I spoke briefly last week about my children – I have three. They are all grown. My baby, about whom I am going to tell you more this morning, is now 30. The story about him I want to tell will horrify some – let me just assure you everything turned out just fine. I don’t mean to let myself off light in this story, but the other principal character is Sue Rothmeyer, who was just elected the ELCA’s Secretary at the August Churchwide Assembly.
Caleb, my baby, was with me at the ELCA Youth Gathering in St Louis, I think it was 1995 or 96. I was working the Gathering, so he was just sort of along for the ride. We were in the Interaction Center, which is this area about the size of five Walmart’s. There are hundreds of displays and activities; and thousands of kids running around. Caleb was with Sue. He was with Sue till he saw something shinny over there, and sort of wondered off. Frantic; Sue searched. She found me before she found Caleb. “I have lost your son.” Was all she could say to me.
Our connections with folks higher up the authority ladder allowed us to gain access to the public address system. Caleb did not hear the announcement, but some youth leader from Minnesota did. She approached this little boy near her and asked, “Is your name Caleb?” When she insisted he come with her, he was a bit indignant – still is to this day. “I was in the middle of making this really cool shrinky-dink necklace.” he replied.
The sheep which is lost in today’s Gospel reading was not a child. But the significance of that sheep to the shepherd may need to be held in very high regard. Shepherds were held accountable for the sheep under their charge. Losing one could place the shepherd in peril. Replacing the lost sheep (which was the common practice) might mean giving up the sheep intended to be his family’s food supply.
While I had some pretty strong assurances that my son would be found – he was after all in the company of 12,000 Lutheran Church Youth and youth leaders - shepherds in and around Jerusalem had little reason for such hope. Countless ravines and crevices made searching impossible. Jackals, and wolfs, and unemployed hungry shepherds were everywhere. The search had to be undertaken; but it was most often futile.
The Gospel text has two such searches. The other is of a woman who has lost a coin. Commentators are split as to the relative importance of the one lost coin to this woman. Is the lost coin 1/10th of her entire life savings? Or does the fact she has 10 coins lying around, in a house which seems to own, suggest that she is abundantly blessed with many, but still treasures the one.
In both cases, there is a celebration with the lost is found. And in both instances, the extravagance of the celebration may have exceeded the actual value of that which was initially lost.
In these stories, we are most often inclined to see God in the shepherd or the woman. It is clear that the celebration is akin to heavenly rejoicing at the return of one who comes once more into the fellowship of God’s people. This is the conclusion Jesus himself draws in the passage. But every now and then we need to pause and examine how we are inclined to see things and ask if there is something more here for us to see.
One of the things I would like for us to see is the most common trait shared by my 7-year-old son at the youth gathering, the sheep and the coin. None of these bear any responsibility for becoming lost. The reason you hire a shepherd is because sheep have no homing device. They move from the piece of grass they just ate to the next one they can see. Coins can roll great distances before they lie flat on their side. But they don’t jump off the counter on their own, or crawl out of a purse.
Appropriately, then, in these stories Jesus tells, there is no confession, or remorse, or repentance when the sheep or the coin are located. It wasn’t their failing which had created the crisis.
We need to be able to hear this truth. Jesus’ parable needs to imprint on us a pattern of rejoicing when one who was lost is found. The celebration of the shepherd and the woman have everything to do with their mistakes and no errors can be attributed to the little lamb or the shiny coin.
This is a very difficult path to follow to its conclusion. It is upsetting and even disturbing to suggest that if God is the woman who rejoices or the shepherd who carries the lamb back to the fold, then God may also need to be seen as the one who must absorb the guilt associated with their having become lost in the first place. I am not following this very difficult path to its conclusion in order to blame God; but I do want to preach to who is here today, and those who are here today are more likely to be those whose role it is to receive back the one who was lost. We need to learn to see them the way God sees them. And we can never blame them, in the same way that Jesus’ story does not blame them.
And while I am at it – let me go ahead and tell you that I despise referring to persons as “lost”. I almost have to use the designation in order to keep this sermon from being 45 minutes long. But if we are going to refer to those who don’t come to church or don’t follow the way of Jesus as “lost”, then let’s make sure we understand they didn’t get that way without a tremendous amount of neglect and mistakes on our part.
The Lord, or God, has appointed shepherds because he knows how easily the sheep wander off. The Lord, our God, has spoken of his heartbreak when the shepherds fall short. He is the Good Shepherd. He has also taught us how to shepherd. And when we don’t do our job and he is the one who has to go out looking for one of his precious little lambs – heck yeah he hosts a celebration when the one who should have never been allowed to slip away is back where they belong.
I have no interest in blaming God or finding fault with God over those who may have become lost. I have a deep interest in asserting that those who were appointed to serve as God’s agents may bear some of the guilt and shame when the coin is misplaced. God is great at taking into himself the failings of others. The Church isn’t as good at it. We – the community which bears the name and image of Jesus – are not always standing ready to celebrate the return of the lost sheep/coin. In far too many instances, we stand and wait for them to acknowledge their transgressions and to confess their failings. It really bothers me when I begin to think that any such expectations may be rooted in a desire for self-serving affirmation that we were the good child.
Are we that fragile in our relationship with God that we need a wounded and hungry returning sheep look up to us and assure us that we are exactly what Jesus wanted all along? God forgive us.
You know someone who has become separated from the flock. You can probably name half a dozen coins which have rolled and rolled and may still be rolling out of sight. Hear the message in today’s gospel lesson for you. It is teaching you about a God who takes responsibility for the vulnerable and for the lost. The Gospel is all about a God who is extremely short on shame and guilt but overflowing with grace and welcome. Make sure, in all of your interactions, that you model this behavior pattern lifted up by Jesus.