A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 11, 2022 (Proper 19, Year C)
From a cost benefit analysis, the parable of the lost sheep should be clear. You have 100 sheep, one goes astray. So what do you do? Well, any rational business person would cut his losses, forget about the one lost sheep and continue to shepherd the 99 other ones. 99 sheep is pretty good! And losing one percent of your flock is just the natural cost of doing business. Tend to the 99 and count yourself blessed for having only lost one sheep. In the grand scheme of things, who will really notice it anyway?
But the thing is, this just isn’t how Jesus shepherds. In Jesus’ universe, no one is ever deemed expendable. Everyone is recognized and celebrated for his or her intrinsic worth. No one is ever left behind. And so he subverts all rational business models and goes after that single lost sheep. He ignores the 99 and seeks after the one. This might not fly at Harvard Business School, but then again Jesus would probably fail out anyway.
A single sheep is, of course, much more vulnerable than a big group of them. A single sheep is easy prey to various predators lurking behind rocks and in desolate valleys. There’s little to no protection for a lone, defenseless sheep wandering without a shepherd. But that’s the one Jesus goes after. And we start to see where Jesus places his priorities when it comes to the vulnerable of society. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the 99 — they matter tremendously — he just has a heart for the lost. And this parable offers deep insight into God’s own heart and God’s own priorities.
In church circles we sometimes refer to parishioners who have gone astray as lost sheep. We also refer to the act of poaching parishioners from another congregation as sheep stealing. But that’s another matter. But referring to someone as a lost sheep is not an entirely fair label because it has a rather negative connotation. Something must be wrong with the person who is no longer in the fold. Otherwise why would they have possibly left? Or maybe it’s the church’s fault because we have somehow let someone get away, as if they are a commodity to be penned in. As painful as it is to lose a parishioner to another church or to simply not going to church at all, it’s important to remember that Jesus is always seeking after them. Jesus is continually seeking renewed relationship with each one of us, drawing us into the fold, drawing us into deeper relationship with him. Jesus is the one who seeks after us out of deep and tender concern for us.
During this time of pandemic and regathering, we have all felt like lost sheep at times. We have all felt disconnected from this community, from God, and from one another. We have not always reached out to one another, I have not always reached out to you, when you were perhaps feeling lost or alone. This has been a hard season to feel connected despite advances in technology. Again, we have all felt like that lone lost sheep over these past months and years. And it’s important to recognize and articulate the hurts and disappointments, the feelings of abandonment and loss.
The good news in this is that Jesus as the Good Shepherd will always drop everything to seek after you and find you. Jesus wants you in the fold, and we as people of faith need to be in the fold. For it is in the fold that we find and are found by God. And in the end there is great joy in this. That’s the upshot of this parable, the great joy in being found by God. The great joy of being sought after and found by the God who loves you and cares for you and wants nothing more than to be in relationship with you. The great joy of knowing that God loves you in all your brokenness and pain and vulnerability. The great joy of knowing that God seeks after you when things are going well, and when things are particularly hard. And that God will stop at nothing to find you. Even when you don’t particularly want to be found, even when you don’t even feel particularly lost.
In a sense, Homecoming Sunday is all about returning to the fold. It is a reminder of why this community matters, why our faith matters, why it’s so important to live out our faith with and among similarly minded pilgrims on this journey of life and faith. There is strength and inspiration in being part of the 99. But this doesn’t minimize the fact that because of the pandemic our congregation, like all congregations, has been scattered. We can’t ignore the fact that while some new folks have joined us during this time, some may never return. People have gotten out of the habit of coming to church, Sunday mornings have been filled with other activities. Our regathering efforts will take time, there will be moments of discouragement mixed with profound hope and joy. And there’s the harsh reality looming that things may never look like they did in 2019. Time will tell. And it is incumbent upon the church, upon all of us, to remind people why following Jesus matters, why following Jesus in this place matters. Why this community thrives when we are all in, and is diminished when we are not.
But still we remember that Jesus continually reaches out to the least, the lonely, and the lost, and invites us to do so as well. If there are people in this community you haven’t seen for awhile, please do reach out to them. We can follow Jesus by picking up the phone and inviting those who may be feeling like that lost sheep to come to this place where they will be loved no matter what. Not only because we want to see them here, but because Jesus himself is seeking after them.
For in the end, that’s what being in the fold is all about. It is about protection and solace, comfort and hope. It is a place of joy because it is a place where we can fully be ourselves despite all that swirls around us, all that unsettles us, all the changes that make us question who we are. So, welcome home, whether you haven’t been here for awhile or whether you never left. And know that this is the place where above all else you are loved and sought after and found by Jesus Christ.