A sermon preached on September 12th, 2010 based upon Luke 15:1 – 8.
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘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 people who need no repentance.
Two weeks ago I mentioned in my sermon the distressing news item regarding the fundamentalist pastor in Florida who was intending to burn Qurans yesterday at ground zero in New York City. For weeks the story became increasingly disheartening, tempting many of us to despair: This nut cake seemed intent on putting our troops in danger as he provided a rallying cry in the recruitment of Islamic extremists intent on doing violence to Americans. I deeply resented the fact that this guy was giving both Americans and Christians a bad name.
Strangely, mysteriously, the story evolved in the last couple of days into something hopeful, and I’m referring to more than the fact that the guy was persuaded to give up his plan to burn Qurans.
In a time of deep division within our country typified by the controversy over the plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero, a striking consensus gathered momentum in relationship to this attention-seeking-nut cake. Regardless of the disagreements we might have in regard to the policies our country should embrace, we were undeniably unified in rejecting the course this pastor represented.
And for those of us living under the great umbrella of “the Church” where there is often disagreement regarding what it means to be Christian in a world of multiple religions, there was an extraordinary consensus among Christians that this guy was not a good example of what it means to follow Jesus.
In a strange way, the nut cake provided us with an opportunity to recognize that there is more that unifies us than separates us. As Americans and as Christians we were appalled by the intolerance and the violently provocative actions of this pastor. There may well be some extremist Muslims who provide the mirror image of the Florida Pastor’s attitude, but we are united in our desire to reach for higher ground.
Even as I heard no one applauding the pastor’s plans, equally remarkable was the fact that there were no calls for the government to step in and forcibly stop the guy from giving voice to his opinions, a common occurrence in countless other countries facing similar situations. When all is said and done, we truly do believe in freedom, as unseemly as freedom sometimes can be. We also believe wherever possible in living peaceably with our neighbors.
In that surprising way Scripture has of speaking to the changing circumstances of our lives, I heard this morning’s familiar Gospel story in a new way through the lens provided by this news item.
What I mean is this: the ninety-nine sheep in Jesus’ parable have a consensus of a sort. They agree about how to behave. They are unified in not straying off. So here is the odd parallel of the parable to the news item: The nut cake pastor in Florida essentially plays the part of the one lost sheep with the rest of us being the ninety-nine who are in agreement.
The question that Jesus specifically raises at the outset of the parable is: what should be done about the one sheep that is out of step with the other ninety-nine?
‘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?”
I suspect that the way Jesus stated the question would have come across as something of a joke to his listeners. The answer seems obvious: none of us would go after the lost sheep! The common sense thing to do would be to give up on the one wayward sheep and stick with the ninety-nine sheep who are, after all, in the wilderness themselves.
Enter the humble Muslim imam from Florida who went out of his way to visit the nut cake pastor in an effort to persuade him to forsake his destructive path. Listening to this imam speak on television, I was struck by what he had to say about what he hoped to accomplish by personally visiting the pastor. Specifically, he wanted to provide the pastor with a human face with which to relate. He recognized, with which seemed like significant measure of compassion, that the pastor was intensely angry towards Muslims, and that this was understandable in light of the violence done on September 11, 2001 by certain Muslims. So the imam wanted to give the pastor an actual flesh and blood Muslim to vent his anger towards.
I suspect the imam recognized the desire we humans have to be left alone in our anger. You know what I mean. We try to shield our anger so we can allow it to remain hot and vengeful. We want to hold onto the illusion that our anger is righteous and holy and so we don’t want to be exposed to anything that might oblige us to let go of some of our anger.
We human beings however, are endlessly complex, a mixture of darkness and light, of sin and grace. Enter into relationship with another human being and over time you will surely encounter both sides. Drawn by the light, we will inevitably encounter darkness as well, and it is this that stirs up our anger.
But our righteous anger – which is actually unrighteous anger –doesn’t want to acknowledge that there is anything other than darkness in the other, nor that there is darkness within us as well.
So, the news item of the imam’s visit to the pastor became a peculiar re-enactment of Jesus’ parable, with the Muslim playing the part of the good shepherd and the Christian that of the lost sheep. Or to put it another way, in this instance, it was the imam from Florida who acted most Christ-like, reaching out to the man who, at that moment, was American’s most notorious sinner.
We are accustomed to thinking of shepherds as “good.” In the Old Testament we hear of the shepherd boy David protecting his sheep from lions with his slingshot, and the beloved 23rd psalm attributed to him in which God’s love and protection is compared to that of a shepherd’s care for his sheep. What we may overlook is the fact that by the time Jesus was born, shepherds had developed a pretty bad reputation, comparable to the way Gypsies have often been viewed in recent centuries. They were seen as wandering thieves and cheats lurking off in the shadows.
Consequently, on the lips of Jesus the parable of the good shepherd resembles another parable he told in Luke’s Gospel, that of the good Samaritan. To Jesus’ original listeners, a shepherd as a hero would have been as unexpected as a Samaritan hero.
Until I reread this story this week, I never noticed a particular detail in the first two verses of our reading. It describes how the sinners and tax collectors were drawing near to Jesus specifically to “listen to him.” The scribes and Pharisees who witness this become angry – in their minds, righteously angry – over the fact that Jesus is welcoming these sinners and eating with them. The scribes and Pharisees overlook the fact that they were listening to him.
This strikes me as significant because a real relationship provides the opportunity to look into the eyes of another person, listen to where her or she is coming from, and to be changed by the encounter. But the scribes and Pharisees prefer the idol of righteous anger to the transforming power of real relationship.
So let’s hear it for people willing to sit down together in a sincere attempt to get to know one another. It’s the sort of thing that Jesus was constantly involved in doing.
This parable of the good shepherd is one of my lodestars. It speaks of a hope we can hold onto in the darkest hours. The precise wording of the parable is important: It declares that the shepherd goes into “the wilderness” in search of “the one that is lost until he finds it.”
The word “if” does not appear in the verse. We don’t know how long it will take for the lost sheep to be found, but the assurance is given that the lost will be found.
The living parable of the Muslim Imam and the nutcake Christian pastor points to the mysterious presence of the Good shepherd who is out there – where? In the wilderness — the place where we often find ourselves living — searching, searching, with no intention of ever giving up.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
The seduction of “righteous anger” can not separate us from the love of God; eventually, the parable promises, we will surrender the obstacle of this idol, no matter how attached we may be to it.
Those souls that lost their life on earth on September 11th 2001, they were not lost to God.
When the powers of darkness seem to have won the victory – when, for instance, someone succumbs to despair and depression, taking their own life – our parable declares the Good Shepherd will not give up the search for the soul that has been cast down, and that he will indeed be found.
In the end the shepherd raises the newly found sheep up on his shoulders, calls to all his neighbors — all the angels in heaven — to sing and dance, and especially laugh, for indeed the lost will be found.