The One Sheep

Sunday, 15 September 2019 10:00

"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? (Luke 15:3)

One thing about being  teacher on a school trip - you get used to counting heads. Every 10 minutes it’s “1 2 3 4 5 6.……10. Right we’re all here. Let’s move on”. This is one of those circumstances where “two out of three ain’t bad” doesn’t apply - not even 99 out of 100. You’re supposed to bring the same number back that you left with - of course it doesn’t do to be too zealous. I know of a theatre trip to Glasgow run by one school where they were halfway home before they realised they had one more pupil than they had left with. When you’re a teacher on a school trip you live in mortal dread of that time when you’re going to have to say to most of your group “Look - stay here. Don’t move. Don’t go anywhere. I’m going back to look for Liam”.

And in some circumstances that’s what  you’d have to do. There are some commentators on our text that see it as Jesus introducing an absurdity - would a shepherd really leave 99 sheep unguarded while he goes and looks for the one sheep that has strayed? Thing is, though, Jesus isn’t talking about sheep. He’s talking about human beings. We know that. The folk he was teaching knew that. He was talking about human beings like the kid who has got separated from the group on the school trip. He’s talking about human beings like you and me. He’s talking about human beings like the Pharisees who are giving him a hard time and like the sinners they have so little time for. 

He’s talking about human beings. I’m one of them. So are you. We all are. I don’t know about you, but there are times I’ve been less than perfect. There have been things I’ve done that I’m not awfully proud of. There are things I’ve said that I should never have said. As for my thoughts - well, I’ll say nothing about them. They are known only to me. And to God. There are times when I’ve been the one sheep - wandering off and getting into stuff I know is bad. At this point I really really hope I’m not alone in this room in that. See, there are times when we all wander away from what God wants us to be. There are times when we all fall short of what we are meant to be. There are times - times for each and every one of us - when we are the one sheep. 

That’s why this parable has continued to speak to people down the centuries. It speaks to part of the human condition. It speaks to us in our brokenness and whispers “you can be whole”. It speaks to us in our remorse and whispers “you can move on from this”. It speaks to us in our rage at our own weakness and whispers “come, lean on God”. And all of us feel these things from time to time - we all feel broken sometimes. We all feel remorseful sometimes. We all feel rage at our weakness sometimes. Each of us, sometimes, is the one sheep.

But there is a golden thread that runs through the Bible. A golden thread that begins with God forgiving the Golden Calf thing in the desert and weaves its way through the Psalms; a golden thread that is laced through the story of Israel’s restoration after Exile and stretches on through Jonah; a golden thread that is bound and earthed in the Cross of Calvary and which illuminates the writings of the first Christians. That we are not bound by our brokenness. That we can move on from remorse and walk again in the light. That we can let go of the rage and find strength in the grace and the forgiveness of God. That whatever we have done, we can leave it at the foot of the Cross and begin again. Whatever our faults, they do not define us; whatever our weaknesses, they cannot destroy us; whatever our wrongs, they will not have the last word. We are in the hands of a good shepherd who seeks out the one sheep.

And yet. And yet. This is not the story of the one sheep. The Pharisees Jesus is speaking to, he’s saying, don’t see themselves as the one sheep; but as the ninety-nine. And it’s tempting to do the same sometimes - even among Christians and we’re supposed to regard ourselves as redeemed sinners. Let me give you an example. When he was a teenager my son was a big heavy rock fan. One of the big rock stars, a guy called Ronnie James Dio, died about that time and The Westboro Baptist Church chose to picket his funeral with placards saying that he was now roasting in Hell. Christopher asked me what I thought of that. Frankly I’ve enough on my conscience without weighing up the weight on someone else’s soul; so I said to Christopher that God knew the man’s soul - no one else is in a position to judge him. He too was the one sheep.

Truth to tell, though, I was angry. How dare they! How dare I! How dare You! How dare any of us stand in judgement of another? If the Son of God welcomed sinners, how dare I spurn them? If my saviour ate with those who did wrong, how dare I judge them? If the the man I claim to follow went to the Cross for my faults, and from that Cross reached out to the criminal that hung beside him, how dare I treat any other human being, whatever they’ve done, whoever they are, as anything other than my brother or sister? I am the one sheep.

The temptation to play the Pharisee is with us today. When you read in the papers, of such and such a family of benefit recipients, and you see them described as “leeches” and “parasites”, ask yourselves if that doesn’t sound a bit like the Pharisees. When you read in the papers of such and such a criminal and they are described as “scum”, ask yourselves if that doesn’t sound a bit like the Pharisees. We are one flock. We are all the one sheep sometimes; for all of us there are times when we find ourselves walking paths into dark places from time to time. If we don’t walk too far on those paths then we should rejoice and feel for those that do for they too are the one sheep.

We all are sometimes. See, this isn’t the story of the one sheep. It’s the story of the one flock. Why does the shepherd go off looking for the sheep that has strayed? Because the flock isn’t complete without it, any more than the school party is complete without that one kid who’s wandered off. What Jesus is getting at, and the Pharisees haven’t seen, is that they, the sinners they looked down on, and all God’s children are sometimes the one sheep and are all the one flock. That the tax collecter and the prostitutes, the saint and the prophet, the Samaritan and the younger son; all, sometimes, are the one sheep and are all the one flock. That Jew and Greek, that male and female, that slave and free are all, sometimes, the one sheep and all are the one flock.

We are one flock, cared for by one shepherd; loved by one Father; bound as one family. We are one flock - all humanity. We are brothers and sisters in all our flawed glory. We are bound in the broken image of God. We are are myriad colours and one light, countless cultures and one family. We are all light touched with darkness; truth tinged with falsehood; glory girded with despair. One flock in beauty and brokenness.

And for all that our darkness is not what defines us. Our falsehood does not bind us. Our despair is not and cannot be the final word. The final word is the shepherd, who lightens our darkness, washes us clean and brings us home - all of us; for we are all the one sheep and we are all the one flock. Each of us with our unique regrets is loved completely. Each of us with our unique set of faults has been sought out by God. Each of us with our unique darknesses has been brought into the light. Each of us is the one sheep. That is why we are all the one flock. 

Lord God, save us from self-righteousness. As we have been loved. As our sins are forgiven, may we forgive. May we always remember that we are one flock

Preached at Gretna Old parish church