Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
What is the source of the deepest joy in your life? Think about that for a moment: What event, what person, what idea, sparked or now sparks the greatest feelings of joy for you? I’ll wait a moment for you to think about it and hold it in your heart. [PAUSE]
I realize that may seem like a strange place to start a sermon on the gospel reading we just read, but hear me out.
This morning the lectionary brings us two parables of things lost and found—a lost sheep and a lost coin. But they don’t stay lost for long, and their finding sparks joy. In fact, Jesus mentions joy and rejoicing five times in just 10 verses! These parables are really about restoration, return, and rejoicing in the joy of finding. So keep joy in mind today.
I find myself drawn most to the first story, which makes reference to one of our primary images of Christ – Jesus, the shepherd. It is a metaphor meant to make us feel protected; cared for. Certainly that is a welcome image in uncertain times like this.
And yet, we are not an agrarian society – with a few very notable exceptions (I’ll come back to our resident shepherd), we know very, very little about sheep and shepherding. And that fact makes this story, while very quaint, also very hard to decipher for us.
As I did my research on this passage, I wasn’t really finding anything that sparked for me. I felt something nagging at me – but I couldn’t really identify that I was struggling with.
And then, I read a blog entry by a priest named David Henson, and it opened for me a very interesting window on this parable.[i]
Father Henson’s take is this: God is an awful shepherd. At first I was just surprised and amused by this thought. But then, as I considered it more, I began to understand his point.
Jesus equates himself to a shepherd who loses one sheep. At this turn of events, he takes off into the wilderness to look for the lost sheep. He forsakes the other 99 sheep (99% of his livelihood) until he finds that one wayward animal.
And Jesus assumes that we would do the same. But Henson points out that, “No decent shepherd would leave the bleating flock of 99 sheep in the wilderness where predators and poachers abound in order to find the lost one. It’s not like the sheep are safely fenced in. It’s not like the shepherd knows where the lost sheep has gone. It’s not like the shepherd even knows when he will be returning to the flock. He only knows he won’t return until he finds that one sheep — which will likely be dead and eaten by wild animals by the time it is found.
“No shepherd would risk the flock — his livelihood — for the sake of one errant sheep in the wild. It is excessive, foolhardy. No shepherd would do something so irredeemably irresponsible.
“At least no decent shepherd.”
From this point of view, the shepherd has truly lost his way in this story, lost all sense of right and wrong, responsibility and consequence.
Henson then suggests that maybe in this parable there is also a call for the sheep that remain: To get lost, too. The problem is we are too often perfectly happy to bleat in the wilderness with the other 99, ignoring the dangers around us, ignoring the shepherd who has left us. There is comfort in the herd with its illusion of security.
It can be easy to just go along; to hide in the crowd where it feels safe. Yes, perhaps it is safe, but it is can also be empty. Life is not a one-size-fits-all affair. No matter who you are, you have our own experiences; our own needs; our own desires; your own vulnerabilities; your own course.
Perhaps each of us needs to dare to strike out; to follow the road of our own soul’s need, even if that may lead to being lost, at least for a while. I hope that we, as a church, are about helping each of you acquire the tools you need for such a journey, as well as helping you build the courage to get lost—in search of what you need.
You see, for too long we as the church, “we have gotten it backwards. We do not bring the lost sheep to God. Rather, the lost sheep bring us to God. When we read this story—[or the story of the woman with the lost coin]—in this light, we see the overarching themes of God’s transgressive and indiscriminate love. These stories seem to reject so much of the way we tend to see the world. They cast an image of God so loving as to be completely unconcerned with consequences and punishment, but intent only on love and reconciliation.”[ii]
And that brings me to an interesting fork in the road of this sermon. As I considered Henson’s idea that Jesus describes a lousy shepherd, I realized that he, like me, is probably one who doesn’t actually know a lot about sheep and their care. So I picked up the phone and called Lila Berle, a long-time member of this church, whose vocation is raising sheep.
I told Lila what we were reading this week, and then first asked her what causes a sheep to get lost? She told me that most lost sheep most often get lost because they perceive a threat. Something comes along that spooks them, and while most sheep will clump, or form a tight flock, when threatened, some will run. (That’ll preach, won’t it? Sometimes we hunker down when threatened, and sometimes we flee in fear.)
I then related to Lila the idea that the shepherd makes a poor decision in leaving the 99 to look for the one lost sheep, and Lila disagreed. She said she could relate to the shepherd in the parable: “It might not make sense,” she said, “but when there’s a lost sheep, one does go looking. Shepherds are wired to protect the weak—it’s sort of an instinctive thing.”
Further, she noted that a lone vulnerable animal in the field actually attracts predators, so saving the one lowers the threat to the entire flock. And what’s more, she says that sheep don’t actually move around much, so if they are being fed and are in a familiar place, she doesn’t worry about the flock; in other words, leaving the 99 is not as risky as it sounds. “The like their own turf,” she said. “They stick to the place they know.”[iii]
I am grateful to Lila for this little window into shepherding—into the things that Jesus’ original audience would have known. They open new avenues into the parable for me.
God is that shepherd who will risk everything to find you when you are lost—whether it makes sense or not. God longs for you and me, in all our brokenness, to find our way back to the wholeness that is possible. God longs for us to achieve what God dreamed for us at our creation.
And the real problem with the metaphor of Christ as our shepherd is not whether it makes logical sense, but rather that it limits God to the ways of humans. God is so much more. God is not limited by human reason. God doesn’t weigh out the risk and reward and make a choice based on those probabilities. God so longs for our wholeness that there is no risk too great on our behalf.
But what is really remarkable in this passage is the outrageous joy that is modeled by the main characters in these parables. Theologian Christopher Edmonston says, “When the lost is found, the heart explodes with joy. It is joy so loud and rejoicing so strong that even the angels take note…. just as a shepherd and a woman can rejoice over one object, heaven itself rejoices when one sinner, one lost soul, repents and is found.”[iv]
Here it is folks: All of us are sinners. We all fall short and get lost along the way. And God is searching for each of us. And not only that: God’s joy when we are found is bigger than we could ever imagine.
So let’s return to my original question, about the thing that sparks the deepest joy in you. Did you come up with something? As you recall once again that kind of joy, know this: YOU are the one who sparks that kind of joy in God. Each of you. I’m letting you in on a secret, friends! This is one way we can get a glimpse of who God is: by perceiving the joy that God has, and is, when we are found, when we return from our lost ways. God’s love is SO big that each of us is God’s spark of deep joy!
That is really hard to perceive—but then, that shouldn’t be a surprise, right? After all, we are talking about God, the source of everything! Jesus tells parables where people behave in unusual, even outrageous, illogical ways to help us grasp the idea that God is extraordinary; that God does the things that we humans can barely even perceive.
God longs for you to be found, to be whole, to be all that God dreams and has anointed you to be. We who are lost can be sure that we will be found—and not only that, but we can expect that joy will erupt when we are restored to God, and to wholeness.
Whether today is the day you feel lost, or it comes tomorrow, or the day after that, know that God is looking for you; and when you are found, God will be the most joyful. That, my friends, is worth celebrating: God loves you more than you can ask or imagine. So rejoice! Amen.
[i] David R. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2013/03/the-lost-shepherd-and-the-amoral-love-of-god/ Accessed September 12, 2013.
[iii] Berle, Lila: Phone conversation 9/11/2019.
[iv] Edmonston, Christopher H. Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume II, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. p. 85.