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Don’t Blame the Sheep

The usual approach to the one lost sheep/the one lost coin is that the lost sheep is the metaphorical sinner who repents, and the shepherd who chases it is Jesus. Likewise the coin is the sinner, the woman, Jesus. (That last one isn’t preached much, though.)

However, I guess I’ve been reading too much AJ Levine, because when I read the stories this time, that just didn’t click for me. Sheep don’t just wander off; the shepherd’s ONE JOB is to make sure the sheep don’t do that. Similarly, it’s not like coins have all that much agency.

Given the rise of “Cancel-Culture” and the #metoo movement, a lot of conversation today hinges on wrongdoing, and how we as a culture address sin, repentance and forgiveness. Do we allow someone back into public life if they express appropriate remorse? What does that look like? What else should be required? Should they just go away forever if their sin was bad enough? Is the passage of time, alone, enough to allow them back into positions of power, or public life? (Think of the repeated “That was twenty years ago!” excuse that gets trotted out for people like Weinstein, Kavanaugh, etc.)

This was my stab at what probably could be a whole discourse on why Christian theology on forgiveness needs to be much, much deeper and more serious, especially now.

But, it’s a sermon, and those pews are only so comfortable.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

September 15, 2019

Ordinary Time, Proper 19, Year C

Luke 15:1-10

  • These gospel stories are very familiar.  And their interpretations are likewise familiar.
  • 99 sheep, one gets lost, shepherd goes to find the one lost sheep.  Poor lost, little sheep, wandering away.  Widow has one coin, it gets lost, so she goes all out to find it, then rejoices greatly when she finds it,
  • The notion of the one lost sheep is really familiar.  
  • Of course this is a parable, so whatever is familiar is probably wrong, because that’s the point of parables.
  • Amy-Jill Levine points out that no smart shepherd is going to leave 99 sheep to fend for themselves.  
  • But also?  Let’s work within Luke’s framing for a second.
    • Why do we assume that the sheep-person needs to repent?  
    • What was the shepherd doing that he lost a sheep?
    • And how was the widow so careless that she misplaced her ONE coin.  (Lady, you had ONE job.)
    • perhaps these stories are not about the sad little lost sheep in need of repentance, but the Shepherd, and the widow.  
    • Perhaps these stories are about what repentance and amendment of life look like in practice.
  • because forgiveness, repentence—these are sticky subjects.  We can struggle with them.
  • There’s a common sort of idea that forgiveness, when granted, is like a magic spell.  It erases the wrongdoing of the past entirely, so when you forgive someone, it means you’ve hit the reset button.  Everything goes back as it was.
  • That’s not forgiveness, that’s time travel.  
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean adopting an attitude of willful denial—it means finding a way to reconstruct something new to move into greater wholeness.  
  • And there are two pieces of that: First, you have to RE-Construct what was broken.  Then, you have to Move to Greater Wholeness.
  • if you have done something you realize is wrong, something you realize has hurt someone or many someones, then you need to make amends for that.  
  • You need to fix that which has been broken in some why.  
  • The shepherd here heads out and turns over every rock and stone to find that one missing sheep that he let wander off some how.
  • The widow burns all her oil in order to find her one coin that she lost.  
  • Finding forgiveness means you have to make amends—and there are times when it may not be possible to make amends to the person you have injured.  But you can make amends going forward.  For those of us who live as beneficiaries of white privilege, whose families achieved wealth and stability through the forced labor of those we enslaved, we have a moral obligation to make amends for that sin going forward.  I cannot go back in time and free my ancestors’ slaves.  I can consider that legacy, vote wisely, and make reparations now.  
  • But you need to make amends somehow.  Do something that acknowledges and takes steps to repair the brokenness.
  • And—move to greater wholeness.  
  • This varies from situation to situation.  Sometimes that means the relationship can be restored, after a fashion.  Sometimes it means the relationship is transformed and is more distant, because that will enable more to health.  Sometimes, finding forgiveness means that the relationship that was, has to die, so that everyone can find new life.  
  • But the goal of forgiveness, is to enable everyone to move to the wholeness Christ intends for us: for the person who did wrong not to be forever trapped by it, and for the wronged person not to be consumed by it either.  
  • Moving into wholeness, making amends, enables that to happen.  But when we exchange forgiveness for a shallow idea of resetting, or remaining trapped where we are, where we “just have to let it go” then we don’t find wholeness or a life more abundant.  
  • The truth is, sin is inevitable.  We all do it.  We all mess up ALL THE TIME.  
  • Even when we try not to, we sin.  We create brokenness in this world.  
  • But Christ assures us that our brokenness is not the end of the world (literally) by empowering us to make amends and to move forward.  
  • We can’t endlessly beat ourselves up when we fall short—we sin, because we’re human.  But we can seek forgiveness, we can chase after the new life Christ promises us.  
  • Because when we do that, we can escape the cycle of guilt, shame, and denial that shallow reset-forgiveness promises.  
  • Christ wants for us the deep joy of being human—the deep joy of a baby learning to walk, and not afraid to fall down, because getting up and trying again is an expected part of the process.  
  • That’s us—that’s how we do it.  And when we do, Jesus is right there, waiting to catch our hands, and help us take our next steps forward.


About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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