THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 1: 26-31
1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Luke 15: 1-7
I want to begin this lesson with a special “welcome” to all the guests and visitors who have taken the time to join us this morning. All of us at St. Andrew’s are so happy that you have decided to come, to share in worship, and to join us for a little lunch afterwards, you are very welcome indeed.
To those who are guests this morning, I also want to say that I have been where you are sitting! I was once a “visitor” who had said “yes” to a friends’ invitation to join them at the local Presbyterian Church, and look where I ended up – fair warning.
And that is what I would invite all of us to pray through together this morning: the strange and wonderful experience of being one moment minding our own business and the next finding ourselves being carried by the shepherd, just like the sheep in the story we just heard.
Indeed, however we first came into the church: whether we were carried in our parents’ arms or whether we walked in many years later, we will all play the part of the lost sheep at one time or another.
But the Good News is that the Good Shepherd will not leave us lost forever.
Our Gospel story this morning begins with Luke setting the scene. Jesus is in the middle of teaching the crowds, telling them all kinds of stories and parables:
The parable of the barren fig tree; the parable of the great dinner; the teaching about salt.
After this Luke says:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
You see, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were people who followed the doctrine of their religion so closely that they thought they could divide the world into what is righteous and what is sinful; they thought that as long as they continually did the right things (saying only the right prayers, dressing only the right way, eating only the right food, hanging out with only the right people) that they could avoid the sinfulness of the world.
To the Pharisees who grumbled against Jesus: the practice of their religion was about surrounding themselves with that which was righteous and avoiding that which was unrighteous.
In the minds of the Pharisees, Jesus, who was himself a Rabbi, a teacher of the Jewish Law, didn’t make any sense:
How can this guy call himself righteous if he eats with sinners?
How can this guy call himself righteous if he works on the Sabbath Day?
How can this guy call himself righteous if he hangs around with sinful people?
And in answer to these questions, Jesus told them the parable of the lost sheep:
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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 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.’ 7 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.
It is a story with no finger-pointing, with no condemnation, with no “this person is in and this person is out”.
It’s the story about a shepherd who goes looking for a sheep that has become lost, and when he finds it, he celebrates, and he invites his friends and neighbors to celebrate with him
And then the parable closes with these words:
7 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.
“Righteous persons who need no repentance”
Friends, of all of the strange and wonderful images in the Bible: angels, burning bushes, a man who dies and returns from the dead – this hypothetical “righteous person who needs no repentance” must be the rarest of all!
Are there any among us who are simply righteous and need no repentance?
Are there any of us who are perfect?
Are there any of us who will never again need to confess a sin to God?
Earlier in this morning’s worship service, we did what we do every week, which is to say together the Prayer of Confession. Now, the words may change every week but the place and the importance of this prayer does not.
As a people, as a church, centred in faith in Jesus Christ, it is our practice to confess before Christ our sins, the things we have done and not done that have not fully reflected Christ’s Love this week.
As an act of faithfulness, we confess, truthfully to God, that we have not been perfect. That we have failed at being faithful and kind, that we have made poor choices rather than wise ones, that we have chosen to serve ourselves rather than choosing to serve others.
The point of this Prayer of Confession is not to make ourselves or each other feel badly, rather the point is to acknowledge the truth:
None of us is perfect
None of us is righteous and in no need of repentance
We have all been, and will be again, like the lost sheep in Jesus’ parable.
We all need God’s mercy and grace.
The wonderful Good News of this reality is that, just as the parable says, there is rejoicing in heaven over us every time we are found!
Really imagine this: there is rejoicing in heaven over us every time we are found.
Every time Jesus removes our pride and comforts our hearts, there is rejoicing in heaven.
Every time we are inspired by Scripture or the beauty of creation and we remember ourselves in God’s world, there is rejoicing in heaven.
Every time we say “yes” to God when He offers to walk with us on a difficult path, there is rejoicing in heaven.
And, please, let me make one thing very clear:
None of these are things we do on our own!
We don’t turn from sin and turn toward God on our own!
We don’t grow in faith on our own!
Rather, God (in Christ, in the Holy Spirit, in the Father) does these things in us!
Notice, in Jesus’ parable, what action the lost sheep takes; notice how much control this lost sheep has over the outcome of the story. Here are verses 4 and 5:
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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.
Did you catch it? it happened very quickly!
“When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders—”
The sheep has no actionin the story. The sheep is just lost, away from the flock, probably munching on some grass, and before it knows what is going on, it is on the shepherd’s shoulders!
And as someone who went from not confessing faith in Jesus to being a minister 10 years later, I can tell you, this is an accurate description of my experience! One minute I was working at a shoe store in Lethbridge and the next thing I knew I was here!
None of us, as lost sheep, have control over our own salvation. We didn’t make God find us – He just did.
If this is true for all of us, that God finds us whether it is our first time in a church or whether we come every week, what then is a church?
What is a church?
Well there’s a saying about church that I really like: “A church is not a hotel for saints, but rather a hospital for sinners”
A church is not a place where those who feel they are elevated from the rest of the world come to hide out, rather a church is a place where all of us—whether for the first time or 10,000th time—come to experience God in the midst of fellowship.
A church is a place where all lost sheep can come to know that they are found and that they are loved in God and in community.
And THAT is a lesson that took ME quite a while to learn: that coming to church, and reading Scripture, and praying doesn’t mean you think you’re better than anyone else, it just means you’re aware that you need God’s guidance and love.
St. Andrew’s Lethbridge Experience:
-Was invited by a friend
-Was terrified, was looking for any and every reason to leave
-These people – so kind, so inviting, so sweet
-Later learned, it wasn’t because these people were special but because the God they prayed to was, that they seemed special to me because they had been formed by this faith and this love
Thinking about Jesus as Shepherd (just like the stained-glass window behind me); thinking about Jesus as one who is so concerned for all of his sheep that he will go out and seek the one that is lost and alone, I feel so thankful (first of all) that I have been found in Christ.
This is all truly wonderful Good News, but there is another level to this reality that makes Christian faith not just a collection of good ideas but rather a life and world-changing faith in a God we can know:
And that is the truth that is summarized in John 10: 11
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep
You see, it is not just that Jesus Christ is the shepherd who finds us and celebrates at finding us, (that is wonderful enough on its own), but it is a further truth that this shepherd loves us to the point of laying down his life for us.
The good shepherd Jesus Christ is not just an idea.
He’s not just a hopeful symbol.
He is a man. A man of a certain time and place, a man who wore sandals and ate with friends as well as strangers. A man in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
And this man went willingly to the cross in order to show us the way to eternal life.
We have been trying, for over two-thousand years to describe the depth of a love that is beyond words:
A love that makes the shepherd not only eager to find us, not only eager to celebrate at finding us, not only eager to make sure we are safe and happy, but eager to give us life eternal.
That it wasn’t enough to risk His safety in the wilderness, it wasn’t enough to forego His own wealth or His own prestige or His own power, but that He went without His own life... So that we might have relationship with God and one another for all time. Including the life beyond this one.
That is who the Good Shepherd is.
Returning to this morning’s reading, as we think about Jesus-the-Shepherd finally finding the lost sheep, I pray that we now see the words as even more beautiful than they were:
5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 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.’
Jesus is so happy to find us.
Each of us.
No matter where we are.
No matter where we have been.
No matter what we have done.
Jesus is so happy to find us that he throws a party when he gets home.
“Look who I found! Isn’t this fantastic!”
“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost”
This is the extraordinary beauty and love of a God that took on human form in Jesus Christ, this is the extraordinary beauty and love of a God who meets us where we are, who goes out of his way to find us, who celebrates when we are found, a God who invites and eats with sinners, a God who goes willingly to death so that we might live.
This is the God who calls people: me, you, the person sitting next to you.
God calls these sinful people, these imperfect people and he says “you know what? I’m going to stick you folks together, you are going to be a church in my name, you are going to gather to celebrate, to hear my Words, to pray, to sing glad songs, to eat together, and to invite your neighbours to eat with you”
And the same God-in-Christ who celebrated at finding the sheep who had wandered off, is the same God-in-Christ who celebrates when all of those lost sheep come together and seek to introduce others to that wonderful Shepherd.
Because, at the end of the day, that’s what a church ought to be: a place where those who are aware of Christ’s love for them turn outward and invite others to know that they are loved in a divine love that simply will not let them go.
To those of you who have visited us this morning, I want to say thank you, I want to say that you are truly and deeply welcome, and I want to say that we are so happy to worship God with you today.