What Matters

So there is a scene in the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall in which Woody’s character Alvy Singer is responding to charges that he is a downer, that he can’t enjoy life. And he says, “You know, if one guy is starving somewhere that puts a crimp in my whole evening.”

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
September 11, 2022
Luke 15:1–10

It’s meant to show his neurosis and his inability to enjoy the things he does have because he is imagining all of the suffering that must exist somewhere else. You can ask yourself if there’s something like that going on in the parable that Jesus tells. He tells us of a shepherd who has a hundred sheep—one of them goes missing, and the shepherd does everything he can to get the one sheep back. He talks of the woman who’s got ten silver coins—one of them goes missing, and she does everything she can to get the one back. We might wonder whether these people were incapable of enjoying what they had, incapable of enduring a world that is not turning out perfectly. They have to have the whole hundred sheep, all ten coins.

Most of us would probably say, “99 out of 100—that’s not too bad. I’m sure more sheep get lost to wolves in the average day than just this one going missing; I think I’m good.” So what is it, then, that is motivating these people to go out and spend all this time and energy? Is it simply an inability to accept the inequities and the imperfections of the world, or is there something else going on?

I often wonder, too, what the other sheep are thinking. I mean, they get left alone in the wilderness, so it’s not like the shepherd takes them home, puts them in the pen, and then goes back out. The shepherd just takes off and goes looking for this other lost sheep.

I was thinking that if we were to update this parable, we could tag on an ending where the shepherd comes home with the formerly lost sheep, and he shows the sheep to the others and says, “Rejoice with me! I found my lost sheep!”

The other sheep come up to the shepherd later and say, “What was that about? Why did you just ignore us? Why was it okay for you to spend special energy and special privileges on the one sheep who got lost? Are we nothing to you?”

The shepherd responds, “Of course, you’re something to me, but you were going to be fine, and I had to go after that sheep. That sheep matters.”

Whereupon the other sheep say, “All sheep matter.”

We don’t have to actually write this parable because we’re in the middle of living it. We’re in the middle of really struggling with the idea that we can focus on one or another individual or community that needs to be rescued and that it’s okay, in fact, it’s holy, to do so.

See, the thing about these parables is that they’re shocking. They’re presented to us in the context of explaining why Jesus is spending his time with disreputable people. His response is essentially, “Who wouldn’t?” But the answer is that most of us wouldn’t. Most of us would not spend the focused energy on the one missing person.

I’m sure you’ve all had that experience where you’ve invited 10 people and nine of them show up. No one knows where the tenth one is but everyone just assumes they’re fine. They don’t go looking, they don’t call, they don’t need to make sure this person’s okay. “I’m sure they’re fine. We’re here.”

See, it’s easy for us when we’re the 99 sheep. It’s easy for us to think, “Well, this is good; it’s working out for us.” But it’s not working out for that one sheep. That sheep needs help.

We don’t make this mistake in other things. When one house is on fire we don’t yell at the fire department for hosing down only that house: “Hey! All our houses are important! Aren’t you gonna hose them all down?” But it’s this one on fire—this one is the sheep that’s lost. That sheep matters.

It’s okay to point that out. The text doesn’t say the other 99 sheep don’t matter, but it highlights that this is the one who needs our help now.

We’re not good at understanding this because we are still living under the illusion that there’s not enough to go around. You’ve heard me say this before: I sincerely believe that all of our problems as humanity are built around this idea of scarcity—that there’s not enough food, there’s not enough money, there’s not enough work, and especially, when it comes to God, there’s not enough grace to go around. That some people are gonna get it, and other people just lose out.

But it’s not true: we could feed the world tomorrow if we wanted to. We just don’t want to, or we tell ourselves that other people don’t deserve it, or something to make us feel better because we’re afraid there’s not enough. We’re afraid that if someone else wins, it means we’re losing. We’re afraid that if other people are blessed, it means the things that we have don’t mean enough. We’re afraid because we think that lifting up others somehow drags us down.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

That’s not what the shepherd thinks. The shepherd goes after the one lost—it doesn’t mean the other 99 are not beloved or that they’re not part of the holy flock. It just means there’s one in trouble right now and that sheep needs help.

In fact, if we understand the parable fully, when that community, that individual, that person is then lifted up and brought back into the well-being of the whole community, that’s cause for celebration. That’s cause for joy. That’s cause for bringing everyone together and celebrating that the lost sheep was found.

So here we are in a world where we are still dealing with the consequences of brokenness and violence. We see it on the international stage. We saw it 21 years ago in New York and about three-quarters of a mile from where I am standing now. We saw it this summer in Ukraine. We still see it all over the place: the desire to project control desire, to maintain the status quo at the cost of life and limb.

We are called into something else. We are called to that radical commitment to lift everyone up. It’s not special favor; it’s love. It’s grace. It’s what the shepherd is telling us to do.

So as we reflect on our role as sheep, our role is to follow the model of our shepherd, to help to welcome, to bring in, and to work for the day when all the lost sheep are brought back into the fold. That day when all benefit from the resources of the world, and of the love and the care of their shepherd. And in so doing transform the world itself.

The Text

Luke 15:1–10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, 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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”