When I was a child, sometimes at bedtime my mother would try to sing me an old song based on the lost sheep story, called The Ninety and Nine…
- There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold;
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold.
Away on the mountains wild and bare;
Away from the tender Shepherd’s care….
- Out in the desert He heard its cry;
’Twas sick and helpless and ready to die.
I hated this song. When she started to sing it, I would protest and make her stop. The plight of the lost sheep was simply too sad. Sick and helpless and ready to die? You want me to sleep, right?
The parables in today’s Gospel, and the parable that follows them, the story of the Prodigal Son, are some of the best-known and best-loved of Jesus’ stories. They offer up clearly and beautifully what might just be core of the Gospel:God’s yearning, insistent, inexhaustible love and longing for the one (the many) who have strayed, gone missing, broken away, left the sweetness and safety of God’s pastures.
We wander. Or maybe, like the Prodigal Son, we march off defiantly. Or maybe, like the coin, we just get left behind. And God seeks, driven by a heart more loving than we can comprehend.
The heart of the seeker. Our first text today, from the prophet Jeremiah, seems at odds with the Gospel. God’s message here seems to be: You have turned from me and wandered away; well, too bad. Destruction is coming. Have fun with that.
As is so often the case, though, the selected text isn’t giving us the full picture. It skips verse 19, in which Jeremiah gives voice to God’s agony, anticipating the suffering of God’s people:
“My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent;
for I hear the sound of the trumpet,
the alarm of war.”
In chapter 3, just a few verses earlier, God speaks through Jeremiah to plead with God’s people: “Return, faithless Israel, says the Lord.
I will not look on you in anger,
for I am merciful, I will not be angry for ever. …
I thought I would set you among my children,
and give you a pleasant land…
And I thought you would call me, My Father,
and would not turn from following me.
Instead, you have been faithless to me, O house of Israel.
Return, O faithless children, and I will heal your faithlessness!”
God is desperate to restore relationship, to save God’s children from the consequences of their own foolishness. The heart of the seeker: God’s anger, yes, but also God’s anguish, and God’s persistent, relentless, unshakeable love.
Last week we read together Psalm 139, a powerful poem about being sought by God:
“Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar…
Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.”
Sought, known, held, wherever we may go…
The lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost child. There have been debates over these parables, over whether the Seeker’s actions make sense. Are the 99 sheep left somewhere safe, while the shepherd goes off seeking the one? Does the woman burn more fuel seeking the lost coin than the coin is even worth?
I don’t think it actually matters, within the world of the parable. Jesus isn’t talking about cost-benefit analysis. He’s talking about the heart of God. That knows our weakness, our smallness, our vulnerability. That follows, wherever we wander; that reaches out, as often as we turn away; that searches every dark corner – never, ever, ever giving up on us.
Our strongest human relationships give us some small glimpse of the depth and persistence of that kind of love. The love of God, the heart of the Seeker.
But what of the heart of the sought? The heart of the one who wanders? The lost one?
I notice, this year, that there’s kind of a continuum of agency in these parables. At one end there’s the Prodigal Son. He means to leave. He’s confident he can do better on his own.
I appreciate the emotional honesty of Psalm 139. Even in describing God’s relentless love, the poet seems to be pushing back a bit: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? Could you just give me some space? ….
That great divine gift of free will, of intellect and choice, makes us prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love, as one of our hymns puts it.
In the middle of that continuum is the lost sheep. The sheep didn’t make a deliberate choice to leave the care of the shepherd, the safety of the flock. It just… went that way instead of this way, or got a little wrapped up in a luscious patch of grass and didn’t notice when everyone else moved on.
I wonder how the lost sheep feels, during the long hours before the shepherd shows up. Is it in denial, that sheep? I don’t need any help, everything’s under control. This is fine. Is it overwhelmed, but still trying to solve its own problems? I’m sure if I just work a little harder, I can get loose from this bramble bush and run away from that wolf!… Is it still trying to figure out how it got here? I just took a few steps away from the path… how did this happen? Just a few little steps, but suddenly I am not where I meant to be at all. And it’s getting dark…
The prodigal child walks away; the sheep wanders. And then at the other end of the continuum, there’s the coin. The coin didn’t make a choice to leave. It didn’t stray from the flock. When a coin gets lost, it’s not the coin’s fault. It’s separated from its fellows, and away from its rightful place, because of circumstances and other people’s actions.
There are lots of ways people get neglected or disconnected, pushed to the edges or left behind. A few years ago, Lutheran pastor and writer Emmy Kegler wrote a memoir called One Coin Found. Spoiler: She’s the coin.
She writes about her journey as an LGBTQ+ Christian who grew up loving God and loving the Bible – while also being told that she could not be what she knew herself to be, and be right with God. When the church of her childhood lost Emmy, God found her.
She writes: “We too are lost and dusty coins. We have gone unnoticed, rusted from others’ indifference, misspent and misused – and our friends and leaders did not see our neglect. But God, in big and little ways, has picked up a woman’s broom and swept every corner of creation. God, in big and little ways, has tucked up her skirts and flattened herself on the floor, dug through dust bunnies and checked every dress pocket. God has found us, dustier and rustier and without any luster, and held us up to the light to say: No matter how you rolled away or what corner you were dropped in, you are mine.”
Emmy is just one of many who have preached and prayed, worked and struggled, dreamed and built their way towards churches that affirm the wholeness and dignity of folks like her. I know so many LGBTQ+ Christians raised in churches that would not name their hearts and bodies, loves and lives as holy. And who have clung fiercely and bravely to the conviction that God loves them and that they belong among God’s people.
I feel humbled by their – by your – courage and love and persistence. It seems to me that the very least a church can do in response is celebrate those coins that were left behind or tossed aside – but refused to stay lost. That’s why we made the effort to have a table at PrideFest again this year – as a witness and a celebration. That’s why we’re learning to share our pronouns, and pay attention to others’ pronouns – an extension of care and respect as fundamental as getting someone’s name right.
LGBTQ+ Christians – and those who might like to be Christian if they knew they were safe – aren’t the only ones who can get pushed to the edges or lost in the shadows, in church life and culture. Mental illness or addiction, poverty, loneliness or relationship struggles can all make it feel like it’s not safe or welcome to bring your whole self to church. To speak your heart’s deepest prayers out loud.
Turning back to the parables for a moment: I want to note that “sinner” is a vocabulary Jesus is borrowing from those who are challenging him, here. There’s nothing wrong with the sheep or the coin; they’re just – lost. Apart, alone, at risk. Jesus does care a lot about people changing their hearts and turning back towards God. But Jesus also cares a lot about people who are lost, getting found. The word the church translates as “salvation” or “saved” can also be translated as rescued, delivered, healed, restored.
These are parables, stories, about God. But we’re called to love with God’s love, to the best of our ability. So they’re also parables about us, as God’s people, as God’s church. And our vocation to seek, and to welcome.
This year we’ll be revisiting the practices of discipleship we named together back in 2016 – through a series of conversations to help us figure out how we feel called to follow Jesus, as the people of St. Dunstan’s Church. And the first practice on the list is Welcoming.
In the document that summarizes our work, we say: “We follow the example of Jesus Christ through an ongoing, intentional practice of welcome, of strangers, guests, and one another, in the fulness of our stories, struggles, differences and gifts.”
That ongoing practice of welcome goes a long way beyond the first “Hello, glad to meet you!” There is deeper welcome to do – deeper listening, receiving, affirming, connecting – even in decades-old friendships. And welcome is not superficial or trivial. It is real work, sometimes hard work. And always holy work.
One more thing I noticed about these familiar stories, this year: The incompleteness of the 99 and the 9. The Bible mostly uses a decimal number system, based on tens, as we do. In such a system, there’s a not-quiteness to nines.
Do the nine coins, or the ninety-nine sheep, know that they’re missing someone? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But they are. Someone isn’t there. And some fullness, some all-ness is lacking. Those nines ache for their missing ones.
As God’s people, as God’s church, we seek, we welcome, we celebrate, with humility and hope. Sometimes we have apologies and amends to make, for harm done by our or other churches – and we strive to do that too. Sometimes we have learning and growing to do, to be a flock that can be truly safe and welcoming – and we strive to do that too. Because each coin found, each sheep restored to the flock brings us to a new completeness.
I didn’t sing the lost sheep song to my kids. But those hard, sad words, the lost sheep’s desperate condition – that’s the middle of the story, not the end. What comes next is the really important part. When the lost gets found.
Gentle hands untangle wool from the thorns, lift the sheep, wash its wounds, hold it close. Carry it home in joy.
This is how the song ends, if I would ever have let my mother get this far:
And all through the mountains, thunder-riv’n,
And up from the rocky steep,
There arose a glad cry to the gate of heav’n,
“Rejoice! I have found My sheep!”
And the angels echoed around the throne,
“Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own!”