God, The Lost Sheep
The parable of the Lost Sheep is one of the great parables in the Bible because it is simple, understandable, and we recognize God and ourselves so vividly in it.
It is tremendously comforting to be reminded in such clear terms of God’s unending love for us.
When we are lost, God will stop at nothing to find us.
When we go astray, God will search to the ends of the earth to bring us back.
We cannot be reminded of that too often, because sometimes in our heart of hearts we find it difficult to believe that the Almighty and Everliving God would care that much about us.
As beautiful and important as I find that traditional interpretation, I’d like to try a different one today.
One thing you’ll find out about me is that I can’t stand the obvious sermon. I do not feel like I’ve really lived into studying a Bible text, and certainly haven’t preached on it well, unless the Holy Spirit helps me see a new and unique angle I’d never seen before.
And as my clergy friends will tell you, I sometimes play a little fast and loose with exegesis when I do that.
But I don’t care—if it helps us see God in ourselves and each other more clearly, than I’ve done my job.
So all that wind up is to say that I know I’m going way out on a limb with the interpretation I’m bring you today, and I’m asking you to join me just for the next few minutes.
If it leaves you cold, you can forget it during the Nicene Creed. But if it awakens something new in you, then thanks be to God.
So here is me bending this parable as far as I think it can possibly go.
All of Jesus’ parables function as analogies.
We read about the mustard seed and realize that it symbolizes our faith.
We read about the treasure hidden in the field and realize is symbolizes union with God.
And in this story, we traditionally picture ourselves as the sheep and God or Jesus as the shepherd.
But what if we flip that on its head?
What if God is the sheep and we are the shepherd?
Whoa, that’s crazy.
How could God be lost and we be trying to fetch God home?
But think about it for a moment.
What is the most common term for someone who longs to know and understand God?
We often think of our life of faith as the search for God.
The reality is that we have a hundred competing priorities in our lives.
We have a hundred different responsibilities, a hundred different roles, a hundred different goals.
And it is all too easy to treat God as just one more sheep.
God and our life of faith are just one more thing we’re trying to manage, one more wandering and recalcitrant set of thoughts in our head that we’re trying to herd.
We’re trying to keep our lives together here, and God is just going to have to wait God’s turn along with all the other priorities, all the other responsibilities, all the other sheep.
I don’t think you’re going to be surprised to hear that God is not going to put up with that for long.
God is described particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures as a jealous God.
God wants our undivided attention, our relentless focus, our zealous devotion.
And God will do whatever it takes to wake us up, to help us see how empty and chaotic our lives are without God.
That might include, according to this parable, seeming to vanish from our lives entirely.
God as a sheep runs away from our carefully managed flock, and when we realize it, we panic.
This is actually a thoroughly well-documented phenomenon throughout spiritual literature.
Saints and mystics alike through history, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross to name just two, speak frequently of God abandoning them.
They enter a spiritual desert, alone and desolate.
John of the Cross speaks of Jesus as a hart, a little deer, who runs up and wounds him in the heart and then dashes away off into the countryside.
What’s the result?
No matter how spiritually accomplished the searcher is, the hunt for God begins again.
The seeker is born anew.
We are back out in the wilderness, determined to track down our lost sheep and carry it home rejoicing.
Feeling abandoned by God is no laughing matter.
It can happen to people through simple ennui.
It can happen through grief and loss.
It can happen through clinical depression and mental illness.
It can happen through being ground down by systemic oppression.
But it hurts.
It’s desperately lonely, cold, and frightening.
And there’s nothing that makes it worse than showing up to church and feeling like everyone around you is part of something and believes in something that feels totally empty to you.
So let’s ask some hard questions.
Do you know what is lost in your life?
Do you know how you tend to lose God?
Are you willing to leave the 99 other priorities to go find God? What will happen to them while you’re gone?
These are the questions it’s hard to listen to when we are tending to those 99 sheep that are right in front of us.
Those 99 sheep in front of us are loud and demanding, and they’re important.
Tending to the 99 is what we call responsible life. Taking care of business. Upholding our commitments. Thinking ahead and making good choices and living a somewhat organized life.
But while our minds and hearts are full to the brim with the needs and demands of those 99 sheep, our wandering God makes an escape.
And if we quit numbing ourselves long enough to listen to what our hearts are crying out, we realize that the 99 mean nothing, nothing at all, without the one that matters most.
So that’s my unorthodox exegesis of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Take it for what it’s worth.
But to bring it back to a more traditional interpretation: this week we marked the anniversary of 9/11.
Every one of us who was alive and old enough to remember it happening can never forget where we were that day.
I was a freshman in college and had only moved into the dorms a week prior. The eerie silence of the campus that morning still chills my memory.
I’m sure you can take yourself back to that moment and what you felt when you heard or saw the news.
This year the anniversary fell on a Wednesday, and we chose to commemorate it in our Noon Eucharist here at Emmanuel.
Hearing the stories of that day from the small group gathered for the service moved me.
I had been caught up in a lot of silly internal drama that morning, and remembering the lives lost that day and lost every day since in the worldwide implications of that event and the wars it inspired sobered me and called me back to my real priorities.
The scriptures chosen for that day were scriptures about forgiveness. And we talked about where each of us was on our journey of forgiveness.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that our Wednesday night class on forgiveness began that day.
Forgiving the 9/11 hijackers and masterminds is a tall order, and we may all be in different places with that. That’s okay.
One of the most important parts of forgiving heinous acts is learning to forgive yourself when you are struggling to forgive.
But where I find I have to end this sermon is to remind myself and all of us that those 9/11 hijackers and masterminds are lost sheep.
As hard as it is for us to fathom the shepherd leaving us alone to search for them and bring them home, that is exactly what God does.
And there are no exceptions.
No sheep is compelled to come home—we can always choose to turn away from God.
But every sheep is invited home.
Every one of us is sought out by God, invited by God, welcomed by God to return to the embrace of love.
And that goes for the people who have caused us seemingly irreparable pain.
But putting our traditional and non-traditional interpretations together: do you ever feel like God has caused you pain?
Do you ever feel like God has left you alone amid your 99 other priorities and wandered away, leaving you alone and desperate?
Consider that your wandering away from God hurts God as badly as God’s wandering away from you hurts you.
And remember that the hard work of forgiveness, even of those people who have hurt us most, is part of the unending mutual search through the wilderness that is the relationship between us and God.
Whether it is a national crisis like 9/11 or the simple grind of daily life, do not be surprised if it sometimes feels like you are chasing God and love and joy across the hills and rocks of an unforgiving wilderness.
But remember that God wants to be found by you as badly as God wants to find you.
And remember that the story ends with rejoicing both on earth and in heaven.
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