I'd like to focus on the parable of the Lost Sheep – and, in particular, this very key section of the teaching : “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?”
Last week, I was watching my eight-year-old, Roxy, together with a friend, heading off to feed the chooks and ducks, who live relatively peaceably together in a pen together at Taranaki Retreat. The birds were pretty hungry, and they were all gathered hopefully at the gate, when she opened it. One of them came rushing out, all excited. Leaving the others to look after themselves, the two girls rushed after the escapee, to bring it back into the fold. However, in the process of this being achieved, and Houdini being returned to base, two or three of the others spotted what was happening, and joyfully made their way out too. While those were being returned, others also took advantage of the situation, and were soon pecking around in the soil and grass outside the pen.
Before long, the original dilemma was more or less reversed, with the first hen back (cause of all the problems) safe inside, and nearly all the others out fossicking, while next door's dog entered the fray, spurring on our two dogs into action. The escape of the original one hen led to a mass breakout and a chaos of feathers, squawking and excited hounds. Fortunately, no animals were injured in the exercise and everyone was eventually returned safe and sound and a longer-than-average feeding time was completed without further incident.
But from this little incident, we note a couple of key points.
The first is – what about the ninety-nine? How about the well-being of those who were doing fine, thanks? This parable is an expression of the Kingdom nature of God's place – and so can be understood as an template for our behaviour as Christians and a church. But what about the collective needs of the majority, all added together. There's bound to be knock-on effects if these are not attended to primarily, which may well leave things in a worse mess (although, not for the one who has wandered, and that's the key point, of course). The parable is not a policy and procedure for safe and secure working (and we do tend to prefer those, for obvious reasons) – instead, it is a mandate to take disproportionate and unstinting proactive action and risk for the salvation of a tiny minority (totalling one measly percent in this case).
But the parable tells us – that is what God does.
The missing sheep wasn't the one seeking, either – the Shepherd entirely proactively did the seeking, the finding, the carrying and the reuniting.
It's a beautiful illustrator for the lengths to which the Father's heart goes – unbounded – in love and grace. The reality is that the Gospel is much better than we can even describe.
Here's another parallel. Today we commemorate The Battle of Britain. In May 1940, German forces had overrun Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France. With the USA and the Soviet Union both still hesitant, and the French ally toppled, Britain now stood alone against the force of the Third Reich. The climax of the battle was on 15th September. The targets of the Third Reich were first and foremost minorities, including Jews, Sinti and Roma (Gypsies), the physically and mentally disabled, homosexuals, Afro-Germans, “asocials,” etc. and the forceful intention was to delegitimize, isolate, rob, incarcerate, sterilize, and/or murder many of these minorities. The destruction of minorities has been at the heart of so many of our World's most horrific conflicts, and continues to be so.
The Gospel of the Lost Sheep stands as an absolute antithesis to this. If you turn to the pewsheet (page...) you will see a simple illustration of the 1% minority, upon whom the Loving Father directs his gaze and focus.
But wait (and here's key point number 2), doesn't the parable seem to say that, while that 1% is lost in some way, the other 99 are left? “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?” Yes, it does. How does it feel to think that God's focus might NOT fully upon ME? Not so great...
It surely is great for God to seek to return the lost to the fold, but can he please simultaneously give full focus to my needs and wants whilst doing that? What if a church's focus were to mirror that?
What if the needs of those who may not be the lost, become secondary to the needs of those who are the most in need? From observing where many churches spend their energy, money, and time, you could be forgiven for thinking that John 3:16 reads: “God so loved the church that He gave His only Son.” What does the text really say? “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son”! As it was in the time of Jesus, we of course want a saviour who will deliver us from all manner of difficulties. As with Jesus’ contemporaries, we are challenged by a saviour who is for the world.
The parable makes it crystal clear that God is deeply into deliverance – for a purpose. He delivers us out of being selfie-obsessed into the mainstream of His life-giving water that is destined for the nations (Rev 22:2). We may want a “sit-and-soak Saviour,” A spa pool bubbling with all kinds of soothing blessings. What we really have is a “Get up and GO God,” One who soothes and saves so that He can work with us in our communities, to soothe and save the marginalised minorities within it. Spa pools can be nice, but if you spend too much time in one you shrivel up like a prune.
It's an exciting, thrilling and hopeful challenge. Could we manage more than one community cafe per week? This year so far we have raised over $15,000 for overseas mission through the cafe alone.
Not a bad mission focus. Could we double that next year? $30,000? How about our presence amongst the hard drug-users of our city? What about a direct involvement with a Third World community in significant need? How about direct action to assist refugees, even if they are not on our doorstep? This week, a few of us from St Mary's, along with thousands of Kiwis, are taking the Tear Fund challenge of “Living Below the Line”. Eating and drinking at the New Zealand equivalent of the extreme poverty line, $2.25 per day from Monday through to Friday this week. Bringing home the direct experiences of the 1.2 billion people currently living in extreme poverty on a global scale.
This is a significant piece of outreach work, and I urge you to get behind it. Could you live on just $2.25 a day for this week, and give the remainder of your shopping budget to overseas mission? My kids are taking it with us, and I am interested to see how different their packed lunches look this week. Could you sponsor them? There's a plate at the back. Every 30 seconds a child their age is trafficked in the world. The money from Live below the Line is going to fight that brutality.
Traffickers around the world sell innocent women and children into the sex industry, where they are rountinely abused, degraded and made to have sex with multiple men a night. It is a crime that preys on the vulnerability of women and children from poor backgrounds, and those who live below the poverty line are the most at-risk.
It is all about Christ-like solidarity. You see, the parable of the Lost Sheep reminds us that the funny thing about minorities, is that we are all one. Take another look at the picture, and reflect upon a time when you were that one person amongst the 99, and completely lost. Maybe because a past which made you different? Abused or abuser? An addiction you have lived with? Friendless in the school environment? Not seeming to make any true friends? Racially, or in terms of sexuality, different from those around you? Not able to find faith any more? Bullied? Not succeeding where others seem to? Rejected by the one you could always depend upon? Bearing the silent burden of depression? Bereaved and nobody seemed to care? In pain or slow of step, and nobody will wait with you and soothe your hurt? It is more than possible to be surrounded by ninety-nine and feel utterly alone. I suspect that all of us have known a sense of complete lostness.
Take heart and rejoice, and trust that the Father has sought you out. Amen.