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.

Love Covers a Multitude of Sins

This is the sermon I preached this morning at First Presbyterian Church, Boonville, NY.  The text is John 21:1-19.

Parents, in my experience, have a way of knowing us better than we know ourselves.  I know this because I am a parent and, even though she’s only sixteen months old, I can already pick up on distinct aspects of my daughter’s personality emerging.  I also know this because I have parents and, much to my chagrin, they have often been able to finish my sentences, predict my next move, and see a part of my personality that I thought I had hidden well.

I felt particularly cornered one day when my mother aptly pointed out that I suffer from an “over-active conscience”.  Little things, small errors in judgment that most people would be able to let go, bothered me to the point of needing to confess to someone.  On one such occasion, my father interrupted my tirade of self-loathing to give me one bit of advice.  “Son,” he said, “go easy on yourself.”  To this day, that’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

I am hardly the first person in history to wrestle with such a compulsion.  Psychologists have identified a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder called “Scrupulosity”, which manifests itself as an unhealthy fixation on one’s own sinfulness.  Historical scholars suspect that both Martin Luther, the pioneer of the Protestant Reformation, and John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist churches, might have suffered from this ailment.

These “scrupulous” tendencies in myself, combined with a church environment that condoned such an inclination, brought me to the point where I disqualified myself from serving as a minister in the church.  Even as I graduated college and started seminary, people would ask me, “Are you planning to pursue a career in ordained ministry?”  I would respond, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”

Because of this experience, I think I have a pretty good idea of how the apostle Peter felt at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading.  This story comes to us from the end of John’s gospel, after Jesus has been raised from the dead.  We read that Peter was certainly present for the events which took place around Easter Sunday, but the last time he played a major role in the plot of this story was on the night when Jesus was arrested.  Earlier that evening, Peter had expressed his unwavering loyalty to Jesus in no uncertain terms.  By the next morning, Peter had publicly denied that even knew Jesus.  He did this, not once, but three times.

This was no minor misstep for Peter.  In doing this, we know that he turned his back on his faith; he rejected everything he had come to believe about God through Jesus.  But more than that, Peter had also turned his back on his closest friend at a critical moment.  According to ancient near-eastern custom, Peter’s infidelity had violated Jesus’ honor.  Jesus would be expected to demand vindication for such an offense.  Perhaps Peter thought of those words which Jesus had spoken earlier, “Those who are ashamed of me and my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of his Father and of the holy angels.”

So Peter was probably not all that surprised when at Jesus’ first appearance after the resurrection, his friend did not address him directly.  I can imagine Peter, in his crushing guilt, believing that his denial had purchased his exclusion from the ranks of apostles.  He had been reduced from the role of leader to that of spectator.  When Jesus commissioned his apostles, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  I can see Peter, sitting in a far corner of the room, relieved to see Jesus, excited for his friends, but also sad for himself.  I can even imagine Peter saying the same thing I did, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”

After the events of Easter, Peter has to decide how to get on with the rest of his life.  It made perfect sense for him to return to fishing, the only life he knew before Jesus.  I find it interesting that six other disciples accompanied Peter in his return to the maritime business.  I like to imagine that they went along as Peter’s social support system.  Maybe they were hoping to shake Peter out of his paralyzing guilt so that he would come and join them as they sought to preach the Good News about Jesus to the ends of the earth.

Peter, hoping he could forget the past (or at least put it behind him), was finding his old job to be a hollow pursuit on multiple levels.  We read that his nets kept coming up empty.  I think this is a comment about something more than the fishing conditions at the Sea of Tiberias.  I think we, as the readers of this story, are getting a glimpse inside Peter’s soul at that moment.  The fisherman’s life to which he was returning seemed empty and meaningless after his experience of traveling with Jesus.  I also imagine that it must have been hard for Peter to work those same shores, remembering the day he met Jesus on that very spot, when Jesus used his boat as an impromptu pulpit.

In this sad moment, the risen Christ makes a sudden reappearance.  Jesus encounters Peter in the midst of his daily routine and brings two gifts.  First, he brings Abundance.  Like the symbol of emptiness, this miraculous catch is a sign to Peter that he is about to find that which he was really seeking (and here’s a hint: it isn’t fish).

As they are gathering the nets, one of the disciples, the one “whom Jesus loved” (identified as John by most biblical scholars), turns to Peter in realization that this catch was no ordinary coincidence.  “It is the Lord!” he says.  In this moment, John is acting like a true pastor by pointing out God’s presence and activity in Peter’s life.  This, by the way, is how I spend most of my time on the street as a Community Chaplain.  I’m not a street preacher, I’m a street pastor.  It’s my job to walk with people through the triumphs and struggles of daily life and help them see how God is at work there.

Peter responds to this observation immediately.  But we read that he does something quite unusual: he puts his coat on just before hopping into the water.  I don’t know about you, but I find it’s much easier to swim without being fully clothed.  But, like the nets, I take this to be a statement about Peter’s internal state-of-being.  He doesn’t want to feel so exposed in front of the one he has let down.  Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Peter wants to cover himself because he feels ashamed.  Too often these days (even in the church), God’s children fall victim to this mentality.  They assume there is something about themselves that is unacceptable, so they duck and cover.  Hiding in the closet, they wear the mask constructed for them by society’s expectations.  But, as we will see in a moment with Peter, Jesus has this uncanny ability to pierce the veil of our shame with his love.

Which leads me to Jesus’ second gift:

Jesus appears bearing the gift of Acceptance.  When Peter and the disciples finally make it to shore, they find breakfast waiting for them.  This is evocative of Jesus’ meal-sharing ministry, which got him in even more trouble than his teaching and healing.  You’ve heard me describe before what a powerful statement it was to share a meal with someone in the ancient near-east.  Eating with someone signified one’s total acceptance of the other person into the family unit.  By feeding the multitudes and dining with outcasts, Jesus makes a statement about the scope of his radically inclusive love.  In this passage, that love is extended to the disciples, even Peter.  By eating first, Jesus is effectively saying that he has rejected Peter’s rejection of him.

Once breakfast is over, Peter is finally ready to come face-to-face with Jesus and talk about the painful events of that night.  Jesus uses his words like a surgeon’s scalpel: cutting ever deeper, exposing the source of the pain in order to heal it.  It is not an easy soul-surgery for Peter to endure.  Jesus asks Peter three times whether Peter loves him.  One time for each denial.  Each time, Peter affirms that he does love him and Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.”

Instead of enacting vengeance upon Peter, Jesus asks him to take care of that which is most precious to him: this new community of believers.  In verse 16, Jesus uses the term “Shepherd”, which is “Poimaine” in Greek, and will later be translated into a Latin term that is very familiar to us: “Pastor”.  Jesus doesn’t punish Peter, he ordains him!

Jesus says to Peter, in effect, “Do you really love me, Peter?  If so, then I want you to take that love and give it to these people who need it the most right now.”  Peter now stands before Jesus as a healed and restored person.  The shameful hurt of denial has been replaced by the warm embrace of love.

History tells us that Peter did, in fact, take up this call.  Peter stands out as one of the great pastors in the early days of the Christian Church.  We have stories and letters in the New Testament that bear witness to this fact.  I think Peter walked away from that meeting with a newfound faith in the power of love to set things right.  In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Peter had this encounter in mind when he wrote to a group of churches years later, saying to them, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”

I went to seminary declaring, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”  I said it as a joke, but my sarcasm was a thin veil covering my deep sense of shame and unworthiness.  But it happened that as I heard Jesus’ words to Peter, “Feed my sheep”, I began to notice a new desire rising up within me.  I realized that I wanted to feed Christ’s people with his Word and Sacraments.  Following this desire has led me out into the streets, where many of Christ’s lost sheep stand desperately in need of love.  I am being transformed by that love, even as I try to give it out.  My ministry in the neighborhoods of inner-city Utica has only increased my faith in the radically inclusive love of God.  I believe Jesus is teaching me to read my Bible with a new set of eyes as I read it with drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people.  I no longer see it as a book of rules and doctrines, but as a library of stories, poems, and letters, documenting a millennia-long romance between God and God’s people.  Like Peter, I find myself being transformed by the warm embrace of a love (God’s love) that covers a multitude of sins (my sins).

I don’t know where you are this morning, in relation to this powerful, transforming love of Christ.  Maybe you feel like there is something inside of you that you have to hide from the world?  Maybe you feel like you’ve committed some unforgivable sin and Jesus has finally turned his back on you?  Maybe you feel the crushing burden of doubt or guilt?  If that’s you this morning, I want to encourage you with this Gospel passage.  Jesus is coming into your life now with his gifts of abundance and acceptance.  He is not coming to punish you, but to heal you and, finally, to commission you into his service.

Maybe you’re here today and you’ve already experienced that healing love of Christ firsthand?  If that’s you, then I want to encourage you to take it with you into the world.  There are many of our sisters and brothers who are still bound by chains of guilt, fear, and despair.  Jesus is calling you this morning to follow him into those dark corners of the world, bringing with you the light and the warmth of his love.  One need not be a pastor in order to feed Christ’s hungry sheep.  Each of us, regardless of age or occupation, has a call to ministry.  Likewise, one need not go to Palestine or the inner-city.  There are hurting people who stand in desperate need of love in your own family, neighborhood, and community.  Your co-workers, clients, and supervisors need it.  If you are still in school, look for that fellow student in the cafeteria or playground who always eats or plays alone.  If you are retired, look among your friends and neighbors.  None of us has outlived God’s call on our lives.  For as long as there is still air in your lungs, God still has plans for your life.

Jesus has a lot of love to give and the hurting people of this world desperately need it.  Let’s learn to accept that love for ourselves and then pass it on.  Come on people, let’s feed some sheep.

Let us pray.

Eternal and Holy One, your love, poured out in the life, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, has covered the multitude of our sins: Grant us vision to see your love more clearly in our own lives, that we might pass it on to those hungry sheep who you have entrusted to our care; through the same Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.