Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 15, 2013; 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Luke 15:1-10
“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?”
Ever lose your car in a parking lot?
I did, just the other day. There I was, coming out of Costco, pushing one of those oversized shopping carts. I knew the general vicinity my car was in, but I hadn’t taken notice of the details. I even have one of those smartphone apps that guides you back to your parked car: the only problem is, you have to remember to set it before you leave your car. Up and down the rows of cars I went, searching for my missing wheels. No luck. Finally, two rows over, I caught sight of it. Turns out, I’d parked a lot further from the store entrance than I’d thought.
We’ve all done that — although, even in the biggest parking lot around here, it’s no disaster. It just takes time. Keep looking. Eventually you’ll find your missing jalopy.
Now, imagine a parking facility that can accommodate 46,000 vehicles. Losing your car in a place like that could be a real disaster. You could be hunting for weeks.
There is a place that has that many parking slots, and then some. It’s Disney World: where they say, on any given day, a goodly number of those 46,000 slots are filled.
Imagine the scene: a family arrives bright and early, ready to enjoy their day at the park. The kids are wired, positively bursting with excitement. Mom and dad are bleary-eyed, exhausted from their flight into Orlando the night before. Cups of coffee in hand, they get out of the car, take their kids by the hand, and allow themselves to be dragged to the parking shuttle.
Each of those parking lots is named for a Disney character: Pluto, Chip & Dale, Goofy, Donald Duck, and all the rest. All around the lot are posted pictures of the namesake character. Those pictures aren’t there for decoration. They’re memory aids. When you get on the shuttle, a recorded voice reminds you to note the character whose parking lot you are in, and the number of the particular bus stop.
The family we’ve been talking about can’t manage even that. The kids are so wired, the parents so exhausted, they step off the shuttle and barrel through the turnstiles without having noted their parking location. Then, at the end of a long but memorable day — exhausted children in their arms, their mouse ears drooping along with their heads — mom and dad have no idea their day is about to get even more memorable.
“One turns to the other and asks, “What lot are we in?”
“I don’t know,” says the other. “I thought you were taking note of that.”
“No, I thought you were.”
It really doesn’t matter. With 46,000 parking places, they don’t have time to argue. It’s going to be a very long night.
Or not — because, as it so happens, the Disney organization has thought of everything. Along with a host of other so-called “cast members,” Disney employs a whole department of people known as the “parking cast.” A great many of them specialize in helping customers locate missing vehicles.
Here’s how they do it. The Disney organization fills the lots according to a strict plan, one at a time. They keep careful track of what time each lot fills. Most people who can’t remember where they’ve left their car have a pretty good idea what time they arrived. Armed with that information, the parking cast can predict with some accuracy what lot they’re in.
There’s a further difficulty, in many cases. A great many Disney guests arrive in rental cars, and a certain number of them can’t recall what make or model their car is — nor even (in a few cases) what color. Not a problem! The Disney parking cast has got it covered. They drive the bewildered guests around all the likely lots, asking them to keep clicking the key fob panic button. When at last they hear a horn go off, and see the flashing headlights, they know the lost has been found.
The parables of Jesus we’ve just heard are all about the lost being found. The first is the most famous: the story of the lost sheep — and the shepherd who leaves 99 other animals behind, to go searching for the lost one.
It absolutely defies logic! Yet, Jesus seems to consider it perfectly ordinary: “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?”
Wouldn’t a truly successful shepherd cut his losses, and treat the runaway livestock as a tax write-off? Wouldn’t such a person adopt the phrase of the army generals, and label the poor missing lamb “collateral damage?”
Not a chance: because a flock of sheep grazing on a Judean hillside is a far cry from a big agribusiness operation. Herding sheep is an intimate business. The truly successful shepherd knows each one individually. Such shepherds may not know how to read, but they’ve taken careful note of each animal’s size, markings and distinguishing characteristics. They know its personality, how likely it is to go wandering off, and where. That means they have a pretty fair idea where to look.
They also know that leaving the other 99 grazing on their own is a calculated risk. Sheep do tend to stick together — there’s not much chance each one will head off in 99 different directions as soon as the shepherd leaves — but there is such a thing as predatory animals. What if a pack of wolves comes along, and hauls off three of the other sheep, while the shepherd is searching for the lost one? One sheep for three hardly seems a fair trade. It doesn’t make any mathematical sense.
Yet, God operates under a different sort of mathematics than we do. That illustration on your bulletin cover says it all:
1 > 99
In what school of mathematics do you find such an equation? In no math you and I are familiar with!
But who said this is our math? The math behind the shepherd’s decision to go out searching for the one sheep is God’s math. Its axioms and corollaries are different from any we’ve ever heard of.
Thank God for that — because, if truth be told, if you and I search our heart of hearts with brutal honesty, we’ll recall a time or two when we, too, have been lost. There have been times — haven’t there? — when we couldn’t have managed life on our own, when we had to depend on a power outside ourselves just to make it through the day (or even through the hour). We were glad enough of the good shepherd’s arrival!
There’s one factor that makes the difference in the equation: one wild card that sends all the axioms of logic and geometry spinning off into the void. That wild-card factor is love.
When the shepherd takes one look at the herd of 99 grazing contentedly, then goes barreling off into some thicket where he imagines the missing sheep may be, he isn’t counting the cost. He knows each one of those sheep well. It could be said he even loves them.
Does the shepherd love the lost sheep more than the 99 others? Hardly. Were it one of the others who’d gotten lost, he would have done exactly the same thing. Because the shepherd loves them all equally, it’s the completeness of the flock that’s his biggest motivator. Were it any other of his sheep who had gone missing, he would have done the same thing.
The Southern preacher and civil-rights activist Clarence Jordan knew this, from his own upbringing. Clarence had grown up as one of ten children. Reflecting on his own father, who had to figure out how to love all ten of his progeny, Jordan has this to say:
God doesn’t go by the kind of arithmetic that you and I go by. God has never learned to deal in fractions. God didn’t get that far in school. I think he’s like my father who had ten children, and many a time I thought, “Well, my goodness, with a family this big, Daddy can’t love me very much. I can only claim one tenth of his love.” But my father loved me with all of his love. It’s just that way with love. There is no fraction in it. You can’t break it up into pieces. And God wants the whole human race. [God] just can’t deal in fractions.
And a good thing it is, too, I say. A good thing for you and me — because we are, by nature, fractional people. Don’t we just love to divide the world up between the people we find it easy to love, and those we don’t… between the people we figure are worth loving, and those who aren’t… between the people we have an obligation to love, and those we’ve never even met (so forget them, they can go drop off the face of the earth for all we care!)?
Logic tells us love should be carefully calculated, protected behind high walls, and cautiously doled out — but only when there’s no other alternative. Logic accounts love to be a fragile, tender thing: too insubstantial to survive the push and tug of life in the teeming marketplace. Logic would wall love up in a high tower, hiding and protecting it from all others. Logic says, “Withhold your love, until you meet a person who is truly capable of loving you back: because, after all, isn’t love the greatest of mathematical equations, a cosmic exchange by which one person’s love is evenly exchanged for that of the beloved?”
A love like that is very sad indeed, because those who are seeking such a reciprocal lover will surely live out their days alone and friendless.
When the shepherd heads off in search of the lost animal, it is love — not logic — that impels him. So it always is with love. Love — true love, anyway — thrives on risk.
I’ve just got to share with you an amazing story of risky love that happened just the other day, in the midst of the Seaside Boardwalk fire. It was not so much a story of love of person, as love of a place: love of the Boardwalk itself, and all it symbolizes.
Maybe you read this story in the newspaper, or heard it on the TV news. It’s the story of how the fire was finally stopped.
You’ve probably heard there were strong and steady winds from the south, pushing that wall of flame relentlessly up the Boardwalk, towards the north. The firefighters knew there was no pumper truck in the world that could push out enough water to douse those flames. The only hope was to cut a defensive line right through the Boardwalk — to tear off and move enough planks that the fire would run out of fuel.
They tried that once — and it failed. Moving up the Boardwalk, they marked out the place to try it again. But how could they possibly break up the planks in time?
It just so happened that, a short time before, a police officer directing traffic up Route 35 to the north came upon a road construction crew. It belonged to the George Harms construction company of Howell. The officer warned the crew to be ready for a whole lot of emergency traffic coming through. The foreman of the crew, a man named Tom Hardell, said, we’ve got an excavator here, can you use it? He indicated a large piece of heavy construction equipment nearby.
The officer passed the request up the chain of command, and word came back down immediately: yes, we can use the excavator. The article didn’t say whether the foreman checked with the company higher-ups (or maybe Mr. Harms himself) to get permission. George Harms happens to be an active member of Manasquan Presbyterian Church, and (I’m told) a very generous man — so maybe the foreman just knew his boss and knew it would be OK to make the offer. Moments later, he was driving the excavator south, right towards that wall of fire.
The fire chiefs directed Mr. Hardell to the place at Lincoln Avenue where they were ready to start breaking up the Boardwalk, for that second fire line. It was literally a line in the sand, with fire trucks and hoses arrayed facing the advancing flames — although no one could get to the sand, unless that section of boardwalk were first removed. Mr. Hardell described, later, how he was sitting at the controls of the excavator, feeling the heat of the fire to one side, with the torrents of water arching in streams over his head.
The big machine chewed into the Boardwalk, accomplishing in a few short minutes what a crew of people could never have done in time, using circular saws and fire axes. It was the fortunate presence of the excavator, that just happened to be in town that day — along with the generosity of the Harms Company, in making it available — that carried the day.
Now, the foreman of that construction crew could have stopped and counted the costs. He could have calculated the risks, before making the offer. He could have recalled the huge replacement cost of a piece of heavy equipment like that, and kept his mouth shut when he saw the police officer. He could have concluded that firefighting is not in his job description. He could have driven the excavator further north, away from any flying embers, and no one would have thought the worse of him for it.
But, he didn’t do that. He didn’t do it, presumably, because of the love he feels for the Boardwalk and for this little corner of the world known as the Jersey Shore. Love like that isn’t an equation. It doesn’t count the cost. It’s willing to risk much — even to risk everything — because that’s simply what love does. A love that knows not how to risk is hardly love at all.
You know, there’s a peculiar thing about that parable Jesus tells. We know the shepherd leaves the 99 on the hillside and goes off in search of the one. We know he comes back, eventually, with the lost lamb slung across his shoulders, safe and sound. Yet, Jesus never tells us what happens to the 99. He never says whether there were 99 still grazing there when the shepherd returns, or whether, after a wolf attack, they were down to 97 or even 94.
Jesus doesn’t provide that information because it is of utterly no importance to him. It never seems to occur to him that the shepherds to whom he’s addressing this tale would — in a similar situation — do anything other than head off, straightaway, in search of the lost sheep, in hopes of rescuing it. Because that’s what love is. And that’s what love does.
It’s the very love you and I can come to know, in this life, if we acknowledge that we ourselves have been rescued, in just that way. You and I have seen God’s math at work: let us seek to apply it, in our own lives and loves and relationships!
Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.