September 11, 2016 – 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 15.1-10

I have a friend, Catherine, who is a shepherd. She has sheep. She has twenty of them. Catherine counts her sheep when she moves them from the pasture to the barn at night. She doesn’t count them in a line, one at a time. Sheep, she says, do not stand still to be counted. So she counts them in batches. She has “nine black sheep. Seven white sheep. Four little lambs.”[1] It’s easier to keep track of her flock that way and she has a better idea of who she’s looking for if a sheep is missing.

Last summer Catherine had a lamb who was missing one night. A lamb is particularly vulnerable to predators so Catherine went out to the pasture to look for the lamb. It didn’t take long to find her. She was a ways out in the pasture, “off by herself, head down, grazing.”[2] It’s not typical sheep behavior—to go off on one’s own, to not travel with the rest of the flock when the flock is moving. But this little lamb went missing a number of times. Sometimes Catherine had to look for a long time to find her. But she always found the missing lamb, “off by herself, head down, nibbling away.”[3]

Knowing that story about Catherine’s flock makes me wonder about how someone keeps track of 100 sheep. The 100 sheep Jesus talks about in the parable. How do you notice one is missing? I can see missing one of ten coins. It’s a lot easier to count to ten plus coins don’t move around like sheep do.

Just like Catherine searching for her missing lamb, the person responsible for the 100 sheep and the woman who has lost a coin go looking for what is missing.

What is puzzling to me is that the 99 sheep are left in the wilderness while the sheep owner goes to look for the one missing sheep. Unlike Catherine who puts her sheep in the barn before she goes to look for the missing sheep, the 99 sheep left in the wilderness are likely to wander, just because they’re curious or hungry or they’ll get scattered by the presence of a predator. So when the sheep owner comes back with the one found sheep, wouldn’t it be likely he’ll have even more missing sheep?

Then there’s an indelicate question of whether lamb chops will be served for the feast which celebrates the return of the missing sheep. For someone who raises sheep, the party food likely diminishes the number of sheep in the flock. Same thing with the woman and the coin she recovers. Isn’t it likely the party will cost as much as the value of the coin that was lost and then found?

There’s an extravagance here. A joyful, rejoicing extravagance. In these ten short verses, the related words rejoice and joy are used five times. It’s an extravagance that goes beyond the value of the one sheep or the one coin.

The editorial comment on each parable is about the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. Neither the sheep nor the coin repent, so the link to sinners repenting seems a little odd. Maybe this is another of Jesus’ arguments from the lesser to the greater. He used this with the bent over woman that we heard last week. If you will give water to your ox on the Sabbath isn’t setting a human being free on the Sabbath of even greater value? Similarly, if a person rejoices exuberantly when they find their missing sheep or their missing coin, how much more exuberantly does heaven rejoice when one lost person is found?

The last line in the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” imagines when all is as God intends it to be and we, God’s creation, are “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” There’s a kind of getting lost that’s about being caught up in rejoicing and joy. I wonder if that’s another way to understand the joy of the angels—when we live as God intends for us to live, when we find that our truest self is being connected to God there is great rejoicing.

In the Godly Play class most stories from the Bible include a question at the end of the story that asks how this story is about you or where you are in the story. This morning I invite you to ponder how these parables are about you or where you are in the parable.

I wonder what of value you have lost? It could be something that had monetary value or maybe the something or someone you lost had a different kind of value—perhaps a spiritual or emotional value.

What happened when you looked for it?

What did it take for you to find it again? Or if it was not found, was there something of value that you began to discover in its absence?

I wonder if you have experienced joy or rejoicing?

I wonder where God was in the losing or the finding or the rejoicing?
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[1] https://ucucc.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/a-sheeps-new-year/, accessed 10 September 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.


Setting People Free

September 4, 2016 – 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 13.10-17

A few weeks ago the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about the kind of feedback he received in response to columns we wrote. One column was about the death of his 12-year old family dog. The other was a column calling for “greater international efforts to end Syria’s suffering and civil war, which has claimed perhaps 470,000 lives so far.” He received “a torrent of touching condolences” when readers heard about the death of his dog, Katie. He received “a different torrent of comments” about his column calling on the international community to do more to end the civil war in Syria. Many of those comments Kristof said, were “laced with a harsh indifference: Why should we help them?” He said many of the comments about Syria felt to him “like callousness toward millions of Syrian children facing starvation or bombing. If only,” Kristof wrote, “we valued kids in Aleppo[, Syria] as much as we did our [dogs.]”[1]

Kristof’s observation reminded me of what Jesus says in this story from Luke 13.

Encountering a woman who had been bent over for 18 years, he sets her free. But, this happens on the Sabbath and so he is criticized for working on a day reserved for rest.

Now Jesus knows that a person was allowed to untie an animal and lead it to a source of water on the Sabbath. If you can provide water for your animals, Jesus reasons, shouldn’t you be able to set a human being free on the Sabbath? Do we care more for an animal than for another human being?

Jesus challenges the interpretation of the Sabbath that saw responding to human need as work that violated the Sabbath. Jesus declares that the Sabbath is a time of liberation.[2]

Many of us most likely associate Sabbath as related to rest. When I was growing up, Sunday, the Christian Sabbath day, was the most boring day of the week. After we came home from church and had dinner, my parents sat around reading the newspaper all afternoon. My mom didn’t make anything for the evening meal that night. We had to make our own peanut butter sandwiches. We never did much of anything—although we did get to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and then the Wonderful World of Disney at night.

Sabbath is about rest but rest is not just about taking an afternoon nap. Rest is about liberation. In the Hebrew scriptures, the Sabbath year was when debts were redeemed and slaves were freed. For my parents, and more so for centuries of people who worked without benefit of vacation or paid sick days or minimum wage or a 40-hour work week, the Sabbath was a day to lay aside the work of a job and child care and house keeping and to be liberated from the lying tyranny that says our value is linked to how much we can produce. Sabbath is a radical act of liberation. Reminding us of who we are in God’s eyes. Not just replaceable laborers but beloved children of immeasurable worth.

In his inaugural sermon, back in chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus says,

“The Spirit of the Holy God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of [jubilee and restoration.]”[3]

Part of Jesus’ ministry is to let the oppressed go free. And in this story from Luke 13, he sets an oppressed woman free. It is fascinating to me that Jesus did not heal this woman. “Heal” is not the word that’s used in this story. He heals lots of people but with this woman, he sets her free. Several people I read on this story say this is not a woman with a physical ailment to be healed. She is a woman in a culture that does not value women. That sees her as less than fully human. She doesn’t need to be healed. She needs to be set free from the oppression of her culture and community that has degraded her dignity; that has told her she is not worth much at all.

And that’s exactly what Jesus does—on the Sabbath day of liberation. He sets her free and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

I don’t know if you read Elizabeth Mays’s op-ed in Monday’s Courier-Journal. Elizabeth is a white woman who lives in Crescent Hill with her husband and four children. She wrote about mentoring Leandra Rodgers, an African American student at the Academy @ Shawnee. Leandra graduated from high school this past spring and starts college this fall. Shawnee was the fourth high school she had attended. Her mother had moved a lot which meant Leandra had to change schools a lot. After her mother lost custody, Leandra lived with a variety of relatives and often stayed with her father’s ex-girlfriend which meant at 18 years old, she was technically homeless. After school, Leandra worked at a fast-food restaurant to have money for a cell phone and to pay for food.

As a mentor Elizabeth learned first hand about the challenges Leandra faced in applying for college. “I have come to realize,” Elizabeth wrote,

“how many obstacles there are for low-income students trying to navigate the path to college. It’s little things like not having envelopes or stamps available when you need to mail in a parent’s signature—and it’s larger issues, like not having a home computer or reliable transportation options when trying to get copies of important documents. Can you imagine how hard it is for an essentially homeless teenager to keep track of important financial records, such as a W2 form?”[4]

            Elizabeth also is a mentor to Leandra’s half-sister and her cousin “because,” as Elizabeth said, “they don’t have anyone else to whom they can turn.” Leander’s younger half-sister and her friend, who will be seniors next year asked Elizabeth if she would help them go to college.

Elizabeth writes this about these girls who are changing her life.

“These girls have seen so much in 18 years. They all live below the poverty level. Two were taken from their mothers. One has lost her mother and has a father in jail. One has a child whom she gave up for adoption. They have experienced so much heartache…Each of them kept going to school. Each graduated. Each wants to go to college and build a better life. One wants to be a nurse, one wants to study business, and one wants to help kids ‘like herself.’…No one should doubt these women can be successful, given the chance and just a little help.”[5]

            There’s a lot in our community that poor African American girls (and boys too) bear that weighs them down, bending them over and oppressing them. Regina Jackson-Willis, who is the Family Resource Center Coordinator at Engelhard Elementary has this quote below her email signature: “Remember: everyone in the classroom has a story that leads to misbehavior or defiance. 9 times out of 10, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry. It will break your heart.”

Another teacher told me before he confronts a student who clearly needs more support at home he looks at the student and silently asks, “What are you up against?” It builds compassion in him for his students.

When Jesus calls the woman who had been bent over for 18 years “a daughter of Abraham,” he was saying this “woman is a full member of the people of God.”[6] She has a new status. No longer is she a second-class citizen. No longer is she someone to be overlooked or ignored or discriminated against or marginalized or excluded or oppressed. She is an equally valued member of the household of God.

As followers of Jesus, isn’t our calling to be about that same work of setting people free? Working to undo and dismantle the structures and systems that keep people bent over, unable to be their full selves as God created them to be.

There are realities of life in our community that many of us don’t have to know about. But when we put ourselves in relationships with others whose life experiences and circumstances are different from our own, we are given the opportunity to grow and develop greater compassion. And we can learn to put our efforts toward changing systems that keep people oppressed and bent over.

You may already be engaged in this kind of work of liberation. If you’re not, our three New Beginnings projects offer great ways to make these connections—through supporting kids in our neighborhood schools, getting to know the gifts and needs of our neighbors who come for lunch and prayer on Wednesday, and by being an ally for Simmons College and doing our work to understand and dismantle systemic racism.

May our efforts together be part of God’s great work of liberation in our community and our world.

* * * * *

[1] Nicholas Kristof, “Do You Care More About a Dog Than a Refugee?” New York Times, 18 August 2016, www.nyti.ms/2bpjrA3, accessed 25 August 2016.

[2] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 232.

[3] “The year of the Lord’s favor is the time of jubilee and restoration.” The Access Bible – NRSV, eds. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), Luke 4.16-21 note, p90 NT.

[4] Elizabeth Mays, “Mentoring high schooler eye-opening experience” The Courier-Journal, 29 August 2016, 12A.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Boring and Craddock.