Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sermon: Trinity 3

8 June 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 15:1-10 (Mic 7:18-20, 1 Pet 5:6-11)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Our Lord responds to His critics, as He often does, with a parable. He tells a story to illustrate something about the kingdom of God that they don’t understand.

This week’s complaint involves the kind of people our Lord keeps company with, namely: “tax collectors and sinners.” The Pharisees object: “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” Of course, if our Lord refused to eat with sinners, He would have eaten his lunch alone every day. But in order to make the point with them as to why He has come, and what is the meaning of mercy, he tells a couple stories about lost things: first, a lost sheep, and then, a lost coin.

In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the shepherd doesn’t refuse to be with the one who wanders, but in fact, it’s the shepherd’s job to seek out and save the lost one! And when the lost one has been found, it is a cause of celebration and rejoicing, not of scandal and self-righteousness.

Scripture often uses the metaphor of sheep to describe God’s people. For to be safe, the sheep need to stay in a flock. And to keep them in the flock, God provides shepherds to lead them, discipline them, tend to them when they are sick, feed them, and even go after them when they wander. And it is interesting that the Latin word for “shepherd” is "pastor."

Of course, sheep know there is safety in numbers. But in spite of this fact, some sheep feel the urge to wander away. Perhaps it is out of a sense of boredom. Maybe they are seeking adventure. Perhaps they really don’t know what is out there waiting for them. But for whatever reason, sometimes sheep wander from the flock. Interestingly, the Latin word for “wander” is “errare. This is where we get the words “error” and “to err.”

We often think of sin in terms of breaking rules, and righteousness in terms of keeping rules. The Pharisees erred in this way of thinking. For they saw the Ten Commandments not as a warning, not as a call to repent, but rather as an opportunity to shine. By tweaking the rules a little here, by interpreting a little there, they could convince themselves that they were better than “tax collectors and sinners.” As a consequence, they lost track of what sin really is and why it is dangerous.

Sin is truly destructive and life-threatening. The danger doesn’t lie merely in punishment, but rather in a consequence. For when we sin, when we wander, when we err, we court disaster because we have left the road, the path that will take us from here to there. In other words, God has a plan for us – which is why we say: “Thy will be done.” God’s will is perfect. He has predestined us to everlasting life. He has called us as His little lambs, and He leads us to still waters and green pastures that have no end. But when we leave the path, when we rebel against our pastoral guidance, when we wander from the flock, we choose a plan of our own over the will of God.

And beyond the road, off this path, having left the way (the Way which is, in fact, Christ Himself), we are left without a shepherd, without a protector. We wander off the path and find ourselves not with our sheep-herder, but with a sheep-eater.

This, dear friends, is why the church fathers in their wisdom have paired up this Gospel and this Epistle for centuries. For the wandering, errant sheep have been warned by the one our Lord Jesus commissioned “Feed my lambs,” St. Peter, who exhorts us: “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith…”

St. Peter, called to be a pastor and bishop of the Lord’s lambs knows that he is to feed the sheep, not feed the sheep to the lions. St. Peter knows that it is in his pastoral oversight, his “episkope” in Greek, that protects the sheep from the devil. And this is why it is that bishops all through history have carried a shepherd’s crook. This is a reminder that their role is not bureaucratic, but pastoral. They are not to be administrators but rather caretakers and warriors. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, and he can only do that by preaching to his sheep not to wander, by leading the lambs to life-giving water, and by providing nourishment in the form of food to those under his pastoral care.

The shepherd must also go out to seek those who do wander. And when an errant sheep returns to the fold, it is a time of great joy. It is this joy that the Pharisees missed out on by their self-righteous and dour existence of rules and regulations and their foolish self-delusion that they were not sinners like everyone else.

Our Lord’s use of sheep and shepherds is illustrative. For shepherds are not independent business owners. They are not CEOs and experts in marketing. Nor are good shepherds hirelings – for the owner of the sheep knows a hireling is only in it for the money. Nor are the shepherds to be lorded over by the sheep – for sheep need shepherds to watch over them, not the other way around.

No, the shepherd is a servant, a slave. He works for his boss, his master, his owner. The sheep are given to him for his stewardship, and the shepherd will be required to give an account to the Chief Shepherd. The shepherd is a man under orders to the owner of the flock.

And lest we ever forget who our owner, who our Shepherd with a capital “S” is, we pray it at nearly every funeral: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” The Lord God Almighty is not a tyrant, not a greedy owner of a factory farm, not someone who wants to have sheep only to eat them (in fact, the one who wants to eat the sheep is the sworn enemy of the Lord). For our Lord Jesus tells us of our divine Shepherd, the one who lays down his own life to protect the sheep, even, and especially, those errant sheep who have wandered from the safety of the herd.

Our divine Shepherd is truly the one whose desire is “pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage.” “He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy.” And indeed, we can cast all our care upon Him, for unlike the devil who wants to eat you, this Shepherd wants to feed you, “for He cares for you.”

Our Shepherd cares for us to the point of Himself wandering (though without sin and without error) into the wilderness where the devil torments and tempts Him, even to the point of death. He goes there to seek the lost sheep. And when His sheep repent, He throws them over His blood-stained shoulders and carried them back to the fold of the Church, where He tends their wounds and feeds them.

Dear brothers and sisters, dear sheep of the Lord’s fold, He calls you to repent. He forgives you your sins again and again. He invites you to eat and drink, for “He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities.” He indeed drowns “all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

For our Shepherd not only feeds us, but he eats with us. Our Shepherd is not only our Overseer, but has become a Lamb in our very midst, a Lamb whose sacrifice testifies of His mercy and care for us, even as we wander and are threatened by those who seek our destruction. If anyone were entitled to exclude Himself from sinners, it would be our Lord. But thanks be to God that He doesn’t! Instead, He Himself leads the rejoicing “in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

“To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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