Abandoning the Flock

Requirements for Exit Row seating on American Airlines:

  1. Are you willing to assist with an evacuation?
  2. Are at least 15 years of age?
  3. Are you an adult traveling with a child under 15 years of age or another passenger who requires your care?
  4. Do you have sufficient mobility, strength and dexterity in both arms, both hands and/or both legs to: quickly reach the exit (including climbing over seats or another passenger, remove any obstructions, manipulate the exit door and slide mechanisms or lift out a window exit door, exit the aircraft, or assist others in exiting?
  5. Do you require corrective aids beyond eyeglasses/contact lenses?
  6. Do you require assistance beyond a hearing aid to hear and understand verbal instructions?
  7. Can you read and understand printed/graphic instructions related to exits, an aircraft evacuation or the ability to understand crew members commands?
  8. Do you have a condition that might prevent you or injure you while performing evacuation functions?

This is what we sign up for when we take an exit row seat.  We have made a commitment to the flight crew and to our fellow passengers to be there for them in case of dire need.

The life of a follower of Jesus is more than a bit like that.  It’s a commitment to be there for him and for those around us who are in need.

It’s not surprising that Jesus would use the story of sheep and shepherds and a relentlessly searching housewife to show us what that means.  In order to see that more clearly, there are a few things we need to keep in mind as we engage these stories.

First: we need to consider the sheep

  • They are not sweet
  • They are not cute up close
  • They stink
  • They are rude – they will shove aside the weak and eat themselves to death because they can’t stop themselves
  • They stupidly insist on their own way
  • They will literally try to walk through a fence than around it, get hung up in barbed wire and the other sheep will think it’s a good idea and try it too.
  • They will destroy a grazing pasture because they devour the grass down to and including the roots, making it a wasteland
  • They will bloat themselves on green alfalfa, continuing to eat even as they swell up and become ill
  • In short, they need a shepherd.

Next:  Let us consider the shepherd:

People in Jesus’ day would have understood the following:

If you leave 99 stupid sheep alone in the wilderness and go searching for one lost sheep, you won’t have 100 when you get back – you will likely have something significantly less.  It makes no sense at all for a shepherd, whose livelihood depends on bringing a big flock of sheep to market, to go off in search of one.  When Jesus asked the people:  Which one of you would… The people in his world knew that the only answer to his question was “No one in his right mind!”

The story of the woman is no different.  In 1st century Palestine, women didn’t have time to do much more than their work for the day.  There was virtually no free time.  Leisure time may have been known by the privileged in that region, but certainly not for a woman who would spend all that time and energy searching for a coin which for her family represented a day’s wages.  For her to devote herself to finding that coin meant that lots of other work just didn’t get done that day – including the work of tending to children, and doing what it takes to make sure the family would have a meal.

Again – when Jesus asked the question:  Which one of you would… the only answer the people could have offered is “No one in her right mind”

These are more than just a nice stories about God’s relentless love.

These are stories of people who seemed foolish in the eyes of the common wisdom of the day.  These are strange stories that make no sense in the bigger picture.  And for Jesus to tell them to Pharisees who were already sitting on the outside, grumbling already because they didn’t understand what in the world Jesus was doing in the first place?

This is why for me, this is a passage that causes me to lose sleep.  It should be a gift to realize that Jesus is risking everything to spend time with those others consider to be lost.  It should be a powerful message of hope on days when I feel like I can do nothing right, when it seems that I am truly lost.  It should be comforting.  And I suppose it is a wonderful thing when I realize that I am truly the part of creation that Jesus insists on honoring and protecting.

But when I look at the larger context of the story – the thing that troubles me most is how I feel when Jesus decides to honor and protect those that others (me included) might think are not worth the effort.

Because at the heart of this text we don’t find the joy Jesus describes because the lost have been found.  What we find is the anger, the irritation, and the fear of the grumbling Pharisees who understand themselves to be at the center of God’s concern.  They have spent their entire lives teaching their communities that as God’s chosen people, they have a special place in the world.  The Torah provided a clear path for them – showing them how to live so that everyone around them would know:  This is what it looks like to be God’s people.  At the core of their faith is their understanding that God has chosen them – from the beginning of time – to be the ones for whom God would forever and always nurture and love.  None of that was, when taken at face value, wrong.  Their faith heritage only became a problem when those same religious leaders used God’s promises to exclude – when they drew a tight circle around their community so that only those deemed worthy could enter.  And Jesus, with his open-handed, open-hearted welcome seemed to turn all that teaching, all that living upside down.

Jesus offered the Pharisees a picture of a God who is excessively concerned about EVERYTHING and EVERYONE.  He described for them a God who would spend every moment searching for and caring for those who fall outside the norms of that community – and as far as sheep and shepherds go – beyond even the norms of sanity.  Jesus knew that his place was with those who faced oppression, those who were rejected by the ones holding the power, even those – perhaps especially those who stupidly and dangerously wandered off the path.

When we stop to think about it, it’s no wonder the Pharisees grumbled.  If the Son of God had truly come to earth, I imagine the religious leaders of the day would have wanted him to be on their side.

That’s something we’d like, I think – to know that Jesus is on our side.  We want our friend, Jesus, to hang out with us, to sit at our table, to be around when we need him, to affirm our lifestyles, our way of teaching and living out our faith.  We might like him to be our teacher for a while, too – just as long as he doesn’t turn our well-practiced ways inside out.  And maybe we don’t want him around all the time – not answering all the questions – just the ones we can’t figure out.  And then only if he can stay within our norms.  On second thought maybe we don’t even want him to answer any questions at all.  Maybe he could just quietly sit with us and nicely hold our hands so we can get through our days.

Here’s the thing.  Jesus told these stories so the Pharisees could see what God’s extraordinary love looks like.  For Jesus, It’s not about sitting down and resting.  It’s not about following the rules, making sure the shepherd is using the standard shepherding techniques of the day.  It’s not about waiting for God to take care of every need of the sheep.  It’s about a radical shepherd who is constantly turning toward the lost.

What God has done in Jesus Christ is give us a shepherd who will leave us – the 99 – to go after those who are truly lost.  This focused shepherd is already out sharing meals with the unworthy, spending time with people who have no intention of repenting, who don’t even know they need to turn from their sin.  Not only does this shepherd turn away from the flock, he expects the flock to have learned enough about him and his work to follow and start searching too.

Here’s where it gets messy – for the Pharisees and for us.  Because ultimately, Jesus gets in trouble because he shows so much love for the lost.  Ultimately, it costs him his life.  The Pharisees expected Jesus to do what they did:  tell the community about the Torah and point out every misstep along the way.  They didn’t expect that he would leave them behind as he went out and LIVED the Torah in the midst of the people who most needed it.  And as wonderful as this might sound to us as much as we might want to point the finger at the Pharisees, the song Amazing Grace puts it in perspective.

“I once was lost, but now am found.  Was blind but now I see.

The truth is – Jesus didn’t go to Jerusalem to hang around with the Pharisees and tell stories about the good old days of God’s blessing on Israel – to remember when David sat on the throne and the Torah was clearly followed all around the kingdom.  Jesus wasn’t there to spend time congratulating or even helping the Pharisees.  Just like he isn’t here to hang out with us in this sanctuary, celebrating our salvation with us.  And frankly, Jesus isn’t here to seek and save us.  Because we are already found!  We are already saved.  We are already here.  Even those of us who are in great pain – those of us with great need – if we are in this sanctuary today – we can rejoice because we have already been found!

This is great good news!  Jesus isn’t here to look for us!  And what’s more?  Because Jesus is already out the door – on his way to seek that one – the one we can’t bear to look at – the one we can’t imagine being part of the flock – the goerge simmermans of this workd. the one who has wandered beyond hope.  And that’s amazing news for us too.  It’s good news because if Jesus is willing to sit back and rest with the remaining 99 sheep, then none of us can be certain that we have any value at all.  But if Jesus leaves us to go searching for that desperately lost one, then we can be sure that whenever we wander off the path, he is there looking for us too.  Where Jesus is concerned, NO ONE is sacrificed for the sake of the group.  NO ONE is left to wander.  NO ONE is abandoned.  NO ONE.

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