By Angie Witt
All the tax collectors and sinners, people who had been deeply hurt by others in the church setting, those asked to leave — either in word, in silence, or by action — logged on to listen to Him. Anonymous at first, one brave woman timidly gave her greeting in the chat window not expecting a response but longing to be seen. The only one who acknowledged her words was the mystery host hiding behind the church name. “Good morning! We are so glad you’re here!” And the digital gossip began — much like the behind-the-back whispers, but this time in private messages and texts.
Jesus intervenes with a parable…
“What man among you, who has 100 sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the 99 in the open field and go after the lost one until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4 HCSB)
I pause and take notice of my reaction and the many questions flooding within. How did the sheep get lost in the first place? Where was the shepherd? Why did the sheep leave? What happened while it was lost? How long was it missing until the shepherd noticed? Did the flock continue business as usual hoping no one would care? What is the point of a big flock? Wealth? Prestige? Did the sheep get bullied or abused? Did it wander off and get separated by mistake? Did the shepherd know which specific sheep was lost or just that one was missing?
I think this happens in the church. It can’t be denied that some dynamic shepherds collect sheep. Hired staff may oversee different places to belong but not the actual sheep. The focus may turn to programs, not people. Eventually those unseen and unheard leave, but who goes to look for them? Is their lack of presence noticed? Is it missed? Has their number simply been replaced by someone new with the reported count? When do the sheep become individual hearts to grow deeper and draw near to Jesus? Who has gone to search for this lamb?
“When he has found it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders, and coming home, he calls his friends and neighbors together, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found my lost sheep!’” (Luke 15:5–6 HCSB)
This model signals a knowing … the shepherd knew where to look. With joy, he put the lamb on his shoulders, but it still brings up questions in my mind. Was his joy over the finding or over the lamb? Was the joy from winning the struggle of control with a sheep (who I am sure put up a fight unless that poor soul was too hurt or exhausted to care)? Was the joy relief to save face that he actually didn’t lose a congregant after all? Did he listen to the sheep’s narrative on why she left in the first place? Perhaps the gossip was too much. Perhaps week after week, she came in and sat in the same spot without a word. Perhaps she was really involved — yet voiced her opinion and challenged the status quo. Perhaps she felt convicted and began to hold others accountable, and no one else wanted to see or change. Perhaps she asked for help, and there was a lack of resources. Perhaps the silence and hurt were too much. Was she asked if she wanted to come back to the fold? Perhaps…
“Or what woman who has 10 silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8 HCSB)
Jesus sees each individual. Church members are not just a part of the flock; they are each a valuable part – treasured, valued, and treated in such a way that their worth is priceless. The woman loses a coin.
Perhaps there was a change in location, moving from in-person worship to online … meeting face to face weekly or twice a week to now a text once in a while to check in. A coin drops. Perhaps there were just too many things to juggle in the transition, and quietly the coin slips away. However, it is noticed!
The woman lights a lamp shining into all dark corners — exposing crevices and secrets of shame and fear. She sweeps the house cleaning the crumbs, dust, and cobwebs — collecting what has always been done into the bristles of the broom and pushed out of the door. The house needs a clean slate where all treasure can be found — each coin safe to shine and be valued. The woman searches carefully until she finds the lost coin. She doesn’t leave the other nine alone or for another person to hold. She includes them aiding in her search, perhaps reminding her that the lost coin matters. The woman owns her mistake – she has lost the coin. But when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together (perhaps they are the other nine coins) saying, “Rejoice with me, because I have found the silver coin I lost!” (Luke 15:9 HCSB)
The coin never lost value … never lost its worth. The part I love is the woman knew exactly what was lost, and she searched and cleaned house until this treasure was found. If only the church did the same.
“He also said: ‘A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate I have coming to me.’ So he distributed the assets to them.” (Luke 15:11–12 HCSB)
Now there are three — one man pouring into two others. He gives to each their share though only one asks. It reminds me of a Bible study with that one person always questioning, interrupting, disagreeing, challenging, and seeking honestly to be seen, known, and loved … while the others faithfully attend, do their homework, and bring the snacks. One takes tremendous energy while the other is easy. The leader consistently gives, but somehow it seems one is taking and the other is receiving. When the taker decides to leave believing there’s a better way to study, honestly, there’s probably some relief — except for the one who truly sees the hurt heart. The leader stands each week waiting by the door — phone at the ready to receive the welcomed text that the one who left is returning. The leader knows there is much more to learn once there in a place of humility and ability to receive.
The leader sees the one walking up the path, runs with arms ready to embrace, and welcomes! A feast is prepared with an invitation to linger. The experience is heard, grace extended and received, and family restored. As this happens, how do the others respond? Are there truly leaders like this?
When church is healthy, it is intentional, so when one person walks away, it is noticed. It becomes personal. Those who pour into a small group are invested. They stand and keep watch for the one who strays to come back. They are mindful and attuned to the attitudes of the one who remains faithful but for the wrong reasons. Conflict can be resolved and each can be heard who is willing to engage in the vulnerability to be seen — as long as leadership has the ears to hear and offer safety for one to be known.
When one slips away, we must notice who is missing. A person’s value and worth are treasured. Everyone is encouraged to search and seek, to understand perspective and experience. Each person deserves the dignity to be seen and heard. There’s no gossip but a curiosity with validation. Intentional sweeping, shining light to all the darkened corners, and mindfully searching not to interrogate the coin and place blame but to clean the whole house to understand the reason it has gone missing. It’s time to take a look at the system and not just the coin. When the church grows larger, how is it that the shepherd can still pour into the one, know each coin by name, know who needs to be welcomed back on the journey home or who needs to be assured and invited to the table to celebrate?
Perhaps the pandemic is a beautiful reminder that this is a perfect time to light up the church, sweep the corners, and get to know each and every sheep by name, know their value, remind each how treasured they are, hear them, see them, and welcome all back home with a ring and a robe … calling all to celebrate for what the church had lost is finally being found.