Aimlessness and Sin

Scripture: 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

Sheep get a bad rap these days.

Calling someone a sheep is a common political insult to hurl at folks at the opposite side of the political aisle. An accusation that the other person is just following blindly, incapable of making their own decisions, unable to show leadership and independent thought.

But there’s something about sheep for us as Christians that shouldn’t be so quickly overlooked. The humble sheep is one of Jesus’ best-known metaphors for those who follow him, and for good reason.

The imagining of God and Jesus Christ as our Good Shepherd hearkens back to the book of Isaiah, the psalms, and throughout the Old Testament. This image of our God not as a warrior king, and more a shepherd is an important one for us.

And if we have a shepherd, than we must be God’s sheep.

Sheep themselves aren’t as aggressive as some other similar animals- a good model for those of us who follow the prince of peace.  They tend to stick together in their flocks, and although there are some hierarchical behaviors, they tend to share leadership.

They’re actually pretty smart too, remembering faces and can be trained just like dogs can. They produce things that keep us warm and fed.  They eat invasive plant species, allowing native grasses to recover.

So pity the poor sheep, who has unfairly become another insult to call those people who refuse to listen to facts and logic, while people who think like me show independent thought and principled leadership.

Speaking of which, that word leadership…

We have an obsession with leadership. Maybe it’s because its associated with self-sufficiency, independence, apple pie, and the American way. Leadership, Leadership, Leadership, is everywhere these days. 

In your local library there are rows and rows and stacks and stacks of books on leadership. To be a good person, it seems that you have to be a good leader.

There’s a thousand and one different ways to lead, taking from examples of nature, sports, film, fictional stories and myths, not to mention religion. Colleges and universities, not to mention seminaries, offer classes in leadership.

You can go on three-day retreats to connect with your inner man, woman, child, or superhero who will show you how to lead, with a small upfront payment of $2,500.  There’s a whole sub-industry of Christian leadership self-improvement books and workshops. I always found this last category to be the most amusing.

Because many of our examples of leadership in the bible that we have aren’t so good.  Indeed, as we explored in February, many of the great leaders of the Bible do so in spite of their gifts and efforts, not because of them.

I would argue that both the Old and New Testaments are much more concerned with our ability to listen, to follow, to learn, rather than our own abilities to lead.

One of the words that we translate as disciple is in the Greek “Mathates”, which means “one who learns.” This shares a common greek root with another word that is enough to inspire terror in some of us- Mathema- from which we get the word Mathematics.

Discipleship, that desire and work to make us better followers of Jesus Christ, is a process of learning. It’s that reorientation away from that which separates ourselves from God and our neighbors and toward that which is ultimate and good and Beautiful. That which is God.

This is a process which not only begins with God, but that also continues with and constantly involves the work of and grace of God. I would argue that there is no higher calling for the Christian than discipleship, the calling to learn to listen and serve, to love God and to learn to love others as Christ loved us.

Our Gospel reading this week concerns one aspect of this process. This is the famous parable of the lost sheep, about how our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is always there to seek out the one sheep who has wandered away, and how the shepherd rejoices at our coming back.

This shepherd who comes back to the flock with the sheep on top of his shoulders, because sometimes, but for the grace of God go I. Something I find interesting about this parable is that often while we often interpret it as what happens with someone has not yet begun their Christian journey.

That it makes a clear distinction between sinners, who have yet to know Jesus, and those that do know Jesus, those good and faithful sheep who never get lost. That somehow getting lost is a rare event, there is ever only one sheep at a time that is getting lost.

It implies that once our journey with Christ begins, the path of discipleship is one that is ever and always upward and onward pointing toward God, progressing in holiness and sanctification.

I don’t know about you, but for me, this hasn’t seemed to be true. Sometimes it seems more like a rollercoaster, with ups, downs, loop de loops and freefalls. Nor does this really fit in necessarily with the parable logically.

For the sheep who was lost was not a new sheep to the flock.  That sheep was not previously a goat. That sheep was already Jesus’ sheep! That sheep is not someone else, that sheep is all of us, who even when we try to follow Jesus as well as we can, can’t help but do some aimless wandering.

We can’t help but separate ourselves from God at some point. It’s in our very nature.  We wander around sometimes. We’re a people on the move. Sometimes that wandering is ultimately led by the Holy Spirit and it can lead us in a new direction.

Sometimes it takes one or two sheep to lead us toward the civil rights movement, or the fight against systemic poverty. Or maybe in this church, toward a Saturday evening worship service when it was thought to be too Catholic, or having our children with us in worship every Sunday in our biggest worship service.

But sometimes it is the case that we do wander away from God in harmful ways. Sometimes we see something that doesn’t seem all that bad at first but which eventually leads us away from God; desire for financial comfort and security that transforms into a love of money which separates us from God..

An inability to make immediate sense of the world through the lens of Jesus Christ might take us down following a different leader, in seeing someone else or some other idea as lord of this world.

 At some point, we will all be that sheep who wanders away. That’s ok. It’s what we do. Luckily, we have a Savior that goes after the sheep.

Our reading from the first letter of Paul to Timothy reminds us of that. We must remember that Paul, that early Christian missionary who started churches among the non-Jewish population of the Greek and Roman World, had a past that involved the persecution of many of Jesus’ earliest followers.

And even after his conversion, Paul referred to himself as the chief among sinners, and especially to a thorn in his flesh. Paul reminds us though, that Jesus Christ came in this world to save sinners.

In the book of Romans, Paul puts it another way: Jesus Christ died for the ungodly. Jesus made the journey of human life, death, and resurrection for those who do not deserve it.

And although Paul is a leader among the early Christians, he makes it clear that it was not his own efforts or inherent goodness that made him a leader. Rather, he speculates that God chose him because there was so much to him that needed to be transformed that he would be a good example for others.

Paul did not need to learn how to succeed or excel, but how to diminish, how to listen, how to follow, and how to serve. Can you imagine that book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble or Walmart? How to be a better sheep?

It’s chapters might include:

How to listen more.

How to take the lead sometimes, just by go ahead and doing it.

How to support others when they take the lead.

How to be protective and peaceful.

How to continue in lifelong learning of the way of Jesus.

How to be an easier sheep to carry back home when we do get lost.

How to live well in community with one another,

How to accept others back into the flock who’ve wandered away.

That would be a radically different kind of book. One I’d like to read.

For my part, I’m proud to be a sheep, or at least, trying to get more sheeplike.

Mostly not because of the qualities of the sheep though, as good as I’ve made them sound.  But because of the quality of the shepherd we have. The Good Shepherd, who is always willing to carry us home, no matter how lost we might be. Amen.