to leave the flock. And hours later, 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” and a new hymn, “Goading Out the Goats,” you might have heard a few sheep quietly wondering where the shepherd had gone, as one silhouetted figure made its way toward the horizon and the stray … and some wolf howls echoed in the distance.”

I love that story. Especially the ending, raising questions like, “If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren’t, who’s really straying?” Are we lost? Found? Is this picture a Before or an After? The answer to all of these questions is, as usual, YES. Each time we wander off, God searches high and low for us. God rejoices every time we come home, and will set out after us again when we get lost the next time. We know this. We can rest assured that our shepherd will always be right by our sides.

So if we don’t have to worry about our relationship with God, where should we turn our attention? With the assurance that God will always come looking to bring us home, we can turn our concern to making sure that we are staying as close as possible to our shepherd. How do we do that? For starters, can we just forget trying to figure out who is lost and who is found? Forget who is a sheep and who is a goat and who is a marmoset? Can’t we just agree that we are all in this world together, and that we need to stick together and follow our shepherd closely?

When we focus on following the shepherd, it’s pretty clear how we are to spend our time and talents, our energy, and our resources. Feed people. Clothe them. Educate them. Embrace them. Keep them safe and healthy. Instill in them dreams and hope. Make sure adults have meaningful work and just working conditions. Nurture children as they grow, and help them find themselves.

Mother Theresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” So let’s stick close together as a flock; let’s pay attention to where our shepherd goes, and, instead of judging the company he keeps, let’s make new friends. Our shepherd Jesus is going to go after the lost ones—that’s just who he is. We know that. So as Jesus tenderly collects strays and brings them home again, let us keep welcoming each other back home again and again with delight and celebration. Let us receive everyone with joy. And let us remember that we all belong to each other.  Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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