“See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Luke 15:3-7
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Second Sunday following Transfiguration), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Have We Wandered?
Even as adults, it doesn’t take much to distract us from any activity. Our attention can be drawn away from the task at hand to the point where we have lost an exuberant amount of time. And those who spend time in nature, hiking in the wilderness, know that it doesn’t take much to veer off the path and become lost, in many unfortunate situations so that a search party is necessary. Our faith journey is the same way, even for those with experience and maturity. None of us are immune to temptation, to wandering from the pasture of God’s safekeeping. In fact, in our current cultural climate it seems as if everything is pulling us in a direction away from God, from faith, from the Church, from accountability to anything outside of our individual selves. Thankfully, when we do wander we have a loving never-ending search party – the Holy Trinity.
Whenever we hear the words and parables of Christ, we should avoid thinking of and picturing others, people to whom we believe they really apply. In other words, all of Jesus’ words, teachings, and parables apply to us, as the Church, and to us individually. Salvation comes through baptism, but baptism isn’t the end, it’s the beginning of the path toward salvation. And so each of us is the sheep who wanders. Our communities become lost in our God-given mission, continually distracted by whatever corruption draws us off of the path, whether it be sinful tendencies and lifestyles, political causes and earthly agendas, or egos and self-importance. Thankfully, we have a Shepherd who is patient and loving enough to leave the ninety-nine to come and find us, even when we are purposely running in the other direction, when our faith seems depleted, when we’re exhausted from ministry, from being judged by others in our own community, and we are lying injured somewhere outside of his pasture. St. Gregory of Narek, notorious for personalizing Scripture, reflects on the very words of Christ and directly embeds himself into the parable of the lost sheep. In Prayer 15, he prays,
I am like the pathetic sheep in the second parable,
which strayed into inaccessible hills
and wandered in a daze among beastly demons
and fierce idols, without the slightest chance of
returning to the fold. Although my tongue was lost
for words to tell my anguish, and my hands
lacked the agility to communicate like the mute,
still you found me…
You found me, a sinner, lost in darkness
crying like the psalmist in prayer,
and because of your willing care
you were called Shepherd, for not only
did you care, but you sought,
not only did you find, O worker of miracles,
but with the goodness of your love,
a love that defies description,
you rescued me…
What does the parable of the lost sheep say about the Shepherd? What does it say about the inherent value of his sheep? There is a love that we cannot comprehend, but we should nevertheless embrace. No matter how lost, how far we have wandered, how feeble our prayers, no matter how hard our heart, there is a Shepherd searching for us, a loving worker of miracles who will lift us up and carry us back to his healing pasture. How can our parish community, our global Armenian Church reflect this same love and be that pasture for others to rest and heal?
Don’t Cut Your Losses
As is most of what Jesus taught, including the Gospel itself, the parable of the lost sheep is counterintuitive. Think of it like this: if you walked out of a bank with a hundred dollars and on the way home you lost one dollar, what would you do? You wouldn’t even consider it a loss at all, and you would definitely not retrace your steps back to the bank to find it. (Right?) If you own a business and at the end of the fiscal year you calculate a loss you wouldn’t be surprised, because a loss is expected. Jesus describes a similar situation in the story of the lost sheep in which a shepherd has one hundred sheep, but one is lost. What is also odd is that Jesus asks his listeners what they would do, something that is contrary to our thinking as if it were obvious:
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?
If a shepherd has ninety-nine sheep and one strays, that’s the cost of business, and losing only one sheep, although unfortunate, is perhaps considered acceptable. Why would we risk losing any of the ninety-nine just to find the one? But Jesus’ “business model” is utterly different than ours. It’s not of this world but belongs to his Kingdom. For Jesus, it’s not good enough for one of us to stray from the safe-keeping and protection of his pasture, the Church (see II Peter 3:9). Unlike earthly shepherds, Jesus sees the value and goes searching for the one lost sheep, a sheep he may not even find.
Here is the question: Are we just as troubled about those who wander? Do we have the same perspective of Jesus, or do we live and operate from an earthly model? Are we concerned for the “little ones:” the weak and vulnerable, the inadequate, the absent parishioner who was offended or judged, the beggar, the addicted, the unwanted, the marginalized, the so-called unproductive members of society? St. John Chrysostom, preaching on this parable tells us,
[Jesus] calls little ones not them that are really little, but them that are so esteemed by the multitude, the poor, the objects of contempt…
Our Shepherd is concerned with details, the seemingly insignificant, what would normally be considered dismissible and unimportant. So when he searches for “these little ones,” he searches for us.
Are we going to ignore the lost sheep, and we know who they are, by cutting our losses and reporting a “profitable” year, however we measure “profit.” We had this many more people attend Badarak last week, and we have this much left over from the budget last year. James writes in his epistle (5:19-20),
My brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
There is life, healing, and salvation when we do the work of the Shepherd, bringing others into the Body of Christ and restoring communion with God. Again, in his commentary on this parable, St. John Chrysostom teaches,
Let us also then not be satisfied with our own salvation only, since else we destroy even this…For indeed many of our brethren lie fallen in this conflict, having wounds, wallowing in blood, and there is none to heal, not any one of the people, not a priest, no one else, no one to stand by, no friend, no brother, but we look every man to his own things. By reason of this we maim our own interests also. For the greatest confidence and means of approval is the not looking to our own things.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is calling not just our priest, but every Christian to be merciful, to also be the Shepherd in this story, to leave our comfort zones, to go into uncomfortable, dangerous territory where we might not even have that much experience. Thankfully, our Shepherd teaches us, follows us throughout our ministry into the darkest, most fearful and dreadful places – the mountains, precipices, valleys, ditches, and caves – so that we can find those who have wandered and become lost, injured, and dejected. Only the Gospel teaches that going after the one, the “little one,” is the right and sensible thing to do, because the Gospel, the person of Jesus Christ, values all of his creation, each one of us, and desires that we all live in communion with him under the shadow of his holy and venerable Cross.
How can we make this story our own, how can we own it? What can we learn from the story of Sts. Thaddeus and Santhookht who the Armenian Church remembers this time of year and how Armenia, a kingdom with its own established religion was lost and evangelized? Are we known as individuals, a parish community, or a global Church for operating with an earthly business model, for cutting our losses, perfectly happy with the “cost of business,” as long as we have a balanced budget, a full Sunday School classroom, and at least ninety-nine parishioners? Or are we first and foremost, as the Church, as the Body of Christ, citizens of the Kingdom of God who set the example and are recognized for how we seek out real losses, who are considerate and passionate about the salvation of others for the sake of the wholeness and wellness of the Church body?
On Earth as in Heaven
When one of us is lost and repents it is not just our individual self that is healed. Repentance, returning from our wandering, brings completion, fullness, and healing to the Church, the Body of Christ (see I Corinthians 12:12-31). When we repent we even affect heaven and in doing so we affect the world, we bring wholeness to creation. We are a source of joy to the angels, as Jesus says immediately prior to the parable, angels who “Always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” This is what it means and why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer the words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If we want God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, then we will celebrate when we or our fellow brother or sister in Christ repents and returns back to the pasture of his safekeeping.
That celebration is our Holy Badarak, the pasture where we experience communion with God and with one another, where we gather under the healing hand of our Shepherd. During Badarak we pause and in unison we read a confession as a community, but remember, the entire Badarak is confessional and penitential in nature. It is our love song to our faithful God who continually calls us back, searches for us, and embraces us when we return. Badarak is our opportunity to return to and rest in God’s pasture. Not only should we not neglect our attendance, but with stubbornness, seek Christ in the Liturgy, with repentance, dig into the mystery of our salvation, and with gratitude, celebrate that we have a Shepherd who has found us when we were lost.