Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | March 27, 2022
It was a warm summer day in Clarion, Iowa. My children were at the town swimming pool cooling off. I was tending to my work in the church office. In those days I was a member of the local fire department. We carried pagers and when there was a call out, the page would emit a loud alarm and the dispatcher would announce the emergency.
It happened that day – The sheriff needs the fire department at a residence on Lake Cornelia, three miles east of town – a four-year-old child has gone missing.
It’s the stuff of nightmares – losing a child – a child gone missing.
We arrived at the scene. Police from various forces were there. Other volunteers were showing up. We gathered for a strategy session. The girl’s mother was there. Her daughter had been taking a nap in her room and when she checked on her, she was gone. She called out and searched and couldn’t find her. She called the police. She was frantic.
We began a methodical search. Starting with the house. I and a few other searchers went in the house and looked in every room, in every closet, and under every bed. Then we joined those who were fanning out into the neighbouring houses and gardens.
In looking for a lost four-year-old you leave no stone unturned. But as much as we looked, we could not find her. A grim reality began to set in. There was the water. She could be in the water. We waded into the water and began searching along the shoreline. Looking into boats, looking under docks.
A grim reality began to set in. After an hour or so we began focusing more on the water. The dragging gear was brought out. A long metal bar with hooks on it attached to a chain. We would start dragging the lake.
By this time the girl’s mother was in a state of shock. What just a couple of hours before been a typical summer day had turned into an unimaginable nightmare. Her friends and relatives were gathered round.
And just about that time probably about the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen happened. The missing girl appeared beside her mother and said, “Mommy, why are you crying? What are all these people doing here?”
She had been inside the house the whole time. She had crawled under a bed, pulled an inflated air mattress over herself and had fallen fast asleep next to the wall. I myself had looked under that bed, as had others. We saw what looked like a bunch of junk piled under there. Not a child sleeping under an air mattress.
There is really no way to describe the mother’s reaction. She had come face to face with the worst possible reality and in an instant, it changed into the best possible outcome.
Jesus said his mission in life was to find lost people. He told stories about things being lost and found. These stories called parables were a way of opening up people’s imagination to see God in a whole new way. New, as in seeing God as not being a harsh taskmaster demanding an impossible standard of perfection; but in seeing God as a force of love that continually seeks out the hearts and minds of people to bring them into unity with that love.
Some folks naturally did not want to see God in such a radical way. They were the keepers of tradition and the holders of truth. In the time of Jesus, they were religious leaders known as Pharisees and scribes. They weren’t bad people. They were just so deep into the system of their religion, that they had lost touch (if they had ever had it) with the spirit of their religion. And like people of every religious system who worship the rules and lose touch with the spirit, they thought God was contained within the limits of their belief.
The Pharisees and the scribes who were entangled in the system of their religion were angry that Jesus wasn’t playing by the rules. One of their complaints was that he “welcomed sinners.” They too “welcomed sinners,” but there were conditions attached. Sinners had to be made clean before they were acceptable to God. They had to follow the rules and then God would open the door and let them in – when God’s representatives said it was time to do so.
Jesus didn’t set any ground rules for tax collectors and sinners. He ate with them and associated with them. He drank with them. They listened to him and he listened to them. In the view of the rule-keepers, Jesus was just as unclean by association and thus just like the tax collectors and sinners. Even more frustrating was that their view of Jesus seemed just fine to Jesus.
3So he told them this parable: 4‘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?
Which one of us? How about none of us. It would not be good shepherding practice to leave the flock in danger to go traipsing around looking for one lost sheep. Sure, it’s too bad that sheep have become lost, but sometimes they do. Where do you start looking? How long do you search? If you leave the flock unattended then they are at risk from any number of predators. You might come back to a decimated flock. Some lost sheep just have to stay lost.
But what might Jesus be trying to say about God’s realm in the story of a shepherd who doesn’t follow sound shepherding practices?
Perhaps that God doesn’t follow the rules of conventional wisdom, or conventional religious wisdom. Perhaps that even one lost soul is a loss too dear.
There is an underlying message that the people listening to Jesus would have picked up because of their social and religious context. In ancient times there was the practice of the scapegoat. The goat upon which the sins of the community would be placed before casting it out into the wilderness.
Perhaps the people listening to Jesus could identify with the scapegoat. Sinners and unclean by common religious standards. Labeled that way by the rule-keepers. And as long as there are scapegoats, the righteous can rest easy. If you can point to someone who is unclean, then you aren’t so bad by comparison.
In God’s realm, there are no scapegoats; no one cast into the wilderness of shame serving as the repository of other people’s guilt.
Did Jesus tell the story as if the sheep did something in order to be lost? Did he tell of how the sheep managed to work its way back into the flock? No and no. The shepherd never said, “You’re going to have to be a better lamb from now on.” The shepherd hoisted the sheep on his shoulders and carried it back to the flock – rejoicing at finding that which had been lost.
And then he went on to add another angle to the story. A woman loses a coin, one of ten. That equation is a less affordable loss than one of a hundred. She searches diligently – she lights a lamp to look in all the corners – she sweeps out all the nooks and crannies.
The difference is that while the sheep is lost somewhere out there, the coin is lost somewhere in the house. She knows it’s there somewhere – it’s not gone – it’s just misplaced. But she’ll find it if it’s the last thing she does.
Perhaps there were people listening to Jesus who could identify with the lost coin story. Sure, maybe they weren’t outcasts like the tax collectors and the unclean sinners. But in their heart of hearts they didn’t feel at home in the community. Always facing reminders of how in some way they never measured up to the standard of good enough. Maybe it wasn’t always visible on the outside because they were part of the fine and upstanding community. But inside they knew different. Not good enough and never will be.
They knew what it was to roll off into the secret corners. The closets of hidden shame. The closets of untold secrets.
But God is a God of searching out. Lighting the lamp to do away with the secret corners. Throwing open the closet doors. Sweeping up everything, the dust and the bugs and the occasional lost coin. One of ten, yes – too valuable to let go. One of ten – belonging as part of a set.
Yes, some knew what he was talking about. Where it might be the simple thing to just slip off to the side and stay hidden, it was not to be done in God’s realm. Everybody belonged. When the coin was found, like the shepherd finding the lost sheep, the woman called her friends to join in the celebration.
In the realm of God that Jesus revealed, such things are a cause for celebration. A mere coin or lamb is an easy write-off in the harsh economy of the world. So too is the write off of human beings when they fall into the categories of outcast or scapegoat. But in God’s realm, no one is mere – everyone is dear.
If there is joy in heaven when one sinner repents, then what is repentance?
The rule keepers who grumbled at his welcome of tax collectors and sinners would probably have it as crawling through the path of remorse and eating the dust of shame. They might be heard to say, “We can’t associate with just anybody! We have to have some standards. What good are the rules then?”
Perhaps as Jesus told the story, repentance from being lost is simply to be found. To realize that God will go to great lengths to search you out because you are too valuable to be lost.
To repent then is to turn around and simply live into the reality of God’s love.
Repentance then is to embrace our relationship with God. I once was lost, but now am found. It is like being carried on the shoulders of the shepherd; it is like being held in the loving security of one who treasures you. Amen.