Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
I was sitting around a table with a bunch of adults who had agreed to give up a week of their summer to take a group of youth on a mission trip to Raleigh, North Carolina. We had successfully made it to our site and as the kids were preparing to sleep, or at least pretending to, and the adults had to figure out where each kid would be working during the week, and what project they would focus on.
We ultimately decidedly to do it via a random lottery so that every person had a fair chance at any of the missional opportunities. One group would be spending most of the week working in a nursing home providing fellowship and entertainment for the residents. Another group would be doing simple carpentry for low income housing on the economically challenged side of town. And still yet another group would be responsible for keeping tabs on a group of younger kids through a very inexpensive summer camp program.
It took thirty minutes to separate all of the children appropriately, and as we prepared to leave the room the director informed us that we had omitted one important step in the process – we, as the adults, had to sign up for sites as well.
I, being the remarkably gifted, faithful, and holy pastor that I am, elected to pick last and was stuck with the glorified babysitting opportunity.
So the following morning I drove a large fan full of hormonal teenagers to meet with the program at a local museum. We were given very little instruction other than go inside, don’t lose anybody, and come back to the main entrance at 3pm. I decided to separate the more responsible teenagers and assigned groups of the camp participants to them, and then ended by striking the fear of God into them, “Do not lose any of your kids.”
And then I let them go.
Which, admittedly, was a big mistake.
Hours went by, I kept an eye on my little group and kept stepping on my tiptoes through all of the exhibits to see if I could see any of the other kids, many of whom I barely recognized from our brief encounter in the morning. And sure enough, when 3pm rolled around, a group of sweaty kids congregated by the main entrance, and I started a head count.
After I tapped every single head, I decided to start over again, just to be safe, and it was only after the third count that I had to admit the truth.
We were missing one kid.
I immediately interrogated all of the students on the mission trip and berated them for losing a child in their care, but the clock kept ticking, and we needed to get the kids back to their families, and we were still missing one kid.
I had a few choices:
Send all the kids back through the museum with the charge to find the one who was missing, at the rick of losing more.
Cut my losses and pretend like I didn’t know one was missing.
Or leave everyone behind to find the kid by myself.
Jesus predicts his passion for the second time, the Son of Man must be handed over, killed, and in three days rise again. And in response to the Lord’s declaration, the disciples enter into a lively discussion, what we might otherwise call a fight, about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God.
And why do they respond this way?
Because they’re idiots.
Jesus has just told them that he, the Lord of lords, Son of Man and Son of God, is going to die.
And they, apparently, can’t stand the idea of it, so they jump quickly to, “that’s fine and all, but how about we talk about who will be your next-in-command when you finally get the throne…”
Jesus then gives them one of the all time great theological punches: “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be last, whoever is the least among you will be the greatest.”
It’s like Jesus just wants these disciples to get it through their thick skulls, that the work of God in the world is done by losing and not by winning. God loves taking the least likely and making them the objects of transformation. God has a knack for making something out of nothing.
Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, we hate.
Maybe hate is too strong of a word. We can be on board with Jesus’ project of being with and for the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead. But then we struggle with the idea of labeling ourselves in any of those categories.
We, like the disciples before us, would rather be part of the first, the great, the found, the big, and the alive.
Think about it, even the way we practice religion is all about the myth of progress. We preach and teach a religion of “doing” and “earning” and “finding.”
We are consumed by what we consume, and what we consume most of all are these fabricated version of our possible future selves.
There’s a reason that self-help books are always at the top of the best-seller lists.
We are constantly works in progress.
Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to be better – it’s just that in spite of our desires for approval and change and growth, the work of the Lord remains steadfast.
Jesus saves losers and only losers.
He raises the dead and only the dead.
He finds the lost and only the lost.
The last, least, lost, little, and dead receive more of Jesus’ joy than all of the winners in the world.
And we can’t stand it.
And now we arrive at the parable.
What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?
I stood by the main entrance the museum with a cacophony of kids when I, reluctantly, decided to head back into the museum by myself to find the one who was lost. I strictly ordered the youth from the church to keep an eye on the rest of the group and prayed under my breath with every step that nothing would go wrong.
Within ten minutes I had combed most of the museum – I flew through all of the exhibits and the kid was nowhere. I started shouting his name and even asked a few strangers to help me look. I was honestly starting to lose hope when I passed by the gift shop and I saw the kid sitting on the floor in the corner flipping through a picture book.
I promptly picked him up and prepared to march back triumphantly toward the entrance, and that’s precisely when the fire alarm went off.
So we ran, along with everyone else to the nearest exist, on the opposite side of the museum and we walked around the building looking for the rest of our people and they were all gone.
That’s the thing about going off in pursuit of the one lost sheep – the only real result will be ninety-nine more lost sheep.
Ultimately, going off for the one is pretty bad advice. It puts everyone else at risk, and there’s no guarantee that any of them will be found in the end.
For me, it took the better part of another hour to round up everyone as they had dispersed in different directions when the fire alarm sounded. We were almost two hours late in terms of returning home, and I made a vow to leave the sheep finding business to Jesus.
This story, this parable, just like the rest of them, is strange – it points at something greater than the sum of its parts. The lost sheep declares, oddly enough, that we are saved in our lostness.
Unlike a novice pastor, even if a hundred sheep get lost it will not be a problem for our wonderfully weird Good Shepherd. Our Lord rejoices and is in the business of finding the lost.
And here’s maybe the craziest thing of all – the lost sheep does nothing to be found. No amount of good works, or faithful prayers, or money offerings, brings the Shepherd out into the wilderness. The sheep does nothing except hang around in its own lostness.
And to make things all the more prescient – a lost sheep, in all reality, is a dead sheep. Without the shepherd, the sheep has not a chance in the world.
We might love the idea of always doing more, or finding that one right book or list or program that will finally enable us to be who we are supposed to be. But the parable of the lost sheep is a deadly reminder for us that we need not do anything to get God to love us, or find us, or even forgive us.
God is determined to move before we do – Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.
It is our lostness that is our ticket into the dinner party of the Lamb.
The parables of Jesus, though they greatly vary in form and even in function, they do point again and again to the fact that God acts first and God acts definitively without conditions.
Well, there might be one condition, and if there is one it is this: we need only admit we are lost.
We’re all lost.
We’re lost in our ambitions, in our sins, we’re even lost in our faith. Last Saturday, a young man walked into a Synagogue and started shouting. He killed one and injured three others. And when these things happen, and they happen all too often, we are quick to point out how isolated the attacker was, or how damaging the ideology was that led to the violence. But this particular young man was a faithful Christian, he attended a Presbyterian church nearly every week.
His manifesto in defense of his actions against the Jews came from some of the theology he acquired in his church.
His is a radical example of lostness. It is extreme. And yet, all of us here, whether we want to admit it or not, are lost as well.
Which, paradoxically, is Good News. It is Good News because when God is given a world full of losers, a world full of people lost in our own journeys, lost in our own sins, that’s just fine. Lostness is what God is all about.
We may be determined to do whatever we do, we can try all we want to save ourselves, but it will largely only result in us becoming more lost. Thanks be to God then that the Lord’s determination will always exceed our own.
God is determined with an unshakable fervor, to raise the dead – to find the lost.
We can all be better, of course. And I don’t mean to knock self-help programs and books so much. But we are a people who have fallen for the greatest trap in the world and we believe, foolishly, that God is going to close the door in our faces unless we do enough.
We are a people moved by guilt.
When the truth is entirely different.
God isn’t waiting around for us to become the most perfect sheep.
If God is waiting for anything its for us to admit our lostness, that we are dead in our sins. Because when can see the condition of our condition, then we begin to experience the joy of having no power over ourselves to save ourselves or to convince anyone else that we are worth finding.
And even if we can’t admit how lost we are, the shepherd will look for and find us anyway. That’s kind of the whole point.
This beloved parable, and the image of Jesus returning to the fold with the one lost sheep over his shoulders, is but another reminder that our whole lives are forever out of our hands, that we really are dead, and that if we are to ever live again, it will only be because of the grace of a Shepherd named Jesus.
Who will never stop looking for us. Amen.