This is the first of a four-week sermon on the stained glass windows at Andrews UMC.
You might call this the parable of the bad shepherd, and I’ll show you why. How many sheep is Jesus holding in this picture?
One. Yes, just one.
There are just a few sheep standing around him here; but in the parable, how many did he leave behind to go find that one?
That’s just bad shepherding. Leaving 99 sheep alone and exposed is risky business. It’s risky for the sheep whose lives depend on the shepherd. It’s risky for the shepherd whose livelihood depends on the sheep.
And yet here he stands, one lone sheep in his arms.
In Matthew 18 this story comes in the midst of a lesson about the “little ones” and how we care for them. When we think “little ones,” we might think of someone who has yet to fully develop in age or maturity, status or faith. They are the ones who have not reached – or are not living into – their full “size,” so to speak.
In this parable the little one is literally a little one, one single sheep out of the hundred who has wandered off from the flock. Maybe it was an absent-minded mistake in which this sheep was eating grass… eating grass… eating grass… until one moment it looked up and found itself in some foreign field. Or there may have been an intentional choice made to go after some greener-looking grass off in the distance by itself so it wouldn’t have to share. Or, maybe some predator darted in between the one and the ninety-nine, forcing it to run off for its life.
Whatever the reason, this one is alone in a way characteristic of many “little ones” in life. There is an element of isolation involved when someone isn’t accepted into the norms of society, or can’t quite fit in, or chooses not to fit in in order to preempt rejection.
These are the ones for whom Jesus’ heart longs.
Jesus would leave the whole flock at the chance to bring just one of them home. Jesus did this for the outcasts in his day and time, reaching out to tax collectors and sinners, lepers and prostitutes – basically, all those that no one else wanted to reach out to. The Holy Spirit continues this work today through what we Methodists call “prevenient grace.” Before we do anything to deserve God’s love – even while we are little and lost and alone – God is working for us, tugging on our hearts in a way that tells us that we have wandered away from home.
If you have been a little one, or if you know a little one, then you can put a human face to the sheep in this image. Jesus Christ, the bad shepherd, has risked the whole flock for that one sheep. Jesus Christ, the infinitely good shepherd, would risk it all for any one of us.
But the one is only one sheep.
What about the ninety-nine?
The 99 are a majority. This is math even an English major can do: they are 99% of the flock. One has wandered but an overwhelming majority has stayed. They are together. They are obedient.
Sheep don’t have opinions (at least not that we know of). A flock of sheep might look on with little concern as their shepherd leaves them to find the lost little one; they may or may not look up from their grass-eating to greet a lost sheep upon its return. But if sheep had thoughts like people, there’d be opinions a-plenty.
“Why did he wander off anyway? He deserved to get lost. The shepherd should have let him get what he deserved.”
“We were all eating the grass over here. This grass is just fine. It’s the same grass my grandma ate. Is this grass too good for her?”
“I feel badly that the wolf separated him from us, I really do. It’s terrible. But why is the shepherd leaving us all alone to find him? What if the wolf comes back? The shepherd may not even find him – and we could all die!”
Fortunately for sheep, they don’t have thoughts like that.
Unfortunately for people… we do.
The characters in a parable draw us in, they make us wonder: who would we be in this story? There are three roles in this parable: the one, the ninety-nine, and the shepherd. So which one represents us?
A process of elimination helps us get started. We are not the shepherd. Even those of us called “pastor” – a title that derives from this shepherding image – are most definitely not the Good Shepherd. There is only one of those, and that is Jesus.
That leaves two spots: the one, and the ninety-nine.
A few of you reading this will find yourselves in the position of the one. You might feel “little.” You may have gotten lost from your life-path. You might be alone or isolated somehow. If that is you, hear this definitively good news: Jesus is searching for you, right now. When you feel a longing in your soul, an emptiness that hasn’t been filled by anything you’ve tried yet, that’s the Holy Spirit drawing you back home toward the care of God, our Good Shepherd. No matter how far you’ve wandered, God wants you. God loves you. God can’t wait to celebrate your return to the flock.
Most of us, though, are not the one – it’s a matter of simple mathematics. Most of us are in the majority. We are the ninety-nine. We are flocked together in church families that care for us. We are together. We have not left. We are not lost.
When we are part of the majority it’s easy to develop a majority-think. We might feel annoyed at those who act differently. We might judge them based on the partial story of their lives that we know about. We might – intentionally or unintentionally – group together in a way that turns our backs on the lost ones wanting to come home to God.
But those are temptations that we cannot give in to, because we serve the good shepherd. In fact, the more people we welcome into our flock, the less lost little ones there are.
And if we do – if we love the least and the lost as much as our shepherd does – something incredible might happen. Our “flock” might grow. More and more people might feel welcome here, in the love and care of the God who created all of us. And as more are welcomed in, there are fewer “little ones” who are lost.
When Jesus explains what kind of shepherd he is in John 10, he says it this way: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
May it be so.