Years ago, I got lost and drove onto an old country road that looked forlorn and abandoned. It was a cold day and the land was full grey from the exposed limestone that made it poor country for farming. There were three old buzzards sitting in a barren hackberry on my left, and a cabin by the road had a worn-out rebel flag handing from the clothesline near a bunch of trash and old tires. Across the road was a fenced-in field with just one sheep standing there looking abandoned and alone. It was the clearest image I have ever seen of the parable of the lost sheep in which Jesus leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one forsaken.
I read the front page of the Nashville paper that described the confession by one student about the brutal rape and sodomy with a foreign object in June of a coed in a Vanderbilt dorm room by four other students and their ensuing attempts at cover up. Six pages later the Tennessean’s "World News" section announced the death penalty just handed down to four young men in India convicted in the rape, sodomizing with a foreign metal object and death of a young woman there in December. The image of the foresaken sheep is about all of the victims of violence that not only carry the universal issues including post traumatic stress, loss of life, permanent physical and mental disabilities but the private and lonely scars unrevealed to a wider world. It is the image that I carry with me when I meet folks when they are broken, or just coming from the streets, or when someone is bearing the news of tragedy. It is the image of all of us lost and wandering in a field of uncertainty. And in that lost sheep I can see the faces of people I have known almost daring someone to offer them a sign of hope.
I fear that place and what it stirs up in me of anger and fear. I want to run from it and mourn the part of all of us that knows what it is to be the lost sheep. I want to fight the world that is harsh enough to make us feel like we are standing between buzzards and old useless flags. But the parable of the lost sheep is a parable about compassion, humility, idealism, and ultimately love. Jesus is telling the growing crowd that is following him to Jerusalem where they will find themselves as lost as a lone sheep in winter, that even in the hardest times, they are never abandoned. Into this place love goes with you. Jesus is reminding us that as followers of the way, that those are the very places we are called to go, remembering our own fears, and like love itself, help each other find our way back. This gospel preaches that Love steps into the places we worry that live beyond even its bounds and finds us.
The lost sheep is the call to idealism. In idealism, we can live in hope with courage that no one is outside of love’s embrace. When we encounter a woman on the streets that has been victimized before she could even identify where she lived on a map, we don’t give up but find a way to welcome her home. Idealism says there is no one on all of God’s green earth that is hopeless. The lost sheep is a call to humility. In humility, we find the courage so face huge and unmovable systems whether justice, education, or penal, and work on behalf of those who have been marginalized. While we are aware of our means and strength, we just keep walking towards the gates with love, even to gates of the city that kills its prophets, not abandoning those who are oppressed. The lost sheep is a call to community. Community is the very thing a sheep longs for more than anything else. It is through the gift of traveling together that we don’t get lost and make room for people to walk their individual path with friends heading in the same direction.
This Gospel, though, is not a theory. It more than a way of being, it is calling us to action. Living faithfully has always been about the lost sheep, whether in standing up for gay and lesbian rights, or welcoming women with housing and jobs and family from our streets and prisons, or speaking up for a rape victim on this campus. Luke’s gospel should embolden us to look again at the abandoned fields of this world and make a path wide enough for the sheep to come home. I have learned so much from people who came to find me when I was lost standing with my back against the wind hoping someone was idealistic and humble enough to see me. I have been changed by the folks who love heroically in their work and their lives and goes to the margins of this community and to the ends of the earth to help the lost sheep. Going to find the lost sheep for me means being a part of a movement in this country calling on every city to provide long term free housing for the survivors of trafficking, prostitution, addiction and violence. For many folks here it means growing the work in Ecuador, Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, Haiti and anywhere else where this community is pouring their hearts into the work of justice for others to find freedom. For others here it means working hard in this diocese for the equality in rites and rituals for every person. And I think for the Vanderbilt community, it means we stand together and say that we put the physical and emotional safety of student’s way ahead of athletics, Greek life and donors in a way that demonstrates our compassion for the sheep and our outrage at the horrendous violence that took place.
Imagine for a moment the powerful message that would be preached if the whole university abandoned for a home game all the tailgates and frat parties and stood in solidarity with the one student who was abandoned on this campus one night back in June. We could hold a parade for her. It could happen. I am the lost sheep. You are the lost sheep. Together we find our way to love then go back and search the lonely ridges to bring a message of unfathomable love to others. When the sheep comes home there is rejoicing and it stands as testimony to the truth that in the end love is more powerful than anything that wants to wound us, abandon us, or make us feel alone.
By Becca Stevens, Thistle Farmer