28 November 2010

Proper 24 C - The Lost Sheep

Proper 24 C - The lost sheep

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Hello, are you lost? It's remarkable how difficult it is for adults to admit that they are lost. We're taught in our society that you're supposed to be self-reliant, confidant, not needing help.

I should say, though that I might be only representing my own gender. I cannot count the number of times that my wife and I have been driving in the car and my wife will say something like, "I think we're lost." I will immediately respond with - "Oh no, it's just a little further down the road." We'll wait a while (maybe 10 minutes) and Katherine will say, "why don't we stop and ask for directions." For some reason, such action is almost considered unthinkable at the first suggestion. "No need", I'll say, "It must be just around the next curve."

Katherine seems to go along with popular woman's theory that it's a male thing. You know, it's an X -Y chromosome thing. Everyone knows that the male Y chromosome is shorter than the X chromosome. We'll the bit that's missing is the little common-sense gene which lets you know when it is time to stop and ask for directions!

We hate admitting we are lost. Men, anyway, and I really think women too, want to be stronger than the image of the lost. Jesus tells the story of the lost, and of how God responds to the lost. Remember that he is speaking to the Pharisees who question Jesus association with outcasts and sinners. Jesus hung around with the undesireables of society. We don't get the shock value that the people of Jesus' time did. Imagine Jesus hanging out with the crack dealers and the prostitutes and dope heads in any big city. The Pharisees were affronted by that. What a poor example. We would be too. I would.

So Jesus asks: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until you find it (Luke 15: 4)?"

Of course the quick answer, if you think of it is none of us. Using common sense, it would be a stupid thing to do. The shepherd's livelihood would be much more at risk by leaving the 99 than by losing one. The point of the story is that no right‑minded shepherd would leave the flock for the sake of one sheep. "One can recoup the loss of one sheep, but the loss of 99 sheep, left to fend for themselves in the wilderness would bespeak economic disaster for the shepherd."

Or what woman would turn her house upside down for a coin, and then throw a party for all her friends just because she has found it? Surely the cost of the party would outstrip the value of the coin? Where is the logic in this?

Not one of these parables make sense according to our standards of logic. In the parables, relationships are inverted and worlds are unmade. The lost one is valued even more highly than the many who never strayed. The sinner is welcomed and the righteous are admonished.

Theologian William Capon notes that it would be very likely that the 99 sheep who were left without a shepherd would get lost themselves. "All to the good", he says, "Because Jesus can't do anything for anyone, except the lost." Maybe the point that Jesus is trying to make is not only that God seeks after the lost and not the self-righteous, but also that we need to realize our own lostness. Maybe being lost is the state in we find ourselves when we know that we're not self-reliant and strong, but we are in need of God for our guidance, indeed our very life. Getting lost is not

undesireable, but it is a necessary step in approaching God.

Now before you all go home and tell everyone that your new priest told you to get lost. Let us realize that getting lost isn't the end in itself. Realizing our lostness is so that we can come to be found, and set on the right path. I think this can and does happen many times in our Christian journey, so that we must always be ready to admit our lostness. But there is a reason for being lost and being found.

In The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor says that "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?"

Some scholars say that the two parables are meant to lead us to the next parable in the Gospel (the prodigal son) where the son does repent and return home to his father. Others say that Jesus was making the parables up as he went and didn't worry about whether all the logical connections were made. And still others that Jesus left them open‑ended for us to figure them out for ourselves and the explanations were added later by editors to make sure that we wouldn't misunderstand them. But another possibility exists. The possibility that they aren't about lost sheep and lost coins are parables about good shepherds and diligent sweepers.

Taylor says that, "If you are willing to be a shepherd ‑ then the story begins to sound different. The accent in what Jesus says falls on a different syllable. 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."

I think we need to be both the lost and the seeker. Being lost and found and seeking the lost is the life-cycle of the individuals in a Christian community. The community - our Parish - our Diocese - our Communion - our faith is what holds we individuals together in these tasks of faith. The first step for each of us is, as my wife always suggests, to stop and ask directions. Amen.

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