The parable of the Lost Sheep is the gospel message on the 15th anniversary of 9-11, a terrible day of death and destruction. A day on which no one thinks about winners and losers. A day in which we mourn and honor our dead. A day we Franciscans remember our brother Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM – a NYC fire chaplain who lost his life in the line of duty when the first tower fell. Mychal went out searching for the lost, to bring them home to the safety of the flock. Fr. Mychal Judge, truly a good shepherd. Truly a hero – not because he died on 9-11, but because his arms were always open, his eyes ever seeking to be Christ for others. Obedient unto death.
Before 9-11 the Al Farah Mosque had already outgrown its small storefront in Tri-Beca. It was a mosque that unusual in that it did not serve a specific nationality. American Muslims from India, Pakistan, West Africa, workers from the financial district, merchants from Canal Street, taxi drivers, and all mix and manner of people worshipped there for Friday prayers. There was a proposal to build an Islamic Center on property available near the Twin Towers. After 9-11 the proposal was offered with the purpose of being a prayer and study center where all religions could meet, as a sign to the world that Islam is a religion of peace. The project did not happen. After two years of struggle, the Muslim owners decided instead to build luxury condos on the site.
Many opponents of the project insisted on describing those who wanted to build the mosque as “Moslems” instead of “Muslims.” What’s the difference, you ask? A Muslim in Arabic “one who gives himself to God.” By contrast, a Moslem in Arabic means “one who is evil and unjust:” a loser –beyond lost.
Word and labels have meaning, power and impact. For example, which would you rather be: lost or a loser? Such terms have been tossed around a lot in the public forum. I guess that when you have national elections and the Olympics in the same year it is a bit inevitable. I suspect many people’s reaction to the question was “neither – you don’t have to be either.” For my own part, I wish that were true. But life has its own way on kinda’ imposing these things upon us. Think about the Israelites in the first reading. It occurs during their 40-year sojourn and exile in the desert. Granted it is a good hike from Egypt to the Promised Land, but it doesn’t take 40 years. I would suggest they are a little lost – and when you listen to God’s words to them, assigning the label “loser” is not too far away. Let’s see… God calls them “depraved,” brings up the whole golden calf thing, calls them stiff-necked, and then finishes with “Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them…” Life is like that sometimes, hidden in the small and large choices we make. We never intended to get lost or take on the mantle of loser, but…what can I say there are consequences. Sometimes we are assigned the label by others without reference to the choices we individually have made. The Israelites were certainly traipsing on the edge of rejecting the covenant with God and that is indeed a path to losing in a big and eternal way. But Moses appealed to the mercy of God, and “the Lord relented in the punishment.” And in the mercy of God they are no longer cursed and without the chance of a future: good news. The bad news: they’re still lost.
The thing about being “lost” is that “found” is an inherent possibility. Lost has a prayer and Hope. Focusing your spirit in fervent devotion on that Hope can be a step on the road to being found, in covenant with God, and on the road to winning in a big and eternal way. That is what St. Paul experienced in his encounter with Christ. St. Paul self-describes as a blasphemer, persecutor, arrogant, and the foremost among sinner. Certainly lost, but then found because “Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” We can all join St. Paul is saying, “I have been lost, I am lost, I will be lost, but in Christ I am ever being found.” And there is Hope in that.
Think about the gospel scene: “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” “Yup, look at Jesus, hanging out with the losers – those people without morals, with addictions, that made choices that let them on the road to perdition, that won’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps and change themselves from losers to winners! Why in the world would you hang out with losers?” Perhaps these are the thoughts of someone who sees themselves as winners. Perhaps.
In last week’s homily I mentioned the Hubble Space Telescope. It sends amazing pictures of the universe, right? Not at first. In the beginning, Hubble was a bit of a loser. A $1.5 billion hunk of near-sightedness. Everything was out of focus. But then the space doctor made a house call and gave Hubble a contact lens (so to speak). And now it rightly sees. Hubble is a winner! And all the time the universe was amazing, spectacular, full of promise and adventure, buzzing with life, …. But we just couldn’t see it. We were lost. And with the right contact lens our eyes were open to a whole new universe.
When we hear the parable of the Lost Sheep, we always think about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the flock and the one sheep who was lost and found. We always seem to forget this parable is addressed to the Pharisee, the scribes, and … to us. The ones to whom the parable cries, “Rejoice with me…” Jesus speaks to us about the lenses by which we see and the words we choose to use. Are others losers or are they lost sheep who can be found; Can the way we see them, give them hope? Jesus speaks to the folk of those already found and asks us to open up our arms to welcome and rejoice with the lost; to include them in the flock. Jesus asks us to see with the lenses of Mercy.
So, here is another choice… what would you rather be: a winner or a shepherd? Winners live to lose another day. But Shepherds live to go out and return to the fold with new Life that Hopes in tomorrow.