Last Sunday in worship, I mentioned the parable of the lost sheep found in Luke 15:1-7. This is the story where the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to go find the one that strayed. I commented that this is what God is like – a seeker after lost things.
On Monday, I came across a sermon by Amy Butler that focuses on the prophet Jeremiah, but mentions the Luke 15 parable.
Toward the end of the message, Butler asked whether we might also see the sheep as lonely or alone, and not just because it had lost its way.
She suggested that maybe the sheep was isolated because it had taken an unpopular but righteous stand on a controversial issue, or spoken out with courage on behalf of someone else.
Let me offer another possibility. Maybe the lone sheep was struggling with a mental illness that made it feel disconnected from the rest of the group or that made it harder to blend in and be accepted.
Maybe the sheep felt rejected by the group. Maybe the sheep wasn’t lost. Maybe it was just lonely.
In the wake of the tragedy at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., there will be many conversations about gun control and limiting access to firearms for those who have a history of violence or mental illness.
This discussion is necessary and appropriate, but how does the church fit into that conversation?
I would suggest that the church ought to focus on building a society that doesn’t allow loneliness, isolation and mental illness to turn into death and destruction.
Everyone needs emotional and spiritual outlets, as well as connectedness and community. No one should fall through the cracks because we don’t care enough to reach out to them, listen to them, spend time with them or provide for their basic needs, including their mental health needs.
Over the last several generations, our world has changed. Our social fabric has started to fray, break and unravel as the support systems of natural connectedness that used to keep people from suffering alone in silence are no longer in place.
In her book “Christianity After Religion,” Diana Butler Bass writes: “We want lives of authenticity, meaning and purpose. In traditional societies these were part of the social fabric handed down from one generation to the next.”
“Now, the ties that bind have been cut,” Bass continues. “These qualities are no longer givens. In mobile, hyper-individualistic society, we search on our own for things that used to be born into us.”
And sometimes, especially if someone’s suffering from a mental illness, they don’t find meaning, purpose or authenticity even when they search for them. No one should have to search alone.
While others figure out where to draw the line on guns, the church ought to start drawing the line on loneliness.
We ought to say, “Never again. We won’t stand for it. Not in our communities, not in our schools, not in our workplaces. It has no place in civilized society.”
It’s happened too many times and we’ve failed to act, and we must not fail to act this time. We worship a savior who searches for the one off by himself or herself – for the “sheep” who is alone, lost and scared.
The church must be a people who care for one another, and who do not tolerate loneliness that too often leads to destructive consequences for both the individual and the larger community.
Everyone needs to know they are loved. Everyone needs to know they are accepted. Everyone needs to know they are forgiven. Everyone needs to know that they are not alone. That was Jesus’ primary mission and message, and it ought to be the primary mission and message of the church.
In the aftermath of another tragedy, what if we as the church did something radical by focusing on Kingdom principles?
What if we sought to preach and to practice love, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusiveness and the transformative power of the shepherd who takes lost and lonely and scared and sick people, puts them on his shoulders and carries them back into the fold?
Matt Sapp is the minister of congregational life at Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. A version of this column first appeared on Wieuca Road’s blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @MattPSapp.
Matt Sapp is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Newnan, Georgia.