160 Sheep missing; Imagine if it was only 1

Germany Shepherds ChampionshipsSeveral weekends ago, a little town in England ironically called Wool fell victim to a mass sheep theft ring.  Shepherds returned to an industrial farm on Monday morning to find 160 sheep missing from the fold.  Authorities claimed that the heist was one of the largest in cattle history, and the thieves would have had extensive knowledge of sheep and sheep transportation.

When I heard this story, I could not help but chuckle a little bit.  Don’t get me wrong: I feel terrible for the lost sheep, which surely amounts to a great deal of money for farmers who have a living to make.  Their loss should in no way be an opportunity for our entertainment.

But 160 sheep is a lot of sheep!  Just all gone in thin air!  Its a comically peculiar situation.

The amount of sheep has made headline news for sure, but what if only one sheep went missing?  No one would notice; there would not be any reporters or interviews.

In Luke 15:3-7, Jesus told a parable about one lost sheep.  Of course, in typical fashion, Jesus started the parable in the form of a question: “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?”

This question seems simple at first, but it has actually garnered some debate.  Would Jesus’ original audience, agrarian peasants familiar with life on the farm, affirm this question without hesitation?  Sure, they would search for a sheep because each sheep is valuable.

Or would Jesus’ audience understand the question to be a form of satire?  No one in his right mind would leave an entire flock for one sheep, especially if the flock was in someplace as dangerous as the “wilderness.”

Perhaps, the debate focuses on the wrong point.  Perhaps the real point comes about only when we measure the amount of sheep found (one) with the exuberant amount of joy that the shepherd had in finding it: there was joy, rejoicing, and a party with neighbors…over one little sheep!

Now, regardless of how the peasants in Jesus’ day would have answered the question, they certainly would have balked at this second part to the parable.  Yes, perhaps a shepherd would search for one sheep even if it meant letting the herd be vulnerable for a few minutes, but throwing a party?  For a sheep?  Nonsense!

So whether Jesus’ initial question is controversial or not is not so much as scandalous as rejoicing over a sheep.  160 sheep, maybe; but not one.

That’s where the heart of the parable is found.  Jesus wanted to accentuate the joy that comes with finding even the most overlooked of sheep because when it comes to God’s agenda for salvation, no one person is overlooked.  Each person is valuable to God, and each sinner saved calls for rejoicing, joy, and a party of reconciliation both on earth and “in heaven.”

Let us not forget why Jesus told this parable in the first place.  The Pharisees were criticizing Jesus for eating with sinners (15:1-2).  It was one thing to preach God’s message of salvation to sinners; it was another thing to welcome and eat with sinners.

Jesus was guilty by association, but he did not come to spend time with the righteous, he came to save the lost.  His welcome of the lost was a divine invitation that embraced people right where they were, with no strings attached.  Jesus exhibited God’s grace, which both sought out the most neglected soul and then forgave the debts of the most undeserving and vile of men and women.  Now that’s something to celebrate!

In time for Earth Day: The Creation Message of Psalm 23

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me lie down in green pastures; the Creator leads me beside still waters and restores my soul.”

This Psalm — the 23rd — is one we hear often at funerals. It is one of my favorite psalms, but it makes for more than a great funeral liturgy. When we look closer at its words, we can sense that it also has a creation message. With Earth Day coming up this week, perhaps we can read Psalm 23 with a different pair of eyes.

I think people love this psalm because it addresses the healing and rest that we long to experience. During a funeral, while grief is in full effect, God’s presence enraptures us with a refreshing declaration of divine sustenance. This is profound because it alludes to the rest that all of creation seeks.

Psalm 23 provides us a vision for spiritual serene pastures, but I think it also encourages us to preserve and conserve pastures that our children, families, and neighborhoods can enjoy in the here and now.

The vision of the psalm begins with the overriding claim that God is shepherd. This is a powerful, earthy metaphor for God, who uses a “rod and staff” to navigate all of creation into the heart of the Trinity’s love.

The author of the psalm, David, was a shepherd, so he did not use this term lightly. He knew that shepherds exist to care for their flocks. Having the geographic know-how to find flourishing greenery and water resources — a love for the earth — was a necessity. There is a relationship between shepherds, sheep, and the land in which they reside.

The sheep are not without some responsibility. As followers of the Creator, we are obligated to care for the environment because our relationship to God is tied to our stewardship over what God owns.

Economics and politics aside, working to better our environment is a moral obligation. Consider that the rise in asthma, cancer, and obesity (to name a few consequences resulting from environmental scruples) can all be tied to the pollutants that we expose to our environment and food supply.

In recent months, our society has seen a shift in public opinion toward environmental policy because of scandals surrounding several e-mails from climatologists. Although a majority of Americans still believe that climate change is partially man-made, a recent Gallup poll reveals that skepticism toward climate change rose nearly six points in the past year.

For Christians who long to see the vision of Psalm 23 realized in their neighborhoods, such arguments play a small part in creation care. We care because God calls us to be stewards, not because we feel the need to appease some sense of corporate guilt for our shaded past.

Nor should political and economic maneuvering usurp God’s commandments that reach as far back as Genesis, in which God creates a “good” creation for humans to tend, to the end of all history as recorded in Revelation, which states that God will judge those who “destroy the earth” (Rev. 11:16-19).

As God leads us beside still waters and green pastures, we approach this Earth Day in a posture of humility and confession. A prayer for Earth Day, penned by the National Council of Churches, is appropriate: “O Lord, You have created a fragile world in perfect and delicate balance. Thinking too much of our own importance, we have upset that balance. We ask your forgiveness, Holy and Righteous God. We yearn to join the mountains and valleys, the rocks and the birds … in singing Your praises. Amen.”