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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Free the Sheep

Luke 15:1-10
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

The Presbyterian Church is a teaching church. Our heritage celebrates teachers, instructors, book-writing Biblical scholars and moms who know how to make cotton ball sheep. As Presbyterians, we search for the right answers, but we also search for better questions. We realize that it's one generation's job to question the answers of another. We accept that as the world changes, the way we teach the Word of God – our emphasis, our inflections, our accents – all must change as well. Fifty years ago, the church newsletter might have encouraged everyone to, “Come and be gay at the Men's Fellowship.” There may be newsletters that say this now, but it's in a different context.

In America, full of individualism and independence, we read the parable of the Lost Sheep. Where the shepherd leaves the 99 to go find the one. In other places, they call this the parable of the Incomplete Flock. Until that one is restored, the 99 aren't complete. Which way is better? I don't know. I guess it depends on whether you're the lost one or the incomplete 99. It depends on your context.

So I have to ask myself, if I see myself as a teacher – and I do – what's the message of today's scripture and what's the context? What applies to today that might not have applied fifty years, or even one year ago? What do we need to hear the master teacher Jesus saying through this scripture in our little church, this morning?

Luke 15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'”

Sounds simple enough: Shepherd loses sheep, shepherd finds sheep, shepherd throws a party. But I think we all know Jesus isn't talking about literal sheep. Pharisees don't have sheep. Pharisees have meetings. Scribes don't have parties. Scribes have hissy fits. Usually about those dumb sheepy sinners that keep wandering off instead of staying in the pen and doing things the right way.

I had lunch with a young minister who was having problems, and he said, “You know, church would be so much easier if it weren't for all these people.” He understands the scribes and Pharisees. Instead of herding sheep, Jesus should have made the parable about herding cats. The scribes and Pharisees would have jumped up and shouted, “Amen, brother! You feel our pain.” My friend was afraid he had lost control. No, what my friend had lost was the illusion of control. I tried to convince him that maybe he should let that sheep go. Because it's not a real sheep. It's a fake sheep. Worry about the real ones.

Where I feel this parable leading me is toward some heartfelt reflection. It makes me want to ask myself who, or what, are the sheep in my life? And why does that pesky little one always keep slipping away?

If Jesus were like Paul Harvey he would have told us “The Rest of the Story.” And it goes like this. While the shepherd's throwing his Welcome Home Fluffy party, another sheep sneaks under the fence and runs away. The shepherd gets home and counts, “97, 98, 99.... Oh my gosh!” He tosses Fluffy back in the pen and runs off with a flashlight to find the new one that's lost. Maybe I've seen too many episodes of “Shaun the Sheep.” Children's TV does strange things to your mind. But I'm thinking, if I'm a sheep, I want a party, too. And so, during the next party, another sheep sneaks off. And on, and on the cycle goes. The shepherd's friends have gotta be thinking, “This guy's looney. Sheep's not the only thing he's lost.” But they get a lot of Bud Lite out of it, so they're fine.

Me, I'm like the shepherd, who's got too many sheep on the brain. And it's not just because I'm a minister. I could retire tomorrow and I'd still be the same. I figure, “If I can just accomplish this one more thing....” I think, “If I can just remember to do this other thing....” “If I can just go to Office Depot and get one more organizing tool....” Life will form a complete flock.

And it's always that “one more” that keeps running away. I'm told there are women who think, “If I can just get one more... pair of shoes.” Or guys that say, “If I can just get that one titanium driver.” Or kids that think, “If I can just get one touch screen cell phone.” Then, my little flock of a life will be complete.

You see it all over the news these days. You've got that preacher in Florida who thinks, “If I can just have one day to burn Qurans.” Or an Imam in New York who says, “If I can just build one mosque.” And people who are saying, “If we can just stop the building of this one mosque.” People say, “If we can just win this one election,” “If we can just secure this one border.” Always, it's just this one thing that's keeping us from being complete.

Brothers and sisters, if any of us are just one thing away from being forever complete and perfect, let's have that party now. If you are just one need, one want, one wish from personal perfection, that's close enough. In fact, if you do reach personal perfection, don't tell anybody, because then we'll all hate you.

Oh, wow, wait a minute. That's kind of how the scribes and Pharisees thought about Jesus. He was perfect. And they hated him. Which brings us back to the context of the parable. [When] “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."” And not only that. The Bible tells us elsewhere Jesus also welcomed Pharisees and scribes and ate with them.

We sell this scripture short when we think all it's about is finding sinners and converting them, bringing them into our little flock. Churches reduce this parable to a numbers game if they judge their effectiveness on how big or how small their sheep-pens are. “We have 100 people in worship.” “Oh yeah? We have 101.” “We have a Family Life Center.” “Well, we have tennis courts. So there.” At its core, this parable isn't about a lost sheep, or about a complete flock, either one. The “one sheep” that keeps getting away from the scribes and Pharisees is their compassion. Their compassion. And until they find their compassion, their flock, their lives, will always be incomplete. Until we find our compassion, our lives will always be incomplete. No matter how many things, or how much stuff, or how many constituents or dependents or customers we may think we have roped up and tied down, until we find that one sheep of compassion, we will be incomplete.

That preacher in Florida shouldn't burn a Quran, he should take a Muslim to dinner. You and I shouldn't waste so much time worrying about what's undone when we could just do one act of compassion. Maybe someone will return our compassion, maybe not. That's not the point. When we let the illusions of control go, when we stop chasing that sheep that's going to get out again and again no matter what we do... until we open the gate and pull down the fence as Jesus did, we have no hope of ever feeling, much less being, complete.

What's the one sheep that's always missing in your life? It's not new countertops. It's not a government, or a church, that does only what you believe in, that says only what you want them to say. Your life will not be complete if you lose five more pounds. You might be healthier, but you won't be complete. It's not one more this, or one more that. Your life can not be made complete by adding one more thing to it. You can not be made complete by adding one more thing to yourself. Because you already are complete. You are made complete by things that can't possibly be measured.

Could you say, “I just need five more pounds of compassion?” Could you say, “I just need three more volts of love?” Could you pray, “Oh God above, please give me six more helpings of Jesus, and then I'll be complete?” You already have enough compassion. You already have enough love. You already have enough Jesus through the Holy Spirit. You don't need more. You just need to open the gates and tear down the fences and let them out. Let them flow out to the sinners and tax collectors. Let them flow out to the scribes and the Pharisees. Let them loose, let them wander, let them snuggle up against the lives of others and they'll come home, wagging their tails behind them. You already are complete in compassion, in love, and in Jesus Christ. Could you use these gifts better? Could you learn more about them from the Master Teacher, from the Bible, from prayer, from your Christian Education program? Of course you could. Just because you have something doesn't mean you understand it. Think about computers. We don't know how they work, either. There's always more to learn. There's always more to learn about compassion, about love, about the Holy Spirit. But God has placed these gifts inside you. You don't have to leave everything else behind to go find them. They're with you already. Open the gate. Tear down the fence. Let them roam in the context of your free range.