What’s Missing?
Luke 15:1-10

On Wednesday night I was channel surfing prior to bed time and stumbled across a documentary about the 1996 Green Bay Packers National Football League team and their journey to the Super Bowl.  There was a story told as part of that show that was in some ways similar to the two parables we just heard, the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.

When we discuss these two parables we generally focus on one of a couple of themes that come through, the first is that when one sheep or coin is lost, the rest are left behind and the owner searches and searches until they are found.  The second is that we think of ourselves as either the sheep or the coin, or we imagine that we are the ones left behind while the owner goes searching.

Today I want to use the story of Desmond Howard, who was an important part of the Green Bay team back in 1996 to illustrate a slightly different angle on the parables.

In any team sport each player has their role to play, from the coach right through to the water boy.  Apparently in the American game of football there are eleven players on the field at any given time.  There are lots of stoppages in the game and personnel are swapped around depending on whether the team is attacking or defending and then there are special teams put out for kick offs and other important plays.

In one game, a division final if I remember correctly the Packers were playing the San Francisco 49ers on a wet and muddy day.  After half time Desmond Howard, whose job it was to receive the ball from the opposition’s kick off, was walking along the tunnel out of the change room when he heard a whistle blow.  He was thinking that was unusual when he saw the ball flying through the air, he realised they had started the game without him.  His team only had ten of the required eleven players on the field.  No-one had realised that the key man, the one who should catch the ball, wasn’t even there yet and they hadn’t replaced him either. 

He watched in horror as the opposition team, the 49ers, recovered the ball and crossed the line for a touchdown.  Howard had decided to change into a clean and dry uniform before coming back on the field and had missed the kickoff.  No-one noticed he was missing until it was too late.  When he returned to the game he redeemed himself with his own touchdown and the team went on to win the game and the championship.

We all know that in sport there are a set number of players required, each sport has its own rules, and in order to function well and to win championships they need to have the right amount of players.  That day the Green Bay Packers were one player short, it cost them a touchdown, they had failed in their duty to see if everyone was there.  Desmond Howard had let the team down by taking too long to come out of the dressing room.  The coach tore a strip off him, and no doubt his teammates did as well.  They recovered from the embarrassment, and survived the ordeal.

Let’s think about that story in comparison to the parables, the owner of the sheep noticed one of his team was missing, left the others on the field and went looking for it.  The woman with the coin noticed that one was missing and turned the house upside down searching for it.  They took the time to keep track and to care enough to notice.  Then they went to the trouble of looking for them, which is more than the Green Bay coach or team managed on that day against the 49er’s.

Let’s think about all this in the context of the church?  Do we notice when one of the team isn’t here?  Sure we notice if the pastor is away, because they are the ones up the front, and maybe we notice if the musicians aren’t here, although there is a fair roster of them and its not always their turn to be up the front.  How long does it take us to notice if one of you who sit in the pews isn’t here?  Do we look around and take notice?  I reckon we notice in a general way when the place looks a bit empty but do we then think carefully about the individual members of the team or the flock who aren’t here?  Do we wait until the coach screams at us and asks where the other players are, or do we do a quick check to see whether the one who is usually next to us is there today or not?

Yes it is the coach’s responsibility to make sure that everyone is there but we have all heard the phrase that there is no ‘I’ in team.  It is about team; it is about each player caring for the next player and making sure they are right to play on.  Making sure they are there to take part in the game and that they are protected from the opposition. 

In both of the parables the one that had gone astray seems blissfully unaware that they have even wandered off from the flock or been lost in a crack in the floor.  I’m not so sure that when one of our flock wander off that they are completely unaware of it. 

There are often things on Sunday that draw us away, that we think we can just do this week, or maybe next week too, but then when no-one comes looking for us we think it might be just as easy to stay away as it would be to come back.  The bed feels more comfortable on a Sunday morning doesn’t it?   The weather is cold this time of year; maybe an extra couple of hours under the doona would do me good? 

Maybe the one who is hidden from our view starts to feel guilty for not being here, and that they don’t want to repent and turn back, that might be too hard for them.  Well, as we heard in the parables, neither the sheep nor the coin were able to repent, they are not capable of repenting, it’s a coin and a sheep, they don’t have thoughts, let alone rational, repentant thoughts!  In both of those cases the one who cared about them came and got them, picked them up and carried them back, there was nothing required of the sheep or the coin, just to be carried back and returned.  We aren’t really capable of true repentance either without God coming to us through the Holy Spirit and carrying us back.  We need someone to care enough about us to encourage us to return.

And when we do return, how will we be treated?  Hopefully it will be like the parables, where there was much rejoicing, just like there is joy in the angels in heaven over one sinner who repents.  We don’t want the scenario that Desmond Howard faced, with an angry coach screaming at us for not being on time, or a team player or whatever.

Let’s take the time to notice each other, when we’re here and when we’re not.  If you notice someone missing, send them a card or give them a call, just to let them know you care.  And let’s rejoice each and every week that those of us who are here have been called to be a part of the team, a part of God’s flock, because that’s what the game of life is all about.
Amen.