24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Let’s ask the question that Jesus asks.   “Which one of you would leave the 99 to pursue the one sheep?”  Yeah, not that many.  It does not make a great deal of economic sense, does it?  What if something were to happen to the other 99?  Who would be there left to protect them?  What are the odds of finding one sheep that has wandered into the desert?  Why would you take that risk for a 1% return?

Yet, that is what Jesus claims a good shepherd would choose.  For him, it makes the only sense.  After all, if you let one leave, and then another and then another you are talking about 98,97, 90 then 80 sheep, and suddenly no one is calling you a good shepherd.  And think about the rest of the flock.  They have been told that this is where they belong.  Here is where they are needed and treasured.  If you let just one wander off without worrying or pursuing, what have you said to the 99?  You are dispensable.  You are not needed or important to any of us.  Jesus knows that if we are to be a family, everyone must be treated with respect and everyone must be wanted.

The history of our American Church tells us that we have been very good at maintaining the 99.  We have fed them, cared for them, educated them and bestowed holiness son them.   And if some got away, well there was another boatload of immigrants or another family of ten to take their place.  But that is not the case today as we see the flock dwindle – 90, 80, 60, 50.

If we are going to change the course, we are going to need the direction of Jesus who passionately pursued the lost sheep, who would not be satisfied with the 99 when he was hungry for the one.  We must go out with determination, with hope and with confidence to let those who are not here be aware that they are wanted here.  We must have Jesus’ compassionate and desirous invitation to return.  We must scour the desert with eyes of mercy if we are to return triumphant with the sheep carried tenderly on our shoulders.  Whenever he entered a room, Jesus did not see just who was there, but asked who was not.  Why are the women and children shunted aside?  Where are the orphans and widows?  Where are the blind, the cripple and the lame?  We must have Christ eyes to see not just who is front of us, but who is missing.

When I was in high school, I invited my friend Larry whose family no longer went to church, to come with my family.  Larry claims that he had only stopped going for a month, but I insist that I saved his soul.  But it was wonderful to share mass with my best friend and he became a member of our family.  Now he takes his family to the parish in which he is a leader.  I hope you see the thrill of the people who are sponsors in the RCIA program as they see their loved ones grow in faith or the joy the RCIA team has in traveling with them.  And we are told that this is just an echo of the joy heard in heaven.

Research has shown that the reasons why people leave the Church are divided into a third, a third and a third.  For one third, they have a serious issue with doctrine or have been truly been injured by the Church.  For another third, they have only a paper thin reason for leaving.  I once met a person after I became a priest and he said that he had not gone to mass since he was playing softball and the priest who was umpiring called him out when he was safe.  I just stared at him.  He said I guess there should be a better reason.  Finally, some have never really left, but going to mass fell out of their routine. 

What a difference we can make in their lives.  For those who have really been hurt and might never come back, what if you were the person to simply say I am sorry.  How much would that mean to them? Perhaps somebody is just an easy explanation away from the gates clearing to coming back.   And some people might just need an invitation and someone to sit with.  Shall we be the Church Pope Francis calls us to be that leaves the sacristy and enters the streets, the goes to the edges of society from the heart of the Church.

And I know this will work because this is what I believe in:  this sacrament, this word and this people.  I don’t believe that anyone who has known the pain of rejection, who has felt lost, who has known emptiness will not be healed by this sacrament, this word and this people.  I don’t believe anyone injured, anyone forgotten, anyone discarded will not be changed by the embrace of this sacrament, this word and this people.  I don’t believe that anyone searching, anyone looking for meaning, anyone who longs for love will feel abandoned by this sacrament, this word and this people.  And I don’t believe that anyone who longs to breathe deeply, to know God’s peace, will not be served by this sacrament, this word and this people.    We will be protected; we will know the joy of angels for our efforts because we can promise and it is ours to share this great gift:  this sacrament, this word, this people.