Kent H. Roberts is a Dallas attorney, church archivist, and author of The Strength of a Free Mind: Meditations for the Accused, a book based on his experiences in the criminal justice system.
When they built the sanctuary that I worship in, the senior pastor at the time asked that words of the parable of the lost sheep be painted in gold letters at the top of the wall. In that story, Jesus said that when the shepherd found the lost sheep, he put it on his shoulders and came home rejoicing. Jesus never explicitly said that the shepherd brought the lost sheep back to rejoin the flock, but it is hard to understand the story otherwise.
Even in our affluent church, some of our members get in trouble with the law and some even go to prison. Other members visit prisoners and try to help them rebuild their lives. Some of these prisoners sense the love and care of the members of our church and wonder whether this church would welcome them when they get out, because this is the first selfless, caring relationship they have ever seen. These men and women are the lost sheep.
There is another thing not explicitly discussed in the parable that bears directly on the question of what kind of community the church is. We don't talk about the reaction of the 99 sheep to the returning sheep. Are they as joyful as the shepherd? Or, do their fears and prejudices lead them to conclude that the returning sheep is not our kind of sheep? Do the assistant shepherds, more closely attuned to the sensitivities of the younger families with lambs, suggest that the returning sheep might be more comfortable in that other flock over there?
The results in our church are mixed so far. On the Sunday after I was indicted on Federal fraud charges, my wife and I stopped cold in the church parking lot, briefly unable to decide whether we should go in. During the years before I was cleared, we kept to ourselves in the church because we did not want friends or pastors to have the opportunity to say something hurtful. To the extent we let them in, the church was supportive of us and, by the grace of God, I was never fully separated from the flock.
Since then, we are aware of other lost sheep attempting to return. These have had a more rocky reception, ranging from slights to outright exclusion from some of the ministries of the church. We still don't know how one of our returning prison brothers visiting the church for the first time will be received.
There are always prudent and heartfelt reasons for the decisions made regarding the lost sheep. What I don't hear in these reasons is the joy the shepherd in the parable felt at finding and returning the lost sheep.
How broad is the community of the church? Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep in response to a criticism from the Pharisees that he "welcomes sinners and eats with them." Luke 15:2 CEB. That suggests that the community intended by Jesus was very broad and intimate indeed.