This morning my family worshipped at a friend’s church, Oak Lane Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA. We were honored, during that service, to be present as the church welcomed back a member who had been gone from the community for a long time. Now, I happen to be friends with the pastor, and he has shared with me some of the reasons why this young woman had left in the first place. I found myself honored and humbled to see the reuniting of the body of Christ in action, before my very eyes.
Later, I found myself thinking about the parable of the Lost Sheep. You know the one:
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:3-7)
As I thought about that young woman, I couldn’t help but remember how many times I have heard people talk about folks who fall away from the church as “lost sheep.” And whatever the reason for the departure, so often the language seems to circle around the idea that the person somehow “lost” us. And yet, that isn’t what the Scripture seems to be saying at all. Instead, Jesus says, suppose one of YOU has lost a sheep. In other words, the person didn’t lose herself. You did.
It reminds me of parents who “lose” their children in a mall or at a gas station. How often do you hear those frantic parents screaming, “My daughter lost herself! Help me find her!?” In every case, the parents see themselves as responsible for the welfare of the child, and seek him or her out with the assumption that somehow, the parents had lost him.
Can we say it is all that different with the church? When people leave our fellowship, is it because they are leaving us, or is it because we have somehow departed from our mission as the church of Jesus Christ? Perhaps they wandered because we neglected our practices of hospitality, or of holy listening, or divine compassion. Perhaps they wandered away because we offered no bread that fills or water that nourishes the parched Spirit.
The church has a great deal to learn from people like this young woman who have taken another chance with her childhood church at Oak Lane. For perhaps in acknowledging our own complicity in the wandering of the people of God, we may find ourselves, and our mission, renewed.