Sunday, September 15, 2019

Proper 19 Year C 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church Mountain Home

I wonder if we take enough time in our busy lives to stop and consider the lens with which we see the world around us.  Especially when it has to do with how we think of church, or of our faith, or of the writings of that faith.  All too often there is a danger that those things we experience on a regular basis become too ordinary.  They lose their vibrancy and fade into the background of life.  We don’t have to think about it as much, so we don’t.  But in doing that, we often miss the most beautiful details.  I think perhaps this week’s gospel lesson highlights a good example of that for us.

I don’t know that I’ve ever preached on this particular passage, but I know I’ve certainly heard many sermons on it.  Even without hearing that many sermons, we know already that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, right?  We already know what a good shepherd does.  We’ve heard this punchline a few times.  We already know the right answer.  So when Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  We already know we’re supposed to eagerly raise our hand and say, ‘Yes Jesus, I would!  This is what the good shepherd does!’

While studying this week’s Gospel, I came across a commentary on the passage that really struck me.  It stripped away all of my preconceived notions and assumptions and allowed me the space to see more beauty in this than I had recently.  Now of course, the image of the good shepherd, with the lost sheep slung across his back, is beautiful.  It is a reminder to us that God cares for us.  It gives us a notion of safety and security.  But the part that is easy to miss is that it is absolutely ridiculous.

Imagine for a moment that Jesus is in a room full of shepherds.  He asks this question, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  Then all the shepherds look around at each other as if to say, “is this guy serious?”  Then they all slowly shake their heads to say, ‘no, no one does that.’  When Jesus likens God to a shepherd that leaves ninety-nine of their one hundred sheep in the wilderness, to go off and find the one lost sheep, Jesus is making the point that God’s love for us far exceeds any common sense.  No shepherd would leave their nearly entire flock, without safety, in the wilderness, at peril of wild animals, to wander around, at their own peril as well, to find one sheep.  They would be annoyed at the financial loss and stay with the flock.

Fred Craddock writes, “If the ninety-nine are safe in a fold, then the search for one lost sheep is but an act of frugality, an exercise of common sense.  It is foolish not to act when there is a possible gain with no possibility of loss.  But how is one to assess the search by a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine in the wilderness?  Either the shepherd is foolish or the shepherd loves the lost sheep and will risk everything, including his own life, until he finds it.”

The same can be said for the second parable Jesus tells, of the woman who has lost a coin.  This coin is one tenth of her money according to Jesus.  Generally speaking there weren’t banks accessible to the general public, so she probably keeps these coins on a necklace.  It is assumed by many scholars to be roughly a month’s wages.  The woman goes to every extent to find this coin.  She loses time, burns fuel in her lamp, does not rest until she has recovered it.  There are wonderful paintings done of this parable, showing a woman, stooped, in the darkness with just a lamp to light her sightline, checking every crack in the walls.  I wonder even if it’s very important you might eventually shrug your shoulders and resolve that it will turn up.  I don’t know that most people would go to the extent she does to find it.  She does not rest until the coin is recovered.

Once these lost things have been found, there is so much joy that it cannot be celebrated alone.  The shepherd calls his friends and neighbors together, likewise the woman.  I am left to wonder if there wasn’t a celebration that cost more than the lost coin.

All of this is to illustrate the Good News.  The words that Jesus brings to a people sorely in need of salvation.  God Loves them.  God will go to any length to find them and bring them home.  And when everyone is brought back together, there is always much rejoicing.  This reading today is the opening to the parable of the prodigal son, which also illustrates the same values.  God knows that we wander off like distracted sheep.  The good news is that we don’t have to be afraid.  God will find us wherever we are.  No matter what we’ve done.  No matter how lost we’ve become. 

Unless I completely misunderstand what was used for currency in Jesus’ time, it’s also important to note that this coin does not get lost of its own volition.  The coin does not have legs or the desire to wander like the lost sheep.  It isn’t the case that everyone who ends up lost does so because they chose to be.  Sometimes we end up in places we never intended to be.  But the good news is that God will keep looking for us.

Jesus invites us in to a life that exemplifies these values.  Can we not also rejoice at the finding of lost sheep?  Can we not also live in such a way that we act as a beacon to draw people to the loving embrace of God?  We are a bit of both.  We are the lost, but we also have a responsibility to remind the lost we run into that there is something better. 

Bishop George Craig Stewart is quoted as saying, “The Church after all is not a club of saints; it is a hospital for sinners.”  When we get so used to seeing something and letting it become routine, we often miss the beautiful details.  We forget that everything we do here is not to congratulate ourselves for being good.  If God is like the shepherd Jesus tells us about, he leaves those ninety-nine good sheep to spend time and energy on that one lost sheep.  Let us remember that when that one lost sheep is found, the joy and celebration is so great that everyone is invited to take part.  This is God’s Grace.  A relentless, overflowing love that pursues us into the most dangerous of wilderness and brings us back with great rejoicing.

That my friends is the Good News.  Sometimes these stories we hear lose some of their punch because we’ve heard them over and over again.  Don’t forget how ridiculous Jesus can sound to his contemporaries.  He was proclaiming a Kingdom unlike any other, and a Grace and forgiveness that had not yet been seen.  Jesus was heralding the Kingdom of God, and a grace the will find you wherever you end up.