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When God Loses...
April 30, 1995

LUKE 15:1-7

When God loses a person, God seeks and searches until, according to Jesus' parable, the lost is found. When the shepherd lost one of his sheep, he left the 99 and went after the one that was lost until he found it. Dave Duncanson tells about the summer his father decided to raise sheep in Minnesota. He bought 40 sheep and put Dave in charge of herding them. Dave knew nothing about sheep, and his dog knew less. It was extremely difficult trying to keep the sheep together. Every evening, Dave herded the sheep back to the barn yard, and his father would ask, "Are they all here?" Dave would timidly answer, "Yes," as it was next to impossible to count 40 squirming, moving, restless sheep. Sure enough, over the course of the summer, they found three sheep who had been caught in bushes and died. Dave was only ten-years-old at the time. For every sheep that was lost, Dave was whipped by his father; not spanked, but beaten!--the price of losing a sheep.

In Israel today (I've been on a trip! But, aren't my stories interesting!) most of the shepherds are Bedouins, still dressed in long robes. Many of the Palestinians and all of the Jews wear clothes like we wear, but most Bedouins wear robes and still live in tents. The Bedouins (which means nomad) were Arabs who migrated into what is now Israel 1700 years ago, between 400-600 A.D., preceding the Arab invasion of those we now call Palestinians. The Bedouins live in tribes which include anywhere from six to fifty families. They were nomads, moving to wherever they could find water; but most now live in permanent locations because the Israeli government pipes in water for their sheep and goats.

The size of a tent depends on a family's wealth or respect. Each wife gets her own tent. A man can marry up to four wives, each of whom is purchased. There is no courting. When a father has a daughter who is marriageable at 14 or 15 years-old, he puts a white flag on his tent. The prospective husband buys her with camels, gold, or other goods. The fatter she is, the more she costs. Bedouins believe that if the wife is too skinny, when the first wind storm comes along, she'll be gone! A camel in Israel today costs about $5,000, so the Bedouins are not poor. The camels go to the bride's father, the gold goes to the bride which is her security. If there is a divorce, she takes the gold with her and goes back to her father.

There are 80,000 Bedouins in Israel today. All of them are citizens. All of them can vote, and the Israeli Parliament includes two Bedouins. Many are going to the University. The first Bedouin woman graduated from the University two years ago.

The Bedouins are quickly becoming modernized. Many have moved into houses, and those villages are unrecognizable from other villages. We drove through some Bedouin villages and were surprised to see Mercedes and BMW autos. One tribe tried to modernize too quickly, before they were ready! They built stone houses, but pitched their tents in the yard, and put their animals in the houses!

Jesus told a parable about a shepherd who lost one of his 100 sheep, and not content or satisfied with 99, searched until he found the one lost sheep. He brought the sheep home on his shoulders, called together his friends and neighbors, and probably threw a party, because he said, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost." Jesus told the parable because he was being severely criticized for associating with the riff-raff. Jesus ate and drank with those whom the official religious leaders had ostracized because they couldn't pay the temple tax. They were called sinners. The Pharisees and scribes grumbled about Jesus, saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So Jesus told the parable, illustrating the love of God. When God loses anyone, God seeks and searches. No one in God's eyes is beyond redemption. Every single person is important.

The church, the body of Christ on this earth today, is called to seek and to save all of God's people. We are called not to be content with the 99 righteous, but to seek, search, and welcome all of God's people. Some churches are quite content with the 99. In fact, some church folk resent the lost sheep. They feel their church exists for themselves, for their comfort and security, and to open the doors to the community, to open the doors to the sinners--the kids on drugs, the graffiti artists, the single parent, the kids in trouble, or the Hmong, or anyone different--makes them very uncomfortable.

God didn't call us to 899 Yosemite Park Way to make us comfortable. God didn't call us to 899 Yosemite Park Way to allow us to sit in a little cocoon, shut out the world, think only of ourselves, and spend God's money only for ourselves. God didn't call us to 899 Yosemite Park Way to be a country club! Do you know the main difference between a country club or a lodge and the church? In the church, God does not allow us to choose the members! Some denominations vote on members, but not the United Methodist Church. God does not allow us to fellowship only with our own kind, whatever that means. God calls the church to seek and save the lost.

On May 14, we will be given the opportunity, which I call a privilege, to contribute and/or make a three-year pledge to the Expanding Our Vision campaign to help build new churches, new facilities on our campgrounds, and refurbish our 40-year-old facility so that we may better serve God in this community. Methodism has not organized new congregations in recent years as we did 100 years ago, or even 25 years ago. As a result, we are declining in membership. I am not interested so much in preserving our denomination as I am in building churches to seek and save the lost sheep.

You might ask--with all the churches there are, why is it important to organize new United Methodist Churches? I firmly believe there is a place in every community for a church like the United Methodist Church. When your children or grandchildren move to a new community, will they find a church there in which they can find God and serve God? There will be Mormon churches, because they know how to evangelize and build new congregations. There will be churches there of the literalist persuasion, but will there be any church there with our theology? As I wrote in the Portal this week, I sometimes wonder where I would be today, and who I would be today, if there hadn't been a Methodist Church in my hometown, and if my neighbor had not only invited me to Sunday School, but took me to Sunday School.

I went through a fundamentalist phase, and when I began to broaden my scope and reject some of the narrow, exclusive interpretations, I might have thrown out the baby with the bath, had it not been for the Methodist Church which teaches and practices openness and tolerance. Most United Methodist Churches, and others as well, offer a welcome alternative to conservative/Evangelical Christianity. We state our position as follows: The United Methodist Church of Merced, California, proclaims a Christ-centered faith that is biblically based, intellectually responsible, authenticated by human experience. If a person finds and serves God in a more conservative church, that is well and good. But, if a person rejects the conservative stance, he/she may well give up the faith entirely unless there is a church like ours available. Let's support the campaign to help new congregations organize and build.

When God loses a person, God seeks and searches, God calls the church--the body of Christ, you and me--to do the seeking and searching. Sisters and brothers, let's expand our vision.

© 1995 Douglas I. Norris