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The Never Lost Ninety-Nine

The Parables Of Jesus And Their Flip Side
Cycles A, B, and C
The homemade sign hanging on a large construction crane outside Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, said simply, "Linda is O.K." I was making my rounds in the hospital when I spotted it outside the window. I never found out who Linda was or from what threat she was now O.K., but I am confident a crane operator was rejoicing that day about some marvelous rescue of Linda.

Our parable today is a similar story. Because Jesus had been severely criticized for welcoming sinners and even eating with them, he told this story of a shepherd willing to go back out and search for one sheep out of 100 who was lost. It's not with any particular risk to the 99 safe in the fold. Other shepherds would watch after them, as often was the case in the communal sheep folds of Palestine.

This is basically a parable about getting lost and celebrating both the recovery and being found. Three of these "lost" stories follow in a row in Luke's fifteenth chapter. First this lost sheep, then a lost coin, then a lost son. There is a lot of celebration in the finding of the lost in all three stories. That was the point Jesus was making to those muttering about his taking up with the sinners.

God really celebrates the finding of those some consider lost. There is great joy over even one returning or coming for the first time to the safety of the fold. Jesus was saying to the super religious of his day to give up their criticism of those being rescued and rejoice with him their new life. It's like that in heaven, he said.

There is a lot of celebrating when even one who was lost is found. Notice this has a lot to tell us about Christian joy. The temptation is to try to figure out if the person is worth the effort. But here Jesus said this shepherd turned over 99 to other shepherds and went back out to search for one -- and when he found the lost one, there was a lot of celebrating, like the crane operator outside the window at Methodist Hospital. Not only did the shepherd rejoice and the home village celebrate, but even God and heaven's angels rejoiced as well!

This is a matter needing attention in our congregations. The art of celebrating with joy is an important part of being a Christian and an individual disciple of Jesus. Joy observed can be attractive and infectious. It can cheer up us sheep in the fold and persuade others to join us, too. How we worship, celebrate communion, greet each other as God's family, are all important elements in being a part of God's flock here. It helps make the lost want to be found and want to return to the security of the fold.

If we take this story seriously, all heaven is on tip-toe breathlessly waiting to see if the one lost will be brought back home again.

We must ask the question: who are the lost of our day? In one sense we are all lost and Jesus has rescued us by going to the cross, coming out of the grave, and returning in Spirit to guide us through this life's wilderness. In that one sense when we gather here, it's the lost celebrating -- we are found and rescued by our Savior and are celebrating the joy of it.

In another sense there are many we might consider lost in our day and for whom we must go out and search and bring home again or bring in for the first time.
-- Many are lost to addictions such as drugs or alcohol or sexual pleasure or greed and wealth.
-- There are those who simply gradually drift away and are now way outside our fold.
-- There are those who have given their lives over to immediate gratification and a hedonistic lifestyle.
-- There are those we have hurt and/or offended and thus turned off to our church.
-- There are those who worked so hard and so long here and because we took advantage of them they left us for less demanding and more peaceful pastures.

Sometimes it's our fault they are lost and in that case we must try even harder and risk even more to help them return. And sometimes we lost some because they simply are bored at the dull way we live out our faith. Real discipleship involves joy, Jesus said. A congregation in celebration ought to be infectious to all who observe or even come near.

Sometimes the lost aren't just those outside the fold either. While here in the fold, we can suffer loss and be in need of rescue. Loss can come in the form of loss of a job or status, loss of spouse or children, loss by divorce or by moving to a different neighborhood and community, and the major one: that of losing to death a loved one.

In all these losses we need to be a sensitive people who seek out each other and bring the quiet joy of companionship and Christian comfort and Christian friendship. It's a ministry to each other that we have as a part of our life in the fold together.

This is also a story about outsiders and insiders. We who are in the church know we are precious to God, our good shepherd. But we don't always realize how precious those still outside the fold are to the shepherd as well. For just one he went back out in the hills and wilderness and searched and searched.

I wonder if the other shepherds didn't say that day that it's not worth the effort just for one. Or maybe they said, as we are often tempted to say, that this lost one was never one of us in the first place!

There are many ways we can communicate that we consider people outsiders: by the language we use in the worship bulletin, by the lack of genuine welcome when they visit us, by the assumption everyone should know how we worship, by a lack of inclusion in our fellowship before and after the service, or by any meaningful action after they visit that fails to say we, too, celebrate their return or first coming to the fold. We insiders must find ways to better celebrate with the good shepherd the lost returning to our fold.

In Ezekiel we have the promise, "As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness" (Ezekiel 34:12).

God doesn't give up on us. And God takes the initiative and comes out looking for us. Like the loving father after the prodigal son, like this shepherd after the lost sheep, and like the woman who lost her coin and lit a lamp to hunt for it, God searches for us. No one is too far lost or too sinful to invite back or too at fault for being lost. God still tries to bring them (us) back. And the returning of the lost is still cause for great celebration.

In a world of bigness and impersonal numbering of people, in a time when we often feel we are just one among so many, in a culture which often sacrifices the one in order to reach the mass, we have this idea about our God. We count. We are precious to God even with all our dumb straying and stubborn refusal to follow the way we ought to go.

I surely can celebrate this idea of individuality and preciousness by the one who created and continues to operate all the universe. There is joy for celebration for one today. Ezekiel's promise continues as assurance to us and to the lost we seek: "I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. I will shepherd the flock with justice" (Ezekiel 34:16).

In this series of messages about the flip side of the parables of Jesus, I wondered what I could come up with on this one which is so familiar and the primary teaching of the story is so clear.

I thought about looking at the sheepfold and the American Express slogan which says it's "everywhere you want to be." We need to be here in the fold in a way others will want to be there, too. Paying attention to possible offenses and anxiety-producing events among our membership is important to cut down on the number who stray and are eventually lost outside the fold.

Then I thought maybe we ought to focus on those who were called the Pharisees or very religious of Jesus' day and how they "muttered" about who he tried to bring into the kingdom. I wondered how many times our dissatisfied muttering has driven away the lost who come close to returning or those inside who just get fed up with all the complaining.

Then it occurred to me that the flip side of this story about the joy of the lost being found is about those who were never lost at all. What, after all, are we to do who are already securely inside the fold (church)?

We are to support our shepherd's attempts to find the lost. That means to allocate congregational energy and money in a ministry of evangelism and outreach. It means we all need to learn how to witness to our faith and invite others in. It means we must uphold those who are best at seeking the lost wherever they try, in prayer and moral support.

It certainly means we must move beyond expecting our pastor to spread all her/his ministry time caring for us inside and encourage him/her to go out to those not yet enfolded and to teach us how and where to go as well.

When we do all this inside the fold, it will lead to much celebration and joy here and in heaven. How wonderful that will be for the lost and for us, the found, as well.

We need to say this, too. It's only when we take seriously the idea of being lost that our joy at being rescued and rescuing take on their proper importance. Put another way, we must recognize the awfulness of sin to know fully the joy of being saved.

In a time when we rarely talk about sin, this needs to be put on the billboards of life. It's hell to live outside the fold. It can be lonely and bitterly disappointing and sadly dissatisfying. Sin has a way of separating us from God and each other. It has dramatic and drastic implications for our time beyond our grave.

When we realize the gravity of being lost, we begin to realize the joy of being found. It's what Jesus must have had in mind when he told those Pharisees that the shepherd said, "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep" (Luke 15:6b).

What a story about the joy of being found and of finding. It's also about how precious we are to God and what our responsibilities, as those securely within the fold, are for the lost. Ours is not to mutter, but celebrate with joy. We are to erect our signs that say "Linda is O.K." and we are celebrating.

I got them together in their old, old age in Liberia, West Africa. She was Amanda Gardner, called "Mama Ganna," the Bible Woman, and he was called "Old Man" Mopolu, the Evangelist. Both now were beggars, since there was no retirement plan for the aged. As she said goodbye to him for the last time, she wagged her tiny, bony finger in his face and said, "Now, Old Man, don't give up this God business; and when we get to heaven all the people there will greet us with a big handclap!" Might that be said of us also!
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