A Reading from the Book of Jeremiah (4:11-12, 22-28)
At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse— a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them. “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger. For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
1 The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” *
All are corrupt and commit abominable acts;
there is none who does any good.
2 The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all, *
to see if there is any who is wise,
if there is one who seeks after God.
3 Every one has proved faithless;
all alike have turned bad; *
there is none who does good; no, not one.
4 Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers *
who eat up my people like bread
and do not call upon the Lord?
5 See how they tremble with fear, *
because God is in the company of the righteous.
6 Their aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, *
but the Lord is their refuge.
7 Oh, that Israel’s deliverance would come out of Zion! *
when the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice and Israel be glad.
A Reading from First Letter of Timothy (1:12-17)
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke (15:1-10)
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Sometimes it is hard to come up with a sermon for some of the lesser-known, more difficult passages from scripture. But a lot of times, it is even harder to develop one on readings that everybody has heard countless times over the years. Today’s gospel reading is one of those.
You can find another parable of the lost sheep — or actually a parable of the sheep that is found — in the gospel according to Matthew. His version is a little bit different from Luke’s version that we heard today, but the essential image is the same: God, the faithful shepherd goes out to find and bring back a sheep that is lost. It’s a beautiful image, a comforting image, a popular image. You can find it in many Sunday School books. But it’s one that deserves another look.
According to those who know about sheep and shepherding, a sheep that is lost will not even try to find its way back. It simply lies down wherever it is, keeping a low profile and hiding from any potential predators. A shepherd can’t wait for the sheep to come back because that’s just not going to happen. He or she has to go out and find the sheep and bring it back.
We love the portrait of that search that Luke paints for us: the loving God, going out and searching for the one who is lost. And if we try to place ourselves in that scene, we inevitably take the place of the sheep, trusting that, when we lose our way, God will come looking for us to bring us back to the place where we can find life.
That’s a valid approach to the parable. It’s a good place to start; but it addresses only part of the image and of what that image means for us. When we look at the stories told in the scriptures, we – along with many other Christians – like to see ourselves on the receiving end of things. We like to focus exclusively on God’s love for us, on God’s concern for us, on God’s dedication to us. Many religious pictures and hymns reinforce that approach.
The problem is that God’s love and concern and dedication to us is only the beginning of the biblical story. Over and over again in the scriptures, and over and over again in Jesus’ teachings, God calls us to be and act like God, to do what God does. As New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass puts it (Stories with Intent, pp. 109-110), it is in our understanding of God that “we perceive our own identity, how we should think and act, and how the world ought to be. If God is a seeking, caring God, then his grace should characterize our self-perception and our treatment of other people.” In the case of this parable, God calls us not only to take on the role of the sheep, but also to take on the role of the shepherd. God calls us to go out and seek those who are lost and bring them back.
There are many people who are lost in the world, and there are many ways of being lost. Some people find themselves alone in the world, even in the middle of a crowd. Think of a single mother who is struggling to find enough food to feed her family; or a man whose lack of education stands in the way of getting a decent job with which he can support himself; or a homeless person suffering from some sort of mental illness, with no place to turn for help; or a child growing up in a crime-filled neighborhood and in a dysfunctional family; or an elderly woman who has no family and who has out-lived all her friends; or a man who, for whatever reason, just does not seem to fit in with the people around him and who lives in loneliness. All of these are lost in one way or another.
Like lost sheep, they often will not seek out the help that they need. Like lost sheep, they simply lie down, keep a low profile, and try to hide from whatever might harm them. It is to them that God sends us as God’s fellow shepherds: seeking out the lost, taking the initiative to reach out to them, to welcome them, and to extend to them God’s love and concern, and ours as well.
At the end of Jesus’ parable, the shepherd finds the lost sheep, lifts it up on his shoulders, and carries it back home for a joyful celebration. The ends of our stories are usually not that clear-cut. We have no guarantee that the lost sheep that we find will respond to our care and to our invitation. In fact, we have to be ready to accept rejection, maybe a lot of the time, maybe even most of the time. But we are not alone in that. According to the gospel stories, out of all the thousands of people who heard Jesus’ teaching and saw what he did, only a relative few actually became his followers. Some sheep refuse to be helped.
But that doesn’t release us from the obligation to reach out to them. N.T. Wright, in his commentary on this passage (Twelve Months of Sundays, Year C, p. 105), puts it this way: “the gospel message upon which our hope is based is not about the ride home, but about the good shepherd’s journey into the wilderness, a journey undertaken out of sheer love.” It is out of sheer love that God, the good shepherd, sets out looking for us when we have lost our way; and it is out of sheer love that we, as the ones called to follow God’s example, need to set out to find those in our community who are lost in one way or another. We reach out to them, bringing them and offering to them the help, the caring, and the hope that they need: the help, the caring, and the hope that God extends to us and to all people in Jesus Christ.