This is a modified version of a reflection that I offered at Advent Evening Prayer at St. Edward the Confessor, in Clifton Park, NY.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“What is your opinion?
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?
And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it
than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.
In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.”
Contemporary Catholic artist, Brother Mickey McGrath, has been posting daily “Advent calendar” updates on his Facebook page. His message for each day has to do with the daily reading. Today’s message was, “Give comfort to God’s people.” The image that he created was a joyful Jesus and a joyful sheep sheep – the image made me think that they were jumping for joy.
Between seeing this, and then considering something else that I read earlier this morning, I got to thinking… how many of us would just cut our losses and forget that one lost sheep? How often do we “write off” others with relative ease? The visual reminder of Jesus and that sheep reminded me that everyone counts, every person matters.
This past weekend I spent time with some friends who believe that they have been marginalized by the organized church. Frankly, I am not always sure that the church is purposely trying to marginalize my friends – but like so many family conflicts – and let’s face it, this is a family conflict, things happen and suddenly the sheep are not so much lost, as they are rejected. Or at least feeling that way. In this case, it is more than just feeling that way, if you ask me. Unyielding rigid ideology, often served up with the best of intentions, but without love, and things go poorly. Very. Poorly. That one sheep feels cut off and is lost.
Would you go look for the lost sheep? Or invite it in from the margins? Or do you recall what it feels like to be cut off, left out and rejected? It feels like you are… lost.
Although we are about to celebrate the most unlikely of all things come December 25, a time when we remember that God came to take human form, a most remarkable thing! We are called to remember that Jesus, while fully human is also fully divine. And as such he goes far beyond what mere mortals we can do. While we might say things like, “that sheep left of its own accord,” or “the sheep did not follow the rules, we had to walk away,” or “seriously – what’s one little sheep?” Time to cut our losses and move on, right? Or, maybe God is not content with that. No – every sheep and every life matters.
When I think of all the people that I know who feel rejected or marginalized by the Church, I think of this Gospel. When I think of all the people who feel rejected by family, friends or others – I think of this Gospel. When I think of times that I myself have felt abandoned – or worse yet, the times when I have done the abandoning, I think of this Gospel.
Jesus does what God means for us to do. Find that lost sheep! And if we are the lost sheep, we must be found by one who seeks us with determination and love – not just a dry book of rules about why we made ourselves lost. If God became one of us, if God pursues us so ardently, how can that same God be willing to push us aside with a seemingly cruel and cavalier hand? How can that be the same God who leaves the 99 sheep, to go find the one sheep that is lost?
This God makes a demand upon us to be sure – to press past our differences, and live in communion in Christ, through reconciliation, filled with forgiveness and hope – and justice. Without justice, the whole thing falls apart. And justice is at the heart of God’s invitation is about. Like a shepherd chasing, and ultimately finding that one pesky little sheep, we must lean hard into the wind of our discontent. When we are the lost ones, we must push back into knowing that we will be found, loved, embraced and restored completely in justice and wholeness, by our God-with-us, our Emmanuel.
God does not cut God’s losses and move on, and neither should we. May this day remind us, as Brother Mickey’s art informs us, to “give comfort to God’s people.” Translation: don’t chase them out of the sheepfold. And as today’s Gospel clearly states in the words of Jesus, “it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.” If that is God’s will, then what else can we do but follow?