January 18, 2006

How to Treat Lost Sheep

?Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not 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 15:4-7).

1502 page16 capHE PASSAGE IS A FAMILIAR ONE to many, but we don?t stop looking at the faces of people we love just because we?re familiar with them. We keep looking because there are always fresh nuances and subtleties that we don?t want to miss. This ancient story about a lost sheep and a loving shepherd offers some valuable insights regarding a Christlike way of relating to the ?lost sheep? in our homes and churches. We can all learn some valuable lessons from the Good Shepherd.

Five Insights From the Story
1. The first insight that may be applied to the ?lost? ones in our lives comes from Luke 15:4. The shepherd noticed that the sheep was gone. People disappear from groups all the time. The shepherd had 100 sheep. The lost sheep represented a mere 1 percent of his flock. If we?re going to follow Jesus? example, we need to notice when one sheep is missing. That implies that we must know one another. If you don?t really know someone, you certainly aren?t going to notice their ?disappearance.?

2. The second insight about how to treat lost sheep is that time is of the essence! Search for the lost one immediately. The shepherd in the story went after the sheep at once. In the United States, if a child is missing--in our increasingly frightening and dangerous society--the whole country goes on what?s known as an amber Alert.

Why don?t we have a similar warning system for members of our faith community? Time can?t be allowed to pass. We need to find out what?s going on. If the ?missing? ones are on vacation, they won?t be at all unhappy about telling you that their absence was not of the ?lost? variety. If they?re depressed, discouraged, devastated, they need to know that you care. They need your help and support, and they need it now--not a year from now when a church secretary is compiling an ?inactive members? list. We know there are far too many people who?ve been contacted after many years? absence from fellowship, and we know what they say: ?So where were you 10 years ago when I was going through my divorce??

3. At the end of Luke 15:4, there?s a third valuable insight. When we notice that the sheep is missing, we don?t simply do a cursory look around. We set out looking, determined to persevere until the sheep is found.

1502 page16Derek?s oldest son, Christopher, got lost at age 3 in a department store. He was actually hiding as his parents searched frantically for him. There?s no need to tell you that the search wasn?t abandoned until he was found. If he?d been truly lost, the search would have gone on for as long as it took to find him. Ask the parents of any child who?s missing how long they will search. The answer will always be the same. They will persevere until the lost is found.

Missing church members may not be easy to find. Some of them got lost on purpose. The Christian life is difficult, and church relationships are complicated. Sometimes the missing went away angry or hurt. They may not want to be found. We need them to know that they are loved, noticed, cared for, missed. There?s something implied here in the story about who ought to look for the lost sheep. There is a saying: ?Whoever notices, that?s whose job it is.? That?s a good rule. If you notice, then you look.

4. The fourth insight about how to treat lost sheep has to do with the attitude of the shepherd when he finds the sheep. The shepherd does not lecture the sheep or officially terminate the sheep?s membership in the flock. The shepherd does not say, ?Sorry, but my first act upon finding you is to revoke your membership in the flock?! The shepherd doesn?t chastise the sheep about getting lost, whether the act was deliberate or accidental. He doesn?t beat the sheep, ?teaching? it never to do that again.

Instead, the shepherd is genuinely delighted to have found this valuable member of his flock. His attitude and actions are all gentle. He scoops up the sheep in his arms, lays it on his shoulders, and carries it back to the flock. Even the way he carries the sheep is an important detail about Jesus? attitude toward the lost. The shepherd might have just said, ?Follow me.? The sheep was probably scared, tired, and discouraged. Perhaps the shepherd arrived just in the nick of time, when a predator was closing in. The shepherd lifts the sheep high and carries it on his shoulders. If you can remember riding on your parent?s shoulders as a small child, you?ve got the picture. That sheep is treated to a position and perspective never experienced before.

Don?t forget that this is a full-grown sheep! Logistically it?s more like trying to carry a full-grown adult. An adult sheep can weigh up to 440 pounds. It?s a really big commitment to ?carry? someone home. It means walking with them and never blaming them for the inconvenience they?ve caused. Never mentioning how worried you were. Just focusing completely on them, on their needs, on what they most need to say or hear. What if they need to tell you about all the bad things that have happened? You need to listen and love unconditionally, even if it?s messy. You need to be very gentle, just like the Good Shepherd.

5. Grammar isn?t always inspiring, but it?s important. We learn a fifth valuable insight about how to treat lost sheep from a verb that is used at the end of Luke 15:5. The story says that the shepherd carried the sheep home rejoicing [KJV]. Rejoicing is a present active participle. That means that the shepherd didn?t just rejoice for a moment and then carry the sheep home. He rejoiced all the way home. If you play the story in your head and add sound, you can hear the shepherd laughing and speaking words of comfort, encouragement, and affection.

We must embrace the missing and carry them home with rejoicing.

Have You Ever Lost Something, Somebody?
Most of us have never owned a sheep, so we?ve never lost one. But lots of us own, or have owned, pets. Derek has owned a number of dogs and can remember a time when he lost his dog Yugo. He?d been working late one night at the church when he lived in Pennsylvania. As he approached the house, he noticed that Yugo was missing from his pen. Yugo was a massive Yugoslavian herder. In the distant past these dogs were bred to kill wolves. He loved to run away and terrorize the neighbors. So his master wasn?t happy when he discovered that Yugo had escaped his pen. He had to be found and returned to his pen quickly before he got himself and the whole family into trouble.

Questions for Reflection
Or for Use in Your Small Group

1. From your own perspective, why do people fall away from the church and get ?lost?? Among the reasons you might suggest, which would you rate as the most important--or common?

2. Why is there a tendency to ignore or forget those who leave the fellowship?

3. Have you personally had the experience of leaving? If so, what did you wish for most on the part of the church during that period? How were you treated? What lessons have you learned that can be of benefit to the church at large?

4. There are people whose fellowship with the church ends under such circumstances that litigation could result. In those cases, what strategies for ministry might we adopt, when to say the wrong thing could lead to further complications?

5. Reflect on the five insights discussed in the article. How would these change your approach to ministry, if at all?

Yugo had ?favorite? places to get ?lost,? so he wasn?t going to be difficult to ?find.? He loved to play at the neighbor?s farm. So donning his down jacket, Derek set out to retrieve his pet. It was a frosty moonlit walk down a hill and through a cornfield. There was Yugo, frolicking in the moonlight. Derek refused to be distracted from his mission, even by Yugo?s joy at the appearance of a playmate. Every time Derek made a dive for Yugo, the dog bounded away--laughing. (Well, not really! Dogs don?t laugh--but it sounded like laughter to his cold, tired master.)

Finally Derek gave up trying to pounce and prayed, ?Lord, help me.? When he looked down, there was Yugo walking right toward him--probably curious that his master had given up the fun game. When Yugo got close enough, Derek grabbed him by the collar and started dragging him back up the hill toward home. Partway up the hill, the God Derek had invoked for help in catching Yugo intruded gently on Derek?s consciousness: ?Derek, is that how I?ve treated you??

?No, Lord. That?s not how You?ve treated me.? And in Derek?s words, ?I loosened my grip on Yugo?s collar, and tears filled my eyes. I smiled. And if dogs can smile, Yugo smiled too.?

There was no attempt made to carry Yugo. He was much too big. But the ?lost sheep? was led home gently--and with ?rejoicing.? It?s nice to be found, and once we?ve been found, we need to remember how the Good Shepherd treated us. We have received great mercy. Freely you have received, freely give.

Maybe while you were reading this article and reflecting, you thought of someone who is missing from your fellowship. Perhaps she?s discouraged. Perhaps he has ?lost? his way. Maybe he?s hiding, wondering if anyone will notice. Maybe it?s someone who has become bitter or angry.

If someone has come to mind, you have already applied the first insight from this story--you?ve noticed that someone is missing. Now pray that God will show you how best to implement the other insights.

Search immediately for the lost one. Persevere--don?t quit looking for the lost sheep. When you find them, embrace them tenderly, and carry them home with rejoicing, reflecting the character of the Good Shepherd.

?How to Treat Lost Sheep? was first preached as a sermon at Forest Lake church in Florida as part of a Reconnecting Sabbath. You can view a video recording of this sermon at www.forestlakechurch.org. ?How to Treat Lost Sheep? was prepared for publication by Janis Lowry.

Janis Lowry teaches English at Forest Lake Academy in Apopka, Florida. Derek Morris serves as senior pastor of the Forest Lake church, and as an adjunct professor of preaching at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.