Most of us have not been out on the hills lately looking for lost sheep. Perhaps there is someone here this morning who has had that experience but it is just not the usual thing that Torontonians do in their day to day lives. In fact it is a rare experience to even see a sheep here unless you visit a petting zoo or see a slightly less cute version of the beast hanging in the window as you walk along the Danforth.
However, for Jesus’ listeners and for those who first read these stories in the gospels in the early church, sheep would have been a common sight. Out on the hills, or being driven through the streets of the city heading to the markets. If you have ever visited the Middle East, you will know that the sheep don’t look much like the cheviots and other breeds that are more common in Canada. They look a little more like goats, at least to the Toronto urban eye, which might help us understand that separating the sheep from the goats in the story in Matthew 25 might have been a little more difficult than we would have imagined.
In the history of Israel, sheep were ubiquitous. In fact, you cannot tell the history of Israel without sheep. The stories of the Patriarchs, of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob and their families are filled with stories of flocks and herds. A person’s worth was usually based on how many sheep they had. Think of sheep as mutual funds. In fact many of the characters in these stories were shepherds. And all of those sheep accompanied the Hebrew people when they left their homes and headed to Egypt during the great famine that struck the land and Joseph got them out to refuge and to the stores of grain that he had arranged as the chief advisor to the Pharaoh.
Clearly they continued to keep their flocks, even when they became slaves in Egypt. Remember that the story of the Passover would not have been possible without sheep. Each Hebrew family was to choose a lamb to prepare for the feast on the night that the angel of death visited every home in Egypt and the eldest child died. The Hebrews were spared because they put blood from the lambs on the door posts and lintels of their houses. They ate the roasted lamb as a last meal in slavery and then ran for their lives and their freedom on the following morning when the Egyptians said, “Enough of you! Get out!”.
As Israel settled into their new land and continued to think about how to talk about this God who had called them out of slavery and had formed them into a people, they famously used the image of a shepherd to describe what that relationship was like,
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
And when Israel was in exile in Babylon, far from home, a small minority that never knew if the locals might turn on them like devouring wolves, the prophet Isaiah could find no more comforting words than to write,
That God would feed his flock like a shepherd;
God would gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
So it would have been no surprise to the people of Jesus’ day that he would use the image of a shepherd and sheep to talk about what life was to be like in the kingdom of God when the righteous religious folks started to get very upset that he was hanging out with people that in their short-hand they called “taxcollectors and sinners”. Not particularly kind descriptors. He addresses everyone gathered and tells them a story. Imagine that you are a shepherd. You have a hundred sheep. Ninety-nine of them are safely tucked away for the night in the barn. But one of them, there is always one of them, somehow got by you and is out in the hills following its own course and putting itself in extreme danger. Now you could say to yourself, “That’s one for the wolves”, I need to look after all these sheep in the barn. But no, the shepherd gets bundled up and heads out into the wilderness to find that one wayward bit of wool. In the story, the shepherd does find the sheep, picks it up and puts it on his shoulders the way shepherds do and takes it back to the barn with the others. He’s a good shepherd. Like Jesus. And a shepherd like we should be in the kingdom of God. He is so overjoyed with finding the sheep that he calls all his friends to celebrate with him because the one that was lost has been found. So, you religious folks who get a bit concerned about the not so righteous people hanging about, get over it. That’s the whole point. There is a lot of joy in heaven when one of those folks whose lives had been so precarious and outside the community of faith finds a way back and the shepherd and the shepherd’s friends and the other ninety-nine sheep can embrace them and welcome them home.
Now in Jesus’ day, there was another little twist to this story which would probably not have been lost on the righteous religious. Although in the history of Israel shepherds had held an honoured place and sheep had been a sign of a person’s prosperity and blessing, that had been turned around a bit. The actual shepherds were not among the privileged. They were on the margins – along with the taxcollectors and sinners. Think of the story of Jesus’ birth. The shepherds “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night”. Not a job many would want. So, you righteous religious, imagine for a moment that you are one of those people that you like to look down on. Think about those who are working the night shift cleaning up other people’s messes, sleeping on the subway on their way home when everyone else is just starting their day. Here’s a little story about joy in their lives that might teach us all something.
Or for a moment think about a woman. It is not very often that Jesus’ detractors would have thought about the kingdom of God, or possibly what God was like, from the perspective of a woman. Women were always in the background, not part of the important discussions about politics or religion. Their lives were not seen to be important or holding meaning from which all could learn. Fifty percent of the population, at least, who lived on the margins, dependent on a father or a husband or a son, to give them some place and status in the community. But Jesus says, “Take a moment and think about a woman”.
This woman had ten silver coins. It is not clear what each coin would have been worth but certainly much more than the value of a loonie or a toonie, probably half a day or a whole day’s wages. Not something you would want to lose. But just like in the story of the shepherd, the woman did lose one. She could have been satisfied with having the other nine coins. Maybe one day the other coin would turn up. But no, she switches on all the lights and turns the house upside down looking for it. Finally she does find it and she is so happy that she calls all her friends together to celebrate with her that she had found the coin that was lost. Maybe it is not a coin we have lost, but we have all lost something. And we have all done what this woman did and not been able to rest until we find the thing that was lost. I remember once preparing to go on a trip. Everything was packed and ready to go. I got my little valise with all my important papers and everything was there just I had left them – except my passport. How could it not be there? I always left it there. And so the search began. Every drawer and suitcase was searched. Every possible place I might have put the passport for safekeeping. Finally, in the downstairs closet, in a jacket I clearly hadn’t used since the last time I had travelled, safely tucked away in the inside pocket, was my passport. Great was the rejoicing. I’m not sure I called all my friends together to celebrate but I was certainly all smiles as I made my way to the airport.
So, you righteous religious, before you get too concerned about who you might find Jesus hanging about with or who you might find in the community shaped by God’s love and grace, give a thought to the woman who lost a coin, or the shepherd who lost a sheep. The joy that they experience is like the joy of heaven when someone who was lost is found. It is the joy that should mark the people who know God’s love and grace in their lives. I know that the scribes and Pharisees, the righteous religious of Jesus’ day were good people in many ways and that they probably had joyful and not so joyful days, just like the righteous religious in our own day. But the predominant image I have of them is pretty much sourpusses, a lot of tight-lipped expressions on their faces and worry about whether everything was being done decently and in order and that everyone was following the rules. Not unlike the image that many people still hold about us in the church. Much more concerned about who’s in and who’s out, who follows the rules adequately or can make it seem like they follow the rules adequately. But Jesus seems to be saying that one of the fundamental marks of the kingdom of God, of the community of faith that responds to the love of the Good Shepherd, is that we should be filled with joy. Joy that we ourselves have known love and grace in our lives. That we have been lost and now we are found. And joy that we can open our hearts and our arms in wide embrace and welcome all who need to know that love and amazing grace. That includes the ninety-nine sheep and the nine coins. For sure. But we must never forget that that love and grace also includes the sheep out on the hill and the coin that’s got stuck between the floorboards.
So as we get going again in another year of worship and witness here at St. Andrew’s, let’s not be afraid to welcome all and come together to celebrate and be joyful when that which was lost has been found, when that from which we have been separated is brought back to us, and when strangers, and particularly those who we and the world judge harshly, become friends. This is a place for all to find joy.
Thanks be to God.