A Sheepish Church
Last Sunday we read Luke 15:1-10 in church. It's Jesus responding to his high class critics after they attack him for spending too much time with the wrong kinds of people doing the wrong kinds of things—"welcoming sinners and eating with them" (15: 2):
“Brother Jesus, we’re a little concerned that you’ve been spending too much time down the street at that daycare and job-training center and not enough time tending to your flock over here. You've been out with the kids too much, and not always with the kinds we think are the best examples for ours. The church has perfectly good structures in place to establish acceptable funding procedures within our well-allocated and proportionally delineated budgets in order to provide appropriate and accountable support to vetted social service or psychological counseling agencies exhibiting proper oversight mechanisms to assure optimal mission investment and accountable human return. Don’t worry about the people; that’s the deacons job! You're a teacher.”
Against this, Jesus doesn’t appeal to articulate strategies of missional effectiveness or list all of the adult ed classes he taught or in-office counseling hours he put in at the Temple last year. In fact he doesn’t defend himself at all, at least not directly. He simply casts a story alongside, and invites his questioners to the feast:
Luke 15:4-7 “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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 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.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who turns than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no turning. (NRSV, slightly edited)
Much has been made of Jesus praising the shepherd who leaves 99 in the wilderness for the sake of 1, but I wonder if we might have romanticized this a bit too much over the generations. I say this because if there was more than one shepherd, as Jesus' hearers would probably have assumed there was, the other shepherd or shepherd(s) will have taken care of the remaining sheep. They would have taken them back to the village.
So what was true then is true now: we don't take care of each other alone. We do it with others. The answer to our needs is not a superman or superwoman. It’s not enough to have heroes. We need each other. We need a church. And the work of the ones who take charge of looking for the one sheep depends on the day-to-day faithfulness, helpfulness, commitment, involvement, quiet and behind the scenes effort of others.
This shows that Jesus is pluralizing the problem. His critics are dealing with a whole movement, not just him and his peculiarity. They're dealing with God's work among all of Jesus' followers.
This observation also makes me wonder about our American habit of praising only the stars, or the ones who act in the public eye, and forgetting those who labor anonymously for the good of others in rarely rewarded ways: Teachers, nurses, volunteers, those who open their checkbooks to fund the work, those who pray.
The answer to our need is not a lone hero or a magic individual who alone can make a difference. The answer is a whole network. The answer for us, as people of faith, is the church—as the church follows its Lord.
Our work is to do our best, in all our imperfections, to be a community built on faith that includes the whole picture imagined in this parable: the 99 sheep in the group, the 1 sheep outside the group who's waiting to be found (maybe more of us are that 1 than we like to admit), the shepherds tending the group, the shepherds reaching out, the villagers waiting and praying and celebrating the reunion, and each of us being nudged to the feast Jesus is hosting.