Grumbling in the Wilderness


Rally Day: Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

   “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep



and losing one of them,



does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.



And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 


Just so, I tell you, slide18

than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?



When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 


Just so, I tell you,




Friends, I am happy to be back with you, my flock, to worship and study God’s word together again! Jim and I have just come back from Montreat, NC, where we took a continuing education course for pastors and spouses called the “Art of Transitional Ministry.” I wanted to learn how to lead and support my congregation through the challenges of change–within the church and outside the church. I wanted to learn more about training, equipping and inspiring leaders to discern God’s vision and plan for our future ministry. I ended up learning a lot about myself–not just as a pastor–but as a person, a child of God. A beloved sheep of the Good Shepherd. Lost and found, but often needing my Good Shepherd to lift me up on His shoulders and carry me home!

On our way to Montreat, we encountered a roadblock. Literally.


In July, a U-Haul driver attempted to exit the gate, despite signs that say, “No trucks.”




The beautiful, old stone gate–owned by Montreat Conference Center– was severely damaged. They plan to restore the gateway using the stones from the original arch, along with new materials and methods of construction. Something old. Something new. Honoring the past. Serving the Church of the future, whatever form and shape the Savior leads us to be.

Jim and I easily took the detour loop around the gate and made our way through still lovely, serene surroundings to the Assembly Inn–a far cry from Montreat’s tent camping beginning in 1897!


The camp was founded to be a place of spiritual and physical renewal. And that is just what we needed! My physical therapy at Montreat included walking a seemingly endless number of steps!


I came to appreciate the padded benches whenever I saw them and took a rest now and then.



Our conference was in Convocation Hall,



connected to Assembly Inn by, you guessed it, more steps!

At the conference, we worshiped the Lord together, and I learned, once again, how quirky pastors are. When I saw a cartoon about the Church–with Jesus herding cats–


I thought of the faculty as our shepherds and us pastors as the cats. I felt sympathy for the faculty, who struggled to keep pastors on task. They are always talking! They struggled to persuade them to follow instructions. The first night, the leader invited us to join her in the Call to Worship and half the room started speaking the ONE part instead of the ALL. The leader had to stop the liturgy and explain, when everyone didn’t immediately catch on, “No, I am the ONE and YOU are the ALL!” The second night, the same thing happened again!

We laughed together in Montreat, especially when one of our teachers, Susan McGhee, opened the daily announcements with what became a running joke about bears.

Rev. Susan McGhee

Bears in Montreat, you say?!



Don’t worry, they aren’t grizzly bears, she would say with a smile, just black bears


but don’t go near the dumpsters! Don’t leave food in your car! And don’t hike up Lookout Mountain at dusk or dawn.


“Cause there be bears in those hills!” she would say, pausing for effect.

None of us expected to see any bears, of course. Then, one morning, we read an announcement by the dining hall,



Next to the announcement, was a picture of a conference attendee, mouth wide open and hands raised in mock alarm. None of us expected that the next day, bears would been seen on the grounds–and that they had been searching for food in the dumpsters. “Don’t go near the dumpsters!” Susan said again.

Humor helped us persevere through our intense schedule of lecture and small group discussion and tasks as we sought to apply our learning to our own situations. The first night, my group of 6 was given a frustrating task–at least it was for me. It was late, I was tired, and we didn’t know each other well. Now we had 15 minutes to plan a series of worship services for a liturgical season. Pastors don’t usually plan worship with other pastors they have just met, first of all. And the series had to be a transitional ministry theme, using scriptures and focus areas the teacher supplied. Within minutes of the assignment, I strongly disagreed with two of my tablemates–one on either side of me– and the emotion that rose up in me surprised me.


I was so upset, I was speechless. We sat in an awkward silence, before finally struggling through the exercise, finishing the task, but not to anyone’s satisfaction. I was relieved to go back to my room that night and collapse into bed!

The next day, God’s grace triumphed over human emotion and fatigue. I showed up a couple minutes late for group–not intentionally– and saw worry on their faces. They asked how I felt and gave me encouraging smiles. They gently restored me–a sheep who, the night before, was feeling more than a little lost and out on her own.



I would guess that when most people who have been Christians a long time read this passage in Luke 15 about the lost sheep and lost coin, they identify with the 99 righteous ones, needing no repentance or the 9 coins that aren’t lost. The lectionary leaves out the third parable in the chapter, but all 3 fit together to complete the teaching–the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son. All are Jesus’ responses to the Pharisees and scribes or legal experts grumbling when the outcast and marginalized of the Jewish community — “tax collectors” and so-called “sinners” — are gathering around Jesus, anxious to learn from him, grateful for his kind treatment of them.

The Pharisees and scribes grumble loudly enough to be heard by everyone, but without speaking directly to Jesus. This is to emphasize their dislike and disrespect of him. Not “rabbi” or teacher, they call him, “this fellow,” or “this guy,” to use modern lingo. “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them”–meaning Jesus has made the outcast his friends and even his disciples, as they are recipients of his teaching.



The 3 parables have 3 main characters in common. The first is the one seeking and hoping for what is lost and rejoicing when it is found–the shepherd, father and “woman.” She is a village peasant, living in a house with no windows; hence, she must use a lamp and a broom to look for her coin. She lives in a barter economy, so 10 coins likely represent the family savings–not a great sum, but to her, it would be significant to lose even one. Ten silver coins are the equivalent of about 10 days’ wages. The 2nd main character is the one that is lost or goes astray-the rolling coin, wandering sheep or rebellious son. And the 3rd are the ones who are not lost–those who remain in the flock, with the other coins, or with the father, when his younger, rebellious brother takes off.

Of the 3 parables, the one that leaves me with unanswered questions is the lost sheep. Where does the shepherd leave the 99 when he goes to find the one that is lost? In the wilderness! To leave your flock in the wilderness is to risk losing 99 to wild beasts or thieves. Or they, too, could wander off. Why would Jesus leave His own flock to perish on their own? That isn’t the Jesus we know–who promises to be with us always!

The words “grumbling” and “in the wilderness” are important to our understanding of this parable. They would especially be meaningful to the original Jewish/Christian audience who would recall the story of Moses and the Israelites, led from captivity to wander 40 years in the desert wilderness–hungry and thirsty, tired and frightened, angry and emotional. But the wilderness is also a good place to be. This is where they are with God, relying on him for their faith and all their needs–to guide their every step. And the wilderness is where they receive the hope of a brighter future in the Promised Land.

Reading these parables in the context of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and scribes grumbling about his friendship with the outcast, we see that Jesus is calling you and me– as he is teaching them–to be more like Him– the Good Shepherd, who cares about and seeks to rescue every person in need! He invites us all not to grumble or doubt but to rejoice with him — and all the angels of God–when what was lost is found!

You have already guessed that I often identify with the lost sheep. That tells you something about me! I struggle with my own high expectations for myself. Too often, I see only my failures and weaknesses–the times when I am tired or doubtful of a difficult task I must do–like I was that first night at Montreat. Maybe you struggle with these same unrealistic expectations for your own life of faith.

The truth is we are all lost sheep–and we are all found! — saved by God’s grace and not through the good things we do! So stop trying to be perfect! Just be who God has made you to be. We are His beloved! Today, and especially on Rally Day, we celebrate. Our Savior has found us and will be faithful to lead us. And when we are tired, he will carry us home.



Let us pray.


Dear Savior, like a Good Shepherd, lead us in the way you want us to go. Give us joy for this wonderful journey we walk together. Thank you for loving us and promising to never leave us. Thank you for our congregation–your Church!– and the children you have brought to us to nurture in the faith. Bring us more, Lord, and more workers for the harvest, too! Thank you for all who have said yes to your call to minister to children and youth and their parents. Remind us that although we may feel scared, lost or alone, we are found and securely in your fold. Help us to reach out with love and kindness to people in need all around us, sharing the gospel through words and deeds, drawing people who don’t know you closer to you. Dear Lord, keep them and keep us in your tender care. Amen.












Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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