One of the texts available to those Holy men who discussed and selected which books would be inserted into the Canon of Scripture was the Gospel of Thomas. It did not make the cut. But included in this book is a story much like the one we heard this morning in the Gospel of Luke, also found in the Gospel of Matthew. “Jesus said, the Kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them went astray; it was the largest. He left the ninety-nine and sought for the one until he found it. After he had exerted himself, he said to the sheep, I love you more than the ninety-nine.”
What’s different about the text from Thomas than either Luke or Matthew is the Shepherd who does the searching declares he loves the lost sheep more than the ninety-nine who were already safe. Later this fall we will be exploring another Luke story about lost and found, the Prodigal Son. And no Bible story has ever made church members angrier than the Prodigal Son. Why? Because every survey ever done of those who show up regularly to church has revealed the obvious, we identify with the older brother, the responsible brother, the brother who works hard and follows the rules. The very idea that this father would excuse the loose living, the wild spending, and the taking of the inheritance before the father was even dead was infuriating. Worse, this father chose to throw an extravagant party for this miserable so and so brother before he would do likewise for his respectful, hard-working and righteous older son.
So I imagine many of us hear the Thomas version of the Lost Sheep and we wonder why this shepherd would love the lost one more than the ninety-nine who were already found. Interesting that in the Prodigal Son story Luke tells us the father assures the older son that he already loves him, that he ought not be offended and hurt by this act of joy. But it is hard to believe the older son would be impressed by this logic.
In Jesus’ time the lost were easy to identify but harder to see. Both gentiles and Temple Jewish leaders would have put a great deal of effort into placing boundaries around the lost, so lost no righteous person would ever find him or her, that if s/he would ever want to look. Gentiles would see the lost as sick, a burden, less than, a waste of time and space. Strict temple Jewish leaders would have assumed the lost were sinners who were morally weak, possibly inheriting this flaw from their forebears. In either case the lost were not seen in polite company. And at meals, public meals, those who sat at the table had everything to do with who was lost and who was righteous.
Jesus and other Jews of his time had a different understanding of lost. Jesus did call some of the lost “sinners” but this had less to do with disease or social class or ethnicity and more to do with the breaking of the law. Jesus himself would break laws like feeding the hungry on the Sabbath but other laws, like the ones broken by tax-collectors who cheated the poor and not so poor, Jesus would hold up as sacred and criticize those who broke them in harsh terms. Jesus would say to those who broke these scared laws “go and sin no more”. But whether Jesus referred to the lost as sinners or not he spent the bulk of his ministry seeking those who were on the margins of his society.
Klyne Snodgrass in his excellent commentary Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus points out that the one who searches for the lost sheep in this sacred story, the shepherd, was thought to be by most respectable people of that era, “a member of a despised trade. They were thought to be robbers because they lead sheep onto other people’s lands. Shepherds were ineligible to serve as witnesses in the courts.” As Snodgrass points out the author of this story had a clear intent, “Pharisees and scribes would have been deeply concerned with cleanliness so they could in no way imagine themselves involved with a trade that was so unclean.” In other words the God of this story is a God who chooses to search for the lost by becoming one of the lost people, a shepherd. The lost are searching for the lost.
And yet while the shepherd may be despised he is not poor. Snodgrass reminds us that, “the size of the flock (100 sheep) would indicate someone who was reasonably well off. He was not rich, but one hundred sheep was a flock of considerable size.”
You know if I had asked who are the lost of our society 50 years ago I think the answer would have come back as the poor, the sick, persons living with disabilities, persons of colour, persons of different orientation, women, people of different ethnicities than the one most commonly found here. And the church took to finding the lost in a rather “us and them” fashion as you might imagine, outreach programs designed to help the lost access food, shelter, justice, rights, and dignity. Evangelical churches might have added salvation to that list, meaning they would have believed that in addition to the material needs of the lost the spiritual ones matter just as much. Mainline churches would agree but would likely have balked at using the language of “save” as it would imply that the lost needed to be “saved from” rather than “saved for”. This really goes back to the idea of why people are lost, are they lost because they have lived a life of sin or are they lost because we live in a sinful world that leaves many with lives labeled as lost?
I think today the lost are still all of those groups I listed above. But in addition to them there is a new group to add, the many, many people who have jobs, have food, have shelter, but lack community. Many are saying loneliness and isolation is one of the fastest growing causes of being lost in our society today. Of course if you are poor or sick or a visible minority this makes the isolation more acute. But let’s be clear, I have met some of the most lonely and isolated people in some of the most expensive buildings.
Seeking the lost today is something churches are uniquely qualified and equipped to do. We have a critical mass of friendly people, warm space and worthwhile programs. And most of all we are based on a founder who searched for the lost himself, who dined (Luke 14) with the lost, healed the lost, touched the lost (when no one else would), and refused to stop hanging out with the lost even when the authorities threatened him with death. And how does Jesus return after his resurrection? Jesus seeks out the lost running along the Road to Emmaus.
In a recent column in the New York Times writer David Brooks describes the historical and long-standing allure of community. Benjamin Franklin observed in 1753 “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.” During the wars with the Indians, many European settlers were taken prisoner and held within Indian tribes. After a while, they had plenty of chances to escape and return, and yet they did not. In fact, when they were “rescued,” they fled and hid from their rescuers. Sometimes the Indians tried to forcibly return the colonials in a prisoner swap, and still the colonials refused to go. In one case, the Shawanese Indians were compelled to tie up some European women in order to ship them back. After they were returned, the women escaped the colonial towns and ran back to the Indians. Even as late as 1782, the pattern was still going strong. Hector de Crèvecoeur wrote, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European.” Now imagine American culture of today. As we’ve gotten richer, we’ve used wealth to buy space: bigger homes, bigger yards, separate bedrooms, private cars, autonomous lifestyles. Each individual choice makes sense, but the overall atomizing trajectory sometimes seems to backfire. According to the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression by as much as eight times the rate as people in poor countries. There might be a Great Affluence Fallacy going on — we want privacy in individual instances, but often this makes life generally worse.
But it does not have to be this way. Churches, disciples like you and me, we have the resources, the inspiration and the support of each other, in this community, to seek the lost. But it takes a change in culture. I remember helping a new family in a church I once served and having a fellow staff member challenge me that our job was to serve those who work hard and financially support the church, not race around helping those outside the church. But if our focus is inward we betray not only our self-interest in wanting our church to grow we also betray the very Gospel we seek to live out. Jesus hardly looked inward and his entire ministry could be characterized as seeking out the lost.
And there is one last point that Snodgrass makes about our text today. “Christian worship often lacks any sense of joy. It may have form, tradition, energy, or novelty, but joy is in short supply. Joy deserves focus as the true mark of Christianity, for it is directly connected to the theological awareness of the character and attitude of God as one who seeks and celebrates recovery. At some level Christian worship entails entering into God’s own attitude at finding and establishing a people for God to be in relationship with. Join the celebration!”
The image we have of a shepherd who looks day and night for the lost sheep, leaving the ninety-nine behind, only to place the lost one on his shoulders and rejoice for what has been lost is now found is a sustaining one. Everytime someone who is isolated, disconnected, alone, walks in these doors and finds community, a sense of belonging, a sister or brother in Christ, is a cause for celebration. I hope, I pray, that you will feel God’s pleasure as we make a place for all God’s children to feel at home and alive. Amen.