1Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
The Rev Deborah Magdalene, September 12, 2010
It’s an interesting exercise to take a look around our worship space and notice the images that are meaningful to us. Many of us have been coming here for years and are so used to this space that we have stopped noticing the particulars. We identify this space as our spiritual home. This is what ‘church’ looks like.
We sit here, or here, or over there, and from our particular vantage point we see various symbols of our faith. Much of the symbolic richness of this particular church has become comforting and familiar.
But what does a guest see? Try to see this space as if you are visiting St Alban’s for the first time. Mentally choose where you would most likely sit.
Now, find the image, symbol, or object that is most meaningful to you. Look over at the windows, look up at the altar, at the ceiling, the candles, the crucifix, look at the altar rail. Look behind you and see if you can find the baptismal font, or see the organ loft. Look at the doors, the pews, and the lights.
Find one image that stands out to you and really look at it. Then see what it has to tell you about your own faith. Why is this symbol meaningful for you? Why do you find it comforting, or enlightening, or central to your worship experience? What do you suppose this object has to say about what we do here on Sunday mornings? What would a Christian archeologist in the next millennium conjecture about your item as a relic? What does it say about your faith?
When we go back in time and look at the earliest images adorning Christian worship spaces we learn a lot about how they practiced their faith. We find some images that are familiar, and some that seem strangely out of place, and we notice the absence of many important symbols.
For instance, there are no crucifixes, and very few pictures of Jesus. There are altars, and baptismal fonts. There are frescoes painted on the walls, and beautiful handcrafted mosaics on the floors and walls. If we catalogue the images we find in the earliest Christian worship spaces we find several recurring themes.
There are many images of Jonah inside the whale – the important Hebrew Testament story that prefigures the three days Jesus was swallowed by the whale of death.
There are pictures of loaves and fishes – signifying the feeding of the five thousand – a central symbol for the Eucharistic feast.
Then we find the recurring image of a shepherd carrying a lost sheep on his shoulders. The belly of the sheep is resting against the back of the shepherd’s neck and his hands grasp the feet of the lamb to comfort and stabilize it for the ride back to the flock.
This image, so central to early Christian worship, is the theme of today’s gospel message as well as the pivotal energy behind the Apostle Paul’s conversion.
Lost and Found – the story of how we come to believe in a God who seeks us out again and again and again – never tiring of bringing us home to God. It is the rhythm of our faith. And until we learn to accept our various roles in the repeating pattern of the Lost Sheep story, the story so central to the early Christians’ experience of God, we will not fully grasp the power of being carried home to God.
At any point during our lives we can identify ourselves as the lost sheep; or maybe we are helping the shepherd to find the lost one; or, my own personal favorite, we are one of the faithful 99 sheep who is not happy to wait for the shepherd’s return but feels indignant, bent out of shape, and jealous that the shepherd abandons me in order to go off find that stupid sheep who wasn’t working hard enough to keep up with us smart, savvy, and grumpy sheep.
In the first letter to Timothy Paul writes of his own experience of coming home to God. Paul describes how he considers himself to be the foremost, or the most striking example of, a sinner. Then he tells of how Christ sought him out in order to bring him home to God. In fact, Paul says that the reason that Jesus came into the world was to save people like him.
Paul believes that he was found and brought back to God because of how far away he had strayed, because God had another purpose for his life, and because of how deeply incapable he was of finding his way home on his own.
Paul writes that he was the epitome of a sinner and, “…for that very reason [he] received mercy, so that in [him], as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making [him] an example to those who would come to believe in [Christ Jesus] for eternal life.”
In other words, if Jesus can bring that sorry sheep Paul home then he certainly can bring one of us home. Paul persecuted and stoned the early Christians, and did so with a hatred and self-righteousness that he will remember for the rest of his life.
But he does so with full confidence that he has been completely forgiven.
That is the point that Jesus makes with the parable of the lost sheep. The action of coming home to God is a process of gaining a right relationship with God. Paul was out of alignment with the God of his ancestors. To sin is to be out of alignment with God’s purpose for our lives.
It is in Paul’s complete acceptance of the tender forgiveness he receives from Christ that his relationship with God is restored. Paul writes, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
This point is so important for our faith. When we go off and act out our anger in a hurtful and self-righteous fashion, we often do so in complete ignorance of how we can do otherwise.
Throughout my 18-year marriage I failed to protect my children from their father’s unpredictable outbursts of anger and abuse. At the time I felt as terrified and helpless as my children did. I didn’t know I had a choice.
I needed God to send a shepherd to find me and bring me home to a place where I could see the errors of my ways with the same compassion and tenderness that Jesus had for me.
I had been fueled by self-hatred and resentment for so many years that there was no way that a God who acted as a fierce disciplinarian would ever make any headway with me.
No, it was in the awareness of feeling forgiven for my ignorance that I wept for joy. Because of how long it took for me to find the Jesus who had been looking for me all along my long-awaited conversion was profound.
The moment I realized that I could learn another way of being in the world – that it was possible to learn how to make better choices in my life – was, and remains, the pivotal moment of my life. Like Paul, I felt profound gratitude that I didn’t have to act out of ignorance any more.
Luke sets up the parable by separating the Pharisees and the scribes from the inner circle.
The Pharisees and the scribes are not there to listen to Jesus. They are there to see for themselves that Jesus not only welcomes sinners, but he actually eats with them. They are the ones left behind, and they feel critical and judgmental about it. They came to judge, not to listen with their hearts.
This reference to a meal is code for the Eucharistic feast. It is the lost sheep who are welcome to join the Eucharistic meal in thanksgiving for being found, and forgiven, and carried home to God across Jesus’ shoulders.
The irony in this parable is the value of the one sheep when compared with the rest of the flock. Jesus explains that the 99 sheep are left completely on their own so that the shepherd can quickly go and find one lost in the rocks somewhere.
What happens to sheep without a shepherd? Don’t they wander in countless different directions, getting lost and confused without their leader? Aren’t they sitting ducks, so to speak, for wolves and predators?
Well, yes, that is exactly what happens. In real life it is crazy to endanger the lives of an expensive investment in living bodies of wool on the hoof. No one in the ancient world would leave 99 sheep to go after one. They wouldn’t do it today either. This story makes absolutely no sense to a crowd familiar with sheep behavior.
Unless the crowd understands that Jesus is talking about God’s kingdom this parable is foolish. In God’s kingdom everything is governed by different laws. In God’s world the shepherd knows that the sheep left on their own will be cared for and protected in the arms of God.
The Pharisees and scribes are the 99 sheep left behind because they have no need of God’s redeeming love – they already have it. They are already in right relation with their God, or at least they know the steps necessary to regain their right relation. They are always invited to confess their sins and turn to God. They do not need to be found.
It is the shunned, the ignorant, and the ritually unclean who have been excluded from God’s inner circle that need to be found and brought back into the flock.
When the early Christians heard this story they related to the one little sheep who was lost. Each of them had a story of being found by God and brought back home to the family.
God sent his only son to be the Good Shepherd – the shepherd who finds the most unlikely lost and forsaken sheep to bring back to the fold. It was this parable that became a symbol of the early Christian experience of being born again.
Instead of a processional cross and a giant crucifix behind the altar they were drawn to pictures of a beardless Christ, illuminated by a halo around his head, carrying one little lamb back to God.
The parable ends with an image of all of heaven rejoicing at the return of one little lost sheep. Included in that rejoicing is a great banquet that they will all eat together. Christians never tire of hearing this simple tale because it says so much about the joy of discovering you’ve been found and a feast is prepared just for you.
We come to the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ after we have made our communal confession. We are kneeling down to partake in the feast of heaven where angels and archangels and all the company of heaven join us in our celebration.
The parable of the lost sheep is one of three parables designed to teach the same point. You will find all three in Chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel. After ‘The Lost Sheep’ comes ‘The Lost Coin’ followed by ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son.’
Three lost and found parables all pointing to one basic fact about God’s Kingdom: God never stops looking for us because that is what God does. Our job is to let ourselves be found, or else sign up as a shepherd and help bring more lost souls in to the feast. If we feel abandoned and left behind it is not the truth.
God is always holding us
God is always seeking us
We can choose to be found
And we can always learn more
We can change and move where God wants us to be