A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“Which 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 Gospel today is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Not many of us have herded sheep, though I remember a couple of days of sheep shearing on my grandfather’s farm. Jesus could count on more of the people who listened to him understanding what was involved in being a shepherd. A hundred sheep was a pretty good-sized band for one person, and it would account for the bulk of that person’s assets and income.
A shepherd would take the sheep out into open country to graze—generally that land didn’t belong to the shepherd, it was just open country and he made his living by finding grass and water so that the sheep could grow and reproduce so that there would be wool, and meat, and new lambs to replenish the flock or sell. The sentimental side—of how sweet or cuddly the lambs might be and how much he loves them—didn’t make that much difference to most shepherds, but tending these living creatures so that they thrived and were kept safe was the whole job—if the flock dwindled or did not grow, the shepherd failed to have enough to maintain himself or his family and there would not even be any food.
The shepherd had to protect the sheep from predators and thieves, so you didn’t just leave the sheep alone. But when one turns out to be missing, the shepherd has to take the risk to leave the bulk of the flock there grazing and go find that sheep.
I was the director of a theological library. I was a librarian for over 25 years. We had about 175,000 volumes in our library, but when it came to my attention that someone wanted a book and it was missing, I became a bit of a terror until it was found. I would set aside other projects and look—where the book should be on the shelf, where it might be in transit, where it would be likely to be mis-shelved, where it could be mis-processed, where it was last seen alive… until I was sadly satisfied that the book couldn’t be found and apologize to the person who needed the book. I usually found the book. Some might question the management efficiency of having the most highly-paid administrator using all of this time to search after a single book. However, we want students and researchers to expect that the books and other resources that we say we have will be there when they need them. It is not acceptable to not care about that. The integrity of the system hangs on caring about the important details. So it is with the shepherd and this one sheep.
I’ve read commentaries, probably written by people who haven’t actually herded sheep, that say that it was irresponsible or not a good risk for the shepherd to leave the flock alone while looking for the one. Yet the integrity of the herd was broken by missing that one, and the shepherd’s job was to restore that. The image is that the shepherd searches: diligently, intelligently and quickly and he sees that sheep. He walks up to it and picks it up and puts it on his shoulders—‘you aren’t wandering off any more today’—and then hurries back to the rest of the flock, hoping that nothing has gone wrong.
The shepherd has to care, that’s his job. That’s what Jesus is getting at in telling this story: God cares, and Jesus cares, and as Christ’s body, we have to care—that’s our job. The religious leaders and the lawyers were criticizing Jesus because he was hanging around with the wrong kind of people—he shouldn’t be caring about THOSE people. But for Jesus, it was precisely the people that nobody cared about who he was there for: the children, the disabled, the homeless, the ones that we would rather just let somebody else welcome.
Today is September 11. Fifteen years ago, Paula and I vacated our apartment on Canal Street in New York a couple of months before that date to move to Washington, D.C.. I remember frequently looking out the back windows that framed the two towers of the World Trade Center. I have a friend whose view was of a fire station in midtown Manhattan. On September 11, he watched fire companies leave for the World Trade Center. That evening he saw the fire engines return without their crews. A member of our new church in Washington commanded a unit that had moved out of the affected part of the Pentagon only six weeks before. It was a tearing event, a time of great loss. With an injury like that, you can’t just recover a lost item, or rebuild a building. The body must be healed, the integrity of the whole must be restored. That takes time. But it also takes the building of trust between people, knitting together the different sorts of people who make up a country like ours, and the body of Christ. Turning inward into groups in fearfulness and anger disrupts the healing process—it is the opposite of going to find that lost sheep and restoring the integrity of the flock.
The church doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to Christ. And it is important to Christ that everyone can expect welcome in his name whenever they enter one of his churches. No person and no congregation is insignificant, the Good Shepherd seeks us out, every one of us. And every one of us is called to care for all of Christ’s flock.