Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Jesus is for Losers
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Luke 15:1-10
“Which one of you, when you lose one of your 100 sheep, leaves the 99 others and goes looking for the lost one?”
If you’re not familiar with this parable, if you haven’t heard a bunch of sermons on it already or if you’re not a shepherd, you might not really understand the question. So let’s reframe it. Let’s say that you agreed to chaperone an elementary school field trip. Suppose this trip is a tour of the Capitol building and somehow you have ended up with responsibility for 50 second- graders. What were you thinking? I don’t know, but let’s just go with it for a minute. So you’re down on State Street, trying to keep 50 children in relative order, making sure that each one gets off the school bus and through security, that the group waits for each other and no one goes off with those people who are singing protest chants, and that each one of them is on the same staircase you’re on. Then the tour is over and you’re back outside on the Plaza and you realize that someone is missing -- that precious little red-headed child is nowhere to be seen. Which one of you would leave the 49 children alone on the Empire Plaza to go look for the one who is missing? Would any of us do that? Please raise your hand if you would because I’m not sending my child on a field trip with you.
OK, here’s another one. Let’s say that you discover that you have lost a one dollar coin – a Susan B. Anthony or a golden Sacagawea. It’s just gone. You’re supposed to be at work in fifteen minutes, but you call your boss and say that you just can’t come in today because you have to find this dollar. And then you lose a whole day’s pay because you are pulling out couch cushions looking for a dollar. Which one of you would do that?
None of us would. I’m not a shepherd, so when I hear Jesus’ question, I don’t know the expected answer. I don’t think about what would happen to 99 sheep left alone in the wilderness. Without really thinking about it, I might mentally translate the parable into lost and found language that gets used a lot in churches and think that the right answer is “I would. Everyone would.” But when Jesus says, “which one among you would do that?” the expected answer is no one. No one leaves 49 children unsupervised while looking for one lost child. No one leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to rescue one. No one loses a day’s wages, goes to great effort to find it, and then throws a party that costs more than a day’s wages in celebration.
The stories that Jesus tells are often first about God. And so in these stories, we have the image of God as the persistent shepherd and the woman with a broom. This shepherd and this woman are willing to go to a great deal of trouble to find what is lost. Think of hiking over hills, being out in the rain or dark of night, climbing through brambles, leaning over the edges of cliffs all to find one lost dumb sheep. Or of all that housework – moving furniture, sweeping up dog hair (in my house), going through stacks of magazines, the recycling bins, crawling around on the floor – all for the sake of a dollar coin. The sheep and the coin don’t do anything to help themselves get found. And so the point of these parables is that God is in the finding business. God is unendingly seeking and searching and saving. We don’t do anything to help ourselves be found, or to deserve being found. God is the one who will seek us no matter.
Luke says that Jesus tells these stories for a reason. He tells them because the religious leaders are outraged at the people Jesus hangs out with because they’re sinners, you know, prostitutes and drug dealers, thieves and gangsters, people who are hung over or wasted much of the time. They’re righteously indignant that Jesus can be friends with them and at the same time, act like he’s a moral, religious leader.
“Jesus is for losers.” I’ve seen that statement available as a T-shirt. And a coffee mug. At first glance, it seems to be a put-down, a sneer at Christianity, as if anyone who would follow Jesus is a pathetic loser. But if you look again, you see a Bible reference and you realize that it’s actually a statement of faith. Because Jesus is for losers, for people who don’t have their stuff together, for the broken and the broken-hearted, for those who have messed up and tried again and messed up and tried again and maybe think its not worth trying any more because they know they are losers! And that is what really ticked off the good people, the religious winners in Jesus’ time. Jesus was hanging out with losers and he didn’t seem to know it. Or if he knew it, he didn’t seem to care. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying himself.
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey was a Biblical scholar who spent 40 years living and teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. His major gift was in helping Westerners understand Jesus in Middle Eastern culture. He died in May of this year. His final book was called The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament. In this book, he talks about the role of the shepherd in Psalm 23 and also in the writings of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah.
Bailey says that the prophets announce God’s judgment against the shepherds, in this case, the leaders of Israel. In Ezekiel 34, God says “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. . . I am against the shepherds; and I will require my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their tending of the sheep;” And in Zechariah 10, “My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for the Lord of hosts cares for his flock.”
So Jesus chooses to tell a story about a shepherd and sheep, knowing that his audience is already very aware of these pronouncements by the prophets. Jesus begins by blaming the shepherd for the loss of the sheep. He says “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them . . .” The typical speech pattern in the Middle East would be to say that the sheep has gone astray, the sheep got itself lost, so that the blame is not placed on the speaker. But Jesus chooses his words deliberately – the shepherd has lost the sheep – “and in so doing, he gently but firmly invokes the long prophetic tradition about bad shepherds.”
The religious leaders, the people objecting to Jesus’ hanging out with losers – they are the current shepherds of Israel. Jesus is criticizing them, but in a much milder way than the prophets had. Bailey images Jesus saying this to his audience:
“. . . you are not trapped by the past. We all know that the bad shepherds in the writings of the prophets who lost their sheep and failed to even try to bring them back were harshly punished for their failures. But you are not trapped into following that path. You are free. I have pioneered a way forward. When a shepherd loses his sheep he naturally goes after it until he finds it. He then carries it home and has a party. It is a simple as that. The lost that I am ‘bringing home’ are sheep that you yourselves have lost. I know that you don’t like them and that you despise me for going after them. But when they are lost – you lose because they are a part of your flock! When they are found, it is your gain! Can’t you see it? ”
Parables are just stories open for interpretation. Jesus shaped this story in a certain way. It could have focused on:
1. the bad shepherd who loses his sheep
2. the good shepherd who goes after it
3. the price paid by the shepherd to rescue the lost sheep
4. joy in the community when the sheep is brought home.
My reading of these two parables is that the emphasis is on joy. When the shepherd returns, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me.” When the woman finds her coin, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says, “rejoice with me.”
The word for “friends” is haberim. The shepherd and the woman invite the haberim to a party. The word haberim was also used for the elite guild of the Pharisees. It was a kind of club for those who held to the strictest interpretation of the law, the highest standards for right living. So the question Jesus seems to be asking is whether the religious Haberim, the apparent winners in the world, will join the party and rejoice with other friends and neighbors.
C.S. Lewis said that joy is “the serious business of heaven.” “If Lewis is right, and I want to believe that he is, then joy is the purpose of history. It’s what creation is for, and so it’s what Christian community is meant to be about because the Church is called to be a foretaste of God’s coming [reign]. So here Luke gives us a glimpse at how the big story finishes, of how history will end – with the unbridled joy of a loving shepherd who celebrates, together with others, the wonderful truth that the neighborhood is filling up with people who don’t deserve to be there.”
During a children’s sermon, the question came "Would you go after the one lost sheep or stay with the ninety-nine?" To which one boy quickly responded, "I'd go after the one lost sheep, but I'd take the other ninety-nine with me." What a great answer!
One of the best ways I’ve heard of describing our purpose of joining God’s search is a story about a little girl who was lost. In her book Anne Lamott tells how the little girl was frightened, but a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in his car and drove around the neighborhood until she finally saw her church. She said, “You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.” Lamott concludes, “And that is why I have stayed so close to mine—because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church . . . I can always find my way home”
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says “The invitation is not about being rescued by Jesus over and over again, but about joining him in rounding up God’s herd and recovering God’s treasure. It is about questioning the idea that there are certain conditions the lost must meet before they are eligible to be found, or that there are certain qualities they must exhibit before we will seek them out. It is about trading in our high standards on a strong flashlight and swapping our “good examples” for a good broom. It is about the joy of finding.”
God’s searching love is relentless. God whoops it up whenever the lost are found. For those who join God in rounding up the herds and recovering God’s treasure, that joy is contagious. It’s the joy of discovery, of finding, even of finding one’s own self among the lost and the found. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014), p. 123.
 Bailey, p 124.
 Bailey, p. 125.
 Bailey, p. 132.
 Bailey, p. 111.
 These beautiful words are from the sermon Homecoming by
 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, (New York: Random House, 2000), p. 55.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Lost and Found Department” in The Preaching Life, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993) p. 151