Lectionary 24C + Sunday, September 15, 2019
Texts: Luke 15:1-10
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch here on Vimeo (Minute 29:12)

In the name of Jesus. AMEN.

One of my favorite things to do is to swim in the ocean. My favorite spot to swim, or at least the most frequent spot where I swim, is on the Cape. And if you’ve watched the news this summer, you know what else has been swimming in the waters of the Cape: sharks!

So here’s how it went this summer, on my week of vacation on the Cape, when I went swimming every day. I would be floating on my back in water as smooth as glass, the bright summer sun warming my face and body, the cares and concerns of life melting away, my body and mind relaxed and at rest, and then I would tense up and look around: sharks! Are there sharks? Where are the sharks?

In response to the growing number of sharks, which experts say are on the Cape because of the growing numbers of seals, which other experts say is a recovery of the seal population to historically normal numbers, experts advise several things for those of us drawn to the water even as the theme song to the movie Jaws plays in our heads.

One important piece of advice they give is to swim in groups – don’t swim alone. To put that positively, if you swim in a group, there are other eyes watching for sharks, there are people to help, God forbid, in the case of shark attack. The cynic in me, on the other hand, says that if a group of 100 swimmers encounters a hungry shark than I, as one person in that group, have only a 1% chance of being bitten, verses if I alone encountered a hungry shark, then the odds aren’t quite as good for me.

There is danger in being alone.  There is safety in being in numbers.

Perhaps that’s why the shepherd left the 99 in order to seek out the 1?

From a Western Capitalistic lens, this gospel story doesn’t make any sense. We might say to the shepherd, with the voices of financial planners in our ears, “Cut your losses and run!” A 1% loss on investment is disappointing but tolerable, a 99% loss? Catastrophic!

But could it be that the shepherd knew that the 99 sheep had what the 1 sheep didn’t The shepherd knew the 99 sheep had each other! Each of those 99 sheep had 98 other pairs of eyes watching, and ears listening for wolves.

The 1 lost sheep, however, was completely on its own. It had to rely only on its own eyes and ears and senses. And maybe those senses were dulled or impaired by injury or weariness?

While the good shepherd leaves the 99 shepherd-less for a moment, the shepherd does not leave them defenseless. The shepherd leaves them with each other. The shepherd goes after the one who truly is defenseless.

The truth and Good News of this Gospel story is that Jesus seeks out the lost! And in the context of these sermons on disciples,we learn that because Jesus leaves the 99 to seek out the lost, we as disciples today, seek out the lost.

Today is our annual Church Picnic.

We recognize that for most of us our summer travels are over. We are settling back into the program year, the school year, and what many consider, our “normal” routines. Coming together for our Annual Picnic, we come together as the 99 sheep.

In community with one another, in prayer, encouragement, consolation, accountability, and relationships with fellow disciples, there is safety, and comfort, and protection even in the broken community of sinners we are. It is the blessing and grace of Christ to bless God’s children in community with one another

But this community that comes together, is also mindful that we are not complete, we are not whole, there are those who are missing. The focus of the gospel teaching, is on those who are missing because they don’t know if God loves them. They don’t know if because of their sexuality, or skin color, or age, or economic class and status, or physical ability, or nation of origin, or just because of awful circumstance of life, if God’s promises actually extend to them.

The context for the teaching in today’s Gospel is between Jesus and the Pharisees – the Pharisees the interpreters of the law, the self-appointed keepers of tradition, those who passed on judgments about who was in and who was out. It was the Pharisees who were grumbling because Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. They were upset, because Jesus was actively seeking out the lost sheep, those actively excluded, and bringing them home.

Now, before we pass a quick judgment on the Pharisees, because it’s easy to pick on those bad Pharisees who always seem to get it wrong, we need to pause for a moment of truth. We have to admit the times we grumble at the inclusive mercy of God. We must confess our own discomfort, when God’s mercy extends wider than we believe is right or helpful or wise.

In our sin, and as we each make confession at the font, we confess we are Pharisees who wrap our prejudices around our faith, justifying our fears as we cling to warped understandings of doctrine that have nothing to do with the mercy of Jesus Christ. In our sin we perpetuate divisions among us by finding excuses to maintain schisms in relationships …“Well, if only that person would start doing, or stop doing, or start or stop saying … XYZ … then things would be OK.”

This Gospel reading challenges the Pharisee inside each and every single one of us, the Pharisee inside each of us that would drag Jesus into the middle of our disputes, claiming him on our side, and getting upset and uncomfortable when anyone would challenge our notion that Jesus is not on our side.

 As I hope you know by now, opportunities for “Dialogues on Race” are being presented to the congregation. Some say the ELCA is the “whitest” denomination in the United States. Now if we are the whitest denomination because people of color are simply finding more connection in other denominations, that would be disappointing, but that would be one thing.

It is, however, something quite different, and quite sad and awful, if we are the whitest denomination because, as others suggest, we are making people of color feel excluded by barriers we are putting up to full participation and inclusion. It’s not that these barriers are intentional, but rather, in our whiteness, we don’t even see and recognize the barriers we are setting up.

We are reflecting on race as a congregation, and the ELCA is charged in the same way, so that we can see what we have not seen, and we can tear down those structures, attitudes, and systems among us which exclude and marginalize and promote something quite different than the radical grace and welcome of Jesus Christ.

Let me be clear: people of color are not lost because they are people of color. This is not about white people rescuing people of color. We need to confess and repent of such actions in all of their many forms.

But rather, if the way we talk and think about Christ and faith, and the ways we organize ourselves as Church, make people of color feel excluded from God’s promises, and not able to participate in their God-given fullness in the life of this church, then we are not really proclaiming Christ, we are instead Pharisees proclaiming our own fears and prejudices, our own self-made versions of Christ, we are proclaiming a hierarchical structure for society.

In fact, our dialogues on race might just be the way Christ is seeking out we who are lost as a denomination! Through these conversations, the good shepherd, Jesus Christ, might just in fact be reaching out to us, calling us home, calling us out of the dangers into which we have strayed! Christ, the good shepherd, leading us back home into the true safety and protection of life lived in the companionship and safety of God’s flock – we the lost sheep being welcomed home into the flock containing peoples of all tribes, nations, and languages, proclaiming clearly God’s love for all peoples.

The Good News today, is the Good News of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who actively seeks out the lost. It is the good news of a savior, the Good Shepherd, who calls us together, and then leaves us in the blessing and protection of each other, as he goes back out into the world to seek others who are lost.  The concept of a savior who leaves us behind with each other might seem scary and uncomfortable, but it is indeed our hope and salvation!

It is good news, because when we are out there … in those times in life when we feel alone, when we feel helpless, when we feel defenseless … we can trust in the promise of baptism, that sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will seek after us, our savior will drop everything to come to us, to lead us back into the flock, back into relationship with God, back into the communion of saints.

Alive in Christ, filled with faith as disciples, may we be bold in our lives to seek out the lost!

Alive in Christ, and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, may we have faith to know that whether we are the 99 in here,or whether we are the 1 out there, we have the promise of our savior, Jesus Christ, who constantly seeks us out, rescues us when we are lost, and joins us to the blessing of life lived in the communion of saints now and forever.

Thanks be to God.