14th Sunday After Pentecost

14 Pentecost 14.22 “Lost and Found” Luke 15:1-10

I don’t think I’ve ever preached a good sermon on this text. I probably shouldn’t lead with that? But I want to set reasonable expectations for you this morning—like mom did for you with that new girlfriend (seriously cute) you were gushing about, sophomore year high school. Mom smiles, goes: “So, where did you meet?” and you go, sheepishly, “In detention”. And she’s like, “Oh, that’s promising.” Which… it wasn’t. Always listen to mom, kids. She’s smarter than you think.

Anyway, maybe this was a good Sunday for the vicar to preach? Yes; I agree. But he got back too late from his vacation to properly prepare and I didn’t think his headspace was right for preaching. He seemed distracted by other concerns…

Besides, I’ve heard you should always get back on the horse that threw you. And this text is a horse that’s thrown me for over 30 years. I’ve never really gotten it and it’s tough to preach on a text that you can’t quite figure out.

I get that it’s about Jesus and his love. But there are some strange things I can’t get my head around here. Think through it with me, please…

The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (A big Pharisee no-no, dontcha know?). And Jesus tells a parable that seems simple but has some tricky bits to it.

Right off the bat he asks: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” Now, I don’t know about ancient shepherds but, having plied the trade for 30 years with Christ’s sheep, I think leaving 99 sheep defenseless to go after one bad lost one does not seem like good policy. It seems like a great way to lose all your sheep. Hey… maybe the one that wandered doesn’t want to be found, anyway? Not all transfers are bad, I’ve come to see, over the years.

And the Pharisees don’t strike me as the kind of guys who would risk losing 99 sheep just to save one (that wasn’t so great and belonged in detention anyway). It just doesn’t sound like them, does it? They seem very pragmatic, bottom-line kind of guys. Because the tax collectors and sinners (I get) are metaphorically lost sheep and Jesus kind of ignores the Pharisees in favor of the lost souls (as we’ve heard the last couple weeks 😉 and that annoys them greatly

So, is Jesus being sarcastic, here? Because I’ve always thought that the Pharisees would go, “We’d never do that!” But if Jesus is trying to help them understand why he pays more attention to the those they see as a lost cause, why he’s more eager to retrieve one bad apple than to keep 99 good ones secure, then I’m puzzled over how this parable helps them understand that? It simply seems to highlight that Jesus has different priorities than they do—that he values mercy more than justice, and has a soft spot for the lost, difficult one. But how does the parable help the Pharisees or us appreciate why Jesus does that?

It just seems to make Jesus’ love for sinners and lost causes more mysterious, not less. Does he want us to understand him and his love, or not? What is the point to this parable, then, for us, exactly? It does not seem like advice for us on tending our own sheep, yet doesn’t really explain Jesus’ shepherding methods at all…

Same with the lost coin. The woman who forgets about 9 silver coins and does nothing but turn the house upside down looking for the one lost coin—and if she finds it, is so excited she invites her friends for a party that probably costs more than the one silver coin she found and seems to come out worse, not better, is also… puzzling.

But my biggest problem is the idea that Jesus leaves his 99 sheep in the open country, defenseless, while he searches high and low for the one bad girl. How does this fit in with the many passages in Scriptures where Jesus says (as in Joshua) “I will never leave you or forsake you”, that he’s the good shepherd who knows and guards his sheep always, and at the end of Matthew promises us that “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”?

How do you square these lovely promises that Jesus never leaves us alone in the wilderness with this parable where he seems to suggest that he would leave 99 perfectly good sheep in order to hunt down one bad one? There are certainly times when it seems the church has been left easy prey for the devil and the rulers of the present darkness. And Jesus saying “Well, I was looking for the one lost one!” doesn’t really inspire confidence or love for Jesus in my heart. It makes me wonder what his priorities are…

That Jesus loves the lamb he met in detention (kind of loses his mind over her) would not be something I think mom would approve; and mother always knows best, right?

But then it hit me… maybe the 99 are not Jesus’ sheep? (He does suggest they’re the Pharisees)!

This thought made me very happy because it does seem to tie the whole story together. Now look at vs. 7 again. Jesus says “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”

The Pharisees definitely fit the 99 righteous persons who need no repentance descriptionthey’re confident those needing retrieving (like the hedge fund managers and hussies) are never going to repent. “They’ll lead you on a merry chase, Jesus; they’ll break your heart, like the girl you met in detention who can’t possibly turn out to be the one…”

But Jesus says elsewhere that’s the Pharisees’ problem: they don’t think they’re the unpromising girl in detention. But they are. Indeed, they are worser than the hedge funders and hookers because that group at least knows they’ve gone wrong, gotten lost, and need forgiving; whereas the Pharisees’ fake righteousness keeps them from the one thing needful: repentance and faith in Jesus’ love, mercy + forgiveness of sins.

Bottom line: Jesus never leaves any of his sheep—99 or 99 million!—alone to go off on a quixotic quest. He is ever, always with all his sheep, to the end of the age! But… if you’re sure you have it altogether, that you’re not a lost lamb needing a good shepherd, you are not his sheep; and you’ll perish outside his fold…

The Pharisees wanted Jesus to fawn over their (supposed) righteousness—grumbled that he had eyes only for the lost and straying to love and forgive. And that made them stiff-arm Jesus and deny him a dance…

So, the story finally made sense to me. The righteous are always lost sinners Jesus meets, wins and woos, in detention. It’s only the lost who get found; and when you think you’re found, then you’re lost

This is the paradox of repentance. “Anyone who believes in total depravity can’t be all bad”. We are dogs always chasing our own tails; and, in that chase, the great dance with Jesus begins; and his love, at last, wins and woos us back.

Jesus always speaks of his church in the singular. He does not have hundreds, thousands, millions of admirers. He just has one bride. Heaven is not hordes lined up for a whirl. It’s one lost sinner alone (together) with Jesus our Good Shepherd. Jesus has himself a church one lost lamb at a time. In this is heaven’s joy, offered just for you at His Table, now. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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