Sermon: Proper 19 RCL C – “Lost Sheep”

A brother whom another brother had wronged came to see Abba Sisoes and said to him, “My brother has hurt me and I want to avenge myself.” The old man pleaded with him saying, “No, my child, leave vengeance to God.” The brother said to him, “I shall not rest until I have avenged myself.” The old man said, “Brother, let us pray.” Then the old man stood up and said, “God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we exact justice for ourselves.”

Today in our Gospel we read the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, which Jesus tells in response to the Pharisee’s criticism: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The parable of the coin less so, but the parable of the lost sheep is probably one of the most familiar and iconic. All those pictures of Jesus walking along with a young white lamb on his shoulders. Simply put, in both parables, we understand that the lost sheep or coin represent the sinners, and it is Jesus who comes to find them. Luke 19:10 – “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” When they are found, when they come to faith, there is a great celebration, for in being found, they are forgiven. They have been restored to God. God forgives out of his great love and mercy, but we… sometimes we can be very stingy in giving that forgiveness and sometimes we say with the young monk, “I shall not rest until I have avenged myself.”

It was Tuesday in my first full week of seminary and I had great plans to save the world. We had gone to mass, said the prayers, and were headed to breakfast, when things started getting tense. When we arrived in the refectory, someone had hauled out a TV, and we watched. I watched until I started crying, then I could watch no more. I still can’t watch the videos, even to this day. This great sadness that wells up within me hurts my soul. 2,996 dead and over 6,000 injured.

It did not take long for the sadness in my soul to turn to anger. After all, anger is a much more satisfying emotion than sadness. And my anger was strong. I remember talking with a priest and telling him that I wanted to go to hell. Yes. I wanted to go to hell so that I could be there and see the looks on the faces of those 19 individuals who had committed these atrocities when they opened their eyes and realized they were not in their mythological paradise, but were in fact in hell. Yes. My anger wanted to see that. Put into the context of our parable, I wanted those particular sheep to stay lost and to burn.

Remember Jonah? The Lord sent him to Nineveh, but Jonah went in the opposite direction. Why? Because he hated the Ninevites for their wickedness and he wanted to see them destroyed. But he also knew that if he preached the word of God – if he went seeking after the lost – they would repent. Well, being swallowed and then vomited up by one big fish changed Jonah’s mind, so he goes and preaches to the Ninevites and they repent. At this Jonah is furious and complains to the Lord, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled … for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” And that is just what you did with these wicked Ninevites, but I wanted to see them burn.

Call it a Heart of Jonah, but that is how I felt toward those 19 individuals and those associated with them. Let those particular sheep stay lost. Let them burn. “Then the old man stood up and said, ‘God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we exact justice for ourselves.’”

Perhaps one of the reasons I can’t watch the images of that day is due to the immensity of it all. It was too big, too surreal for me to comprehend. Still is. So in order for me to process it and attempt to respond as I should, I have to place it in a smaller, more mentally manageable perspective, which leads me to one of my heroes, St. John Paul II.

On May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Ağca, a professional assassin, attempted to assassinate the Pope, shooting him three times. In my eyes, that is a one way ticket down. That is a sheep that has earned the punishment of staying lost. Yet, in1983, Pope John Paul II went and visited Mehmet in prison. Do you know what one of the first questions was that Mehmet asked the Pope? “Why aren’t you dead?” The day the Pope was shot was the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, so that should give you a good indication as to his answer. “It was a Mother’s hand that guided the bullets path.” Mehmet expressed fear that this Lady of Fatima would come to do him harm, but the Pope said that she would not and that he would not. Instead, the Saint said he had come to forgive, even though Mehmet never asked for forgiveness. The Saint did not say, “I shall not rest until I have avenged myself,” but instead went looking for the lost sheep.

While incarcerated in an Italian prison and later in Turkey, Mehmet converted to Christianity, and in 2010 was released from prison. In December 2014 he illegally entered Italy, went to Rome, and laid two dozen white roses on the grave of the Pope’s tomb.

This is just another example of why I will never be canonized, because I don’t know that I could respond in such a way, but it does show me a path. It provides an example of how I must sit down across from those lost sheep – even if I am only able to do so in my heart – and like God, forgive.

The events of this day fifteen years ago will always be a reminder of evil in the world, not an evil that just existed then, but even still thrives; yet – even in the face of it – we as a Christian people must constantly be willing to walk into the cells of the assassins, the lives of the sinners and offer forgiveness, whether it is asked for or not, because like Jesus, we are to seek the lost. And when that Heart of Jonah begins to beat wildly within us – and it will! – when we desire to see them remain lost, then we must remember, at one point, we were the lost and Jesus came looking for us.

The brother said to him, “I shall not rest until I have avenged myself.” The old man said, “Brother, let us pray.” Then the old man stood up and said, “God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we exact justice for ourselves.” Hearing these words, the brother fell at the old man’s feet, saying, “I will no longer seek justice from my brother. Forgive me, Father.”

It is both the lost and the found that must seek God’s forgiveness, so that together we may have the opportunity to come together and celebrate at the Lord’s table.

Let us pray: Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life. Amen.

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