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The Ninety-Nine

A sermon preached by the Bonnie Katusich

on 11 September 2022 [Proper 19; Year C]:

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

“Which 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?”

A common message in this parable of the lost sheep tends to focus on the lost sheep. Many or most of us – maybe all of us? – have been that lost sheep and know and remember the struggle and returning and repenting. As I thought and thought about this lesson, I found myself focusing more on the ninety-nine.

I’d like to talk about the ninety-nine; the flock. The community of sheep. The community… – with unity….

Recently I participated with a small group of our members in a 5-week book study of Grounded: Finding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution, by Diana Butler Bass (2011, HarperOne). The author writes about what she feels is a transformation amongst Christians…. a shift “from a vertical understanding of God to a God found on the horizons of nature and human community…” In Chapter 7 she shares one of the oldest meanings of the word ‘religion,’ which is “to bind together” that which connects God with us and with each other. She says, “by definition, religion is inherently communal, rituals and relationships that weave a spiritual web of meaning and purpose in the world (p236).” She also says, “ the very center of every relationship, there stands some great communal vision of God, the world, and humanity.” “In the Bible, that vision is of a people who know God as an intimate companion, a people who live well with one another, and fulfill God’s dream for creation.” “People are to make peace, plant vines and fig trees, treat one another fairly and with compassion, and invite strangers into God’s tent…..People prosper when justice reigns. What is broken is restored, what is amiss is made right. It is a vision of a universal feast, a cosmic table around which all humankind is gathered to eat and drink and dance with God (p.237).”

In her descriptions of the various communities in which we live, Bass first walks us through the meaning of neighborhood: “…whom we live with, those next door, whether ‘next door’ is literal or virtual geography. (p.238)” She also defines neighborhood as a ‘close dwelling.’ “Most neighborhoods are still formed around principles of affinity, people choosing to be near others because of similar background, location, income, tastes, or outlook.” She sums this up by saying “Neighborhoods are open tribes that practice hospitality and the golden rule.”

Bass then describes the commons is a ‘self-governing community of people who inhabit or share the use of land (think of town commons); a habitat of mutual interrelationships.” The “activity of making commons is the art of ‘commoning,’ “to share, to commune…to decide things together…a way of life.”

Communitas is a Latin noun for the spirit of community, Bass explains, typically those groups that form beyond regular institutions and organizations and create a profound sense of equality and togetherness. Think of when we attend or participate in sports as a player or spectator. We get caught up in the moments of communal excitement – everyone wants to belong! One of the most memorable sports events I attended was when my oldest – Joe – played high school football. The team was in the Western Mass playoffs as the #4 team. The playoff game was against #2, and despite the odds, we not only beat them, but beat them badly – ohh, to be an Easthampton Eagle or fan at that game! And then, a few days later we played the #1 team in our league – and shut them out – we found out later that they had a bonfire and parade ready to go but instead of them, we won! Oh, what a night!! And it’s not just sports – when my kids were in school I volunteered with parents who helped produce the annual musical at the high school because of the same excitement, communing, camaraderie, and fun – I was sucked right in and never looked back (until the kids graduated). Bass shares, “You can also feel it at street fairs, carnivals, concerts….these gatherings are egalitarian and playful, filled with collective joy (P252).”

Then there is communing – “experiencing a deep connection with nature, our friends, and God” And communion is “creating a relationship, a reciprocal exchange between nature and God and humans (p254).”

What about compassion? Bass suggests that compassion insists that we have a moral responsibility for each other(P256). We have all learned from Fr. Michael’s sermons that compassion comes from the Latin word meaning to suffer with.

(Now that we’ve had our Sesame Street version of ‘words that start with C-O-M,’) let’s go back to our community of sheep which…is us. What makes us a community? Neighbors, commons, communitas, communion, compassion. With unity. Spirit-filled. Relationship. Suffering with. All necessary in the formation of a community. We share common space, have common characteristics, and I think it’s safe to say, as Bass points out, that in the center of our community is that which binds us together: Our ‘shepherd’ – Jesus. That with Him and in Him and through Him we commune, we play, and we create.

So how do we survive in the wilderness when we feel our shepherd has left us? Even in our collect today we cry, “..without you we are not able to please you” Have mercy!

We didn’t read the Old Testament lesson today from Jeremiah, and we’re probably better off, because it’s worse than the collect, “my people are foolish…do not know how to do good. I looked…I looked…I looked – God looked for good in us, according to this lesson, four times! Or the psalm today, Psalm 14: “The Lord looks see if there are any who are wise…there is none who do good, no not one.”

Excuse my language, but I think we’re screwed! Right?!

Or maybe we’re too ignorant in our unbelief like Paul confesses to in 1st Timothy, and we’ve missed the message. We certainly weren’t paying attention when that sheep – you know, the one that wandered? When that sheep wandered off….”let someone else take care her, that’s not our job!” “she’s not like the rest of us..she’ll be fine – let her go” So the good shepherd goes off to retrieve this lost soul, and here we are, shepherd-less. Nevermind the wandering sheep, now we are alone! Or more likely, we feel alone.

Someone we know and love once said (or maybe twice…. or ten times), God has given us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves….our community is an essential part of our lives, and in it we find – our daily bread; communion with one another; support; strength. If we practice communion with one another, it is not long before we begin to see God in each other. And maybe in the spirit of true communion we won’t have sheep wandering off.

We have too many lost sheep in our community already. The Vestry, Pastoral committee, and members of our church community have worked to keep in touch with all of our members, especially during COVID when we could not physically be together. Let us not forget to continue that very important work, and not only within these four walls but also out in the larger community – we do this through Take and Eat, through the PowerPack program, through providing rides to members, through the tending of our grounds, and through other efforts. If you are not already involved in any of these, I urge you to start. Whether it’s within your physical neighborhood or in your work place, or in your local grocery store (where we tend to see the same people). Practice. Practice community; practice communion; practice compassion. The more we collectively and individually practice, the less likely we will feel abandoned when our shepherd goes to find the lost sheep….because there will be no lost sheep. Amen.

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Oct 25, 2022

Thanks for the solid, comprehensive, and meaty message. Well done. Grounded: Finding God in the World offers fresh perspectives. The references chosen may entice others to read the book. (Thanks Sue for suggesting it! I highly recommend.) As Bass points out, "that in the center of our community is that which binds us together: Our ‘shepherd’ – Jesus. That with Him and in Him and through Him we commune, we play, and we create."

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