Discovering our Inner Lost Sheep

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Like many of you, I spent a fair amount of time watching the Olympics a few weeks ago. While I am enthralled by the acrobatics of Simone Biles or the sheer dominance of Michael Phelps, I often find the less successful athletes much more compelling. One such athlete is Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from the small African nation of Equatorial Guinea who competed in the 100 meter freestyle at the Olympics in Sydney. In many ways, Eric was the unlikeliest of contenders. He had only taken up swimming eight months before the start of the Olympic Games. To put that in perspective, that’s like, well, someone taking up swimming eight months before they compete in the Olympic games. Nevertheless, the International Olympic Committee had awarded Equatorial Guinea a wildcard draw as a way of encouraging participation by developing countries. Thus, Eric was competing at the highest level of his sport despite the fact he had never even seen an Olympic-sized pool until he arrived for his first heat.

There’s no question that Eric was deeply sensible of his inadequacies, but he decided to go through with the race anyway. In an extraordinary coincidence, all of his competitors false started and were unexpectedly disqualified. This left Eric to complete the race entirely by himself. In the Disney version of this story, Eric would have set a world record, but in reality the race was excruciating to watch. eric_moussambaniWithin a few strokes, it became clear that he had never swum any significant distance. By the time made the turn at 50 meters, people were openly wondering whether he would be able to finish or even survive the race. Ultimately, he completed the race, winning his heat (remember, he was the only competitor) with the slowest time in Olympic history. Though his performance initially elicited laughter from the crowd, the spectators gradually realized they were witnessing a true Olympic moment. We assume that the Olympics are meant to celebrate superhuman feats of athleticism, but Eric reminded us that in the end, these athletes are as frail and vulnerable as the rest of us.

This morning we hear two famous and related parables about human frailty: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. These parables follow essentially the same formula: something is lost, someone seeks and finds it, and there is much rejoicing. What is striking about both of these parables is the extraordinary effort that is put into finding the lost. The shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to find just one. Even though Jesus seems to imply that this is standard practice, the fact is that losing sheep was part of being a shepherd in the first century. One lost sheep out of a hundred would barely register; it was the cost of doing business. In a similar way, this woman spends the day turning her whole house upside down in order to find the one coin she misplaced, potentially losing wages or time to run her household. At the very least she had to use precious lamp oil to look for something that wasn’t worth all that much in the grand scheme of things. When faced with similar situations, most of us would simply conclude that we could probably take the hit: we can live with the loss of a sheep or two. The implication of these parables, however, is that God doesn’t engage in this kind of calculus. As Henri Nouwen writes, “God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns. Statistically that is not very interesting. But for God, numbers never seem to matter…From God’s perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed…to fill the heavens with sounds of divine joy.”

Now it’s important for us to consider Jesus’ audience. Even though the occasion for this teaching is the fact that Jesus has been criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus is not speaking to them. He is actually addressing the scribes and Pharisees, the people who supposedly have their life together and ostensibly have no need of repentance. We might imagine their impatient response to these parables: “It’s certainly a nice thought that God will seek out those poor sinners even when it is a waste of everybody else’s time. In the meantime, here we are, doing our very best to stay out of trouble and keep our noses clean. We have never left home and have always done what we are supposed to do. What do we get from this God who seeks out and finds the lost?” imgresJesus has a startling suggestion for the scribes and Pharisees: “What if you’re the ones who are lost? What if you are the lost sheep who has strayed from the flock? What if you are that lost coin that rolled under the sofa?” With these parables, Jesus insists that everyone needs to be found, because everyone is lost in some way. The message of these parables is as much for those who have wandered off as it is for those who think they never left.

The scribes and Pharisees aren’t the only ones who have had trouble understanding this. We know we have a generous God who reaches out to the lost and rejoices when they return. It has been burned into our brains by years of faithful church attendance. The funny thing about religious people is that for all of our talk about God, we would much rather be left to our own devices. We do everything we can to conceal our vulnerabilities, to hide our inadequacies, to imagine that we have everything under control. We all like to think that we are Michael Phelps or Simone Biles: confident that we will succeed as we prepare to knife through the water or soar through the air. But this is only true on the rarest of occasions. Most of the time, we are much more like Eric Moussambani: plagued by deep feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy as we stand before the largest pool we have ever seen.

This is the nature of our human condition. We are inadequate; we are broken, and we are lost. But we begin to overcome this condition through the practice of repentance. Repentance is often misunderstood. It’s not about pleasing God with acts of contrition. It’s not even about being sorry for our sins. Repentance is about acknowledging the fullness of God’s reality even as we recognize our own inadequacy. It is about trusting that God’s grace and love transcend the hopelessness and sinfulness that characterize so much of the human experience.

Nothing illustrates this practice of repentance better than the Eucharist. So many of you are struggling in some way. Some of you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of keeping your family together. Some of you are grieving the loss of a spouse. Some of you feel betrayed by someone close to you. Some of you are just coping with the day-to-day challenge of life. There are moments when all of us feel broken, inadequate, and lost. Even though we are fully aware of our lostness, we have the opportunity to experience the fullness of God’s grace every time we come forward to receive the Eucharist. When we come to the altar rail, we have the opportunity hear the sounds of divine joy as we recognize, even for a fleeting moment, that no matter how lost we are, we have been found by God.

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The Gospel according to Roy Williams

Last week, the Villanova Wildcats defeated the Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Both teams played with brilliance and passion. Indeed, it was the most exciting Championship game anyone can remember: there were countless lead changes and the result literally came down to the final moments of the game. Kris-Jenkins-buzzerbeater-jpg-300x169With 11 seconds remaining, UNC was down by three. Marcus Paige, the veteran Carolina guard, attempted an ugly, contested three point shot, which miraculously found the basket, tying the game. With 4.5 seconds left, Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono drove the ball down the court and passed it to Kris Jenkins, who launched and made a buzzer beating three pointer, winning the game and shocking millions of viewers. It was one of the great finishes in the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, one of those moments that reminded me why I enjoy watching sports.

The most compelling moment of the Villanova victory, however, took place off the court. After the game, correspondent Tracy Wolfson interviewed Roy Williams, Carolina’s highly decorated head coach. Though these post-game interviews are a standard and often tedious part of the sports viewing experience, full of platitudes and cliches, there was something different about this one. imgresWilliams’ face was red and swollen; it was clear he had barely composed himself for this interview. As he fought back tears, he told Wolfson, “I’ve been a head coach for 28 years, and the worst thing on a loss like this is I feel so inadequate.” It was a moment of searing honesty and undeniable truth. Carolina played brilliantly. They “left it all out on the floor,” as the saying goes. They shot astonishingly well (65%) from the three point line in spite of being the worst three point shooting team in the history of the school. They even made a nearly miraculous shot to tie the game with seconds left. In other words, they did everything right! Yet they still lost the game. No wonder Coach Williams felt inadequate. He was bereft, because everything he implicitly understood about the game of basketball and about life had come crashing down. After being asked what he said to his team in the locker room, Williams mused, “I just talked, I mean…nothing, because you can’t say anything.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes his life before he had his experience of God’s grace: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul had everything going for him. He was doing everything right. He was more than adequate; he was confident that he could make himself worthy of God’s favor with his accomplishments. “Yet,” he continues, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” There was a moment in Paul’s life when he realized that in spite of all his accomplishments, he was inadequate. There was a moment when everything Paul understood about the world came crashing down. In this moment, Paul had to locate his trust, not in his own ability, but in the grace that had been made known to him in Jesus Christ.

Ironically, the most eloquent moment of the interview with Roy Williams was when he admitted that there was nothing he could say to his players in the face of their loss. With this admission, Williams uncovered a fundamental truth: when we come face to face with our inadequacy, words fail us. Several years ago, the Diocese of North Carolina released a video featuring the Right Reverend Michael Curry, who is currently the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. At one point, Bishop Curry describes what it’s like to bring Holy Communion to those on the margins of life. “What do you say to a person who is dying?” he asks. “What do you say to a person who is on death row? What do you say to a person that is addicted to a life that’s destroying them? I don’t have the words and you don’t. But Jesus does.” That is the gospel. As Roy Williams demonstrated last week, there are moments in our lives when words will fail us, when accomplishments will fail us, when our carefully constructed self-image will come crashing down. The only thing that will not fail, that cannot fail is the grace that has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.