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?
It was Lynn Turner’s idea.
I know I’ve told you that before, but I’m telling you again, not because I’m trying to blame Lynn but because I want her to get the credit. I think ONE Sunday is a wonderful idea, even on a rainy day. Lynn had that idea years ago just after our church made a difficult decision that left us uncomfortably divided. Two thirds of the congregation had voted one way and one third had voted another and we needed something to bring us back together again. So, Lynn started thinking.
Some of you may not even know this, but in addition to her role as Senior Associate Pastor I have asked Lynn to serve as our Minister of Christian Community, which I once described to her like this: “I just want you to keep the big, happy family of First Baptist Church big, and happy.” Well, they were not happy in those days, some of them, and it was threatening our unity. Lynn thought it might be helpful, after everybody had gotten back from vacation and school had started up again, to come together for one, wonderful Sunday in September. We would start with Sunday school, follow that with a combined worship service, and then follow that with dinner on the grounds. We tried it, and even though it didn’t solve all our problems it seemed to help. We did it again the next year and the year after that, and if I’m counting correctly this is the twelfth year we have celebrated ONE Sunday.
I’m glad you’re here.
Because this is one of those times when we need to come together. Along with the rest of the world our church is recovering from a global pandemic that has been a huge disruption to life as we knew it. I remember walking into this sanctuary at 11:30 on a Sunday morning back in 2020 and finding it dark, and quiet, and empty. I wondered then, “How many times has this happened in this church’s 240 year history? How many times has the sanctuary been empty at 11:30 on a Sunday morning?” Well, it’s not empty this morning, and I, for one, am thrilled. It may not be as full as it is at 5:00 on Christmas Eve or 11:00 on Easter Sunday, but it is so much fuller than it has been on most Sundays since March 11, 2020, the day this global pandemic was declared, exactly two-and-a-half years ago today.
So, thanks to every one of you who got up this morning, got dressed, and came to church. And thanks to every one of you joining us from home. Even though you are not in the room we can feel your support: your virtual presence is real. And thanks to every one of you who invited someone else to come with you today, and especially those of you who invited someone who used to come, someone you haven’t seen in a long time.
That’s what I spent a good part of my day doing on Monday. I sent a text message to someone I hadn’t seen in a while saying, “Hey, I hope you will join us for ONE Sunday.” And that was so easy I texted someone else, and then someone else. Eventually I pulled an old pictorial directory off the shelf and started turning the pages, and I have to tell you—that was painful. It was painful because so many of those people have died since that directory was published, but it was even more painful because some of them have gotten lost. I’m not talking about those people who have gone to another church. I always say, “When you move from one church to another the Kingdom of God doesn’t lose a single member.” No, I’m talking about those people I haven’t seen in a long, long time and haven’t heard anything about. I’m talking about people who may have gotten lost from God.
Those are the kind of people Jesus is talking about in today’s reading from Luke 15. This is the chapter that includes the parable of the Prodigal Son, which may be everybody’s favorite, but it begins with the notice that all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to hear Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling and saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” You can tell right away that they have put themselves in a different category: scribes and Pharisees over here; sinners and tax collectors over there. And you can tell that in their thinking it isn’t right to welcome sinners or to eat with them. It would be like condoning their sin, which is not what Jesus is trying to do. “And so,” Luke says, “he told them this parable.” He said:
“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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 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.”
I’ve read that parable a hundred times, and preached on it more than once, but what I noticed this time that I had never noticed before is the word having, right there in verse four. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” I’ve titled this sermon “Lost and Found,” but it occurs to me you can’t lose something unless you have it. So it’s not just losing and finding that Jesus is talking about: it’s having and losing and finding. It’s the plot of every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen, where boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girls back again. When he does there is great rejoicing, and maybe even a wedding.
So before we even begin to think about this shepherd seeking and finding his lost sheep, we need to think about him having it. I can almost picture it, can’t you? A young man, determined to build up for himself someday a flock of a hundred sheep, working at it for years until he gets to that place where his goal has been achieved. Imagine his satisfaction when he brings them in from the pasture at the end of the day and counts them as they go under his stick and into the sheepfold: “Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, ONE HUNDRED!” And then he closes the gate with a smile on his face knowing that they are all there, all safe, all sound. Imagine that he does that for years, until he knows the names and the habits of every sheep in his flock. And then imagine that one day while he’s out there in the pasture one of them goes missing.
He doesn’t even have to count. He knows his sheep and his sheep know him. He knows exactly which one has wandered away, as she always does. He also knows she likes to explore the deepest canyons and the darkest crevices. He looks around at the rest of the sheep, tells them to “stay,” and then he runs to find Maggie, the wandering sheep. He goes back to that place where they stopped for water, finds her footprints in the mud, hikes up the ravine a hundred yards and there she is, stuck in a thicket, bawling like a lamb. “Oh, Maggie!” he sighs. “How do you get yourself into these messes?” And then he pulls her out of the thicket, puts her on his shoulders, and heads back toward the flock hoping that nothing has happened in his absence.
When he finds that they are all still there, waiting for him and wondering what’s going on, he rejoices. He keeps a close eye on Maggie for the rest of the day but that night when he counts his sheep there is an extra measure of satisfaction as he says, “Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, ONE HUNDRED!” He closes the gate and walks down to the local pub where he opens the door and says: “Boys, I thought I had lost Old Maggie forever, but by the grace of God I found her. The next round’s on me.” “I tell you,” says Jesus, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”
Because just as that shepherd had that flock of sheep, God has us—has all of us! It’s not that some are righteous and some are sinners; it’s that all of us are human and sometimes we wander away. Today’s lectionary readings make that point:
- Psalm 14 says, “The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”
- In Jeremiah 4 God says, “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”
- In Exodus 32 the people turn against the God who brought them out of their slavery in Egypt, and instead bow down before a golden calf they have fashioned with their own hands.
- In Psalm 51 King David confesses to the Lord, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.”
- And in 1 Timothy 1 Paul admits that he was formerly “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” But thanks be to God, he says: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”
If Saint Paul thinks of himself as the biggest sinner who ever lived, and if David—the “man after God’s own heart”—can see that his own heart is full of wickedness, then what chance do we have? What chance did the scribes and Pharisees have? As Paul says in Romans 3, “There is none righteous; no not one.” It’s not that we set out to sin (usually), but we do. And when we do, in our shame, we often turn away from God. We go our own way. We get lost. And that’s when Jesus comes looking for us.
I love this story he tells about the woman with ten coins because I can almost see her lying in her bed at night, blowing out the oil lamp on the bedside table, and then reaching under the mattress to pull out that little pouch of coins. She undoes the drawstring in the dark, pours them into one palm, and then begins to drop them into the other palm one at a time as she counts. There is a satisfying “plop” as the first one drops, and then a satisfying “clink” with each succeeding coin. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, TEN!” she counts, every night, until the night she only counts nine.
And then she flies into a panic. She throws back the covers, leaps out of bed, lights the oil lamp, gets down on her hands and knees, looks under the bed, and when she doesn’t find it there she lights every lamp in the house, moves the furniture, sweeps out every dark corner, until at last she finds it wedged in a crack between the floorboards. “How on earth did you get here?” she asks. But she falls asleep with a smile on her face and the next morning goes down to the bakery, buys an iced lemon pound cake, and invites all her friends and neighbors to join her for afternoon tea. “Rejoice with me,” she says, “for I have found the coin that I lost.” “I tell you,” says Jesus, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
But have you noticed? Everything Jesus is talking about is seen from God’s perspective. God “has” all of us. Jesus was sent to seek and save the lost. The angels rejoice when a single sinner repents. But what about us? What does all this look like from our perspective?
Let me tell you a story:[i]
When I was in seminary I used to sit on the front pew during our weekly worship services so I could hear every word of the sermon, so I could get the “good stuff” as it came down from the pulpit. And once I heard a preacher named Fred Craddock talk about his sister. “We used to play hide-and-seek in the summertime,” he said. “Just about dusk, when the shadows were getting long. One time she was ‘it,’ and I hid under the back steps of our house. Because I was small I could scrunch all the way up under there where my sister couldn’t see me. But I could see her. I peeked out through a crack and watched her walking around, looking for me.
“She walked all around the house, looked behind the bushes. I saw her walk down the path to the barn, look inside the barn, walk around behind it, and as she came back up the path I thought to myself, ‘She’ll never find me. She’ll never find me!’ And then, all at once, I thought, ‘She’ll never find me!’ So I stuck my toe out just enough for her to see, and when she got to the top of the path I wiggled it.
“She said, ‘One-two-three on Freddy!’ and I came out from under the steps pretending to be chagrined. ‘Aw, shucks,’ I said. ‘You found me.’”
And then Fred Craddock looked out at all of us who were sitting there in that chapel and said, “But what did I want? What did I really want?” And I knew the answer. Sitting there on the front pew it was all I could do to keep from blurting it out. “To be found!” I thought. “You wanted to be found!” And then it seemed he looked right at me, pointed his finger and said, “The same thing you want!”
And I almost burst into tears.
Either Fred Craddock knew me better than I knew myself or there is something in every one of us that is more lost than we know.
And more ready to be found.
—Jim Somerville © 2022