If I had to sum up the guiding principle of my ministry I’d say this: I am called to make disciples of Jesus, following him in the midst of everyday life. I yearn for the ministry we share be leading us closer to the way of Jesus, showing his love, encountering his forgiveness, engaging his teachings, walking in his way. When I talk with others about faith and our call to being disciples, the response I often hear expresses a desire to live as a follower of Jesus but not knowing how to do that.
So these past few weeks I’ve hatched a plan to focus on preaching a series entitled “The Marks of a 21st Century Disciple” over the next 9 months. While I’ve offered book studies and small groups in the past, the reality of living in this time and era nearly always entails having an overcrowded schedule. This fall the LaBelle family calendar is not excluded from this reality. We have at least one standing commitment every day of the week the next few months—between soccer, gymnastics, scouts, after-school programs and evening work events. And I know that we are not alone, so trying to squeeze in another commitment isn’t really doable and would only lead to frustration when you’d have to miss for one reason or another and then feel disconnected.
But a 30 week series on being a disciple in modern day America preached here and then podcast online, that could work. We could explore the characteristics and traits of a Jesus-follower and from time to time have a chance to extend the conversation during coffee hour or in meeting one on one. So that’s my intention beginning today, to look at our texts through the lens of what they might mean for us as 21st Century disciples while looking for specific ways to put the life of faith into practice.
We begin with these two familiar stories of lost possessions. Jesus had a huge gathering of people coming around him, including some people who others deemed unsavory. The religious types—the ones who neatly organized people into the good and the bad—got all hot and bothered by these other ones due to their past misdeeds (or simply because of being found guilty by association or social status). They can’t believe that Jesus—a religious teacher—would even consider welcoming these sinners to hear him speak let alone sharing a meal with them.
Cue Jesus’ stories: A shepherd has 100 sheep and one of them gets lost along the way. Which of you wouldn’t leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one who was lost until you found it? Or imagine a woman with 10 silver coins who realizes that at some point during her day she dropped one. Doesn’t she stop everything else she’s doing and get down on hands and knees in order to find that missing coin? And when those things are found—that sheep and that coin—don’t you know how excited their finders become? They are ecstatic, jumping up and down and calling friends and opening up the special beverage they’v been saving for such a time as this. So it is in heaven, Jesus tells those religious types, when a single sinner repents. Partying and exuberance and angels kicking up their heels surround the presence of God.
Well, imagine if you’re one of those up-tight religious fellas (and yeah, they were all fellas back then). These stories likely won’t yield much in the way of compassion. They might be thinking that God should take the approach of cutting one’s losses and getting on with it. Those sinners and tax collectors and less than desirable people on the fringe of Jesus’ crowd, certainly God could do better than that. In fact God already had done better than that—God had the educated and well to do religious ones themselves who had followed the law faithfully all their live, unlike these sinners.
But here’s the funny thing about God: God’s a sucker for the lost.
Life here in 21st century America can often feel adrift. The harried pace, the financial commitments, the stuff we want, need and have that fills the nooks and crannies of our homes. The missed opportunities and the health scares. The loss of a loved one and the broken relationships. Feeling unfulfilled at work, or longing to be more connected to a spouse. Walking around the empty nest wondering what just happened and what could possibly be next. Making choices we regret, grabbing the bottle far too often, making sure to delete the history on our browsers. Life lived more reactively than we’d ever imagined, constantly putting out fires. And then when the priest drones on about increasing a prayer life, well it sounds nice, but we wonder how we’ll ever fit it in.
To put it bluntly, we feel lost.
And there it is, friends, the first mark of being a disciple in 21st century America.
“Whoa now there, big fella,” you might be thinking to yourself this morning. How on God’s green earth can feeling lost be a mark of discipleship? Has the priest lost a few marbles over the summer? Has there been too much caffeine in his diet? A bit too much time out in the sun?
But let’s look again at the beginning of our reading: “By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.’ Their grumbling triggered this story.”
The trigger of this trio these stories on lost things was the response by the religious types at the crowds of people standing on the fringe listening to Jesus and sharing a meal with him. But the difference between the two groups is simply this: the tax collectors and sinners know they’re lost. The religious types wouldn’t admit to feeling lost a day in their lives. They, unlike the ones shifting nervously on the edge of the crowd, have always appeared to have it together. So when Jesus spins the tale of 100 sheep, they instantly recognize themselves in the 99.
As do we. We’re a 99 kind of town. We’ve got degrees from excellent schools, careers that provide more than enough, and picture perfect families—at least on Facebook. We’ve got relatives that wander off on their own from time to time, needing our time, resources and attention to bring them back into the fold. But we’re the responsible ones, the 99 not needing the shepherd to fret over us because we know our way home.
Except we don’t, really. Perhaps you missed it. I know I did the first fifty-eight times I read this story. This is what Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness …?” Wait, what? He leaves the 99 in the wilderness? The wilderness? It’s eramos in the Greek, used some 45 times in the New Testament, and translated “the wilderness,” “the desert,” “the wild,” “the desolate places.” The Spirit leads Jesus into the eramos in order to be tested by Satan. Jesus’ disciples ask him, “Where are we to find bread in this eramos in order to feed so many?” And today, “Which one of you having a hundred sheep and losing one, doesn’t leave the 99 in the eramos?” As someone who’ll be intensely studying wilderness spirituality over the course of a sabbatical next summer, when I see the word eramos my ears perk up.
But it doesn’t end there. Jesus continues, “When he has found that lost sheep, 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.’” When he’s found it, he comes home. And, of course, if this shepherd is compassionate enough to find the one who’s wandered off, he’s going to return to the 99 in the wilderness and lead them home too. He doesn’t leave us out there in the desolate places on our own. He brings us home.
You see whether we realize it or not, we’re all lost. We’ve all spent time out in the wilderness trying to find our way. But here’s the truth, we cannot find it on our own. Home remains ever elusive, just out of our reach when we attempt to find it by ourselves. We need the shepherd. We need someone to guide us. We need to be found.
That’s the trouble in seeing ourselves as one of the 99. Because even when the world spins faster than we can handle and life goes off the rails, we think we have enough ingenuity, tenacity and that certain je ne sais quoi to muster through on our own. We don’t realize we’re in the wilderness needing a shepherd to lead us.
But if we truly want to follow Jesus, if we want to be his disciple in the 21st century, we need to begin by realizing that we are lost. That we need to be found. That the only way home begins by admitting we cannot do it all by ourselves and trusting that Jesus, who always has compassion for the lost, will lead us there. So let’s embark on this journey and follow this good shepherd. Let’s be his disciples and find our way home. Amen.