On finding what was lost, and holding the family together
I've been pondering the escalation of losses in Jesus' parable of sheep, coins, and sons, particularly as it relates to inclusion/exclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in our churches.
In Matthew's telling (18:12ff), a sheep strays (is deceived?), whereupon the shepherd leaves the 99 on the mountain and goes in search of the missing sheep.
Luke's account (ch. 15) makes no mention of a straying sheep. "Which one of you, having 100 sheep and having lost one of them..."* In the morning, the shepherd had 100 sheep; at end of the day, there are 99. Distracted shepherding? Somehow, somewhere, sometime during the day, the shepherd lost a sheep.
Most livestock farmers would be quite satisfied with a 1% loss ratio. Many pastors and leaders are okay with it, too. Losing a gay or lesbian member now and then can be expected. Our conference might even lose a church or two. Limiting our losses to 1-in-a-100 is probably our best possible outcome.
To this shepherd, losing one sheep is not okay. Every sheep matters.
The Lost Coin
Again, for whatever reason, the woman has lost a coin. The loss ratio, however, has increased to 10%. If the coin was part of a 10-piece set, the loss in value is even higher.
A frantic search. A joy-filled celebration. What was lost has been found.
In our context, the loss ratio increases as families and friends of LGBTQ+ also leave. The next generation of young people wonder whether they even want to be baptized in this church. Have we noticed?
The Lost Son(s)
And then, of course, the father with two sons. The actions and reactions of the two (leaving, returning, and walking away) divide the family and threaten its future. Forget losses in the 1% or even 10% range. Here everything is at risk.
This father faces two challenges - to welcome and reintegrate the younger son back into family life, and, at the same time, to persuade the older son not to leave the party.
Was the father successful in gathering both sons to his table? We're still waiting for the answer to that question.
All of this raises some questions:
· What would it mean for pastors and conference leaders to "leave the 99" to go looking for lost ones?
· What might a "lost but found" celebration look like?
· What would it take to persuade "the 99" (including some pastors) not to walk away?
It's a tough challenge, retrieving those we have lost while holding the family together. But that is the task facing parents, pastors, and denominational leaders.
Lord, have mercy and be gracious to us all.
* If your Greek is rusty, Google <interlinear Luke 15> to find the word-for-word English translation.
John Unger is a retired Mennonite Brethren pastor who also served in numerous denominational roles.
“If all truth is God's truth, then we should not be afraid to hear the stories of people who are (or used to be) part of our churches. Wouldn’t it be lovely if our grassroots listening project could come alongside the confessional and pastoral leadership of the National Faith and Life Team so that, together, we can find constructive, imaginative ways forward?”