A Familiar Parable
Brothers and sisters, you have heard this parable (Luke 15:3-7) many times by now haven’t you? There is a lost sheep and the shepherd goes and gets it and brings it back hooray, right?
But this is a parable and guess what, parables don’t exist to make our lives easier, they exist to make the easy parts of our lives harder. And I believe that in our efforts to make sense of our crazy lives we often let our faith and our church communities become the places where we expect easy answers and a place that conforms to our expectations and needs… this parable is Jesus’ way of saying, that’s not how God works, that’s not how the shepherd works, that’s not how heaven works, and guess what, that’s not how you are supposed to work either.
Let me tell you the story of the lost sheep from another perspective. Once there was a shepherd who had a hundred sheep and one decided that he was happy eating his food right where he was and he ended up getting lost.
Well, eventually the 99 sheep noticed that there just didn’t seem to be as many of them around as there could or should be so they organized a committee and called it the evangelism committee. Part of the committee argued that the flock would be just fine with 99 sheep what’s one sheep more or less and their job was to make sure the coffee and donuts were ready every Sunday to keep any more from wandering off. Still another part of the committee argued that the missing sheep really wasn’t a sheep at all but a goat and goats were not necessarily not welcome but if they showed up it was really necessary that they act like other sheep and not try to pass off their goatness onto them.
But, in the end, they forgot one crucial fact, while they were setting up their meetings and arguing about how to either welcome new sheep or take care of the ones that had always been there, the shepherd was already out there looking and do you know what happened? The shepherd brought that sheep back to the flock and there was much rejoicing…
So the 99 sheep were over here and the shepherd was out there doing his crazy shepherd thing like throwing seeds onto asphalt and hanging out with sinners and tax collectors but when that shepherd brought that lost sheep back to the flock all of the sheep remembered that they all followed that shepherd, each and every last one of them.
Life as the 99
Do you see where I’m going with this? All too often the church sets itself up as the 99 sheep and either they get satisfied with being the 99 or they expect that one lost person to show up, sure, but they sure better act like the rest of the sheep if they wish to belong.
But Jesus is up to something new with you and me and with your church and with the whole church on earth. You see, despite our human desire to hang out with people who look and act and basically have the same background as us, Jesus is out there gathering up the lost sheep and each and every one of those sheep has a story to tell just like you and me.
Because don’t get me wrong, each and every one of us… you and me… we were the lost sheep too! And each and every one of us has a story to tell about how God, in Jesus Christ, worked to bring you back to the fold.
For far too long we have operated under a model of church that goes Believe, Behave, Belong. In other words first you come to faith in Christ, then we dump all the rules on you… you have to look like us, talk like us, act like us, then, when you look like all of the other sheep you can belong. Now, maybe churches don’t do this kind of thing on purpose, but believe me there are plenty of lost sheep that have come through the doors of my church and yours and walked right back out again because they didn’t fit in.
Belong. Behave. Believe.
But our theology, our foundational ideas about who we are, and even our shepherd, Jesus Christ, operates a bit differently then that. Rather than Believe, Behave, and Belong, in Christ, the church and this community needs to remember what it means to switch the first and last words around. For the Christian community we are called first to belong, then to behave, and then to believe! What do I mean by that? God has created each of us with different gifts and stories to be used not for ourselves but for each other. The church exists as a gathering of people gathered by the Holy Spirit to worship God by hearing the word that frees us from ourselves our sins our failing in order to be for each other.
We belong to each other first. Then, as we live in community with each other we start discovering just what all of those gifts and stories are and how they shape us and make us who we are. If each of us belongs then our behavior must be shaped by all of us living in community with each other. And then, through all of those experiences and stories and discoveries we come to a place, and this might happen several times a day, where we realize that yes, we believe in God, we believe in this amazing shepherd, Jesus Christ. And we give thanks for our gifts and for our callings and for each new thing that we discover about each other.
Thanks be to God.