“Re-Imagine the World: The Parable of the Lost Sheep”
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
By Rev. Paul E. Ellis Jackson
Sunday, June 18, 2017
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
“Jeff (my co-pilot) and I found ourselves in a crucible, a cacophony of automated warnings, synthetic voices, repetitive chimes, radio calls, traffic alerts, and ground proximity warnings. Through it all, we had to maintain control of the airplane, analyze the situation, take step-by-step action, and make critical decisions without being distracted or panicking. It sounded as if our world was ending, yet our crew coordination was beautiful. I was very proud of what we were able to accomplish” – Sully Sullenberger, on listening to the cockpit voice recordings from January 15, 2009.
On January 15, 2009 US Airways Flight 1549, having just taken off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, struck a large flock of Canadian geese and suffered catastrophic failures in both engines. The Airbus A 320 airplane had 155 people on board that day and the pilot quickly determined that he was going to be unable to reach any nearby airport. The pilot then made the incredible decision to attempt and ditch his plane on the nearby Hudson River. Well, by now we’ve certainly all heard the amazing tale of heroism performed that chilly winter’s day by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the 58 year-old Air Force veteran who skillfully landed his plane in the river and saved the lives of everyone on board. As the plane was making its descent, Sully recalled that “It was very quiet as we worked, my copilot [Jeff Skiles] and I. We were a team. But to have zero thrust coming out of those engines was shocking—the silence.” It was remarkable enough that Captain Sullenberger was able to make this statistically improbable landing, but an even more remarkable story soon emerged from this disaster. Even after making a safe water landing on the Hudson, even after barely escaping an even worse calamity, Captain Sullenberger then returned more than once to check each aisle and under each seat to ensure that every single person got off his plane. Only after he was confident that no one remained aboard, did he agree to leave the plane and be rescued himself. As the world learned of this amazing act of bravery and heroism we also learned of the humility and heart found in Captain Sullenberger. While his friends described him as “shy and reticent,” Sully Sullenberger was praised for his poise and calm during the crisis. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg even went so far as to dub him “Captain Cool.” Nonetheless, Sullenberger suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in subsequent weeks, including sleeplessness and flashbacks. Sully said that the moments before the ditching were “the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling” that he had ever experienced. He also said this, which I think has a nugget of wisdom for us: “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” What a great metaphor for how experience works. I’ve heard a similar phrase used for how our intuition works as well. We make deposits into our banks of experience so that when we need to withdraw something, it’s there.
A good friend of mine has been an Air Traffic Controller for many years. He recently moved from Dallas to Wichita and has to reenter a training program to learn the ropes of our Wichita air space. We were at dinner recently and I inquired as to how long he would be in the training: A week? Two weeks? And he replied: “No, at least a year.” And I was floored–An entire year of additional training for an Air Traffic Controller with his experience? Yes. I was gently reminded that this is a profession where its employees cannot make a single error. It takes at least one year to learn all of the intricacies of Wichita’s airspace, to learn the civilian and military flight paths, to learn the ground maps. These fine folks aren’t afforded the luxury of making one mistake. They can’t ever lose a single airplane—because the consequences for them (and for us) are catastrophic. Now I know we’re talking about a highly sophisticated, technical situation—the flying of jets and the coordination of our airspace, but I believe even in the most mundane of tasks we have the opportunity to show competence and skill. We get numerous examples of this in our Hebrew Bible and Christian Testaments. In fact, one of the most enduring is a simple story of a shepherd and his sheep.
II. The Parable of the Lost Sheep
In Luke’s gospel we get one of Jesus’ most enduring parables—the Parable of the Lost Sheep. This story has been used for centuries in a variety of contexts and as Robin pointed out last week, Jesus used the telling of parables to re-imagine the world. Let’s see if we can find the ‘re-imagining” in this story about one lost sheep: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable: ‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ One lost sheep. The shepherd leaves all of the other sheep, alone on the hillside, and tracks down one lost sheep.
Recently a group of us led by our Outreach Board toured Gammon Elementary school. This dynamic school has put in place, systems and processes that ensure that not one student gets left behind. Each classroom we visited had physical representations of what this meant: Charts and schedules, lists of duties and who would perform them, expectations of all students, and various ways that the students would learn that they had met these expectations and that they knew that they weren’t lost. In one classroom we witnessed the teacher calling out each student’s name and awarding them points if they had completed various tasks, in another classroom we were met by the Student Greeter and learned that each classroom has one of the students, assigned to greet any guests to their classroom and to answer questions they may have, and this task is rotated throughout the school year so that every student gets to do this. Every student participates to the best of their ability. No one is left behind. It was an invigorating visit and one that rekindled in us a sincere appreciation for the hard work our school teachers do every day of the school year. To those among us this morning who teach, in whatever setting, we applaud you and thank you for always looking out for “lost sheep.”
III. Managing the Situation
So what’s the connection between Sully Sullenberger saving all of the lives on his plane and a teacher over here at Gammon Elementary doing what’s expected of them? I’m going to say that the difference is only in the context. One is a pilot, the other is a classroom teacher, but each one of them was conscientious of their individual responsibilities towards those in their care. A plane filled with humans or a classroom filled with children, each of these contexts depends upon those in the front, the leaders, to get them safely to their destinations. You might think that this is obvious—that of course it’s what we expect these people to do in these situations. It’s what they’re hired for—but have you ever been in a classroom where the teacher or professor really didn’t feel like counting the sheep that day? Have you ever been in a situation where the highly skilled professional was not being necessarily conscientious? We all hear those stories every day—because some people can actually go to sleep at night after failing to count the sheep in their care. I don’t know how they do it, but judging the state of our world today, I’d say there are lots of people failing to count their sheep. I believe conscientiousness requires us to develop the skill of consistency. It’s tough, but it’s necessary. Re-imagining the world as filled with conscientious people is a good practice in empathetic imagination. Re-imagining the world full of competent, caring and conscientious humans is one of the activities that keeps me going. And I assist my empathetic imagination by drawing on Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep. It’s a teaching that shows me that even in the simplest of acts I can care for those in my circle.
IV. The Context for the Parable of the Lost Sheep
When the shepherd would count his sheep at the end of a day of grazing, he would count each of his charges to make sure that none had been lost during their time in the pasture. Because of the great care taken with this, even one missing sheep, could mean hours of time spent searching for that sheep. Every sheep was critical to the shepherd to maintain, to protect, to provide food for and to ensure that there was a safe place at which to camp for the night. Think of the “sheep” that it is your responsibility to protect. It might be your family, or a friend that you attend to, or it might be a classroom or a team of workers on a project. It could even be a congregation. Do you take the time to “count” each member of the group? Or are their members who you don’t even see? There are people in our lives who become invisible to us—it’s easy—and it creates one less person to count-one less person to be responsible for and to. How often do we make people invisible—uncountable? We hear the rhetoric daily: An entire group of human beings is said to be “not even human.” We use the phrase “those people” all of the time. I’m guilty of it, but I certainly try to correct it the minute it comes out of my mouth. Those people! Because once we create a group called “those people” we can quickly dehumanize them. We begin to rob them of their basic humanity. We fail to see them as we see ourselves. We hear this demeaning and diminishing language all of the time. Well, you don’t agree with me you’re wrong, so you’re obviously less than me—you’re less than human. And until you change and become more like me and the rest of the flock, you don’t even deserve to be counted. It’s a surprisingly short route from “those people” to genocide. History is replete with examples of this—Bosnia—Nazi Germany—South Africa—entire groups of human beings deprived of their humanity, simply because they are different from us. Simply because they scare us or they threaten us. It is strong in our public discourse today from both sides of any issue. I hear the phrase “those people” every single day. And I want to shout—we’re ALL “those people”.
Are you counting all of the sheep in your care? Are you seeing them for who they really are? Are you letting them be who they really are? Or are you imposing your idea of what you think they should be on them? The conscientious shepherd recognizes that no two of her sheep are identical—the great flock is made up of all different kinds of sheep! And this ability to allow your flock to be what it is is also the same ability that allows you to respond, quickly and appropriately, when someone in your care is hurting—or hungry—or cold. You’re paying attention to your flock. I’d go so far as to argue that every person you encounter everyday is part of your flock, that you are responsible to every human you encounter. But, that’s a topic for another day. Until we all can think like that, we have our Great Shepherd to guide us beside still waters and to restore our souls. We can rely on that image to guide us and teach us until we become conscientious care-takers of all in our presence.
So, whether the threads of your experience allow you great clarity in a moment of crisis, or you are able to join with your family or group or team and ensure that no single person in your care is left behind, we can all re-imagine a world where every single person We can begin to have eyes that see each human being for the God-breathed life that it is. We can recognize the worth of each person we encounter each day and celebrate their unique contribution to our lives and to the world. One sheep or one human, all have worth and all deserve to be seen—and counted.
The Holy Bible, NRSV
Sullenberger, Chesley “Sully”. Highest Duty: My Search for What really Matters. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.