I preached on the “parable of the lost sheep” from Luke 15 recently, which begins with the notice that “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus, and the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'”
Sinners. The word in Greek is hamartaloi, from a root word that means, literally, “to miss the mark.”
I asked the congregation to picture an archer pulling back a bow, taking aim, letting an arrow fly and missing the bull’s eye by a good two feet. It’s not that he wasn’t trying to hit it; he was but he missed.
I said, “Some of us are sinners like that. We are trying really hard to be good, Christian people, we are aiming our lives in that direction, but often, in spite of our best efforts, we miss the mark – we sin.”
In an early draft of the sermon, I wrote a whole paragraph about people who don’t even have the strength to pull back the bow, and I was thinking primarily about those people who come to our shower ministry at First Baptist in Richmond, Va.
I see them shuffle in on Wednesday mornings when I volunteer. If it’s been either a hot, muggy night or a bitterly cold one or the rain has been pouring down outside, it can break your heart.
They take their seats with a sigh, remove their hats out of respect and wait for me to say whatever I’m going to say so that, afterward, they can get a cup of coffee and a pastry and wait for someone to call their number for a shower.
Sometimes when I mention the homeless in a sermon, someone will tell me afterward that they’ve had a bad experience with a panhandler who only wanted the money to buy alcohol, an experience that has made them suspicious of all such people.
I’ve had an encounter with a neighbor of the church who wondered why we let those people into our building at all.
“I used to live near a church in another neighborhood,” he said. “They didn’t always have homeless people hanging around.”
But our church welcomes sinners – that is, people who “miss the mark,” and, in this case, people who can’t even pull back the bow. I sometimes think of them as “the lost sheep of the house of Richmond,” remembering something Jesus said about Israel in Matthew 15.
In Luke 15, he tells a story about a shepherd who leaves 99 of his sheep in the wilderness so he can find the one that wandered away.
And when he finds it, he rejoices, lays it on his shoulders and calls his friends and neighbors saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost!”
How will the kingdom of heaven come to Richmond and every other city? Through that kind of seeking and finding. Through that kind of rejoicing.
Today, I celebrate the many efforts in our city to help the homeless – to feed, clothe, shelter and love the lost sheep of the house of Richmond. I invite you to do the same in your city.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.