PROPER 19, C
The gospel message today retelling two of the three parables contained in what is affectionately known as the “Lost Chapter” suffers the curse of familiarity. Although not woven so deeply into our mental fabric as the following story of the Prodigal son, the parable of the Good Shepherd is only slightly less well worn in our consciousness – so familiar we stand in danger of missing its meaning entirely.
“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?”
Well of course a shepherd would go after his lost sheep. Wait a minute, what? Leave 99 in the wilderness? Alone. No shepherd.
Nobody, Jesus. Not one of us. No one in his right mind would leave 99 frightened, defenseless, leaderless sheep to get scattered and eaten by wolves while he chased down the one sheep too clueless to stay with the flock. Nobody leaves behind 99% of their net worth to chase after 1%. No one leaves the 99. Except Jesus does…
“what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not …, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” That makes sense. More homes have been more thoroughly cleaned in the cause of finding lost keys or glasses or papers or phones or God-knows-what than in perhaps any other cause. “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors” She throws a party – a party which likely cost the entirety of the coin she lost if not 2 such coins. Jesus…yeah. um. That’s insane, completely upside-down. Not to mention it’ll mess up the house worse than it was before. Nobody does that. Except Jesus. Jesus does that.
The Rev. Charles H Spurgeon, a renowned preacher in the 1800’s boiled down today’s Gospel message to this, “This man receiveth sinners”. I say boiled down – he goes on, “By that term we, in common parlance, understand everybody. It is in the present day quite fashionable for everybody to lie against what he believes, and to say he is a sinner, even when he believes himself to be a very respectable, well-to-do man, and does not conceive that he ever did anything very amiss in his life. It is a sort of orthodox confession for men to make, …They have no true apprehension that they are sinners at all.”
The good reverend goes on boiling down for another 7,000 words or so, but it amounts to this – if you are perfect, this message is not for you. If you are lost: if you know something about emptiness and visceral fear; about the restlessness of not-quite-right; about the choking squeeze of innate untouchability, about an artificiality surrounding your carefully constructed walls of respectability; if you are lost, Jesus leaves no corner unswept, no couch cushion unturned, no bluff unsearched – looking for you, rejoicing for love of you.
So today we hear stories of redemption – stories that put us on guard against our self-righteous, pharisee, rule following, status protecting selves and urge us fall into the searching, loving arms of Christ our Shepherd admitting our lostness turning our lives around. Yes. or…no. Could they perhaps invite us to become the loving arms of Christ in the world today?
In The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor claims “The parables are full of problems, not the least of which is they don’t seem to mean what Jesus says they mean. According to his explanations, they’re about heaven’s joy over one repentant sinner, but the lost sheep does not repent as far as I can tell and the lost coin certainly doesn’t. They are both simply found ‑ not because either of them does anything right, but because someone is determined to find them and does. They are restored thanks to God’s action, not their own, so where does repentance come in at all?”
Taylor says that, “If you are willing to be a shepherd ‑ then the story begins to sound different. …Repentance is not the issue, but rejoicing; the plot is not about amending our evil ways but about seeking, sweeping, finding, rejoicing. The invitation is not about being rescued by Jesus over and over again, but about joining him in rounding up God’s herd and recovering God’s treasure. It is about questioning the idea that there are certain conditions the lost must meet before they are eligible to be found, or that there are certain qualities they must exhibit before we will seek them out. It is about trading in our high standards on a strong flashlight and swapping our ‘good examples’ for a good broom. It is about discovering the joy of finding.”
Neil White was a businessman living well with his wife and kids. He lived well until he was convicted of bank fraud and sentenced to serve 18 months in a minimum-security prison in Carville, Louisiana. Carville housed not only minimum security prisoners, but also the last few living victims of Hanson’s disease, leprosy, in the US.
When Mr. White arrived at the prison he saw a man with no fingers, a woman with no legs, people with all variety of disfigurements of limbs and face – 130 or so souls marked with the ravages of leprosy. He was terrified, initially, then gradually filled with righteous anger at the enforced isolation these prisoners suffered. “I found myself standing in front of a woman who had been in prison for 67 years because she had contracted a disease. I was going to be there for less than a year for mishandling over a million dollars.”
A couple weeks before White’s release, the leprosy patients had a dance. A woman he had become close to asked him to the dance. White recalls, “the band started up, and I pushed Ella around the perimeter of the dance floor in her wheelchair. And I would push her the length of the dance floor and then back again, and spin her around in circles. And she would put her arms in the air, and it looked as if she were flying. … It was as close to dancing as we would ever have.
After dancing with Ella around the side of the ballroom, Smeltzer (ph), a leprosy patient who didn’t like [the inmates] … very much, he pointed to me and to two other inmates, and pointed what was left of his index finger and said you’re not invited. No inmates at our party.” The band stopped and the talking and the laughter stopped. The inmates turned to go. One of the other inmates turned to White as they slunk quietly away and broke the silence, “My God, did we just get kicked out of a leper dance?” (NPR interview, Snap Judgement)
We are lost and we are found, leper and prisoner, outcast and host. We can rest secure in the arms of our shepherd and still we can help the lame to dance, the prisoner to be free. We can be co-creators of love in this world (paraphrased from Fr. Richard Rohr), sweeping every corner for the lost, the lonely, the frightened – and all this because of the crazy, mixed up, insane, upside down abundance of life and joy that is God among us. Amen.