Sermon, September 11, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

September 11, 2022

“Lost And Found”

“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?”

Luke 15:3[i]

The answer to the question is “No one.”  The Pharisees and the Scribes may have been many things, but they were not stupid.  Who would leave the 99 (in the wilderness, mind you) and go and search for the one?  No one.  It makes no sense.  Why not cut your losses.  You are going to lose sheep — some to illness, some to predators, some simply drift away and are lost.  Now you don’t control the drifters.  It happens.  But you can work to reduce the risks of disease and loss to predators.  That you can do.  Leaving the 99 to search for the one that is lost does not make sense.  Work at controlling what you can.  Right?  Indeed, let’s suppose that the shepherd in question is not the owner of the sheep, that at the end of day, this shepherd must answer to the owner and explain why the 99 were left to themselves.  Even if the lost sheep is found, if I were the owner, I’d fire the shepherd!  99 were left at risk and I could have lost everything.  So, this makes no sense.

            But Jesus is not attempting to make sense.  He is making a point — not about sound business practice, but about the joy of God.  That is what makes this story so shocking.  Jesus is implying that God would do what none of the Pharisees or Scribes would.  The question I have is what does this story have to do with us? 

The first thing to note is we are part of the 99.  The shepherd’s attention is taken off us and focused on the one that is lost.  How’s that make you feel?  Are we being taken for granted?  The answer is “Yes.”  God has gone after the lost and we are expected to remain.  That may not be fair.  After all, we’ve been “slinging the hash.”  The church, the body of Christ, doesn’t run itself.  It takes a core of committed believers willing to do the unglamorous work of making an institution run.  Oh, it can be fun, but it lacks glory.  Jesus, the shepherd, is taking the loyal 99 for granted.

Why?  Because Jesus can.  We’re going to stay.  We are not here to receive some reward or accolade from God.  We are here because we believe we have found the truth, that in pursuing the cause of justice we open the door to peace, that in proclaiming the love of God for the least and the lost we participate in advancing the Kingdom of God, that in proclaiming a crucified and risen Christ we proclaim both the reality of suffering and its inability to win the day.  We keep opening the doors to this church every week because we want to be a part of God’s mission, and today we learn that the joy of God is found when we, the 99, can do our job that together with God we might reach the one who was lost.

As if to reinforce this point, Jesus now tells the story of the Prodigal Son.  Remember, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and Scribes.  They cliqued their tongues at Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners.  He then tells the story of the one lost sheep and the lost coin.  But He isn’t done.  Our reding stopped at verse 10.  In verse 11 we see Jesus making sure the point of reaching the lost and rejoicing in their being found is sealed by the story of the Prodigal Son.  You remember the story.  I don’t have to repeat it but let me cite one of the closing sentences.  The father, speaking to the disgruntled older brother who refuses to join the celebration of his brother’s return, says:

 ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

It is one thing to sit in this holy place and take stock of our virtue, but we are doing nothing more than what God expects of us.  God’s joy is found when we welcome in those who are lost.

            It does not take much to find them.  They may be among us.  Perhaps the biggest challenge facing modern America is prosperity.  It has led to a love of things often at the expense of ideals.  Listen to this warning from Louis J. Halle in his book, Civilization and Foreign Policy:

Men who have lost their belief in anything else will, perforce, live by bread alone. They will not deny themselves the satisfac­tion of their animal appetites in order to uphold a dignity which they no longer understand. Nothing will be left that is as important to them as material abundance; they will therefore accept any form of political organization that offers them such abundance and will reject any that leaves them unsatisfied in this respect. The consequence is that as vision is lost it becomes increasingly difficult for any political leader to prevail on the people to accept material sacrifices which may be necessary for defense against their external enemies. They will prefer to follow his rival who promises less taxation and still higher standards of living.[1]

Modern man and women may be captured in this warning and it is the calling of the Church to call us back to something greater than “stuff.”  When justice is less important than prosperity, those who think themselves to have been found are lost.

          In his book, Modern Schism, Martin Marty comments on the Puritan’s coming to America and the gradual loss of our religious moorings:

“These newly-rich at first seemed to want the benefit of clergy for their passage.  They had not inherited blood or land, but they had been successful traders, speculators, and merchants. The Puritan had been told to be suspicious of the rich. The evangelical had been told to be content if he was not rich. The American in the mid-nineteenth century was beginning to be told to get rich. In 1836 the Reverend Thomas P. Hunt in The Book of Wealth wrote that ‘no man can be obedient to God’s will without becoming wealthy’.  The Congregationalist, forty years later, in rather bizarre metaphor revealed the extent of materialism that resides under the veneer of religiosity in subsequent American religion: ‘There is no sleeping partner in any business who can begin to compare with the Almighty.’”[2]

You can hear it on your television.  The gospel of success proclaims Jesus will make you a worldly success, a person of means.  Meanwhile, one in six children in America worry about their next meal.  The plight of the poor and marginalized is the business of the church.  We the 99, are called to lift the 1.

          I call us all, clergy and laity alike, to remember who it is we are called to serve.  We have pledged our lives to follow in the way of Christ.  No one, not one, has done it perfectly, but when we do the possible the one who is lost is found, a party takes place in heaven and God’s joy is made complete.  The task awaits.  Let us pray…

[1] Louis J.. Halle, Civilization and Foreign Policy, p 168 & 169.

[2] The Modern Schism, Martin E. Marty, p. 123.

[i] Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And 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.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”