Scripture: Matthew 18:10-14
One of my go-to hobbies is reading. However, my hobby is reading a specific kind of book. This will not be a surprise to many, but I specifically like to read Star Wars books. There are a lot of them. By the end of 2020 there will be seven new Star Wars book released. The book I am most excited about comes out in November and it is The Empire Strikes Back: From a Certain Point of View. This tells the stories of the background characters in the movie. For instance one of the stories will focus on Luke Skywalker’s gunner Dak, who has exactly two lines in the movie. There have been several Star Wars books published that focus on the characters and aliens seen in the background. Personally, those are some of my favorite books. Often in the stories we enjoy whether it be in books, movies, or TV our focus often stays on the larger than life heroes. We often identify with, empathize with, and really put ourselves in the shoes of these characters. I appreciate how in Star Wars the characters in the background are not just extras but they have names and stories of their own. I like the Star Wars stories that focus on the background characters because I like seeing the story from the other side. Getting a glimpse of the story from the background gives a greater understanding and appreciation for the main story. By December of this year, two Star Wars books that focus on background characters will have been released, so I must not be the only fan that enjoys this unique perspective. It make me wonder though, if changing our focus when we read scripture might also give us a greater understanding and appreciation.
Often when we read scripture we associate ourselves with the primary characters. We put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples or the perhaps the people that Jesus is healing. When we read scripture we often seek to find its application in our lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with that because by seeking to apply scripture we gain a greater understanding. The unintended consequence though is that in doing so we tend to put ourselves in the spotlight. This morning’s scripture is a great example of that. A version of the same parable appears in Luke, and in both instances it is a straight forward story of how the shepherd leave the ninety-nine behind to find the one lost sheep. In both instances the way the story is told it invites, more over- it encourages us, to cast ourselves in the role of the lost sheep.
Everyone who has come to faith gets there differently, but for many people the idea of being a lost sheep resonates. For many of us that seems to be an apt description of where their life was before knowing Christ. We were lost, alone, hurting, with no idea where to turn. We felt like a sheep that had gone astray and had been left to the wolves. Then Jesus likes a shepherd came to lead us. We experience the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God has Jesus our savior lights up the shadows, climbs the mountains, kicks down the walls, tears down the lies, and leaves behind the ninety-nine just to find us.
This image of a wandering sheep who the shepherd cares enough for to track down can also resonates with people who grew up in faith in a church setting. Our faith journey is rarely a straight, flat path. As we navigate the twists and turns of life, our relationship with God can get lost along the way. Tragedies, tribulations, or just complacency can lead us to find ourselves wandering away and lost from the flock. Many lifelong, faithful Christians have times in their lives when even though they did not deserve it, nor could they earn it they found that God’s love and forgiveness did not give up on them. These disciples can testify that in their dark moments when they strayed, Jesus still did not give up on them.
It is likely that many of us here today through our experiences can cast ourselves in the role of the lost sheep. We know what it feels like to have the over-whelming love of God chase us down and find us when we most needed it. We likely could share beautiful testimony after testimony of our own stories of Jesus and how we have experienced his love when we felt most lost. Many of us can easily share how we have experienced being the lost sheep that the shepherd went to find. However, I think if we looked at the story from the other side we will see that we also have experience at being the ninety-nine. In fact, if you can claim that you have been walking the path of discipleship faithfully for a while then you absolutely are part of the ninety-nine right now. If we consider this parable from that perspective, I think we can gain new understanding on the scripture, our faith, and relationship with our savior.
To understand the perspective the ninety-nine we need to first understand why the one lost sheep might have gotten separated in the first place, because there is a chance that the ninety-nine have some responsibility in that. By natural design, sheep are not supposed to get lost. They are herd animals and they have a strong herd instinct. Sheep naturally follow each other. When a sheep does get distanced from its herd, it will instinctively look for them and then move to the first sheep it sees. Often the only way that a sheep gets separated is when it is injured, sick, or in some other way distressed. Instead of sticking with the sheep in crisis, the herd moves on as a group leaving the one behind.
What is especially tragic is that it would not take much to change this. If just one or two sheep stayed with the distressed one then other sheep would be triggered by their herding instinct to also stay until the whole direction of the herd is changed. This does not usually happen though as the draw to stick with the majority is impossible to resist for most sheep. Even though it is not a consciously malicious decision, often a sheep gets lost because the herd chooses to move away from it.
We are not herding animals, but as we put ourselves in the perspective of the ninety-nine we can see that a similar pattern is found in human social groups. Small communities, like churches, tend to have all kinds of unspoken rules and expectations. I remember hearing a horror story from a church once. This church was not terribly big, and they had recently had a new family start attending. This family was not a traditional church family. The parents had a bit of a checkered past full of youthful indiscretions. However, they had both come to faith and they wanted to ensure their young child was raised in the church and they had chosen this small church to be their church. After this family had been attending for a couple of months, a church meeting one night took a wrong turn and became a chance for the old guard to air their grievances about this family. Their kid was loud and distracting, they did not dress in their Sunday best, and apparently the biggest issue was they brought coffee cups and snacks into the sanctuary. This family’s perceived shortcomings were named off one by one in rapid fire succession. The young pastor was honestly horrified, and it must have shown on their face. Sensing this one of the church leaders tried to walk it back a little by offering up, “They just have not learned how to act right yet, to act like us.” While not actively complaining, that attitude honestly was not better. When the story was relayed to me the young pastor would not have been surprised if that family stopped attending. People are not sheep, but the draw to stick with the majority, to be an “us” is strong and in doing so we can be the ninety-nine who left behind the one.
In trying to look at this parable from the perspective the ninety-nine, I realize that I have been a bit harsh. A final consideration of the ninety-nine is a positive one. It is also one that shows how to overcome and be better than the negative. For all of the faults we can assign to the ninety-nine sheep, they are still sheep of the shepherd. If we read the shepherd as our savior and us as the ninety-nine then that means we are sheep of The Good Shepherd. We are part of the flock that knows the shepherd’s voice and follows where he goes. Jesus as the good shepherd shows the same never-ending love for the ninety-nine that he has for the one. The way we experience that love, though changes, and feels different. When we are the one, we experience God’s love as pursuing us, as coming to rescue us, and ultimately as saving us when we could not save ourselves. When we are part of the ninety-nine we experience God’s love as providing for us daily, as protecting us constantly, and as leading us to green pastures. When we are lost and found, then the love of God is an amazing love of discovery. When we are the ninety-nine then God’s love is one of deep knowing, as Jesus himself says in John 10:14: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me- just as the Father knows me and I know the Father- and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
If we put ourselves in the position of the ninety-nine, then we can see the faults of the group but when we remember that the ninety-nine are still part of God’s flock then we see how to overcome the faults. Churches tend to fail people when they are inward looking, when like a herd, instinctively follow the group without considering who is being left behind. Christians fail to love one another and leave behind the most vulnerable when we follow things that are not Jesus. We collectively fail people when we make our faith all about being part of the herd. There should not be purity tests to determine if someone belongs to the flock of God. How someone looks and dresses does not determine if someone belongs. What boxes a person checks on a ballot does not determine if they belong. What determines if someone belongs to the flock of God is if they follow the good shepherd, if they recognize his voice. So let’s follow the good shepherd.
Jesus is the kind of shepherd that will leave behind the ninety-nine to find the lost one. We should follow his example as the ninety-nine and not let the one get lost in the first place. When someone in or midst is hurting, instead of bunching up closer away from them, we should surround that person with love and care. When someone deviates from what we might expect, instead of excluding them and waiting for them to act right, like one of us. We should love them anyway just as they are. We can trust the good shepherd to work out any deeper spiritual issues while we love and include them in the flock. When we view ourselves as the ninety-nine we have two choices. We can be a flock that is happy with being at ninety-nine, just as we are, or we can be a flock that is looking to welcome back lost sheep so that our community grows. I feel fairly confident I know which option better follows the good shepherd, don’t you?
On this day as we consider this parable about sheep all of us are either the ninety-nine or we are the lost one. If you best identify with the one who is lost then may you Jesus is coming to get you. May you know that there is no shadow he won’t light up, no mountain he won’t climb up, no wall he won’t kick down, no lie he won’t tear down coming after you. If you identify with the one on this day then may you be discovered by the love of God. If on this day, you better identify with the ninety-nine, then may you also know that the love of God is still there for you just like it was when you were found. If you are part of the ninety-nine then may you hear the voice of the good shepherd, may you follow where he leads. May we all be mindful of who we leave behind and may we be willing to welcome in or welcome back the lost sheep when they are found. In doing so may we declare that this is a place where all of God’s sheep can experience the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.