This past Sunday’s Gospel reading has always been one of my very favorites and also, one of my least favorites. I suppose it depends on the day that I encounter it. It’s a familiar story, and a familiar setup. Jesus is doing something that the religious elites don’t like, they call him out for it, and he drops one or two of his famous parables on them. This time, Jesus is welcoming all the wrong kind of people and the Pharisees start to grumble about it. So Jesus asks them:
“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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And 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’. Just 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”. (NRSV)
Jesus continues with similar parables involving a coin and a prodigal son. Each of these parables contain the same elements; something lost, something found, and finally, a community rejoicing.
Generally I like this parable right up until Jesus starts talking about the repentant sinner. So much of the mud that gets thrown about by the Christian right is intimately linked to personal sin, and the kind of quid pro quo that says “Stop sinning, then Jesus will love you”, that I’ve developed a bit of a gag reflex when I hear the words repent and sinner. It’s completely Pavlovian at this point. But I understand that repentance is an important aspect of this parable, and some may even say it’s the central concern. When I take the time to consider what repentance is and why it is so important I often think of Paul Tillich’s take in “The Eternal Now”. In this small book about the presence of the Eternal in the temporal, Tillich says, “Genuine repentance is not the feeling of sorrow about wrong actions, but it is the act of the whole person in which he separates himself from elements of his being, discarding them into the past as something that no longer has any power over the present” (Tillich*). Tillich’s understanding of repentance, for me, has been incredibly helpful. Repentance is an embrace of a new creation, not simply the act of feeling badly about sins or transgressions. Not only that, but it has the nature of a reaction to something, rather than the requirement for something. That is one of the things that stands out to me in the this parable. The shepherd doesn’t require anything of the sheep before it goes looking for it. The shepherd simply starts looking, and is so determined to find it that he’s willing to leave ninety-nine perfectly non-lost sheep standing in the wilderness to find the one lost.
What really struck me from this passage this week was the language of lost and found. I transitioned employment this week from one congregation to another, and as I said goodbye to my previous church on Sunday I was struck by all the various ways that this congregation has made me feel truly found. My wife and I were welcomed in from the very first day, and we were struck by how intentionally people sought us out to introduce themselves or to just say hello. As we became more involved our friendships grew and we really began to feel a sense of community that neither of us had experienced before. This was highlighted for me a few years ago in worship on Sunday morning. I was in the midst of a very heavy dose of depression and something about the hymns and the lessons struck a chord and I began to weep. I struggled to keep it in, and I didn’t want to walk out and draw attention to myself, so I sat staring at my lap and cried. It wasn’t long before I felt the first hand on my shoulder. Then another one, and another. People in the pews around me just held me in a way that made it clear to me that I was seen, and known, and found. It stands for me, still, as one of the most profound experiences of sacred community I have ever known. Isn’t this one of the very ways that God finds us? In the very hands and feet of our beloved communities? I know that is where I always seek it first.
This parable also stuck with me this week as details emerged about the discovery of Jacob Wetterling’s remains. In 1989 Jacob was kidnapped from St. Joseph and his family diligently kept up the search for 27 years. I remember having conversations with my parents when I was young about where I could ride my bike, when I needed to be home, and what to do if I was approached by someone I didn’t know. I imagine most children in MN had this conversation with their parents, and so much of it started with the abduction of Jacob. The Wetterling’s story has had such a profound impact on the state of Minnesota. We all held out hope for Jacob and were heartbroken by the news last week. Thousands of people all over the state left porch lights on in a show of support for the Wetterling family.
This was not an uplifting story of someone lost and found. There was no rejoicing, but rather mourning. I have to imagine that this story might be incredibly painful for parents whose children have been abducted or have gone missing. I think of the Wetterling family, or the girls abducted in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Where was God in the midst of all this horror and all this tragedy? What happens when the shepherd can not find the lost sheep? I have no idea how to answer this. I’m not going to even try. But, I have hope that just as the sacred community rejoices together, we can also find it in us to mourn together. To say that you who mourn for your lost ones, you are seen, you are known, you are found. It’s such a meager offering, but it is all that we have. Maybe we’ll find God there. Maybe not, but at least we’ll be together.
*Tillich, Paul. The Eternal Now. New York: Scribner, 1963.