Sermon from September 15, 2013. The text for this week was Luke 15:1-10. Here’s a link to the trailer for Not One Less, if you’re interested in learning more:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXGdCYokP58.
We Are the 99% (of Sheep, that is)
There’s a movie I saw while I was in China it’s called Yi Ge Dou Bu Neng Shao, or Not One Less. It’s about a girl, Wei Minzhi, who comes from a neighboring village to teach elementary school in a tiny village in rural China called Shuiquan. The only teacher in the school needs to make a long trip, and so they have the most educated person they could find, a 13 year old girl with two years of middle school under her belt, to come and substitute teach. As he shows her around the schoolhouse, he explains that many of the children are quitting school to go and work. They’ve already lost ten. He doesn’t want to lose any more. He promises a small bonus if she’s able to keep them all. As he leaves he shows her the one box of chalk that she’ll have to use for the months he’ll be gone. He tells her to write small to make sure it lasts.
On her second day, she takes attendance only to find that one boy, Zhang, is missing. His classmates tell her that he has done to the city nearby, Zhangjiakou, to work. Stubbornly, Wei puts all of her efforts into trying to find Zhang. The mayor refuses to buy her a bus ticket, so she enlists the class’s help. When one of them says that they can make money by hauling bricks and the brickyard, she takes the whole class down to work. They haul bricks all day to earn money for Wei to go to the city.
The money they earn, however, isn’t enough for a ticket, so she’s forced to walk most of the way. When she gets to the city, she doesn’t know what to do. Going from rural China to this big city is like stepping forward a hundred years into the future. The wealth and technology are overwhelming, and no one gives the time of day to another street urchin from out in the country. But Wei is determined. She makes a friend and together they buy supplies with the brick money and paint signs. But hers is one poster among many, and no one shows any interest.
She hears of a TV station, and goes there to see if she can get a missing persons announcement broadcast. But the receptionist there won’t let her inside. She says Wei will need the station manager’s permission, and describes him as a man with glasses. Wei spends the rest of the day standing outside the TV station, approaching every passerby wearing glasses in hopes that he is the station manager. When she doesn’t find him, she sleeps on the street that night. When the station manager sees her there again the next day, he takes pity and invites her up, and eventually decides that her story might make for good TV.
He is wrong. He interviews Wei, but she’s overwhelmed by the process, and barely says two words. Nevertheless, it works. Zhang is begging at a restaurant when he sees her on the monitors. Soon, they are reunited, and the movie closes with Wei and Zhang returning to the village with a truckload of school supplies donated by viewers in the city. The whole village turns out for their return, and in the final scene Wei gives each child their very own box of colored chalk, and lets them write in big letters on the board.
Maybe you’ve noticed the parallels between this story and one of the stories Jesus tells in our Gospel passage for today. The story that Jesus tells about the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to chase one down tells us that God is like Wei Minzhi. God is stubborn, and relentless in his love for the lost. God does not count the cost, but throws everything away for the return of one sheep to the fold. It is a good story that tells us of God’s devotion to the lost, to the forgotten, to those who have chosen the wrong path. But it leaves us with a difficult question that runs deeply in our churches but often goes unacknowledged: What about the other 99?
This is the question of the Pharisees and scribes who have been listening to Jesus teach. They see how much time Jesus gives to tax collectors and sinners, and they are hurt that Jesus isn’t spending more time with them, good, God-fearing folks who have done everything right. J
Whether we admit it or not, we’re pretty similar to the Pharisees in this regard (we almost always are). The reality of church is that for the most part we are not the lost sheep being chased down by God, getting all of God’s attention and love. We are, to paraphrase a recent political movement, the 99% (of sheep, that is). And we don’t really like it. We’d much rather find a way to rewrite the story so that it can be about us, we’d rather be the lost sheep that is found, the lost coin rediscovered, the lost son who receives a banquet.
But the truth is that more often than not we feel like we’ve been left out in the wilderness with little guidance or leadership and we’re forced to fend for ourselves. There are some different ways that churches handle this problem.
One is to try to maintain a state where we are constantly lost and found. If we treat every sermon as a wake-up call, and every tragedy as a “come-to-Jesus moment,” we can assure ourselves that we have God’s attention. The problem is that this kind of thinking has a tendency to stunt our faith. We never go beyond that first step on the path of discipleship.
Another similar way is to attempt to blow our own sins so far out of proportion that we think we are the lost sheep. “God I didn’t take the trash out when I was supposed to, and I know how much that hurt my family, and AAARGH I DON’T KNOW WHY I KEEP DOING THIS I WANT TO LOVE YOU BUT I FAIL EVERY TIME.” Don’t get me wrong. A healthy sense of confession is important, and no sins are too small to matter. But I’d suggest that hiding our real problems behind a veneer of superficial sin is much worse than the sins we confess: It’s just another way of avoiding the real work of being the people of God.
And finally, and perhaps most commonly, church folks respond to being in the 99 by closing in on themselves. If we become absorbed enough in our own church world, with time we can create enough noise that we drown out the tax collectors and sinners of our world, and can we really be held responsible if they don’t happen to wander into our sanctuary?
But I don’t really think that this is the way to be faithful sheep either. This is where the movie comes in: Not One Less has a different vision of what it means to be in the 99. When their substitute teacher Wei dedicates herself to chasing down a lost soul, the children don’t get resentful, or go try to get lost themselves, they get involved. They help Wei think of how to raise money. They go and haul bricks to pay for her ticket.
When Wei meets another girl at the train station, she doesn’t pass by without making eye contact and hope to stay out of it. She helps Wei make posters and pass them out to passersby. And when the station manager sees a child in need he doesn’t act as a gatekeeper like the receptionist, he brings her in and lends his voice to hers, so that she might proclaim her message to everyone. And when they finally make it home, the whole town erupts with joy at their return.
This is how we should understand what it means to be the sheep of God’s fold. Instead of getting resentful we need to get involved. We need to make bricks, doing the things that need to be done in order for ministry to continue, earning money to fund God’s outreach to the lost. We need to pass out posters, going out with God in our hearts to the places where God is needed most, and reach out with our lost. We need to have pity on those who are left out in the cold, and lend our voices to them, speaking out for justice, for righteousness, and for dignity. And finally when those lost ones finally make it back home, we can rejoice with God and all the angels in heaven at their return.
It may sound unfair that God would devote so much time and energy to the lost, and so little to the faithful. It may seem silly for the church to spend all its energy on the folks who aren’t here instead of the ones who are. Church is one of the few organizations in the world that exists to serve people who aren’t its members.
But this is how our God works. God humbles the powerful, and makes the humble powerful. God chases down the unwanted, purifies the tainted, and remembers the forgotten. And I suspect, if we were to really think about it, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
There’s a story Fred Craddock tells, about a funeral he did a while back. It was the child of a woman with 11 children. The mother was beside herself with pain, she said. “If I had known this would happen, I never would have had children.” Right in front of her children, too. She said it two more times at the funeral and once at the grave site. And Fred was a good pastor, he worried about those kids, what they were hearing. So he found a way to talk to them away from her, he said, “ You know she doesn’t mean those things, she’s just hurting, she doesn’t mean that stuff at all.” And one of the children, turned to him and said, “Yes, she does. She means every word. But I if I were the one who was killed, she would’ve said it too.”
 Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 52.