by Mark Swanson
Harold S. Vogelaar Professor of Christian-Muslim Studies and Interfaith Relations, Associate Director of Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice
I’m going to preach this morning on the Gospel text. For many of you, this will be the third sermon on the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin that you’ve heard in four days. I’m not going to apologize for that! When Martin Luther preached on this text in 1524, he extolled its value as pure Gospel. Here, he said, Christ paints his own portrait: he is the shepherd, he is the woman, who seeks us out, we who have a tendency to go astray and get caught in the brambles or to roll into dark corners. And he comes, not to judge us but to save us. This is a wonderful word of consolation, said Luther, and these parables should become as familiar to us as bread and cheese. (WA 15, 633-34. I was alerted to this reference, and much else, by the commentary of François Bovon: L’Évangile selon Saint Luc (15,1 – 19,27) (Geneva: Labor et fides, 2001), here p. 40. (The English translation of this volume will appear later this year in the Hermeneia series, completing the three-volume set.) Bovon always has wonderful material about how the Lukan passages have been used in the history of the Church.)
I’m taking this down-to-earth simile as Luther’s permission to me to preach on this text yet again this week. And I’m delighted and rather relieved that so many of you have already heard two excellent sermons on this text this week: how liberating that is! It frees me up to play a little bit, to ponder some of the odder features of this text.
And odd features there are. The oddest feature, one frequently pointed out by preachers, is the strange behavior of the shepherd. “Which of you,” asks Jesus, “ 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?” One can imagine the shepherds in the group looking at one another, shaking their heads, and commenting under their breaths: “He doesn’t know much about shepherding, does he?” What might happen to the ninety-nine, left alone in the wilderness, where beasts of prey were on the prowl, seeking their food? This difficulty in the parable was recognized by early Christian teachers and preachers, who devised a number of strategies for dealing with it. St. Ambrose gave a symbolic interpretation to the parable: the ninety-nine sheep represent the various ranks of angels: “angels, archangels, dominions, powers, and thrones.” The hundredth sheep – just the one – represents humanity – and it is humanity that has gone astray. (Arthur A. Just Jr., ed., Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 245.) The Shepherd seeks out and saves that hundredth sheep – and in the meantime, the ninety-nine, being angels, are in no danger whatsoever. They watch and wait, and they rejoice in the return of the one that had gone astray.
We have all heard sermons on the odd behavior of the shepherd. But there’s another feature in these parables that strikes me as a little odd – and that is the party that takes place at the end of each parable. The shepherd, having found his sheep, comes home and “calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” The woman, having found the coin, “calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” Presumably the friends and neighbors came, and rejoiced.
Perhaps there is a rejoicing gap between the first-century world and the twenty-first century world, but I find it a little difficult to imagine my way into the parable at this point. In the first place, I wonder if throwing a party this way is still our natural reaction. I can imagine my way into the place of the shepherd or the woman, who have lost things precious to them. To the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin I can add the Parable of the Lost Passport. Last spring I was scrambling at the very last minute to get a visa to Ethiopia to be able to go and visit my wife there during Holy Week. ( The Rev. Dr. Rosanne Swanson spent a year teaching at the Mekane Yesus Theological Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.)
I was at the Lake Park Post Office assembling the package with my visa application papers and photographs and so on and so forth, when I suddenly realized that I didn’t have my passport. I ran home and ransacked the house. No passport. I remembered that I had made a photocopy of it here at LSTC, ran to the photocopy room, and searched. No passport. In a terrible panic – up until that point I hadn’t realized how desperately important this trip was to me – I returned to the Post Office … where the postal workers had my passport in safekeeping behind the counter. Somehow it had fallen on the floor during my earlier visit, and a customer had found it and turned it in. Did I rejoice? Sort of. I did need to tell someone – and I remember how kind some of my colleagues were to me on the occasion. But I was in no mood for a party: I needed to sit, to breathe, and then to take a long shower to wash away sweat that literally stank of near-despair.
I also notice that there’s a contrast between the parties in our parables today and the party to be held in next week’s Gospel reading, the Parable of the Lost Son. You all remember: when the prodigal son returned home, the father threw a party – at which there was food! The father gave orders to kill the fatted calf! It was a free barbecue! But there’s no hint of anything like that in today’s parables. The shepherd was not about to slaughter the sheep that he had just found in order to feed his friends and neighbors. The woman was not about to spend the coin she had just recovered on food and drink. The friends and neighbors are being invited … not to share a meal, but simply to share in rejoicing. I wonder about those friends and neighbors: did their hearts leap within them as they received the invitation to rejoice with the shepherd, or with the woman? Or did they respond out of a sense of duty – and perhaps with the hope that the shepherd, or the woman, would be a little more careful in the future (just as I am being really careful with my passport).
Perhaps there is a rejoicing gap between the first-century world and the twenty-first century world. There’s something about the first-century world portrayed in these parables that is very attractive to us: people seem to know how to rejoice, and how to share in the rejoicing of others. But that portrayal also seems a little bit dated, a lovely image from a simpler world, one that had more time and fewer distractions than our own.
We may need some lessons in rejoicing. One lesson today may come from the Swedish diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations whom we commemorate today, Dag Hammarskjöld. When he died in a mysterious plane crash over the Congo in 1961, it was discovered that for years he had kept a kind of spiritual diary, which was eventually published in English under the title Markings;[Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, trans. Leif Sjöberg and W.H. Auden (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964).] “Signposts” might have been a better title, or even “Cairns,” like the piles of stones left by a hiker to mark a trail. (Henry P. Van Dusen, “Dag Hammarskjold’s Spiritual Pilgrimage,” Theology Today 21, no. 4 (Jan. 1965): 433-47, here p. 436). Van Dusen is repeating an observation by the reviewer Brian Urquhart in The New Yorker, October 31, 1964, 237.
In many ways Hammarskjöld is an unlikely teacher in the art of rejoicing. The early entries in his Markings deal with themes such as sacrifice, death, loneliness, guilt, meaninglessness, even despair. But then there is a change. A word that begins to make an appearance is the simple word “Yes.”
Now. When I have overcome my fears—of others, of myself, of the underlying darkness: at the frontier of the unheard-of. Here ends the known. But, from a source beyond it, something fills my being with its possibilities. Here desire is purified and made lucid: each action is a preparation for, each choice a yes to the unknown. ... [On this “growing Yes,” see Gustaf Aulén, Dag Hammarskjöld’s White Book: An Analysis of Markings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 22-27; the passage quoted here is found on p. 25. (I’m using Aulén’s translation rather than that of Markings, 76.) ]
Which then leads to the glorious opening entry for the year 1953:
For all that has been—Thanks!
To all that shall be—Yes! (Markings, 89.)
This great diplomat who was granted the gift of faith which sustained him through a succession of world crises for the next eight years is one teacher for the rejoicing-deficient: he helps us see the possibility of saying Yes, of living day by day, even in the midst of the most intense difficulties, from a source beyond ourselves.
We have other teachers as well. Some of the best ones are our children. I know some children whose smiles light up the world. I think of one child who has the kind of hugely joyful smile that suggests a direct pipeline to the angels rejoicing in heaven; or another who has a smile which is less exuberant but more anticipatory, as if to say: I wonder what good thing is going to happen next? What a gift our children are to us. What good teachers.
The good news that I find in our text today – at least, one morsel of Good News from this text that should become like bread and cheese to us – is this: that rejoicing exists. There is, Jesus tells us, rejoicing in heaven. The place of God is a place characterized by joy. The angels get caught up in it – get caught up in it, but do not create it, if I understand verse 10 correctly, where it says that “there is joy before the angels of God” or “in the presence of the angels of God.” The joy is prior: it is an overflowing mark or characteristic of the work of the Triune God to save, to restore the lost, to make things whole, to create new community. The angels get caught up in this joy. And we are invited to get caught up in it too.
So let’s sing …
HYMN OF THE DAY: “In Thee is Gladness” – ELW 867