St Bride's: Sermons

The Lost Sheep

Luke 15: 1–10

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15 Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.

And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

And he spake this parable unto them, saying,

What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.

I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?

And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that most newly ordained curates will end up being saddled with all the jobs that the vicar really doesn't want to have to do. (Although I, of course, would never dream of doing such a thing to Jeff!)

And so it was that, as a very young curate in my own first ministerial post, my training vicar addressed me with words that brought a chill to my soul:  'It's about time', he said, 'that we had a regular mid-week service in church for the under-fives.  And I want you to set it up and run it.' 

I couldn't decide whether I was more horrified, or terrified at the prospect.  Because at the time, I really didn't know anything about little children at all: I was still in my twenties; had no children of my own; and having been the youngest in my own family by quite a long way, I had never even had to deal with a younger sibling.  I had never been to a mums' and toddlers' service before, and had no resources, no relevant training, and not a clue even where to begin.  But I have always believed that, when you find yourself way out of your depth, you do at least need to attempt to start swimming, and so I did.

And much to my surprise and astonishment - I absolutely loved it.  I don't think I have ever had quite so much anarchic fun on a Wednesday afternoon, as I did in that weekly service with my little tots.  (Probably because I swiftly got back in touch with my own inner-three year old.)  I also hadn't appreciated quite how wonderful the complexities of an eleventh-century church building can be, when you are working with very little children. 

We would begin each week by all helping to ring the church bell, to let everyone outside know that we were there.  The children would then choose from a large box of musical instruments that I had managed to get hold of - and once I had dealt with the predictable argument about whose turn it was to have the triangle, we had a wonderful and very noisy procession all round the church building, up the steps and down the aisles, and round the corners, stopping to sing special songs at various places on the way.  And we would then act out a Bible story. 

And I have particularly fond memories of the tots' rendition of this morning's gospel story, the parable of the Lost Sheep.  Because we had hours of fun roving round the mediaeval church building desperately trying to find the poor lost sheep (which I had cunningly concealed before they arrived), and eventually finding it with great delight - and joyfully parading it back round the church until we broke for biscuits and orange squash.

I do find it astonishing that so many of the parables that Jesus told really are timeless, and cut across all boundaries of age and culture.  They spoke to my little toddlers - and, as one who has been preaching on them for nearly thirty years, I never tire of going back to them, and discovering new riches within them for myself.

Which brings me back to the story of the Lost Sheep, which we heard this morning.  It is a story so simple that it fully engaged the interests and energies of a group of under-fives.  But it is also a story full of riches, which deals with some very adult themes.

Back in 2011, I happened to visit what is probably my favourite cathedral of all, Exeter, when they had on display an exhibition of very striking paintings of biblical scenes by the contemporary artist Iain McKillop.  The pictures included his portrayal of the Good Shepherd, whom he shows in the very act of rescuing the lost sheep.  And it was such a powerful and arresting and unexpected image, that it stopped me in my tracks.

Like (I suspect) many of you, I was brought up on the legacy of rather wholesome Victorian biblical illustrations, which invariably depicted Jesus as being terribly pious and respectable, and biblical shepherds as immaculately turned out, sojourning happily with their flocks in a pastoral idyll.

Iain McKillop's image (which I shall leave out for you to see on the shop counter after the service, if you are interested), could not be more different.   His painting depicts the rescue of a terrified sheep, which has been trapped on a precipitate mountain ledge. The shepherd himself, muscular, and weather-beaten, and wearing nothing but a loin cloth, is situated on an overhang above the level of the stranded sheep, So great is the determination to rescue the petrified, struggling creature, that we catch him at a moment when he is suspended almost upside-down, gripping a knot of ancient trees with his legs and one of his arms, while the other arm reaches down into the precipice as he hauls the terrified animal up to safety. 

Although quite a stylised image, it manages to be both striking and alarming in its realism.  One is struck, above all, by the shepherd's readiness to risk all in reaching the lost animal.

But, at the same time, this is also a portrait of strength and confidence.  The shepherd has tremendous presence: we are observing an experienced professional, whom you just know has been in this kind of situation many, many times before.  This is a man who knows his landscape and who knows his sheep, and who cares passionately about the welfare of every single member of his flock. 

And so the risk that we see him taking, in reaching down into that precipitate drop to rescue the sheep, is not the reckless and dangerous exploit of a well-intentioned amateur - but rather the risk taken by a wise and seasoned professional, who knows exactly what he is doing.  And looking at that image, one is left in no doubt that the sheep will indeed be hauled to safety, because the animal is indeed, quite literally, 'in safe hands'.  The shepherd himself will receive knocks and cuts and bruises in the process, mostly from the terrified animal he is trying to save - but we know that he will barely notice them - because that is simply what his job entails.

I find this image an extraordinary model for Christian ministry - which is why I have used it when preaching at ordination services before now.  But, much more importantly, it is also an image that tells us a great deal about God, and the love of God for each and every one of us. 

Because although we may have times when we ourselves feel lost and abandoned - terrified even - when facing a fearful or uncertain future, our God is that kind of God.  A God who will not cease to look for us until we are found; and who will not cease to be there for us, and to try and rescue us, even at those times when we cannot see beyond our own fear and despair.  Because ours is a God who deals in detail: for whom not a sparrow falls to the ground without him noticing.  A God who continues to love us and care for us, and fight for us, even when we are completely unaware that he is doing so.

A little coda to this reflection.  Many of you will be aware that today is the fifteenth anniversary of the appalling and tragic events of 9/11.  Five years ago, on the tenth anniversary of the attack on the twin towers in New York, I heard a series of interviews with some of those who had been directly affected by that terrorist atrocity, speaking about the impact that it had had upon their lives.  Some spoke about how it had completely overturned their sense of priorities: one woman had given up her highly paid executive lifestyle and was now running a charity for the disadvantaged.  Another New Yorker spoke about how he now felt a new sense of community in his native city: before 9/11, he said, if you were travelling on the subway, nobody ever engaged with you, or looked you in the eye.  These days, he maintained, people do look you in the eye, because you now know that the person in front of you may be the one who ends up pulling you from the rubble; their eyes may be the last eyes you ever see. 

That is an observation about detail.  And ours is a God who also deals in detail: a God who will not give up on a sheep that is lost; because his love and his care for every member of his flock - even those who do not know him,  knows no bounds.

Amen

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