I have a small notebook that I carry around with me almost everywhere I go. In it, I keep ideas for new software applications, new business ideas, my rantings and ravings, sermon ideas, and personal thoughts. Most of what I write in this notebook is very personal to me, and something I consider extremely important.
So, you can imagine my shock when one day I discovered that my notebook was not in it’s assigned pocket in my backpack. The first thing I did was empty the entire backpack to make sure that I hadn’t shoved the notebook into one of the other pockets. When I couldn’t find it in any of the other pockets, I began tearing through all my other bags and backpacks, making sure I hadn’t accidentally stuck it in one of the pockets of those bags.
When none of those bags held my notebook, I started burrowing through the car, checking under the seats, in the glove box, the center console, all to find nothing. Then came the house, checking all around the desk, under the bed, behind the other books on the bookshelf, but again, not finding anything.
Still not having found anything, I started making lists of all the places I had visited recently and had had the notebook with me, hoping that one of these places might have found the notebook and kept it aside, only to find out that no one had seen it.
Then came the moments of defeat, where I had to assume that I had well and truly lost this notebook and I needed to just let it all go. Only to jump up moments later to “check just one more spot.” I had absolute drive and determination, and absolute clarity of purpose, and a single-minded devotion to the task at hand, which was finding that which was lost.
Obviously, when today’s scripture came up about the good shepherd leaving the 99 sheep in the wilderness to seek out and find the 1 sheep who was lost, I immediately thought about this lost notebook of mine, and realized that the good shepherd would have such absolute determination to find the one sheep that was lost – in fact, he would have even more determination than I did.
What’s interesting about this parable of the lost sheep in the Gospel of Luke is that it is tied together with two other parables: one of a woman who has lost a silver coin, and one of a lost son, a parable normally referred to as the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Separately, each of these parables talks about redemption, but taken together in a series, these parables highlight both God’s actions toward us, and our reactions to that love.
Let’s look first at the parable of the lost sheep. Here we find that one sheep out of a hundred has left the fold and gone missing. And the Good Shepherd leaves the 99 other sheep and goes off and searches for the lost sheep with single-minded devotion and with such an absolute clarity of purpose that my little search for the notebook pales in comparison.
Now, because of the end of the parable, we know that the lost sheep refers to a “sinner.”
“Sinner” usually refers to someone who simply has not understood the concept of God and Christ, and not accepted that Christ is the lamb of God, the savior of mankind, and the redeemer of the world.
“Sinner” usually someone who has determined that there is no real need for repentance, and no need to call upon Christ for salvation because they refuse to see that sin even exists.
“Sinner” usually someone who has rejected the understanding that Christ is the answer to the problem of sin, and the path to purification between man and God.
“Sinner” usually refers to someone who has rejected Christ and everything that Christ stands for.
But despite this utter rejection of the Good Shepherd by the lost sheep, the Good Shepherd still seeks out that lost sheep with such a single-minded devotion and absolute clarity of focus until the sheep is found and returned to the fold.
This is how much the Good Shepherd (God) loves every one, and desires that they return to the fold.
Stop and think for a moment – do you feel that love? Do you feel that God is seeking you out with that much single-minded determination and devotion? I hope you do, because we know that each of us continues to sin, and repeatedly needs God to come find us and bring us back to the fold.
I think something else that is important to notice that this parable says nothing about which sin is the offending sin. In fact, it says nothing about sin, except that God rejoices when a “sinner” is found and returned to the fold. In other words, God cares nothing about the sin that is involved in the straying of the sheep. Instead, he cares only that the “sinner” has repented and returned to the fold, which causes much rejoicing among the angels in heaven. In fact, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who has repented than over 99 righteous who need not repentance…
The reason I find this important is because of the parable that follows this one. The parable that follows immediately after the story of the lost sheep is of a woman who has lost a coin out of ten. This coin is incredibly important to this woman, and just like my frantic search for my notebook this woman tore apart her house to find that coin, and once she found the coin she called together her friends to rejoice with her.
And again, the parable concludes with “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
This clearly indicates that this parable too is about seeking out the “lost” the “sinner.” But what is different about this parable is that it is just a normal person who does the seeking. It is not the Good Shepherd, it is a representation of you and me, of all of us.
If the first story represents Christ as the Good Shepherd, and his single-minded devotion, his absolute clarity of purpose in seeking us out despite our rejection of him, then this parable of the woman seeking out her coin is our response to the love that we have been shown, and our response to that which we have received at the hands of the Good Shepherd who sought us out when we either didn’t know him, or strayed from the fold.
Just recently, one of our former parishioners posted a picture of a church sign on Facebook, and this sign read, “Don’t ever judge someone because they sin differently than you.” Each of us continues to fail and step into the world of sin, so just because someone has a sin that we don’t understand does not mean that we ought to judge them and keep them from a clear pathway to return to the fold.
Our job is simply to love others, to show them the very same love that God has provided to us, and to offer that love freely to them also, so that they may find the way home. Our job is to seek out ways to express that love with the same single-minded devotion and clarity of purpose of a woman seeking lost silver coin, or a guy looking for an important little notebook. Once we provide an expression of the love we have received, Christ, the Good Shepherd, will provide the rest.
Now, while the following parable of the “Lost Son” or “Prodigal Son” wasn’t in today’s readings, it follows immediately behind this parable of the parable of the lost coin, and it too speaks of redemption, but it pulls us in from the view of the one who has left the safety of his father’s house and struck out on his own to seek the things that he desires, rather than those things that his father desires for him.
The son, we are shown, chose to set out on his own, to pursue, as the story calls it, “wild living.” And, for a long time, it seems that things went quite well for him, up until a drought came to the land he was in, and then suddenly that which he had provided for himself through his inheritance no longer sufficed and, it says, he “came to his senses.”
“When he had come to his senses” he looked back at what he had when he was in his Father’s house, and lamented that which he had lost. All that he had put together for himself had provided him with the ability to live “high on the hog” for a while, until suddenly his luck changed and instead he found himself living with the hogs.
And then begins the slow march home, and the eventual self-devaluation because he has “sinned against heaven and against” his father. He tells his father that he can no longer be called his father’s son because of all the wrong that he has committed.
But we know it doesn’t end there. The father calls his servants together and demands that they kill the fatted lamb, bring the best robe for his son to wear, put a ring on his finger and give him sandals for his feet.
Let us celebrate, for my son was dead, and is alive again!
Obviously, not what the son was expecting. The son was dejected and felt that he no longer had value, that he no longer had any say within his father’s house, and hoped merely that he might have enough to eat, just like the hired hands, rather than think of himself as one who would inherit all that his father had.
If the parable of the Good Shepherd showed us the love of God in one who searches out even someone who has rejected him, then the story of the Father and Son shows us the absolute rejoicing and acceptance of someone who has rejected all that they had, and is still brought back home without recrimination, without condemnation, and without requirements.
This is the love that God has for us.
This is the love that we can all share in.
This is the love that we must share with others.
Now, while all of these parables have dealt with loss, what I find interesting in this final parable of the Lost Son is that when the prodigal had returned home, his brother overheard the rejoicing that was going on and asked what was happening. The servants then told him that his long lost brother had returned and that his father had killed the fatted calf and started a celebration because his brother had returned home.
The brother becomes angry, and tells his father that “All these years I have been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never even gave me a young goat that I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered his property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him!”
Clearly, this brother feel that he too has lost something.
Just like the 99 sheep that the Good Shepherd left in the fold because they were the “righteous and not in need of repentance,” this brother was one who had access to all that his Father owned. His father told him, “You were always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
This brother lost something too.
He lost sight of all the good around him.
He lost sight of all the blessings in his life.
He lost sight of all the opportunities for rejoicing that simply awaited him by remaining in his father’s house and having access to all that his father owned.
He lost sight of the fact that he was an heir – that he stood to inherit – all that his father owned.
Which son do you think was the real lost son? The one who squandered his wealth on “wild living” or the one who had everything he could ever want, and failed to take advantage of what was already available to him?
I think that just like the older brother, we too can lose sight of the fact that the promises and gifts of God are all available to us already. The post-communion prayer says, “We thank you for assuring us in these holy mysteries that we are living members of the Body of your son, and heirs of your eternal kingdom.”
Every Eucharist we are reminded of the fact that we are heirs of the kingdom of God, and have available to us all that the Father owns.
Do you know what your inheritance is? Do you know the promises that are available to you? Do you feel like maybe just like the older brother in the story of the Lost Son, you to might not be taking full advantage of your inheritance?
If you feel that you have, will you tear your house apart like a man in search of a lost notebook, or a woman in search of her lost coin, or a good shepherd in search of someone who has rejected him?
I guarantee that if you seek out these things, it won’t just be the angels in heaven rejoicing.
Amen.[This sermon was delivered at Christ the King Episcopal Church in Tucson, AZ on September 15, 2019. Listen Here.]