The first time I was in Rome was on my honeymoon. We visited all the sites – the Vatican, the coliseum, the pantheon. We took a tour of the catacombs which are the underground tunnels where the early Christians of Rome are buried. The one we toured was in use from about the year 200 and contains some of the earliest examples of Christian art. One image that we saw repeated several times was of Jesus as the good shepherd- typically a young man with a sheep over his shoulders. The Good Shepherd is one of the oldest, the most enduring and appealing descriptions of our Lord.
And today we heard the origin of that image. The Parable of the Lost Sheep — perhaps the most beloved of Jesus’ parables. Jesus talks about one sheep- one particular sheep out of a flock of a hundred- who is lost. The shepherd searches for the lost sheep and finding it, carries it home on his shoulders where he invites his friends to rejoice with him.
It is a powerful and comforting image and one that we should think on often. But this week, in sitting with this Gospel, I began to wonder- why did the sheep leave?
Why leave? The sheep was with his friends, in a community. It was protected, fed, led to water. The shepherd promised to bring the sheep home at the end of the day. Yet somehow, someway, the sheep was tempted to leave and head out alone.
It seems to me that the sheep left because it fell out of trust in the shepherd. It became convinced that its way was better than the shepherd’s way; that it was strong enough to survive without the shepherd. Perhaps it was persuaded that the shepherd’s command were meant for some other sheep a long time ago but not for today’s sheep. Maybe the sheep felt that the shepherd’s promises of food, water, community and rest were not enough or too long in coming.
And so the sheep left. And you know what happened. It was lost.
My brothers and sisters, at one time or another each one of us is that lost sheep. It is we who attempt to leave the shepherd behind, convinced our way is better than the Lord’s way; that we are strong enough to survive without God; sure perhaps that Jesus’ commands are meant for some other people a long time ago but not for today’s world.
We may doubt the promises of Jesus. The promise that he will always feed us- he feeds us with his own flesh. The promise that he knows our needs, our nature better than we can know ourselves and will fulfill our every desire. The promise that we are valuable just as we are, that we are infinitely loved. The promise that he has prepared a home for us in his father’s kingdom.
And so like the Israelites in the book of Exodus we turn aside from the way, making for ourselves a molten calf. We create something to take the place of God. We struggle and scheme and scramble to grasp what God grants in abundance to those who open themselves to him.
A sheep may simply wander away but we, as rational beings, we decide for ourselves to leave. Turning away from God never happens by accident. It is never “the devil made me do it”. It is a deliberate break in trust by our words, thoughts, actions, and inactions that requires the participation of our free will.
The result of a lack of trust in God and his promises is sin. Our sins reveal a heart empty of trust in God, a heart not filled with the love of Christ that causes us to trust him completely. Sin turns our hearts away from God’s love.
Perhaps sometimes you don’t feel valuable and loved and so you insult the dignity and worth of others by discrimination, racial animosity, or bullying. Maybe you feel a hunger for something pure and try to fill it with something impure, something that will not last and may even be dangerous. Maybe you feel so broken that you believe that Jesus the good shepherd no longer loves you, and you have lost faith in his promises.
And so we get lost. Not lost to God, who knows all things and knows exactly where you are spiritually. We are never lost to God. God knows when you sit and stand; God understands your thoughts from afar. No matter how distant, or how dark, your path becomes, no matter how stiff necked you are, Jesus the good shepherd is there, seeking for a way to get you see him, seeking the path that helps you return, turn away from sin, repent and learn to trust him again.
And here is the best part. The good shepherd goes out to seek the lost sheep not once, not twice, but every time we are lost no matter how often. An infinite God is infinitely patient and invincibly loving; he never tires of loving you. As many times as it takes.
When you feel separated from God for any reason, when God’s promises seem too long in coming, when you have been persuaded that your way is better than his, when you are lost, open yourself to the shepherd’s love. Repent of your lack of trust. Jesus accompanies you wherever you are and if you let him, his grace will lift you, lift you up, leaving behind earth and sin so that you may gain the things above. On his own body he will carry you home to the rejoicing angels. Blessed are they who put their trust in God.