Lost Sheep

My first car was a 1999, gold, Mazda 626. I named him Charlie. I had to replace the transmission within our first three months together, but overall, Charlie lived up to the classic, sturdiness of his name. My next car was a 2008, white Hyundai Sonata named Clare with no “i.” Like her name, Clare seemed average, but was anything but. She had a colorful history and every dent, scratch and stain told a story. Today, I drive Bianca, a 2014 white Honda CR-V. She is hip and trendy like most other Biancas I’ve met in recent years, but she’s also a little testy. She’s very sensitive to changes in barometric pressure, and her tires seem to be literal magnets for stray nails on the road.

Clearly, it brings me great joy to attach a personality to my vehicles. If I’m honest, I’ve named bicycles and Kitchen Aids, too. And most of the time, this habit is harmless. But as with any habit, things can definitely go too far. It starts with a snarky comment or two about Bianca’s low tire pressure or how quickly she seems to use up oil. But before too long, I start blaming all of my car troubles on a made-up personality, and the narrative totally leaves out any role I may have in Bianca’s health and well-being. At this point, I’m in danger of blaming my car troubles solely on my car, and giving myself permission to ignore my responsibility to take care of my property, including and especially regular check-ups and preventative maintenance.

This is the problem with focusing too much energy on where to place blame in our endlessly broken world: it can distract us from our responsibility. This is one of the points Jesus makes in our passage from Luke today. Of course, he can’t just say it plainly, he has to give us his wisdom through a parable. Like my vehicles, Jesus seems to enjoy making me want to pull my hair out. The scene opens with Pharisees who are offended that Jesus would deign to associate with tax collectors and sinners. For reference, we could replace “tax collectors and sinners” with any number of labels: poor people, drug addicts, and the trans community, just to name a few.

Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ grumbling with a parable that most of us know so well we could quote it. "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?” The second example in the parable might not be quite as familiar. It’s not included in Matthew’s account. “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?”

Now we might be quick to take this parable at face value, and assume, as many have before us, that Jesus is just reminding us that while we have all our ducks in a row, others are not as fortunate as we are, and they need Jesus more, so we shouldn’t judge Jesus, or anyone else, for showing them kindness. We love to convince ourselves a parable is about someone else. But this parable calls for a closer read. Luke has been very intentional about his language here. The scripture does not simply say that the sheep and the coin “are lost,” it says that the man and the woman lost them. That sheep and that coin could totally commiserate with Bianca about getting blamed for their owners’ neglect.

After each part of the parable, Jesus reiterates the moral of the story, which is the joy in heaven over one repentant sinner. In light of Luke’s word choice, I can’t help but wonder: are the sheep and the coin the repentant sinners in the story, or is it their careless owners? Jesus doesn’t specify, and that in itself tells us a lot. As I’ve learned with my cars, when the narrative is all about blame, responsibility goes out the window. God does not want us to waste any time weighing evidence and assigning blame for the lost people of the world. He just wants us to go out and find them.

This part of God’s mission in the world does not translate very well into public policy. The Gospel rarely does. It is difficult to imagine our systems of government, social services, and healthcare suddenly giving aid without any kind of vetting, or without regard for how a need arose to begin with. Frankly, it’s even difficult to imagine the Church functioning in this way, which can be discouraging. But today's parable has more Good News to offer, especially to those of us worn down by the sheer number of lost sheep in this world.

Jesus said, “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.” Take heart, he is saying, because no amount of repentance is too small. Every single sinner has value to God. We might not be able to single-handedly bring all of the impoverished people in our community out of distress and into thriving security, but for every shared smile with someone down on their luck, for every $5 donation to a non-profit, for every student that feels seen by their teacher, there is joy in heaven.

If ever a Gospel passage pulled at us to take responsibility and go do something in the name of the Kingdom, this might be it. In fact, when I finished writing this sermon (my afternoon activity), I vacuumed my car. It was exhausting and about a hundred questions went through my mind like “does Bianca’s upholstery show more stains than other upholstery?” and, “why would anyone design a car that has this many unreachable crevices?” But I know in my heart that the root of the problem is that I don’t vacuum her enough.

These same kinds of questions go through our minds when we see someone asking for money on the side of the road, when we read statistics about how many people applied for welfare this year, or when an employee with mental health struggle takes yet another sick day. We wonder what they did wrong to land themselves in this predicament. But Luke is clear: sheep and coins don’t lose themselves. If we want to place blame, we have to look at ourselves and the role we play in losing God’s children. And most importantly, placing blame at all distracts us from our responsibility to reconnect with the lost and then to celebrate them, even if we can only find one sheep at a time.

So don’t dwell too hard on the material treasures or the people who don’t behave the way you want them to. Instead, focus on how God wants you to behave. It’s our responsibility to find what has been lost, so that we, too, can share in the joy in heaven. Amen.

Hannah Hooker