Psalm 14

Luke 15:1-10

This is my Sunday School Bible, which I got when I was in third grade (we’ll give our third-graders Bibles soon). It’s the same Good News Bible we use in the pews, but this one is the “Good Shepherd Edition,” so it has some lovely watercolor-type illustrations throughout. Inside the cover is a full illustration of this parable from Luke, where the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to go search for the one who was lost. And the cover has this great picture of a shepherd carrying one little lamb back to the flock.  (I think that’s supposed to be Jesus, but it always struck me as David because he doesn’t have a beard.) So, as if I hadn’t already memorized Psalm 23 (in the King James, thankyouverymuch), I’ve had this visual reminder all my life that Jesus is my Shepherd.

My Shepherd. Mine, of course, because that’s one of the first and most important things we can know about God, that God loves us particularly. That’s how I learned this parable, that I was likely the lost sheep, and Jesus loved me so much that he’d give up the whole rest of the world to save me. And that’s true, even in the face of everything else I’m learning about this parable. “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Jesus loves me deeply, infinitely, passionately. Jesus loves you so much that if you were the only lost sheep out of all the world, he’d still go through hell to get you back. Learn that as thoroughly as you can learn it, as early as you can learn it, and you’ll be in far better shape as you go through the pains and trials of growing up.

Teach it to your children, with words and with the silent stories of your own love for them. Teach children that they’re absolutely, unconditionally loved. It’s enough to know. That’s what I learned in Sunday School, and that’s what we try to teach our kids in Sunday School here. There’s more content to the lessons, of course, but this is the big point. God loves us. Us in particular. You in particular. We teach Bible stories and ideas of the faith, but the ultimate formative lesson comes from being immersed in this community of love, being cared for just because you’re God’s own beloved.

But “Jesus loves me” is not all there is to know. I’ve given you permission here to miss a big context clue about this passage, and that’s the part about whom Jesus is speaking to. He’s talking to the Sunday School kids, the ones who – like many of us – grew up in their religious community and remained cooperative, well-behaved members of it. These were the folks who had learned the stories, who had learned the appropriate moral behaviors, who knew that God was on their side. They were upset with Jesus because he kept reaching out to people who didn’t look like God should be on their side. Traitors to religion and nation, notorious moral reprobates, the sort of people you don’t bring home for holidays, and Jesus spends all his time with them. The good kids, the ones who were brought up in the religious community and know God loves them, cry foul.

So listen to what Jesus says: “Suppose it was you, and you lost one sheep from your flock of a hundred. How would you react? No question, you’d go seek out the one that was lost, even looking like you’d abandoned the 99 ‘good’ sheep to do it. Suppose you had lost one of your ten precious coins. Of course you’d tear the place apart as if you’d lost the keys to your Lexus, and when you found it, what a relief! What a joy! That’s how God is with these outcasts.” Who are the religious folks in these stories? With whom are the religious insiders supposed to identify? With the 99 sheep, the 9 coins, that don’t get the limelight and the party. But also, in Jesus’ invitation, with God.

How does it feel to be one of the sheep “left behind” in favor of the one who was lost? How does it feel to be one of the coins that didn’t fall out of the purse and roll under the refrigerator? Here you’ve been toeing the line and keeping the rules, and all of a sudden there’s a party in honor of the stupid sheep that couldn’t pay enough attention to follow the rest of the flock? I think Jesus wants us, the insiders, to be a little peeved at the view through our stained-glass windows, seeing him go off to rescue someone else when he should be in here affirming our religious devotion.

But Jesus also wants us to understand God’s perspective, to share God’s perspective. “What does she do?” We’re supposed to be that woman with ten coins, realizing that one of them isn’t with the rest, and turn creation upside down to get it back. We’re supposed to count the sheep and know that if the creation were ours, we wouldn’t stop at redeeming just 99% of it. And we’re invited to feel God’s joy at every new bit of wholeness that finds its way into the world.

And that’s the other thing there is to know. God’s greatest joy is in new wholeness, new life, rebirth, reconciliation among people. That’s where God is in the world. Christ isn’t primarily here in the church, doing religious things. Christ is primarily out there, away from the pasture, seeking the lost sheep. Christ is primarily away from the table, turning the house upside down to find the coin that was lost. We come here to touch base, to remember who we are and how deeply we’re loved, but then we’re sent back out into the rest of the world. We’re led out into the rest of the world, because the Spirit is already blowing there, calling us into lives of reconciliation.

We teach you Bible stories here. We teach you faith concepts here. They’re present in our Sunday school curriculum. They’re present in the structure of our worship service and the words of our hymns. Those stories and concepts are the way we talk about the life we’re called to live, the way we make sense of God’s presence in our lives. But knowing the stories, making sense of things correctly, memorizing the Apostles’ Creed or the Ten Commandments, are not the ultimate point. They’re parts of how we maintain our connection with this community that is always reaching out to embrace us. What we’re really learning is how to be a community. What we’re really learning is what an embrace feels like.

And that’s why it’s not enough to be the lamb in Jesus’ arms, to be the once-lost coin that’s now grateful to be back in the purse. It’s enough at first, when that’s all we can do, in the same way that it can be enough to receive a hug when we’re not able to give one ourselves. But God longs to live in an embrace we give too. God comes into being in our openness to transformed lives around us. So if you feel cast out, by all means come back in. If you feel like an insider, by all means go out and get someone else. Extend the embrace of God’s love to someone who would be outside if it weren’t for your invitation. The reality of God is among us – be open to it!