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In the Gospel of Luke, three similar parables are deliberately grouped together –
the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.
These three parables beautifully describe the nature of God – the one who seeks and saves the lost.
The setting for these parables in the gospel of Luke is Jesus is defending himself
against the Pharisees’ charge that he has been associating with the wrong kind.
Jesus has been hanging out with and even having dinner with “tax collectors and sinners.”
Does he not know any better? Are we not known by the company that we keep?
But Jesus lets the self-righteous, judgmental ones know that God is interested in all,
especially these “lost sheep”, and that God will greatly rejoice when one is returned to the fold.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the context is somewhat different.
In Matthew, Jesus is addressing division, or at least potential ranking, within the faith community.
Chapter 18 begins with the disciples asking the question: Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
They assume that some must be more worthy before God than others.
They assume that, surely, the disciples will be ranked in some way – isn’t that how the world works?
As Vernon Gramling wrote in his blog this week:
“The paradox is that we miss the core of our faith if what we are worried about is…where do we rank?
Those questions are vital and basic in the secular world. They are irrelevant in God’s (kingdom).
Jesus’ answer must have been totally unexpected. He called a child forward and said:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
So, at the beginning chapter 18 in Matthew,
Jesus encourages his disciples to give up any competition over how they might rank
and let go of any scores they have been keeping about their brother’s failures.
Instead, he urges them to have pastoral concern over the least and the lowest,
and over any who may have gone astray.
Then, toward the end of this chapter, just following the parable,
Peter comes to Jesus and asks a related question,
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?
As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.
Both Matthew and Luke’s use of the lost sheep parable communicate a similar lesson –
that God cares for the individual, regardless of why or how far they have strayed,
and God desires that all be restored and reconciled.
I am grateful for these lessons I learned as a child about the merciful and gracious love of God.
I was taught in Sunday School and in worship that we should have that same love for all people,
that the Church is to love all of our neighbors, all the children of God!
Our congregation’s bicentennial goal:
Every child of God – belonging, engaging, being transformed
is driven by the theology of this parable,
the understanding that God’s love and good intentions are for all, for everyone we meet.
Being reminded of this theology is why we gather together around God’s Word.
Hear the Word of God from Matthew 18:10-14.
‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
One year ago in June, a young teenager named Nya Slaughter participated in our Bible and Music camp.
On the afternoon of July 1, Saturday a week ago,
now fourteen year old Nya Slaughter went for a walk in her East Lake neighborhood.
Nya did not return from her walk that evening, nor did she return the next day, or even the next.
For five full days, Nya’s mother, her neighbors, and friends anxiously worried about her
and desperately searched with authorities in order to find her.
I cannot imagine the fear and anxiety that gripped that family.
I cannot begin to understand the desperation I would feel in such a situation.
The good news, as you may have heard, is that finally, on Thursday afternoon,
the City of Atlanta police found Nya.
From the brief report that I read, she was alone and in good health,
sitting at a Popeye’s fast food restaurant near Five Points in downtown Atlanta.
No further details have been made available.
We do not know if she went missing on her own volition, or if perhaps someone else was involved.
All the public knows is that one precious child of God was lost and now is found.
Nya has been restored to her family. Thanks be to God!
Truly I tell you, Jesus said, if one lost sheep has been found,
there is great rejoicing in the kingdom of heaven! –
more rejoicing than over the ninety nine who never went astray,
for I have come to seek and save the lost.
There are, of course, different forms of being lost.
Some are like the lost coin, who have gone missing not from their own guilt or volition,
but from another’s fault or from the circumstances of their lives.
Others are like a typical sheep, who wanders away seeking greener grass,
who lacks awareness of surroundings, or who follows some other sheep down the wrong path.
Others are like the prodigal son who, through calculated selfishness, took off on his own
and burned every bridge behind him as he tore through his family’s purse and his family’s hearts.
I will never forget a young couple I met on a mission trip in Mobile, Alabama.
We were working with Government Street Presbyterian Church and learning about urban mission.
One evening, when we were visiting the Union Mission shelter,
I met this couple this young couple in their early 20’s.
As we stood around an outdoor gathering area after dinner, they told me their story.
Both had been addicted to crack cocaine.
He had somehow held onto a job during the day helping to build Blockbuster video stores.
Do you member those stores? I hear that there are some still around.
Anyways, this couple had at least one hundred dollars of income per day,
but they were homeless, on the streets, because their drug habit cost them over $200 a day.
They confessed, with bowed heads and averted eyes, that they had been required to do unspeakable things
in order to feed their habit. For months on end, they had lied and cheated and stolen,
from strangers and from family members.
Eventually, they even sold themselves and sold each other in order to obtain the next “hit”.
In nearly every sense of the word, this couple had been lost – as lost as anyone I have ever met.
But when I met them, at the Union Mission, they had been sober for several months.
The Mission had given them a roof over their heads and a meal with nothing required in return,
other than obeying the rules, which included staying sober.
They had begun to reconnect and reconcile with family members.
When I met them, they were hopeful about their future and hopeful for their future as a couple.
You could say they were desperately hopeful, desperate to stay alive, desperate to be well,
desperate in their desire to remain “found” by God and others.
I have no idea what happened to that young couple,
but I have always prayed for them, prayed that they might have found their way,
that, by God’s grace, they may have become a lasting part of some loving and nurturing sheepfold.
Some churchgoers may want to claim that those kind of sheep are not of this fold,
that they belong to some other fold.
Others may even want to claim that “those people” who do such things
must be “goats” and not “sheep”, and thus do not deserve the same consideration.
But any separation of sheep from goats or determination of one sheepfold from another
belongs to God alone and is not ours to decide.
As Vernon Gramling wrote in his blog on this text:
“There is no one who doesn’t count. No mention is made as to why the sheep is lost.
He could have been resentful, stubborn, rebellious, or absent minded.
It doesn’t matter why, what matters is that he is lost.
He is separated and the shepherd seeks him out.
We are (all) redeemable. (And) it is not up to us…”
God’s seeking love is not dependent upon how worthy we have been or how obedient we have been.
The shepherd leaves the 99 and seeks the one, which is the heart of the good news of the Gospel,
for all of us.
The good news of the gospel is that the love of God is not satisfied by having 99 present.
Oh, that’s a good percentage, you might say, quite remarkable, in fact!
But oh, the one that is missing! That is the one upon the heart and mind of God.
I am particularly grateful for our church members who have that sort of pastoral, shepherding heart.
They make themselves aware of those who are present nearly every Sunday morning,
but they are also keenly aware of those who are not present,
particularly those who may, for some reason, seem lost.
There are good shepherds among us who greatly help your pastors do the work of the church.
They know and have taken to heart that every sheep is precious to the shepherd.
Every member and visitor of the church is precious to those with a mind and heart close to God.
They know that the love of God is not satisfied as long as there are any who are missing.
This is one reason why the work of the church is never done,
why we never sit back and rest on our laurels.
There will always be at least one who is not accounted for within the sheepfold.
Now, to be honest, just because someone is not in worship does not mean they are lost!
The church is not necessarily full of “the found”,
because the Church is no “sanctuary for the saints”, but will always be a “hospital for the sinners.”
The real key to understanding this parable is to go back to the beginning of chapter 18,
where the disciples where worried about who was the greatest, about who was in or out.
The key to kingdom living is to be as humble as a child and think of ourselves first,
not as those who are among the “found” but as those who are still seeking, still, in some ways, “lost”.
We dare not be like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, the other lost son,
who was resentful of the attention and resources graciously offered to his crazy little brother.
We dare not complain if the Shepherd wants us to welcome, and rejoice with,
and even support with our resources those who have long been away.
If someone shows up at church after being gone for months or even years, we rejoice!
We don’t ask them where they’ve been or make them feel guilty – we rejoice that they are here!
If a family member initiates communication, after months or even years of separation or division,
the first thing we do is rejoice and be glad!
If someone we know has been down a path that was not good or even dangerous,
but has found their way back onto more level ground, we do not scold, but we rejoice with them!
Understanding the love of the Good Shepherd comes with the remembrance of those times
when we have truly been lost and then found again by the grace of God.
You may or may not have strayed very far physically or geographically in your life.
You may or may not have had a season when you were “out there”, alone,
doing things you should not have done.
But are there any among us who can claim that they have never strayed spiritually
from the presence of God?
Are there any among us who have never had times or seasons in their life when they felt lost,
or at least separated from the Good Shepherd?
Are there any who have never experienced the grace of restoration – unto God and others?
What do you think?, Jesus asked. Does the shepherd not leave the 99 to go search for the one?
Was this a rhetorical question? Was it obvious to all first century Galileans that, of course,
the shepherd would leave the 99 in the charge of his fellow shepherds and go find the one?
Or was this a live question debated among the shepherds themselves?
What do you think about this in relation to current day matters?
In relation to matters of how we organize the church or how we run public schools
or the ways that we organize our government?
Should the community not organize its resources over seeking after and helping the ones that are “least”?
Should not the community not rejoice greatly over the restoration
of even one who was lost and now is found?
Should we not welcome any prodigal home with open arms and elaborate feast?
In closing, I want to return to the theological underpinnings of this parable,
to the truth about God’s good intentions for all,
the truth that guides and directs our hearts and minds as disciples of Jesus.
This truth is related to a quote I discovered at the old political prison in Johannesburg,
South Africa, a place where tremendous human indignities had been suffered.
In that terrible place, where thousands had been beaten, malnourished, and often unjustly imprisoned,
a sign now reads:
“A nation (will) not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones.”
(Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom)
God will not judge our church or our nation according to the condition of its highest citizens,
but by the conditions of the least and the lost and the lowest.
What do you think?, Jesus asks.
Are you the one who feels lost and who needs to come home?
Or, perhaps today you are feeling “found”. If so, are you prepared to leave the 99 and seek the one?
Who is that one that you must seek this week?
Remember, Jesus said,
It is not the will of your Father in heaven that (even) one of these little ones should be lost.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
July 9, 2017
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Jamie Butcher was born and raised in the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. She grew up at Central Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Virginia, and tried to spend every minute of every summer at Holston Presbytery Camp in Banner Elk, North Carolina.
Join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.
Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030