a sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19C)
When a sheep is lost, what happens to the flock?
When my girls were little, we used to read to them every night. And one of the books we read to them was by Shel Silverstein called, “The Missing Piece.” It’s about a character, a shape really, that looks like a pie with a wedge cut out of it. And this character goes all over the place looking for its missing piece. It talks to a worm, a flower, a bird – “have you seen my missing piece?” It comes across other pieces that might fit but some are too big or too small or to pointy. Nothing fits into its missing piece.
In today’s Gospel we heard two famous parables. One is called the Parable of the Lost Coin; the other is called the Parable of the Lost Sheep. As I often remind you, a parable is a story or fable that Jesus used to tell to describe the kingdom of God. And for a long time, I thought I understood what these parables were about: lost coin – found coin; lost sheep – found sheep. We’re poor little lambs who have gone astray and Jesus, the good shepherd finds us. Or, “I once was lost but now and found” – right?
But what if these parables aren’t really about being lost and found? What if they’re about something else entirely?
One of my professors in seminary was talking about this parable and she pointed out that in some parts of the world, what we call the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” is called the Parable of the Incomplete Flock.” In some traditions, this parable isn’t so much about a wayward and sinful sheep that wanders off, as it is about God’s concern for the flock, because without that one sheep – the flock would not be complete. God seeks out all of God’s children so that our family – God’s family – may all be gathered and fed. We are only complete when all who are lost are found; our wholeness as individuals comes from being part of a community.
This is why Jesus tells these parables to the Pharisees, who complained that he was spending too much time with tax collectors and prostitutes. Because without them, God’s kingdom would always be incomplete.
And lest we think, “Well sure! Of course we should welcome them all. But those Pharisees were complete jerks,” consider this: Jesus wants us to welcome even those guys – the jerks, the Pharisees – to the banquet. Without them, we are still incomplete.
Our flock is incomplete without both gay people and straight people worshipping side by side. We’re incomplete without both Republicans and Democrats. We’re incomplete without Jews and Muslims and even right-wing fundamentalist wackos. We’re incomplete without the homeless, the mentally ill, the hungry, the refugee. We’re incomplete without prostitutes, sinners and white supremacists. We’re incomplete without socialists and capitalists and the folks who can’t tell the difference between the two.
We are incomplete. Period. Because as human beings we all have sinned, we all have missed the mark, we all are cracked and broken clay pots. And the only thing that completes us, that brings us together, that gives us wholeness is the love of God through Jesus Christ – a love God gives freely to us all, without condition or reservation.
This past week I was talking to someone what goes on during the Eucharist. And I explained that it is known by lots of other names: The Lord’s Supper, the Mass, the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy. And each of those names emphasizes a different aspect of this sacrament. It’s the same sacrament with different names to emphasize different parts of it. But if I had to pick one name for it, it would be Holy Communion, because that emphasizes its unifying aspect: it unites us with God through Jesus Christ and it unites us with one another.
Each week, no matter how many times we shake our fist and scream at the news on TV, or how many times we hurt one another, or are hurt by another – no matter any of all that stuff – we still come together around this altar and we share in the real presence of Jesus Christ. We sing songs, and we listen to the stories, and we break bread and drink wine in union with Christ and one another. And we do it even though we’re incomplete and missing a piece. And we do it even with tax collectors and sinners. And we do it even when we think the other guy over there has been a bit of a jerk. Because without it, we are incomplete.
The surprising thing we might notice in today’s gospel is that the shepherd even misses that one sheep. After all, if you’ve seen one sheep, you’ve pretty much seen them all.
But if we look around the room today, we can each probably think of somebody who is missing. Once we get accustomed to seeing a person sitting in the same place week after week, and suddenly that place is empty, we take notice. We notice our emptiness. We notice our brokenness. We notice our incompleteness.
Several years ago, I was teaching the inquirer’s class. And I asked folks why they decided to join us here at St. Simon & St. Jude. One of the members of the class, Kevin Sitnik, said, “We come here because it is a church for folks who don’t fit anyplace else. It’s like the Island of Misfit Toys from ‘Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer.’”
I’ll take that description of this congregation any day of the week.
The only thing that can fill our emptiness, our brokenness, our incompleteness is the love of God. And by God’s love we called to be part of God’s kingdom. Just like the tax collectors, just like the prostitutes, just like the white supremacists and the anti-fa folks. Jesus calls us all to be part of his Island of Misfit Toys, or what he called “the kingdom of God.”
May this church continue to be a refuge for those who have missing pieces and want to be filled, as well as those who have been driven from the flock and seek to be loved.
Thanks be to God.