Reading Luke 15.1-10
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Is your life rather – routine? Does it lack drama? Would you like it spiced with moments of mystery and – yes – even a spot of scariness? It seems that quite a few do, because many in Richmond travel great distances and probably incur great cost on venturesome holidays. Not necessary. You can do all this at home. You can have it all, if you simply cultivate the habit of losing things.
The place where you live will give you all the material you need: pairs of glasses, purses, utility bills (the inflamed red ones are especially good); CDs, CD cases, homework sheets; rent books, tax documents, credit cards, lottery tickets; addresses, phone numbers, recipes (especially if written on odd scraps of paper). Lose your keys, and those empty tracts of time before church begins, or school starts, or the bus leaves or the plane takes off will simply fly by. Tired? Feel the energy surge back as you hunt for your passport. But (as Sinatra once told us) the best is yet to come. Find the thing you lost and you will feel great. And you will return to ordinary life – which minutes ago had seemed so humdrum – and you will say, ‘Mmm, feels good’.
People are so different the world over, and so different now from in the past, yet today’s lost-and-found stories in the gospel reading come to us so fresh that they make us say, ‘Yes, that’s how it feels,’ though we are two thousand miles and just as many years away from their first hearing: a shepherd tracking a lost sheep; a woman raking the dust for a lost coin. Both throw parties once their lost property is found. These stories – called parables – why does Jesus tell them? To give us a glimpse into another world, into heaven, into God’s place. I hear them and I say, ‘Yes, that’s how it feels,’ and then the penny drops: that’s how God feels: God is the shepherd, God is the woman on her hands and knees in the dirt. That is how God searches for me.
The drama of losing and finding only works, of course, if you care about the thing you have lost. I used to have a quite nice fountain pen but I lost it – irritating, but I don’t really care. And when you come to losing people, which is what these stories are really about, it only works if the people concerned are precious to you.
This is the obscenity underlying the headlines in Syria: it’s not that the terrorist (whether rebel or state actor) sets out to kill a particular person, it’s that he or she plans the act knowing – intending – that people – ordinary people, civilian people – will die. It might be one, it might be another, it doesn’t really matter, because they don’t really matter, they are not part of the terrorist’s world, at least not as people: they are just instruments for the purpose, eggs to be broken in the making of the great omelette.
God, Jesus says, is not like that. Well of course God isn’t like that. But Jesus’ God is even less like that than you might imagine. I have known the story of the lost sheep all my adult life. I’ve always known there was something odd about it, but never thought seriously enough about it to pin it down, and I’m grateful to a writer who has, and so has discovered something about Jesus’ God that I had not seen. I’ve quoted him once or twice before – and may do again next week – because I think he has written a great book. One chapter of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic is a portrait of Jesus; or Yeshua, as he calls him, using the Aramaic name his family and friends would know him by. He talks about how Jesus’ stories seem odder and odder the more you think about them. Like today’s.
Say you have a hundred sheep, says Jesus, and one goes missing. You’ll leave the rest in the wilderness and go after the lost one, won’t you? Oh Yes! Or, actually, No. Because sheep wander, don’t they? And the point of being a shepherd is to end up with as many sheep as you started with, right? So I’d lock the ninety-nine up first, so I didn’t lose them too, and then look for the lost one. That would be a rational ‘sheep-maximising strategy’. But not for Jesus. Jesus, says Spufford, doesn’t seem to understand quantity or ownership. What matters to him is simply that ‘what is lost should be found.’
And that is how he is with people. Crowds follow him, but he doesn’t set out to recruit more and more. He is not a politician garnering votes, or a vicar trying to get more bums on pews. It’s not just that he doesn’t see them as means to an end. No, more than that, ‘Yeshua’s sense of people is not additive. More is not better. Each person in front of him is, for that moment, the one missing sheep.’
This is hard to hear, when so much in our lives is additive. ‘Value added’ was the watchword when we analysed Christ’s School’s GCSE results at last week’s governors’ meeting. Teenage years have always been about adding up scores, outside school as well, but never so much as now: how many Facebook-accredited ‘friends’ do you have? And it’s all good training, because your performance at work will probably be judged by some more or less sophisticated adding up exercise.
Everywhere we are told that more is better. Even in church. I confess, I am one of those vicars who wants fuller pews. I want more people to worship here week by week, and I hope you do too, because inviting someone to church is by far the most fruitful way of increasing a congregation. Meanwhile, we shall soon be asked to give more money to our Diocese of Southwark, beyond the quarter of a million we pay already, as an affluent parish.
It would be naïve – wrong – to say that none of this matters. We need more people to come to church, we need to give more money, you and I, but only if the point is that more people come to know God, who is the point of everything; and only if our added giving is out of gratitude for all that we receive from God.
And what do we receive from God? God is the shepherd, God is the woman on her hands and knees in the dirt. That is how God searches for me. That’s how God searches for me when I stop listening for God’s voice. That’s how God searches when I get caught up in things that lead me towards bad places. And when God finds me, what then? Punishment? Grudging acceptance? A final written warning? No. Apparently, there is a party in heaven, all because of me. We need to realise that God cares that much, not just about humankind in general but about you; that God loves you, me, each one of us, as if there was no other; that each of us is the one God searches for so recklessly, not as a valuable asset, but as the one missing sheep.
Unapologetic Francis Spufford, Faber and Faber, 2012, especially pages 126-129.