Christmas Eve 2018 –   Mark W. Harris

Homily –  “Lost Sheep”

The story was different from what they wrote down many years later. Stories often become exaggerated in the retelling, but as long as they contain a kernel of truth, that is what matters.

I was a young shepherd in those days wandering the hills and valleys with a fairly large flock of sheep, at least 100. We were always in search of new grasslands, especially at the barren time of the year. As I remember the story it happened on a dark, cold night.  Only one bright star filled the sky, and the moon was low on the horizon. It was difficult to see that night, and wouldn’t you know it; one of my prize spring lambs had wandered off. I was afraid to leave my master’s flock to search for one lone sheep.  Was it worth it? What if a band of ravenous wolves attacked these defenseless creatures, never known for their brain power?

In any case, I decided to at least do a quick running search of the hillside road, and then return to my flock. As I made my way along the path, I heard a jingling sound.  Praise God, I thought bless the shepherd who invented bells to go around the necks of these wayward creatures, who wouldn’t’ know enough to stay out of the rain if you didn’t drag them in. I followed the sound off the path and down a little ravine until I saw what looked like a flickering fire light against the side of the hill. The ringing of the sheep’s bell brought me closer and closer.  What was that sound? (ring bells) Then I saw a narrow opening. It was a cave hidden against the side of the mountain, out of the way of most predators. My little lamb must have been attracted by the fire.  Inside the entrance, I immediately heard a bleating sound, but it was not a lamb. No, it was a human sound.  There was a newborn baby inside that cave; cold and crying. His poor traveling

 Parents ran out of time before reaching their destination, and had sought refuge in the cave from the elements. I didn’t know what to say or do at first. I was amazed to have made the discovery. I finally inquired how I might help them after blubbering nonsense for a minute. My master knew something about the medical needs of sheep, and we had food and water and blankets for warmth. “Let me run back to our camp,” I said. “I will return as soon as I can.”

We shepherds were used to being attendants for sheep births, but were a little frightened of a baby. But the rest of our scruffy bunch were excited to hear the news. What a wonderful joy, what a gift on a night that was so barren and lonely. We all rushed back to the cave leaving only one shepherd with the flock.  There were three of us, including my master. We tripped over our cloaks as we raced back to the cave. We brought food, even though it was only bread and mush, some precious water for the traveling parents, and warm lamb’s wool for these shivering souls. My master looked after the mother, and two of us stayed all night to make sure that their needs were tended to. They remained with us for a few days up in the hill country.  We enjoyed taking turns caring for them in whatever way we could. Finally, when they were all well enough to travel, they embarked on their way. We never forgot this strange and remarkable incident in the life of sheepherders. How the bell on a lost sheep brought us to them.  But we also never saw them again.

At least not for thirty odd years.  When I had reached the age when eyesight begins to fail and bones feel weary and sore every morning, I traveled to the great city of Jerusalem to buy supplies for the flock of which I was now the master. It had grown to several hundred wooly beasts. As I wandered around the city, looking for an iron works where I could purchase some small bells for my sheep, I happened upon one of those preachers who was holding forth in the marketplace. He spoke about not judging others and loving your neighbors. I didn’t listen much until he began to tell a story about a lost sheep. That stopped me in my sandals. I had to listen. “There was a shepherd who had a 100 sheep”, he said, “and one of them went astray.  He left the ninety-nine on the hills and looked for that one. And when he found it, he was filled with joy.”  I was dumbfounded.  This was my story.  I had left my flock of sheep, and then found the little baby in the cave. Did the boy’s mother or father tell him about me and the other shepherds?  I tried to get close to him, but there were too many others who wanted to speak to him or touch him. I was never able to ask: Where and when  were you born? I learned from the sickly-looking woman next to me that his name was Jesus, and he was known as a healer, and a defender of the poor. That was my first encounter with him.  Later I found the iron works and listened to the sounds of some bells.  (Ring Bells) I bought a few, each reminding me of that lost sheep of so long ago.

Twenty years after that, I was nearing the need of my time on earth. I could barely leave the shelter of the camp, and so I was no help looking after sheep lost or not. Once a traveler came to our camp to speak about the prophet named Jesus.  They said he was born in a miraculous way. Shepherds were keeping a night watch over their flocks when an angel appeared to them saying a Messiah had been born. This was not exactly the way I remembered the story. The night was so quiet I could hear the heavy breathing of those 100 pairs of nostrils, and then a bell would punctuate the silence.  But I remained silent as the traveler continued. For I thought perhaps this is a way for people to truly hear this man’s message. Then I began to think about why I followed that one lost sheep. It had nothing to do with the other ninety-nine. It was something to do with protecting the weak. You stand up for the one who no one else will standup for. You care for the one who needs you. Bring in the one who is lost.  Or maybe it is that when any one of us is lost or goes astray, we can be found.  These were all good reasons for seeking out that lost sheep. Given the opportunity I would go searching for that lost sheep again.  And that story became a famous one told all around the country

Be not afraid, the good and the true are stronger than anything that stands against them, and sooner or later, will prevail. It you doubt it, look backward and trace the path by which we have come; and look around you: in spite of everything, we are still on our way. The darkness is vast truly, but across it there is a path of light – a path of moving light. (A. Powell Davies)  I can hear the words: “there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  They heard voices saying, be not afraid, there is good news of a great joy, there is a babe born this day.  It is a sign to all of us, peace will come, you have to believe. It was like a 100 or more bells were ringing and filling the night sky.  (Ring bells)