A few years ago I suffered a health crisis that literally took me to the brink. I felt like I had the flu nearly every day, it felt like my head was swollen up like a melon, and I had the symptoms of a powerful hangover that came and went over a three-day cycle—despite the fact that I had given up alcohol years before. And this lasted for several years.
I went to every doctor I could think of. I tried everything anyone suggested. I was desperate—my quality of life was so diminished I was actually at the point of wondering whether it was worthwhile going on. I felt utterly lost and hopeless. It was only through the encouragement of others who also experienced health crises—especially my friend Donna—that I had the courage to keep going and keep trying.
I have felt lost at other points in my life too, of course—especially during my divorces, the loss of my most beloved dog, Clare, the betrayal of trusted friends, and then there was the time I was fired on my answering machine. I felt pretty lost then.
In the church of my childhood, it was clear who the lost were—and it was not us. It was those people who didn't believe like we did—usually due to being deluded by Satan or out of sheer stubbornness. We never considered that we were the lost ones. And the thought didn't occur to me until I was lost.
In our text from the Gospel of St. Matthew, we witness a major transition in the narrative. Up until now, Matthew has been focused on Jesus’ ministry. Here, at the beginning of our reading, he summarizes Jesus’ ministry, saying Jesus “proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom, curing every disease and sickness.”
When Jesus is preaching to a crowd, Matthew gives us his first clue as to who he means by “lost sheep.” Jesus sees the people he’s preaching to, and he is moved by compassion for them, because he sees that they are “harassed, like a sheep without a shepherd.”
Then he tells the disciples to pray that God will send someone to help them. Presumably, the disciples do this, but you can just imagine the double-take when, in the next verse, Jesus effectively says, “Excellent! Thank you for volunteering!” Which is not, I think, what they had in mind.
Despite whatever protests they might have raised, Jesus gives them authority over every kind of illness, including spiritual sickness. And then he tells them to go out and proclaim Good News to the lost sheep of Israel.
Frankly, I don't know anyone who hasn't been a lost sheep now and then. I mean, who here hasn’t felt harassed at one point or another? Who here hasn’t felt leaderless, rudderless, and lost? Who here hasn’t suffered illness—either, physical, mental, or spiritual? Who here hasn’t felt defeated, depressed, or oppressed?
What Jesus meant by “lost sheep” is clear from this and other passages: anyone who has felt rejected or demeaned or outcast by the religious establishment, by society, even by the families. All except, perhaps, for an elite few who spend their time working up tennis elbow by patting themselves on the back. So Jesus was cutting a pretty wide swath. It’s clear from this passage that “lost sheep” means anyone who feels their lives lack direction or meaning, and anyone suffering physically or mentally or spiritually. So again, pretty much everyone, and this includes the powerful elite, who were sick of soul because of their arrogance.
These are the people Jesus spent his life ministering to. He did this by telling them the truth about themselves—that God love them, even if the religious authorities did not. That's the Good News. Jesus brought comfort and healing to people who were suffering, in any number of ways.
And then in this passage we see the big transition: Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “My work is yours now.” Go out and minister to all those lost sheep you find—comfort them, heal them, and raise their dead.
It hasn't been that long ago that the disciples were lost sheep themselves, after all. And having put them on the road to healing, Jesus sends them out, instructing them to take the same comfort and healing that they received and bring it to others.
Jesus is still doing this, of course. Jesus gives our lives back to us when he finds us, but it's a paradoxical giving—the new life we possess after we are found doesn't belong to us—it belongs to Jesus. When Jesus says, “pray for God to send someone for the harvest,” we shouldn’t be surprised if his next gift to us a sickle.
As we mark our 125th year, it is instructive for us to remember that Jesus has been handing out sickles for a very long time. And that for as long as I can remember, the charism—the spiritual gift—of this community has been helping people heal from their religious wounding. It’s hard for me to fathom a more important ministry than that. We have been proclaiming Good News to people who have only heard bad, we have offered salve to those who have been stung and burned by the church, and we have seen people go forth from us more whole than they were when they got here.
So Jesus sends us out, just as he sent out our ancestors. And he sends us out because we are not saved for us. We are saved from despair and hurt and anger and illness and death. We are saved from everything that seeks to steal our lives from us. But we aren’t saved from these things for no purpose. And we aren’t saved from these things for ourselves alone. We are saved FOR something. We are saved for the purpose of carrying that healing forward to everyone else who feels lost or alone or hopeless or sick or scared or outcast.
This might seem like a burden, but it is instead our joy and our crown. This is our purpose, our rudder, it is what our shepherd is leading us to. It is what we are saved for. And once we get past the “who me?’ shock, we can see this call, this ministry for what it truly is: yet another stage in our own healing. Let us pray…
God we thank you for looking on us with compassion
in the times of our lives when we felt lost.
We’re grateful that you have sent us a shepherd,
and that he leads us into a way of healing,
a way that is deeply good—
and deeply good for many, not just for us alone.
Send us forth, now, just as Jesus sent the disciples,
just as Jesus sent our ancestors in this very parish,
mindful that in our going we are being healed in deeper ways than we imagined
as we give of ourselves for the good of others,
living into the likeness of your Son, Jesus Christ,
whose bride we are, and in whose name we pray. Amen.