Sermon: An Australian Sunday Roast
Date: August 31st, 2014
Preacher: Rev'd Mike Rayson, OSL
Church: Nameoki United Methodist
“What do you think? If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go in search for the one that wandered off? If he finds it, I assure you that he is happier about having that one sheep than about the ninety-nine who didn’t wander off. In the same way, my Father who is in heaven doesn’t want to lose one of these little ones.
Matthew 18:12-14 CEB
I grew up eating lamb. And I don’t mean I grew up eating lamb on special occasions, but lamb at least 5 nights a week.
One of our main sources of income on the farm, alongside winter crops of wheat and barley, was sheep. Thousands and thousands of sheep. So really, we had an almost inexhaustible supply of lamb.
Every few months, we’d have a killing day… which sounds a whole lot more gruesome than it really is. The farmers and farm hands would select a few sheep, and we would effectively harvest our own meat supply.
So our freezer was always full of lamb chops and lamb roast and lamb ribs. Beef or even pork were ‘special occasion’ meats, while lamb was our daily staple. It kind of messes me up whenever we shop for meat here in the USA. Pork, beef or even chicken seem to be the meat of choice for most folks, and due to the almost outrageous price, lamb is now the special occasion meat.
I’ve found lots of folks don’t care for lamb… but you’ve probably never had a lamb chop cooked by my grandma. Or a Sunday roast prepared by my wife Amy.
Lamb was a staple in the middle east in the time of Jesus as well. Pork was, and still is, a forbidden meat under kosher food laws ... and let me tell you if you’ve ever get to go to Israel, about 4 days into the trip you’re hanging out for a bacon sandwich… But the humble sheep has been at the center of middle eastern diets for centuries.
When Jesus was born, the shepherds on the hills nearby were keeping watch over their flocks by night…
Jesus often tells stories that involve shepherd and sheep – like this morning’s parable… and there’s also biblical metaphor in the gospel of John that cast’s Jesus as a lamb… “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”... In the book of Revelation, “the lion shall lay down with the lamb”.
Even in the old testament, we see over and over again the ever so humble sheep! When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, the last meal they ate was lamb… When the priests would sacrifice an animal to atone for the sins of the people, the animal of choice was a lamb. David – King David – was a shepherd charged with caring for his father Jesse’s sheep. And when Samuel the prophet came calling, looking for the next king, David was out tending to the sheep.
Sheep were – and still are - vitally important in the economy of the middle east. So I guess it’s no surprise that Jesus uses stories about sheep.
The story of the man who had a hundred sheep occurs in the context of the question “who is the best”. The disciples having asked this question of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew 18 have probably, at least in my way of thinking, asked this question believing they probably already know the answer to this one. “So who is the greatest among us”. They’ve left their homes and businesses and families to follow this wandering nomadic preacher. They’ve given up their whole lives to become Jesus’ inner circle. The 12.
So Jesus – who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
And Jesus stuns them all by selecting a child. Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Then, Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the lost sheep.
Several years ago, I was teaching a confirmation class. There were 11 or so kids in the class preparing for that important time in their lives when they would make their own public confession of Christ in front of their church family.
I enjoy teaching confirmation. I’ve seen lightbulbs turn on in kids eyes when they truly discover that Jesus is not just for their parents and grandparents, but that he loves and cares for them as well.
But this was an interesting confirmation class. The 11 kids ranged in age from 11 through 16.
Some of them were great kids who were eager to learn about Jesus… some of them were there because their parents wanted to make sure they could get them into a good Christian school later on… and then there was this one 11 year old kid… quite possibly the spawn of satan himself.
I don’t know why, but every time I would lead this class, that one kid would make my skin crawl. He had a smart alec mouth, constantly disrupted the class with ridiculously sarcastic comments… and I kid you not, I just wanted to gently rest my hands somewhere about… here.
It was the Wednesday before Easter. 10 of them were due to be confirmed on Easter Day, and one of them – yes, that kid – was going to be confirmed at a later date as his family were going to be out of town over Easter.
I arrived at the church about 15 minutes before the class was due to begin, the last teaching session before confirmation Sunday. I had in hand my teaching book… with a lesson plan… and I was ready to go.
As I got out of my car that day, something curious happened. It was as if I heard a voice, a spoken voice, that said as I exited the car… ‘Mike, put the book away’.
I looked around the parking lot, and, well, there was no-one else there. Perhaps I hadn’t had enough water to drink that day and my mind had started playing tricks on me.
So, I just kept on walking toward the front door of the church, when suddenly – much louder and more urgent that I had heard before – someone said to me… “Mike, put the book away”.
But there was no-one there. And that’s when the penny dropped. I remember thinking, erm, God, if that’s you, you’re not supposed to be talking to me like this. I’m a Methodist, and they don’t call us the frozen chosen for nothing you know.
And then this… “just tell these kids who I am”.
I’ve not heard God speak to me in an audible, right there kind of voice very often in my life. So for God to get my attention like this, I thought that it must be kind of important.
As the clock ticked over to 4, 11 kids filed into the sanctuary.
So that’s exactly what I did. I told these kids about Jesus. Who Jesus was to me, how Jesus had rescued me, and how it was that Jesus walked with me every day.
It’s hard to keep kids attention these days much longer than a few minutes. But I looked up at the clock and realized that, I’d been talking for almost an hour and a half. It was 5.30. And my story ran out of story. I suddenly realized that at least at that point, I had nothing else to say. These kids had been attentive for a long time… but there was still another 30 minutes before their parents would turn up and collect them all.
So, well, I did what most adults would do in this situation… I panicked. In fact, I reached for the lesson plan book thinking that I could just teach that lesson I had planned in under 30 minutes if I cut out all the illustrations and games.
But as I picked up the book… “MIKE… put the book down. And pray”.
So that’s what I did. I prayed. And before I knelt at the front of the church, I said to the 11 that had gathered for confirmation… “If you would like to pray with me, then come and join me one at a time. You don’t have to come and pray … but if you want to…”.
And almost immediately, the oldest member of the group – a 16 year old – came and knelt with me, and we prayed together. Then, when she was done, suddenly another confirmation student was kneeling with me… and then there was another… and another… and another… and pretty soon I had prayed with 10 of the 11 confirmand’s… and heard several first time confessions of faith in Jesus Christ as we had knelt there at the front of the church.
5.55pm. Time to dismiss the class. He was there you know… sitting up the back. The spawn of satan. And I remember thinking… ain’t nobody got time to pray with that kid. Not even God can crack that one open.
As I was about to dismiss that class, there was a rumbling in the back pew – you know, the place where all the bad Methodists sit – the sound of moving hymnals… and there he was… that kid. The kid I wanted to strangle on a daily basis. The snot nosed little smart alec who knew how to push every button I have that can be pushed.
And he walked down the aisle and knelt next to me.
Well… I moved a few inches to the right, because if God was going to send a lightning bolt down to smoke this kid, I wanted to be just far enough away so I didn’t get hit too.
You see, I thought this particular kid was so lost that it wasn’t even worth trying to look for him. But, we knelt and we prayed. And I said… Amen.
We both stood up… me, and the 11 year old.
And he looked at me and said… “Dad…….. I love Jesus too”. J (It’s always the preacher’s kid!!!)
A moment like that one is worth treasuring forever. To hear your own child confess Christ… “Dad… I love Jesus too”.
I’m so glad I heard that. I’m so thankful he responded. I’m so grateful that the Spirit of God had cracked open this little 11 year old smarty pants and poured over him a cup of amazing grace.
Because a few days later… Sam, was dead.
Like Pastor Tim, I too have lost a son. Sam… my eldest… full of life one minute, and no longer of this world the next.
I’m not sure if it was the smartest or the stupidest thing I’ve ever done as a pastor, but I officiated at Sam’s funeral. And my text was… the parable of the lost sheep from Matthew 18.
If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
This parable is about value and responsibility. If I told you that I lost a dollar out in the parking lot before the service, who would get up out of their seat right now to go and try and find it. If I told you I dropped a hundred dollar note out in the parking lot… who would get up and go find it, or in the least, have a quick check around the car before you leave just to make sure it wasn’t on the ground somewhere??
Losing one sheep out of a hundred would have been annoying for the shepherd, but not life changing. Just like the difference between losing a dollar bill, or a one hundred dollar bill. Now if the story of Jesus was… If a man owns a hundred sheep, and ninety nine of them wander away, will he not leave the one sheep on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
It doesn’t make much economic sense. Leaving the ninety nine on the hill… to fend for themselves against predator or thief… to look for the one that was lost.
Like many of Jesus stories, this one doesn’t add up on first glance. We think… ahh yes, true love… the shepherd goes off to find the lost sheep… and our hearts are all warm and fuzzy because he finds it and brings it home.
But it doesn’t make sense. At least it doesn’t for me… why the shepherd would desert the many to find the one. Sheep breed like rabbits… so even though yes, one sheep is missing, by next lambing season the 99 would be 199, and the next year close to 400… why look for the one when the one is so easily replaced by breeding another one.
Sheep are pretty dumb animals. If I was the shepherd, and I left the ninety nine on their own to look for the one… which makes no economic sound fiscal sense to me… I wouldn’t be very kind to the lamb once I found it. In fact, I would be tempted to turn it into an Australian Lamb Roast with roast potatoes and carrots, peas and mint sauce.
But again, the shepherd in Jesus story doesn’t act like a normal shepherd. There’s no finger pointing at the sheep, no name calling at the sheep… the sheep doesn’t get mistreated by the shepherd… in fact, the sheep gets the royal carpet treatment. And if he finds it, says Jesus, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.
At the very beginning of the 18th chapter of Matthew, remember that the disciples asked Jesus the question… “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven”… probably expecting to hear that they were. Through thick and thin they’d been with Jesus.
Yet Jesus answer is… the greatest in the kingdom is the least in the kingdom. A little child compared to the learned and important adults… a little lamb compared to a whole mob of sheep.
This is an often repeated metaphor in the scriptures… the first shall be the last and the last shall be the first. But how often do we truly live as if this is the case.
We meet together in a grand church, a beautiful sanctuary, fantastic facilities… but are we not the many, the ninety nine? Yes, Jesus meets us here… encourages us here… blesses us here… but how often do we leave from here to find the one who has been left behind in our community?
Jesus ends his parable with these words… In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.
As you leave the church parking lot today, you will see a sign that tells you that you are entering the mission field. But do you leave as a shepherd seeking the one lost sheep that has wandered away… or are you content to keep the gospel to yourself until you can share it with like minded folks next Sunday at (8.15 or 10.30).
There’s no reason why next Sunday, that the gathered flock don’t number twice the number who have gathered this day. Well, yes there is a reason… the appointed shepherds aren’t taking their shepherding jobs seriously enough.
Sam was a left behind kind of kid. Many gave up on him because he was a smart mouth little punk… but Jesus never did. And thank God for that.