Jesus’ Math: Counting and Discounting

Text: Luke 15

(For this sermon, I invited all people who “identify as children” to come up to the front of the sanctuary. Then I read Counting on Community by Innosanto Nagara to the congregation and showed the children the pictures. Then we had the following conversation before I headed back to the pulpit 🙂 )

Counting on Community
from Sujei=) on Twitter:

Let’s count how many people are with us in worship today. Is it hard to count how many people are in here? Why?

Is it also a way to count if we say: “Jimmy’s here. April’s here. Hilary’s here…” Let’s call out the names of who is present. 

One way of counting is knowing each person who is among us, knowing that we are glad to be here together and that we “count” to each other. As we look who’s here, we also see who’s missing from our number, who we are missing…that’s a way of counting, too. When we join together with our community, we “count on” each other!

There are many ways of counting. In preschool, we learn how to recognize certain numbers and quantities by sight. For example, I see: four coins or six sheep. I don’t have to pause and count number by number, identifying each specific coin or sheep. Suppose that the shepherd in one of our parables was out in the field with his sheep. If he had five sheep, it would be easy to notice if one sheep was missing; he could recognize that fact by sight. If he had twenty sheep, he might just have a slight, nagging feeling that something is not quite as it should be; he might have to take a moment and go through his roll call to see if he was missing someone. If he had one hundred sheep, as the parable goes, it probably took him a little while to figure out that a sheep was missing, and, after counting and finding that sum is counted short, which sheep in particular was missing. As one of my professors at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Amy-Jill Levine, says, “Although ‘having’ [as in “a shepherd having a hundred sheep”] might simply mean ‘having charge over,’ the image conveyed by all three parables is that of substance. Perhaps it is those who ‘have’ who are more likely to fail to notice what is missing.” (Short Stories by Jesus, 35)

So how do we notice who is missing? As the children did up here just a minute ago, we can count and try to assign a number to each individual person in this room, the children in the nursery and the nursery staff, and maybe print that number in our bulletin to show that our church is “healthy” and “growing” and that we have a strong and vibrant community–numerically…But do we know the names of those who aren’t here well enough to call on them in their absence? Do we know the life situations of each of those people with whom we share a pew or a choir row? How do we show each other that we don’t just count each other as a number, but we count each other among our family, as those companions on the journey through this life, with whom we share dreams of embodying the kin-dom of God?

These are big questions, and questions that we are not asking alone. These are questions that the shepherd in our parable asks as well. Does the shepherd, whom AJ Levine wants to label as negligent, know which of the sheep is missing? Know what caused the sheep to leave? Does the shepherd ever question the motivation or the situation that was the occasion for the sheep leaving? Maybe the shepherd forgot to mend that hole in the fence that he saw but then left to go watch the Titans game or binge watch Downton Abbey. Maybe the shepherd separated families of sheep when he sold some of his flock to a farmer down the road and the sheep missed its family. What was the sheep chasing that it left its flock behind? Was the grass truly greener, or is there something else at stake in leaving the safety of the herd?

And what about the sheep that the shepherd left behind? Did the 99 sheep feel left out when the shepherd went chasing after the One who left? Did they begin to hold a grudge because the shepherd wasn’t there to witness to every joy and struggle of their lives? Did each sheep miss being seen as individuals? Did they think that their lives mattered less than the sheep who needed special attention at the time?

The sheep are teaching us to count, and no, it’s not to put us to sleep–quite the opposite, in fact! One way that we have been taught to do math is to count numbers that add up to a 0-sum game. That kind of thinking is easily divisive, as one is always out for themselves and does not question what privileges they themselves have been gifted, while always wanting a chunk of pie from the person at the next table over. That’s like saying, “But what does it mean for my life?” every time someone is asking you to listen to their current struggles. That’s like getting the same size ice cream sundae as my brother, looking at his two scoops of ice cream, an equal helping to mine, and saying, “but his look more tasty!” 0-sum games lead us into perpetual discomfort by our own doing, constant complaint as we are always looking out for the areas of our lives in which we are cheated and made to feel “less than,” even if its our own selves who are dis-counting our personal human worth. “But the shepherd went after that sheep and left us behind! We must not matter at all to the shepherd.” 0-Sum-thinking tricks us into always believing that if someone else has, then we are the have nots. And who wants to be them?

We can so easily dis-count each other, and, if we imagine the sheep to be conscientious, the 99 might feel dis-counted. For all of you bargain shoppers out there, what does getting a discount mean? It means, right, that we get to own the item at hand for less than its original price? That we get the same value as the original price for less, right? But is the shepherd getting the same value out of his flock for less? No! He notices that something is not as it should be, one who should be here is missing, and he sets out to retrieve that someone. The value is less because we are valuing it less, because we are not accounting for the value found in the wholeness of a community.

The author of the gospel of Luke would have us believe that this parable was about repentance and forgiveness, as the most precious sight is the sheep that returned to the flock and repented for running away. But that’s not quite how it reads. I don’t remember the sheep have that metanoia moment, that “turning around” and deciding actively to change it’s life and go back to the flock. The shepherd, who probably overlooked that one sheep, was the one who turned around, conducted an extravagant search for the one sheep out of the 99, and returned to the flock to restore the one that was lost. Yes, the sheep was lost, but the center of the story really is the shepherd. The shepherd who is learning to count the flock and so account for his flock. So 99+1=100, right? That’s what the author of Luke would have us think. One that was lost now is found and the group is whole again. Sound reasonable?

Yes, 99+1 does equal 100 objectively, using traditional arithmetic. But when Jesus tells this story about the Negligent Shepherd who searches for the Sheep That Got Away, Jesus’ math doesn’t quite add up. There’s something going on more than the idea that the person who owned the sheep wanted the whole entire flock to be constituted of a round number and so 99 simply wouldn’t do. The shepherd was willing to trust 99 sheep to stay in the same location and watch out for each other (an inconceivable trust, for those of us who have met sheep before) while he searched for the one that got away from the group. As AJ Levine writes, “One out of a hundred is easy to overlook, but as soon as the owner recognizes his loss, he takes whatever steps are needed in order to bring the group to wholeness. Even a missing 1 percent must be noticed. And if he can notice the missing one and diligently seek to find it, he reminds listeners that perhaps they have lost something, or someone, as well, but have not noticed it. Before the search can begin, we need to notice what, or who, is not there.” (Short Stories by Jesus 35)

When we are counting on community, the focus is not on quantity, but on quality. When we are valuing wholeness, we account for the ways we count on each other. The math of Jesus equals much more than 100% because we simply can’t count, can’t even begin to grasp the abundance of God’s goodness that is revealed to us when we resist the urge to dis-count those whom we do not know or do not understand, those who have strayed from the flock, those who we do not count among our visions of who is “us.” So the way that these sheep are teaching us to count is not by forming a single-file parade across our vision as we fall into sleep, but by showing us that what matters is not the number of the sheep or the coins or the sons–what matters is that we count each other among the kin-dom of God. When we truly count each other as one of our family of Christ, when we count on each other as more than numbers but as precious individual beings made particular in the image of God, then we are exponentially growing our community within the love and justice and grace of God.

You might have noticed that our Scripture for today contains three parables, accounting for the entirety of chapter 15: The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son (whom my professor AJ calls the Lost Son). I’ve only been talking about sheep–and that’s because sheep are a lot easier to count than money and family. Sheep are a lot easier to count on than money and family–they generally stay the same, stay where they are, they don’t change all that much. And sheep are a lot easier to be a-count-able to than money and family.

The Common English Bible titles the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke “Occasions for celebration.” But what we learn as we count who’s here and who’s missing is that we can only celebrate when all are restored, when all are counted in community.

 

(This sermon originally preached at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN on March 19, 2017.)

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