A Meditation on Luke 15: 1 – 10
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church September 15, 2019
A lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. In quick succession, Luke offers these three parables of God’s desire for us, and although we will stop short of the lost son today, we know his story is next in the Gospel lineup. Three stories of brokenness: a broken flock, a broken necklace, a broken family. Three stories of brokenness that end with the promise of wholeness. Stories that invite us to enter in and consider the ways in which we become lost. Lost from community, lost from ourselves, lost from God. Stories that invite us to allow God to find us anew. Stories that reveal to us a God who will not rest until restoration is complete.
Today a sheep and a coin. God as shepherd. That we know. In a moment we’ll get to the tiny little parable in which God appears to us as a woman carrying a broom. I would hazard a guess that stained glass images of the good shepherd far outweigh windows depicting God with a broom in her hands. After all, it isn’t nearly as glamorous as a good shepherd, not that shepherds were ever glamourous. We have elevated their status in our retelling of their stories. We have a tender spot for shepherds and even as I mention the word, your mind may go to the 23rd Psalm and the many times you have heard it read. The times you have recited it by heart. We have a tender spot for shepherds because they were given a place of honor on the night of Jesus’ birth. Those ratty outsiders were welcomed in by angels and then invited to hold God in their muscled arms. They were some of the first to cradle the Lamb of God. The lost are found.
We have a tender place for shepherds because Jesus says that he is a good shepherd. He is the one who leaves 99 behind so that he can find the one. That one. In my mind I always imagine a lamb, but that’s not what the text says. Maybe it was an old sheep that had lived out most of its years. Barely even useful as sheep are concerned… except to a shepherd who had tended it through the years. Maybe it was a pregnant sheep, too tired to keep trodding along. Or a sheep with attention deficit disorder; easily distracted, inadvertently getting separated from the flock while following a fascinating cricket through the tall grass. Perhaps it was wounded sheep, a sick sheep, a sheep that simply could not keep up. Maybe a lazy sheep.
In those seasons when you have lost sight of the shepherd, can you name the cause? Could you still hear his voice in the distance, but could not catch up? Were you wounded (physically, emotionally) and fell behind? Were you just too tired to keep up, struggling to maintain a life of faith? A typical sheep separated from its flock will not survive. They are communal animals, not “go it aloners.” A shepherd offers protection, nurture and shelter. A shepherd is there to assist with the birthing, to shear the wool, to clean the wounds. So it is true for us as followers of Jesus. We need one another and we need to stay within reach of our shepherd.
There is not one of us in this room who hasn’t been a straggler at some moment in our faith journey. Grief, guilt and fear can separate us from our shepherd, our flock. All the questions such as “why me?” and “why now?” The “what have I done?” or “who could forgive me?” questions. We get tangled up in these like a sheep trapped in a thicket. God will pursue us, carry us back. God will not let us go as we live through these questions. That bond of love between shepherd and sheep, between God and human; it is both vulnerable and strong.
When my oldest son, Josh, was at Mississippi State, he left his 80 pound bulldog with me for a week one summer while he made a trip to D.C. with a team of engineers. He left me as many instructions as if he were leaving me a grandchild instead of grand-dog. What Buddy could and could not eat. How many walks he needed. How often he was allowed to get wet. What to do if…
Everything was fine until one morning when I had Buddy and one of our other dogs out in the backyard. In a blink of an eye Buddy was gone. This 80 pound dog vanished! As in nowhere to be found. I took off down along the small creek bed at the back of the yard. No Buddy. I ran back and got in my car and started driving around, calling out the window. No Buddy. I called my husband and both of our other two sons home from work. It was July in Nashville. Not good for a bulldog. After almost two hours of looking, Josh called. “Mom, did you lose my dog?” Buddy had been picked up by animal control a couple of miles from our house and called the number on his tag. Buddy was spotted chasing a deer. A few minutes later a van pulled up in our driveway and a tired, hot and dirty Buddy tumbled out. The “shepherd” who found him, instead of fining me for allowing my dog to get lost, said he was happy to get Buddy home. “I know Buddy is just visiting in Nashville. These things happen.” I had feared being shamed. Being scolded. Instead, mercy. That’s what a shepherd does.
Shepherds come to us in a variety of unexpected forms. People who find us and bring us home. People who offer grace rather than shame. And shepherds aren’t the only ones searching. Sometimes God is the woman, broom in hand, sweeping the floor to find one lost coin. Jennifer Copeland, reflecting on this text for The Christian Century magazine, writes, “Nobody ever painted Jesus with a broom in his hand, even if the metaphor of sweeping is used several times by the prophets to refer to God. Luke, however, pairs these stories in such a way that a broom carries as much weight as a shepherd’s staff for symbolizing God’s care. The point of both stories, of course, is that God will seek us by any means available until we are found. In order for us to appreciate fully the depth of God’s seeking, Jesus intends for us to identify personally with the search, for indeed God’s love is as personal as it is universal.”
She continues, “God validates the work of sweeping every bit as much as the work of shepherding. In the sweeping, God searches, but also cleanses. I like to imagine God, broom in hand, patiently sweeping away the dirt from our lives and restoring us to our God-given image. In this way we are each uniquely found by God, since we each have our own unique ways of being lost.”[i]
Our own corners that need sweeping. Our own unique ways of being lost. That is so true. And sometimes it causes us to misunderstand one another, to misread, to judge. Let us come to this space with grace in our hands. Let us pass that around when we pass the peace. Grace and mercy. There is enough judgement outside these doors.
No one ever plans on getting lost. Sometimes we are given poor directions or an outdated map. Consider how some of our interpretations of scripture have been reimagined through the years and how those interpretations have made it possible for many who were lost to be found. For divorced individuals, who were once excluded from the table. For LGBTQ+ individuals who were condemned. For women with a call who had no place to fulfill it. So many who had been lost, or could have been lost, but need not be now.
I was muddling over all this lost-ness and found-ness, and thinking of a friend’s church in Birmingham. Edgewood Presbyterian is a church much like our own. Last spring, Sid Burgess, their much beloved retired pastor became lost one Saturday while on a day hike in the Bankhead National Forest. The church, under the leadership of Joe Genau, was active in supporting the search efforts which turned into a three day odyssey. At one point the search had to be called off due to threats of tornadic activity in the area. Finally,
…a team of searchers approached at about 1 p.m. Tuesday. From the other side of the river, [Sid] heard a voice yelling to him. It was Jacob Evans of the Christian Aid Ministry in Berlin, Ohio. “He hollered to me from across the stream,” Sid said.
“I said, ‘Who sent you?’”
The man shouted back across the river: “Jesus!”[ii]
Teams of rescuers from all directions gathered to help find Sid. It’s what they do, and this team does it in the name of the good shepherd. Sid was airlifted to safety, and promised his wife not to hike alone again. Calls came in from various hiking groups, each extending an invitation to Sid to join them in exploring nature together.
Paul Anderson, a retired 42-year veteran of the National Parks Service, told Outside magazine that suspending a search is “one of the most gut-wrenching experiences you could ever go through.” …An incident commander will decide to suspend a search when the missing person is presumed dead or the conditions are too dangerous for the searchers to continue.
Dave Prouty, president of the Mt. Hood Search and Rescue Council of Oregon told Outside that “if it were up to the volunteers I don’t think we’d ever call off the search.”[iii] Perhaps, human as we are, we are the emergency responders, with limited capacities. Limited abilities. But God? God the good shepherd, God the sweeper, is the volunteer search party, never giving up. Searching for us all. Arms flung wide in welcome.
be to God, who loves us enough to carry us home. Amen.
[i] Copeland, Jennifer. The Christian Century, September 4, 2004.
[iii] Earley, Melissa, The Christian Century, August 21, 2019