No Sheep Left Behind

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical text.

[NOTE: This sermon is being preached as a dialogue with the congregation. Wherever you see questions asked, feel free to answer them in your own way. I must give credit to my beloved seminary professor, Bob Ekblad, who taught me this method and trained me to use it with this very passage of Scripture.]

Have you ever lost something that was precious to you?

What was it like when you found it?

In today’s reading, Jesus tells two stories about something that got lost: a sheep and a coin. Both stories repeat the same theme, so we’re going to focus on the first one about the lost sheep.

The stage for these stories is set with a scene from Jesus’ life. In this scene, there are two groups of people interacting with Jesus. Can you identify them in the text?

The first group is the tax collectors and sinners. These are the people who were regarded as delinquents and outcasts from society. They were not generally welcome in the religious community. Tax collectors were “bottom-feeders”. They worked for the occupying Roman government to exact tolls on goods and services from fellow Jews. Not only that, they would also commonly overcharge people on their taxes and keeping the extra for themselves. Most people regarded tax collectors as traitors and cheats. They were the lowest of the low.

In today’s terms, what categories of people can you think of who occupy a similar place in our society?

Try replacing the words “tax collectors and sinners” in the text with the categories you just thought of.

The second group is the Pharisees and scribes. These are the people who were very educated, respected, and religious. Again, what categories of people can you think of who occupy that kind of space in today’s society?

Try replacing “Pharisees and scribes” with those words and see how it sounds:

“Now all the _____ and _____ were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the _____ and the _____ were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

The Pharisees and scribes were offended that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. Eating dinner with someone, in that culture, was a sign of total acceptance of that person. Why do you think the Pharisees and scribes were so offended by that?

Jesus responds to their complaining by tell them this story:

“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?”

According to the words in this text, what does the lost sheep have to do in order to be found by the shepherd?

Does it say that the lost sheep finally got its act together and found its own way back to the sheepfold? Does it say that the lost sheep had to cry out sincerely, all day and all night, until the shepherd took pity and reluctantly let it back inside? Does the text say any of those things?

Next question: How does the shepherd react when the sheep is finally found? Was he angry? Did he beat or scold the lost sheep? Did he leave it alone to die in the wilderness because it was such a bad sheep?

                Let’s look again at the text:

“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.’”

He rejoices. The shepherd comes looking for the lost sheep, finds it, carries it home on his shoulders, and rejoices.

According to Jesus, this is an image of the way God relates to us. Sadly, this image looks very different from the image of God that many people encounter in Christian churches today. Many people come to church and end up hearing some kind of “turn or burn” theology that threatens eternal punishment for those who do not conform to a particular interpretation of Christian beliefs and morals.

The word Gospel is supposed to mean “good news” but that kind of gospel is neither good nor news. The gospel that Jesus preaches and embodies, on the other hand, is good news.

It is good news for the “lost sheep” of this world, those who exist outside traditional religious institutions, because it presents them with the image of a God who loves them, who is searching for them, who will not stop until he finds them, and who takes them in his arms rejoicing. Tax collectors and sinners are naturally attracted to this kind of God, just as they were naturally attracted to Jesus while he walked on this earth.

This gospel is also good news for the “sheep in the fold”. It reminds us that the God we worship is not some harsh, demanding bookkeeper who looks over our shoulder all day, just waiting for us to make a mistake so he can punish us forever.

The good news is that the shepherd is out searching for all one hundred sheep, not just the few who obviously wandered away. And God’s attitude toward every sheep is the same, when he finds it:

“He lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.”

In the very last sentence of this story, Jesus mentions the word Repent. Some might think this is a prerequisite for receiving grace, but I don’t think Jesus meant it that way.

The word Repent, in Greek, is Metanoia. It literally means “To think differently.”

I think Jesus is inviting all of us, lost sheep and sheep in the fold alike, to think differently about God and the way God relates to us in the world. For this shepherd, there are no outsiders, no one who isn’t worth traveling over hill and dale to find in the wilderness.

God is seeking us, all of us, and will not stop until each of us is found. And when we are found, Jesus the Good Shepherd lays us on his shoulders and carries us home rejoicing.

This is the Gospel. It is good news that is both good and news. It is a Gospel worth believing in because the God of this Gospel believes in us. Thanks be to God.


This is my reflection on tonight’s Bible study at St. James Mission.  Our text was Luke 4:1-13.

Have you ever noticed that movie villains are way more interesting than heroes?

Darth Vader is a much more complex character than the whiny Luke Skywalker.  A full century after her first appearance, the Wicked Witch of the West (‘Elphaba’ to those who know) got her own novel and Broadway musical.

I can think of several reasons why we feel more drawn to these characters than we do to the ‘good guys’.  Rather than exploring all of them, I’d like to focus on one in particular:

Evil is more obvious than good.

Especially when we go through times of crisis, it’s very easy to look only at what’s wrong with the world.  Human beings have a tendency to ‘awful-ize’  their lives.  It seems that this tendency affects the way in which we Christians interpret our Scriptures.

During tonight’s Bible study on the Temptation of Jesus in Luke’s gospel, we spent a great deal of time asking questions about Satan.  Is the devil real?  Do the nations of the earth really belong to him?  Does our cultural image of the devil come from the Bible or somewhere else?  And so on…

At one point in our discussion, someone noticed how the text says that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” as he entered this time of testing.  It’s interesting how God will meet us in the midst of stressful situations and will spiritually empower us to make it through in one piece.

Just recently, there was an inmate in one of our local prisons who had refused to eat for an extended period of time.  His physical health had deteriorated to the point where he was near death.  The court had ordered that the inmate be force-fed, but the medical staff was loathe to do so.

One of the nurses, who happened to be a Christian, felt an urge to talk to this inmate (who had a reputation for violence) about the liberating power of forgiving others.  Forgiveness “is about letting go of another person’s throat”, as Wm. Paul Young wrote.

As it turns out, that was exactly what this inmate needed to hear.  A short time later, he started to eat again and has already regained sixty pounds.  In this situation of crisis, the hospital staff was caught between a rock and a hard place.  They could violate their ethics and override the conscience of a hunger-striking inmate, or they could stand by, watch the inmate die, and face the wrath of the criminal justice system.  The presence of evil in this catch-22 was obvious.  Yet even in the midst of crisis, God was quietly at work through one Spirit-filled person who was willing to reach out in the name of love.

When we read the story of Jesus being tested in the wilderness, it’s easy to notice how the devil looms large.  Satan does and says a lot of things in an attempt to distract Jesus and undermine the Father’s work in his life.  But Jesus, full of God’s Holy Spirit, is able to meet that chaos with the right words at the right time.

As Bishop Gene Robinson is fond of saying, “Sometimes God calms the storm, and sometimes God calms his child.”


Here is my collection of themes from tonight’s Bible study at St. James Mission:

Our text was the story of the Transfiguration, Luke 9:28-43a.

Mountaintop experiences can be intimidating.  I spent several years attending churches where dramatic stories of religious conversion were highly valued.  One had to be careful about attending services where time was given for individual testimonies of faith.  These services had a tendency to degenerate into amateur preach-offs worthy of American Idol.

These churches seemed to believe in a connection between one’s spiritual credibility and the intensity of one’s mystical experiences.  Is this connection justified?

I think most of us are unable to relate to a spiritual experience as profound as the Transfiguration.  The average person’s meeting with God tends to take a less dramatic form.  Some of us may have “A-ha!” moments where a spiritual truth will hit home in a new way.  Others of us might be able to relate to John Wesley, who felt his heart being “strangely warmed” by God’s presence.  Then again, many of us have not had any mystical experience at all.  Does that make us less worthy than those who see visions or hear voices?

When I look at Jesus’ disciples in this story, I feel compelled to answer in the negative.  This dramatic encounter, which involves shining lights, visions of ancient heroes, and voices from the sky, is not restricted  to the ultra-worthy.  Nor does the disciples’ witnessing the Transfiguration seem to have turned them  into saints overnight.  In this passage, they fall asleep, speak without thinking, and utterly fail in their attempt to heal a sick child.

Jesus says to them, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”  As harsh as this statement sounds, it highlights the truth that dramatic mystical experiences are not necessarily related to real faith.

Real faith is found in our response to God’s presence in our lives (regardless of how that presence manifests itself).  In the story of the Transfiguration, that response takes two forms.  First, the disciples are told to listen to Jesus.  In order to listen, one must pay attention.  Things like prayer, meditation, the Bible, church, and the sacraments are all effective tools for helping us pay attention, but they are not the only tools God uses.  What helps you pay attention to God in your life?

Second, Jesus leads the disciples down the mountain and back into the real world, where a father waits with his sick child.  It seems that Peter would rather stay on the mountaintop and build a monument, but Jesus is more interested in the work that needs to be done.  In our community, there are scores of people who are homeless, hungry, and hurting.  If we want our experiences on the mountaintop to mean anything, we must take them with us into the valley of the shadow of death.  Any spirituality that doesn’t matter out on the street is a spirituality that doesn’t matter at all.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.  As they pass through the valley of weeping, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.”  -Psalm 84:6-7

Catching People


Finally, I enter the blogosphere!  I convinced myself the other day that if Dorothy Day were writing now, she might have blogged rather than printed.  Let’s face it: it’s cheaper.

So, my plan is to keep a record of my search for God in the margins of society.  Sometimes (like tonight) I’ll be reflecting on our Thursday night Bible study at St. James Mission.  For you sermon writers out there, our Bible study is based on the texts in Revised Common Lectionary that will appear on the following Sunday.

When I’m not doing that, I’ll be trying to make sense of the time I spend on the streets as a Community Chaplain.  Confidentiality will be maintained.

If anyone cares to read or comment, that would be awesome.  If anyone lives locally (Utica, NY) and wants to show up at our Bible study, that would be even more awesome.  We meet Thursdays, 6pm, at First Presbyterian Church (1605 Genesee Street).

At tonight’s Bible study, we read Luke 5:1-11. Click here to read the passage.

People were drawn to the enigmatic image of “catching people” that Jesus presents to Simon at the end of the passage.

One person commented on the fact that the fishermen in this story used nets instead of poles.  “The whole community of fish gets caught, not just one.”  This flies in the face of our society, in which spirituality has been privatized.  We’ve been conditioned to think of ourselves as individuals, not as communal beings.

Someone else noticed that a fish caught on a pole gets to choose whether or not to take the bait, but a fish caught in a net has no choice whatsoever.  This too is a countercultural idea in a consumerist society where choice is so valued.

Another person pointed out that a fisherman, when using a net, does not discriminate between fish.  The fisherman can’t say, “You’re too sickly.  You’re the wrong kind of fish.  You’re a tuna.”  In the same way, God doesn’t discriminate between people as they’re being “caught” in the net of Jesus.  Male or female, black or white, straight or gay, religious or irreligious, all people are embraced by the net.

God’s activity, according to this passage, is something that whole communities get “caught up in”, not something that individuals choose for themselves.  Where then can we look to find examples of God at work in the life of a community?

One man remembered the way that the gay community rallied around one another during the height of the AIDS crisis in America.

Someone else mentioned a news article about Haiti after the earthquake.  The report indicated that the streets of the city turned into one big church at night, with Catholics and Protestants worshiping together until two in the morning.

A third person told a story about a group of factory workers somewhere in Latin America.  The owners of the factory owed the workers about six million dollars in unpaid wages.  As it turned out, the factory building itself was worth about the same amount.  In lieu of pay, the workers took control of the factory and turned it into a labor cooperative.  The oppressive management had been replaced by the workers themselves in a new spirit of justice and equality.