Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 15, 2019
I am not the kind of guy who takes excessive pride in himself. My humor is self-deprecating humor. My stories are self-deprecating stories, stories where I always seem to be the stooge, everyman stories where if I end up going the right thing, it is either by accident, or hopefully most often, by the abundant grace of God. When I had been serving this congregation for a short while, I know that at least one of you remarked of the stories in my sermons “I wonder if he ever does anything right.”
Yet one thing about myself that I do take great pride in is my almost unfailing, incredible, pigeon-like sense of direction. Even without modern conveniences like GPS, I rarely ever get lost. In fact, I can only recall three times in my life when I have gotten lost: the first time I tried driving in Washington, D.C. (surprise), once when I first began driving, and once when I was in my teens and cycling alone in Goochland. In light of this morning’s text, I would like to say a word about stories two and three.
Story of being lost two: Varina. I had my learner’s permit and my father and I went driving one Saturday afternoon. For some reason I cannot recall, we wound up on the east side of Henrico County, near Varina. I was familiar with this area because I was an athlete and had been in that area several times for sporting events. However, on this particular day, I kept noticing how everything I saw was on the opposite side of the road from what I remembered; stores, garages, the large Nabisco plant, everything a mirror image of what I expected.
It did not take long for me to realize that clearly, I was lost, headed in the wrong direction and needed to turn around. However, I had my father in the car with me and I had spent the early part of this drive assuring and reassuring him that yes, I Knew What I Was Doing. But I didn’t, and it was becoming clear to me that if I did not admit that I was lost and heading in the wrong direction, short of circumnavigating the globe and arriving back in the West End that way, nothing was ever going to improve.
Story of being lost three: Goochland. When I was a teenager, before I had my driver’s license, I received as a Christmas gift a beautiful blue Italian touring bicycle that I used to ride alone, without anyone knowing where I was, from my home behind the Westhampton Cemetery, west on Patterson Avenue into Goochland, across Hockett Road (Route 623), to Route 250 and back home. It was about a twenty mile trip, I had no map, cell phone, or GPS and no one on earth knew where I was. It was wonderful.
Then there was the day that I deviated from my normal route to do some exploring and got lost. What happened was I saw above the tree line an enormous, ugly communications tower that I mistakenly thought was another enormous, ugly, communications tower which was closer to my house. The more I searched, the more I followed that tower, the more confused and lost I became until after a couple of hours, I finally found a payphone on route 250 and called my parents collect and told them to come and find me. I had given up, and now my secret journeys were no longer secret. At family gatherings, I still get this story told back to me, especially the part when, almost immediately after being picked up, I discovered that I was roughly 500 feet from knowing where I was.
If you are wondering why I did not ask for directions, it because (a) I was in the middle of nowhere and (b) because I am a man.
Now, I told you those stories so we can think about this morning’s text, a reading about being lost, a reading about being found. What I would like for us to do now is explore lostness and consider the ways in which we, the sheep in Jesus’ metaphor, often find ourselves, perhaps without realizing it, running from the shepherd who has just left everything behind in order to find us.
Reading this morning’s text, I find myself wondering if Jesus is having some fun with his listeners in this fifteenth chapter of Luke, this chapter on the lost becoming found. Luke loves to write about people like this, people who are outcasts, the forgotten, the invisible, the lost. The way in which I believe Jesus might be having fun with this hearers is when he say, most matter-of-factly “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?” Were I one of the original twelve disciples, I would have prayed that Jesus, after asking this question, did not ask for a show of hands.
I say this because I know myself well enough to tell you that there is no way, were I a shepherd, that I would risk leaving ninety-nine sheep behind, my entire flock, my entire fortune, just to I could go chase down some intransigent sheep that had run away. Tell me I can bring the ninety-nine with me, and I will consider it, but to leave them behind to chase down the one. No way. It strikes me as terrible stewardship, an un-winnable gamble, a losing proposition, even a dereliction of my duty as a responsible shepherd, especially when one considers that Jesus makes a point in this text that the ninety-nine are not being left in some verdant meadow. They are being left in the wilderness, truly the most dangerous place imaginable for those who sat among the Pharisees and the scribes and heard this parable.
And yet, Jesus, almost as a passing comment, says it like the answer should be obvious: “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?”
“You would do it,” Jesus says, “Of course you would. Wouldn’t you?”
Jesus gives us this parable against the backdrop of criticism of the scribes and Pharisees grumbling about Jesus due to the company he keeps. Luke implies that Jesus gives this parable within earshot of his critics, and in so doing, he asks this question of not only his disciples but of the religious leadership, the proud and the powerful, people who could not envision themselves in the role of a lowly shepherd, much less one so determined to risk everything in order to reach the lost.
The two experiences of lostness with which I began this sermon have served to teach me two important lessons about what it means to be lost, and what it means to be found. In the first story, I had to learn to humble my ego and admit that I was lost. The longer I stayed the course traveling in the wrong direction, the more lost I became, and the farther I had to travel in order to get back to where I needed to be.
The second story, the one about cycling in Goochland and getting lost because I mistakenly thought a tower was a different tower near my house taught me that the easiest way to get lost is by following the wrong things, using those wrong things to determine my course until I was ignoring all evidence to the contrary, signs, sights, even the direction in which the sun was setting.
In many ways, this morning’s text invites the hearer to imagine himself or herself as the lost sheep, to ask ourselves difficult questions about why we want to leave the shepherd behind as we wander further and further into the dangerous wilderness, and why we do not want to admit our lostness, and admit the wrong things are that we have been following for too long, those things that keep putting us just out of earshot of the good shepherd risking everything to wade through the briers and the brambles to find us.
Jesus ends this parable by speaking about repentance. The word repentance comes from the Greek word metanoia, which literally means “to turn one’s mind around.” By making the denouement of this parable an entreaty to repent of our sins, Jesus, in essence, describes a partnership between sheep and shepherd. The shepherd’s nature is to search, but also, the sheep must be willing to be found, and that is where it gets difficult, for sometimes we do not know we are lost. Sometimes we are afraid or unwilling to admit we are lost, and other times, being lost—being away from the flock feels pretty good, leading us to not want to be found at all.
I was halfway through a summer evening Bible study in the fellowship hall of my church in Crozet when I looked towards the glass doors and saw a disheveled young man, younger than me, dressed in all tan standing there, holding a small bag. I stopped the lesson and approached him, invited him in, and asked if he needed anything. It turns out that he needed a ride to Staunton and asked if I could help him. I told him I could as soon as I wrapped up the class I was leading.
He needed a ride to a homeless shelter in Staunton. He was completely silent as he sat in the passenger sear of my car as we drove over Afton Mountain. Since I am an extrovert who cannot handle quiet very well, I attempted to engage him in conversation, and I asked him where he was coming from.
“Prison,” was his response.
At that moment, all I could think to say was exactly what I should not say. Questions entered my brain like, “Oh, prison! And how was that?” Instead we talked about where each of us was from.
It took me several months to tell this story to my wife Tracy, mainly because I knew she was possibly going to hit the roof: “You did what? He was coming from where? What on earth is wrong with you? Did you think for a moment how dangerous what you did was? You have children, for crying out loud!”
Of course, she is right. It was foolish, perhaps even dangerous, but does not Paul write that the gospel will always be foolishness to this world? Does not Jesus describe himself as a wandering shepherd in the distant wilderness, looking for that lost, intransigent sheep, the sheep who sought its own way, who followed the wrong things, who chose its own desires over the shepherd and his flock, yet who is now trying to be found? If we follow this kind of savior, should we be surprised by risk in those times and places where the only faithful step is to leave something behind?
If Jesus means what he says in this morning’s text, that there is rejoicing in heaven when the lost are found, then how can we as his people, not offer God’s hospitality, not throw open the doors to his church? And not only throw them open so that the lost can come in, but to throw them open so that we, his people can go out, out into the world, out into the marketplace, out into the schools, out into the neighborhood streets, out into the side streets, out into the rough neighborhoods, out into the worst of circumstances, out into the wilderness. It is the hospitality of God, of welcome, but not only welcome, but the grace to search, the grace to go.
Yesterday, members of Reveille, Koinonia Christian Church, and Love Center of Unity Full Gospel Church, International gathered in the neighborhood of Swansboro for a prayer walk in the community.Months ago, when I was convinced this was a good idea, I imagined us silently walking through the streets and praying to ourselves for those who lived there.
This is not what the plan was. The plan, it turned out, was to knock on doors and ask residents if we could pray for them and/or tell them about faith in Jesus.
Now, I am a United Methodist, so for me, knocking on doors means it is the house of someone I know, someone expecting me, someone who has had a birth or death in the family, and I am holding a casserole. Knocking on the doors of strangers is way outside of my comfort zone.
And our humorous God reminded me that the next day, I was preaching on this text about a good shepherd who leaves safety and comfort to enter the wilderness and do the work of God, and I found myself asking myself, “Alright man. Do you believe in this stuff or not?
And I do, and there you have it. Right there on 32nd Street and McRand, knocking on the door: “Hi my name is Doug. How are you today?”
For is it not there where our savior says we will find him, out in the wilderness, out in the brambles and briars, and can we not, as his precious, redeemed children join him there, until the earth is glad, and the heavens rejoice?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.