One day the scribes and the Pharisees noticed all the sinners crowding around Jesus, and they began grumbling: You can just tell. This guy is up to no good!
Well, Jesus heard them; he heard the derision in their tone, and that’s when Jesus looked right at them and issued a demand: Say you had a hundred sheep and one went missing. Which one of you would not leave the ninety-nine in order to find and rescue the missing sheep? I’m telling you, there is more joy in heaven over one person who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance…
Now you know some of them were murmuring under their breath— Is he talking about us? Is he saying we’re the ones who need to repent? What is Jesus seeing when he’s looking at us…
Today we’re continuing the series, Why Church? All through the summer, we’ve been noticing how the Church offers something you might not find just anywhere in the world, and today it’s this: Forgiveness. The world is not always a forgiving place, but the Church is different. Forgiveness is in our blood.
All through this series, we’ve been hearing bits and pieces from Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth. The book we call Second Corinthians is a collection of fragments from Paul’s correspondence with this church, and this was a church that was fraught with conflict. The divisions were rampant!
In the scripture Molly read, we hear about an incident of violation. But the whole thing feels super gossipy! We’re only getting snippets of the story, and we’re only hearing Paul’s side. It’s a safe bet that if he had the chance, this unnamed assailant would tell us an entirely different story. For our purposes, I’m going to go ahead and call him Stan.
This is my best rendering of what went down. Sometime after Paul established the church in Corinth, he sent Timothy back to visit, and that’s when Timothy encountered the missionaries who had come to the church criticizing Paul. When Timothy came back and delivered this news, Paul dropped everything and headed to Corinth to straighten things out. But during this visit, Stan and Paul got into it, and Stan did something to Paul to cause him serious injury. We don’t know what he did.
Until then, Paul had been planning to return to Corinth for a third visit, but now he changed his mind. Shortly after departing, Paul sent the church what is called his Letter of Tears; this letter shook the whole congregation.
In the scripture we just heard, Paul acknowledges: “Even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly.) [That is so Paul!] Now I rejoice not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance…” He goes on to say: “For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment!”
Now we don’t know what Paul wrote in this Letter of Tears. We do know it brought distress to the Corinthian church, and it provoked the congregation to take some kind of punitive action against Stan. It could be that they kicked him out! In the parts of the letter that we’re hearing today, Paul is asking the church to reconsider.
He says: What Stan did to me, he did to all of you, so if you can forgive him, I can too. He states: “The punishment by the majority is enough… now you should forgive and console him so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”
It’s like Paul is saying: Even though you were giving me respect by making Stan pay, the work of the Church is to forgive.
Say you have a hundred sheep and one goes missing, you know what you’ve got to do. Paul is telling the church, you’ve got to make things right with Stan. And Paul is right. The work of the Church is to forgive, and it’s not a surprise to hear this, but it can be a problem.
Here’s the truth: You can’t make yourself forgive. Nobody can. Forgiveness really does take intentionality, and effort, and a whole lifetime, but it does not come by force.
When it comes to forgiveness, we might find ourselves pulled between two sides. On the one side is the message we hear from those who are championing to make things right. It goes: You Better Not forgive. Even if this refusal leaves you tethered to the person who caused the harm, withholding forgiveness is an act of power. It can be exhausting. It can be an expression seeking to honor the victims and survivors of the harm. This is a message we hear often. You know who the villains are, now You Better Not forgive them, says the world.
On the other side is the message we’re dreading and expecting to hear from the Church. It goes: You Better forgive. We might think that Jesus requires us to come to a certain peace with what the offender did! We might conflate forgiving with getting over it, as though you can convince yourself that everything’s okay, when it’s not. If you want to be forgiven, You Better forgive, says the Church. But that doesn’t work.
There’s intensity on both sides. You Better withhold forgiveness in the name of justice, or You Better make yourself forgive in the name of Jesus. Both extremes are missing the mercy that’s on the loose. It’s the crack in our commitment where the Holy Spirit swoops in and wreaks her havoc. It’s the softening at the edges of our anger that we never meant to authorize. It’s the sparkling, unsummoned tenderness that I can’t explain, except to say that you already have it. It’s in our blood.
So here’s what I’m wondering… Maybe Paul is not giving the church the instruction to forgive. Maybe he’s giving them permission. It could be there’s somebody in the church who’s worried about Stan, and it could be their concern is more valid than we’d like to admit. You can’t make yourself forgive; nobody can. But what happens when we need to?
The very heart of God is moved by grief, the LORD himself is brought to tears… And all I’m saying is if it could happen to the Holy Spirit, it could happen to us. We’re also susceptible to the empathy that brings us to tears and changes the story. In case nobody has warned you somebody should. It could be your heart that gets moved by compassion…
Recently, Glen Henshaw posted a story that challenges the standard interpretation of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. One day, when his family woke up, they found that their farm had been unsettled. A hole had been torn in the fence. Upon searching further, they found some of their sheep hiding along the banks of a creek covered in mud. One of them was Pearl. Now she was a follower, not an instigator. The lead troublemaker was Pearl’s aunt, Quinn, who was also hiding.
It’s not hard to surmise what happened. Like the sheep in the Bible, Quinn, Pearl, and another lamb, decided to wander away from the flock and head out on their own. You can just tell; these three were up to no good! Thank goodness, their people had come to retrieve them! Only thing is… That’s not what happened.
The family was in the process of training a new sheepdog. In these early morning hours, the puppy discovered that he could get through the hole in the fence, then he could make the sheep run, and that’s his jam, so who’s going to stop him from having the time of his life! He got the other dogs to join in, and I’m sorry to tell you, they ran the sheep too hard, and one of the ewes died. It was finding her that led Henshaw to count all the sheep and track down the ones who had gone missing.
Henshaw lays it out plainly. The puppy was the predator, but what happened was not his fault, it was the fault of the human shepherds. The hero in the story is not the person who found the sheep; the hero is Quinn who led Pearl and the other lamb to the hiding spot by the creek. When they were being terrorized, Quinn is the one who saved their lives.1https://bycommonconsent.com/2021/05/28/the-story-of-the-lost-sheep-revisted/
When ninety-nine sheep stay in the fold and one goes missing, we might blame the one without even realizing that’s what we’re doing! But here’s the thing. Sheep don’t wander away from the flock looking for trouble. If a sheep has gone missing, chances are, it’s running for its life. It could be that we drove it away. Paul tells the church: You’ve got to go find Stan. He might be in danger; he might be overwhelmed with sorrow…
Imagine Jesus looking at those scribes and Pharisees. Say you had a hundred sheep and one of them went missing. Of course you would leave the ninety-nine in order to rescue the one who’s in danger. Jesus hears what they have been grumbling; he doesn’t miss the derision in their tone. But he also perceives what’s in their hearts. He sees their truth. And if he can see it in them, he can see it in us.
We harbor a natural impulse toward compassion, and it’s not wrong. Our hearts could be moved. It’s just a fact: One missing sheep could break our hearts, and move us to tears, and provoke us to launch a search.
And you can believe, when we give in to that sparkling tenderness, go tell the angels to strike up the band! See all of heaven is rejoicing!