Sometimes Jesus asks a question, in the Gospels, and if you’re actually listening, the only thing you can think is “What on earth are you talking about?” To me, today is one of those days. “Which one of you,” he says, “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?”
Wait, what? Who leaves 99 sheep on their own in the wilderness to go after one lone sheep that wandered away somewhere? I’ll tell you who: Nobody. Every single one of us would do the math and make the smart decision to cut our losses. Nobody’s going to leave 99 sheep on their own in the wilderness. You’ve got to think about protecting your investment. Sure, you might get the one sheep back, but in the meantime 17 others have wandered off and fallen into a ravine. That is a net loss of 16 sheep. Not best practices!
Who will leave the 99 to seek the 1? Nobody. Because you can’t count on the 99 to take care of themselves. The 99 will keep wandering off. Nobody will take that big a risk for just one sheep, except this God Jesus wants so badly for us to know. God will not do the math and write even one of us off. He will not say “As long as the numbers are solid, percentage wise, that satisfies me.” No, he looks right at every single person and says: “I want him. I want her. That one.”
And what's more, that one sheep is really all hundred sheep. God knows that all sheep wander, not just one. He knows that there’s no such thing as a sheep that gets itself permanently found, fixed inside the fold never to change again, as if once you were in the in-group you’re set. He always has to be looking for all of us. If any of those sheep, from #1 to #99 to #6 to #32 and all the rest, are going to be found, it’s up to him every single time, and he never gets tired of finding us over and over again.
There’s no such thing as a sheep that gets itself permanently found: In the pictorial language Jesus is using, there’s just a sheep for whom God has taken the responsibility for their foundness. Sheep by definition wander; God by definition is the One who takes responsibility for finding them.
And in the obvious application of the parable to us, the flock, there’s no such thing as a person who gets themselves definitively found, either, just a person who has let God take the responsibility for their foundness. We wander off, we miss the point, we don’t read scripture for days on end, we forget to ask for God’s input when we have a decision to make, through a crisis or in prayer we discover a whole part of our being that has never gotten found in the first place – it goes on and on, and the longer you are on a journey with Christ the more wanderings and lostness you discover in yourself. And the more grateful you become that we have a God who always takes the initiative to look for us, and can be trusted to find us over and over if we’re even a little willing to let him do it. As we sang on the way in: “Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, and yet in love he sought me, and on his shoulders gently laid and home rejoicing brought me.”
If you read the Mini-Messenger you know that I was in Chicago a couple of weeks ago getting a consult for some shoulder problems I’ve been having. I came out of the appointment so relieved to have a definite plan. I’d been praying for that, but once I had it, I went into complete secular control mode: “I’m going to do the therapy, and I need to get someone to handle this thing and the other thing, and now I’ll email the vestry…” and so on and so forth. And it didn’t hit me until some hours later, when God managed to find me again, that my primary identity is not as a person who manages my world, but as a Christian. Had I been living out of my primary identity in Christ, the thing that would have flowed out of that identity would have been to express thanks to God, trust in God, surrender to his will and mindfulness of his presence. But I wasn’t. I was acting out of a whole different identity. Perverse and foolish oft we stray!
It’s because of that that the author of 1 Timothy today is so careful to say, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost.” Not “was.” It’s not as if he was a sinner, but that’s over now and he’s permanently set as one of the good guys. “Sinners, of whom I am the foremost” -- still, now, wandering away at the drop of a hat but still constantly sought and claimed by a God who will never give up on his determination to find me and show me my true identity in Christ and bring me home rejoicing.”
Because of the fact that we are (not were) wanderers, we are (not were) sinners, we are (not were) constantly predisposed to turn everything to ourselves – because of all that, the flock, the Church will never have it all figured out. We will only be fully whole when God’s New Heavens and New Earth come. You might know the Roman Catholic priest Andrew Greeley’s old adage: Find a perfect church, and then you join it, and it won’t be perfect anymore. Nearly every parish, including this one, can point to times in its history where things got difficult because, surprise, its clergy and people are all sinners. We sheep are always prone to decide that heading over there, next to that deep rocky ravine, sounds like a really excellent idea.
If it were our responsibility to create a flock, our responsibility to get ourselves in good with God, the entire enterprise of being a Christian community would be over before it began. But fortunately, it’s not. As Jesus tells us here, in authentic spiritual life God is the hero of every story. He is the one who, eventually, we have to let take responsibility.
Look at how Jesus depicts things in this Gospel about the lost coin and the woman, or the lost sheep and the shepherd. The Christian message is not about a coin that somehow picks itself up off the floor and painstakingly makes its way back to the woman. It’s not about a sheep that does the laborious work of pulling itself up by its own bootstraps and organizing the feeding schedule. It’s about a God who knows your lostness, and desires your foundness, and will dog your steps until he gets your attention and you let him pick you up and bring you home rejoicing.
And as he so generously seeks us, half the time we’re staring out the window, ambling down to the ravine, swiping left in search of a better option, taking measurements for the next golden calf. But God just keeps on seeking us. We sheep are not reliable, but Jesus our shepherd is. If what we ultimately rest our weight on is God and his initiative to make us his and transform us into the kind of people who would live the way he describes, it makes all the human fallibility and all the change that is an inevitable part of life easier. Not easy, but easier.
Things change outside us and inside us all the time. Certainly in society. Today is the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks; some of you were children or teens then, but for those of you who remember living through that day as an adult, just think what a different world we live in now. And certainly in the church. Clergy change, laity change, demographics change, the culture we’re called to serve has changed dramatically in just the past ten years. We change. And if we try to make our own selves, with our own preferences and our own goals, our ultimate resting place, all that change will eventually kill us, because you and I can’t bear that weight.
But God can, and has, and does, and will. If what we ultimately rest our weight on is God and his determination to find us and make us his, if we let him take the responsibility for where we stand with him and what the story of our lives means, then we will be found by him over and over and over. And the church will be renewed in him over and over and over. And he will be the hero of the story, which is exactly what he deserves to be. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.