In 1988, an 8.2 earthquake devastated an Armenian village, killing more than 25,000 people.
Among the places most tragically demolished was a school building.
Parents raced to the scene, only to find a pile of rubble. Most of their children could not be found and there was little sign that anyone had survived.
Frantically, they dug—shoving aside what was left of the school walls and the remnants of television screens, books, desks and other children’s belongings. But after a few hours of finding nothing, they slowly began to give up.
Grieving parents sobbed in despair as they slowly drifted away from the scene and went home to mourn the loss of their children.
“There’s no use,” they cried. “They are all dead.”
But one father found himself driven to model the many lessons he had taught his 13-year old son. Whether its soccer, homework or the most unbelievable dream, the father had told his son, you never give up.
Not only had he taught his son to relentlessly pursue the things he really wanted, he had promised not to give up on his son either.
“I’ll always be there for you,” he told him. “No matter what.”
So he scouted out the approximate location of his son’s classroom, and kept digging.
It is this kind of relentless pursuit that Jesus describes in Matthew 18:10-14. A father digging diligently through the rubble to find his son might as well be a shepherd looking for a lost sheep in spite the other 99.
While seamingly hopeless and exhaustive, that is many times the way that Jesus explains God’s love for us. No matter how far we stray and in spite of how we might disappoint, God comes after us genuinely, loyally, and immutably. In Hebrew, that tightly wrapped concept of love and loyalty can only be captured by the word “hesed”—the never ceasing, always pursuing, never give up on you kind of affection that only God is truly capable.
But Matthew 18 takes that idea of loyal love to a whole new level. Consider that the entire discussion in this chapter started with an argument the disciples were having about which one of them would hold the highest position in the “administration” that Jesus would soon establish. It wasn’t even about which part of the general population was most important, they wanted to know specifically which one of them was going to hold the most power.
Instead of answering their question, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus places a child on his lap and basically says, none of you.
“Unless you change and become like children, you will never (EVEN) get into the kingdom of heaven,” he says in Matthew 18: 3-4. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcome one such child in my name, welcomes me.”
Jesus is not just telling his disciples how much and in what ways that God loves them. He is casting an entirely new vision for what a kingdom might look like and how they, better yet WE, must strive to love one another.
The thing is, we are human. How can we possibly love as deeply and persistently and holistically as God loves us? As single individuals, separate communities and isolated congregations, that is difficult. All alone, our resources are limited, our capacity is minimal and our energies confined. We don’t have time and capability to chase the lost sheep because we have our own flocks to tend. But together, united in Christ, how much better could we love the whole flock, including the ones who’ve gone astray?
On any given Sunday, hundreds of churches in this community fill up for the same reason—to honor God and reflect on His eternal sacrifice made on our behalf. We have multiple denominations, separate buildings, different worship styles, varied liturgy and internal polity, but does that really mean we have to do the work of Christ in silo from one another?
What if, in spite of our differences, we acted as one body, taking care of the collective flock belonging to the ultimate kingdom of God?
When something happens in our community—a justice issue—are we really ok with retreating to our safe circles, where everyone agrees with us? Or could there be a forum where our stories, no matter how conflicted, inform and we seek to understand one another so that we can build a better community?
How many of our churches operate food pantries, and what would it be like for their leaderships to talk—to coordinate days, supplies and volunteers such that people no longer go hungry in our community? How many other ministries do any number of churches have in common that, if operated by one body, could truly transform.
What other gifts are sitting in our collective worship services on Sunday that, if given an outlet—a way to serve—could resolve an unmet need?
As reminded by Matthew 18, God is not okay with any sheep being lost from the flock. Should we not work together and rejoice together when we find the sheep who have gone astray, even more so than we do in the presence of those that never did?
As early Christian theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine once said, “God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us. What I am suggesting is that if we can find a way to live and respond and exist as one, the love of God is that much stronger and more available for everyone.
If we believe that all people are children of God, then those who are lost are not just someone else’s son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father, they belong to all of us. They belong to the flock. They belong to the kingdom.
For the sake of the family, we must seek restoration for the lost sheep of our community in the same way the shepherd searched for the one that went astray. We must dig through the rubble of our community like the Armenian father, relentlessly pursuing the lost children of God and never giving up.
The Armenian father continued to dig through the remnants of his sons school for 38 hours. Hours turned to night; night into morning.
Other parents begged him to stop.
“You are just going to make things worse.”
But the father kept digging. “Just help me,” he said. “We can’t give up.”
The fire department urged him to clear the scene for his own safety.
“Fires are breaking out, sir. Explosions could occur at any moment. You’re in danger”
The father kept digging. “Why don’t you just help me?” he asked.
The police tried to intervene.
“It’s over. You’re distraught. Just go home and let us handle it.”
The father persisted. “Are you going to help me?” he asked.
Dead or alive, he was not giving up on finding his son. And if we are the body of Christ, neither should we give up on anyone or anything that is seemingly lost in our community.
No one would help the father. Everyone had given up. But after 38 hours of digging, the man lifted a final boulder to find his son and 13 other classmates—ALIVE.
“You see! I told you,” the son shouted excitedly to the others. “I told you my father would not forget us.”
God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us. Let us be one—one community, one flock, one body, loving the world as God loves us and relentlessly pursuing kingdom for every last child of God.
Are you going to help us?