Being a sheep:lost and found (9/15)

September 16, 2013

I would like to begin by saying how glad I am to see you all this Gathering Sunday, the beginning of our fall program year. When we first looked at the schedule for the fall, we originally thought about making last week Gathering Sunday. If you recall, our gospel reading last week was about hating ones family, and being made fun of for not having enough money to finish one’s tower, and kings going off to war. I’m not quite sure how I would have tied that to Gathering Sunday, so I’m especially glad that we waited until today. This morning’s gospel reading fits our theme today like a glove.

This morning, Jesus tells two parables: the story of the lost sheep and the story of the lost coin. Most of the time, I would say that these two parables make slightly different points, but this time, they seem to say just about exactly the same thing. There’s one difference that I’ll talk about in a moment.

So Jesus has been preaching to a mixed crowd – there were Pharisees and scribes, and there were tax collectors and sinners. This second group of people was starting to get excited and encouraged about the things that Jesus was saying about God’s love and mercy. Remember that tax collectors and sinners are not very popular at this time; in fact there’s not very popular today. Back then, most people would say that their society would have been better off if those people weren’t part of it at all.

Most people thought that tax collector and sinners were so morally corrupt that God couldn’t love them. They were just too horrible. Jesus isn’t having any of this. In his typical fashion, he tells these stories to present a completely different view of God’s love and mercy.

He tells the story of the lost sheep. I don’t know anything about sheep. I have no idea if it was wise or foolish for the shepherd to go after the one missing sheep. I do understand that even a single sheep was probably quite valuable, but even so, I don’t know if it was smart to risk the others for the one. But Jesus’ shepherd goes after that sheep. And he gets all his buddies together because he has found his sheep. And they have a party. And then Jesus drops this on the people listening him – “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” The tax collectors and sinners aren’t being let off the hook, but they are being told that there is no end to God’s mercy and forgiveness and love. This is a complete repudiation of most people view of sinners. That God would be even happier with them than the righteous was astounding.

So where might we find ourselves in this story? The obvious place is that we are the sheep; not the most flattering place, but it’s probably true and we don’t come to church to be flattered, anyway. But which sheep are we? At some point, each of us is that sheep that has lost its way. We have fallen away from God, and God reached out to us. We have repented and been brought back into God’s flock. We are the one sheep who is loved enough for God to look for us.

But another way to think about this is now, we have been gathered together. So now we’re part of the ninety-nine. We’re not depraved sinners, at least I hope we’re not. We try to live good lives; we try to follow God as best we can. So now our job is to continue on doing those things because God is out there looking for more lost sheep. So our job is to stay put and make sure that God doesn’t have to go looking for us again.

Now for a word about the parable of the coins. This story is almost exactly the same as the parable of the lost sheep. The difference is that the main character is a woman. One version features a man, and one features a woman. This points to one last important lesson in these readings. We are supposed to help God to be the shepherd and to be the woman. We are blessed to work with God to look for those sheep and those coins.

It is wonderful that we have all gathered here this Sunday, but there are a whole lot more sheep and coins out there that need to be gathered here. Part of this is God’s work, moving the hearts of people, searching them out and calling for redemption. But part of this is our work. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we can share God’s mercy and love with the people in our lives. And when these people are gathered in with us, we can rejoice with the angels in heaven.

– Michael Tuck+

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