S. Pentecost 14.19 “The Whole Following Thing…” Luke 15:1-10

    You know how often I say “this is my favorite bible passage!”? Long-time members will smile; I’ve said that about so many passages that most people probably think I just love every single passage in Holy Scriptures (and OK: I really like the Bible. I know that’s nothing profound or anything, I mean, heck; we all do, right? But I do really like It maybe a little more than the average bear likes honey). But I have to admit: there are a few passages (cough, Food Laws!, cough) and even one or two whole books (cough, Proverbs!, ‘scuze me!) that… not so much. Our Gospel today is far better than those examples, to me; but still—I’ve never loved it. I told our Tuesday morning lectionary study group: “I don’t think I’ve ever preached a good sermon on this text”. And… no one in the group disagreed! Now, some of them have heard me six times on this one! So, uh, well… yeah…

    I know that’s not a promising start to a sermon (maybe honesty’s not always the best policy?). But here’s two rays of hope: Ray One: I believe sermons should never be more than 10 minutes; Ray Two: the old saying: “10th time’s a charm!” Or as the tennis player Vitas Gerulaitis said, first time he beat Ivan Lendl (in 17 tries!) “No one goes 17-0 against me!”

    I think the reason I’ve never preached a good sermon on this text is that I never really got it. Now, I believe the Scriptures are perfectly clear and make us clear on God’s Way, Truth, and Life—along with Dr. Luther and all faithful Christians. But as Luther points out in Bondage of the Will (his favorite of all his works that we’re studying Wed. evenings 7 pm): the clarity of Scriptures applies to the Book as a whole: there are plenty of individual passages that are cloudy to all of us because we struggle with the grammar of the original Hebrew or Greek (hard languages! But classical language pro Katie Becker is helping us with the Greek on Thursdays nights at 7pm and you are welcome to join).

    But some passages are unclear to some of us because of our own sinful obtuseness. We bring lots of preconceptions as to what the Scriptures ought to say that can often obscure for us what they actually do say. And I do this too. Now, to be honest (and not falsely modest): I think I do it a lot less than the vast majority of bible readers, because I am a well-trained professional who had some awfully good teachers; but I do it, and I’ve done it to this passage for a long time…

    But last Tuesday I had a little breakthrough on this text. After confessing that it has always seemed to me like a really bad idea to abandon your 99 sheep in the wilderness, leave them to the tender mercies of the wolves to go and chase after 1 lost one (the least promising one of all!)—that this seemed like a good way to end up with no sheep at all; one of the bible study members piped up and said “But, pastor: won’t the sheepfollow their Shepherd? I mean, if He goes chasing after 1 lost one, won’t the others all follow, stay with Him, and not get lost?”

    And I went: “Oh. Hey. Yeah! You’re right! Sheep are kind of known for that whole following thing, aren’t they? (This particular member raised actual sheep and goats so he knows stuff like this, first-hand. I’m starting to think we should have seminarians spend a few months on a working ranch for their social ministry training. Senior year in high school, among our many good ideas, my buddy Brad and I wanted to go to Deep Springs College—a working ranch as well as a very “alternative” 2 year college—but our parents said “No.”(as they did most of our ideas then). But maybe it was a good idea? I met a Deep Springs alum some years ago who seemed like a great guy—going to this little Christian college, Yale Divinity School; sounded familiar…

    Anyway, Joe’s insight was an Epiphany for me. Finally, I get it!—the whole following thing. I think I missed it for years because of reading too much Robert Farrar Capon—an eggy Episcopalian theologian (who is not too good at following what Jesus says, really.) Which is why every pastor needs a Tuesday morning lectionary group to read the Bible with. Because we all have our blind spots. And sometimes, when you read the thing 27 times, you can reinforce the blindspots as much as the good spots unless you have someone to backstop you. Practice doesn’t make perfect—just makes permanent.

    That little insight—the whole following thing sheep do with their Shepherd—changed everything for me. Like Luther in the Tower, finally getting it, that the righteousness of God is not that which we must do by our strenuous doings, but is, rather; that which gets done to us, graciously, through faith in Christ alone…

    Sheep will follow their Shepherd! Jesus says this in the passage that I truly love above most all others, in John 10: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me! And I give them eternal life and no one can snatch them from My hand!” How could I think Jesus would ever abandon 99 sheep in rescuing a single one?

    Well, great question: what threw me off was this: Jesus tells this parable to the Pharisees and scribes (the religious elite of the day, the Bishops, District Presidents, sem profs, foreign missionaries) and asks if they wouldn’t—having a hundred sheep and losing 1—leave the 99 and chase the 1 deep into the darkness? Well… no, actually they wouldn’t.

    My trouble, simply put, was the Pharisee part. I didn’t notice before that these are the Pharisee’s Sheep—that is sheep as the Pharisees define them, not as Jesus knows them. Pharisee sheep are do-gooders, Really Nice Guys, the ones the world considers true Christians. They need no repentance. But the truly Righteous—different Story! They always need repentance, always need a hand, always need a Shepherd to save them…

    One of Luther’s greatest lines in Bondage of the Will is: “the Church is hidden, the saints known only to God.” If Jesus charges off into a wild, dark, and scary wood to find a lost lamb, maybe 99 will refuse to follow. But the sheep of Christ’s fold will always follow their Shepherd, come hell or high water.

       It’s a test! The Pharisees insist they are good Sheep. But because they won’t follow Jesus—if the Way gets dark and scary, or promises numerical and financial losses!—this proves they aren’t sheep at all: just wolves in sheep’s clothes. It’s the whole following thing: the 99 who’d let Jesus out of their sight—if the Way gets dark, stormy, or scary—because, that Way, there be monsters! Well then(!)… it shows they were never sheep of Christ’s fold…(!)

    And this fits perfectly with the whole Story Scriptures tell of Jesus: life on earth is short. Eternity is forever. All our earthly life’s just a little test, same one as Jesus set before Simon Peter on the beach, after another miraculous catch of fish, after the Lord’s Death and Resurrection: “Simon, son of Jonah: do you love Me more than these?” Will you follow Me if the Way gets dark? Will you trust I AM the Way, the Truth, the Life?

    Simon doesn’t just say: “Yes!”. Stone doesn’t trust himself like that, anymore. Simon says: “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” Peter isn’t sure he’ll follow faithfully—he believes Jesus will catch us by the Cross, find us lost in the woods, sweep us off our feet into the whole following thing—which is Peace, surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.