Sermon: Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, 11 September 2016, St John the Divine

Readings  Exodus 32.7-14, Psalm 51. 1-111 Timothy 1.12-17Luke 15.1-10

Preacher  The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP

I wonder when was the last time that any of us lost something? Perhaps we lost our debit or credit card? Or we couldn’t find our passport just days before going on holiday abroad? Or our car keys went missing? Or the key to the front door of our house was nowhere to be seen? Losing such important items can cause great distress and panic. We go searching in all the usual places, but no – we can’t find the desired object. And we can find ourselves experiencing a whole range of bewildering emotions: fear, frustration, anger, bafflement.

But of course it is not just objects that can be lost. People can find they are suddenly and unexpectedly made redundant from a job they have done faithfully for years. Disasters such as flood or fire can mean people have to leave their homes. Worst of all, we lose our closest family and friends when they die. Even though our Christian faith assures us that they live on in eternity with God, nevertheless the loss of their physical presence can be overwhelming.

When we lose either something or someone of significance, then we invariably find ourselves going through a cycle of emotional grief. The American doctor Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described this process in great detail in her seminal book On Death and Dying, published in America in 1969. She had worked with patients dying of cancer, and observed the cycle of grief they went through as they approached their death – anticipatory grieving – grieving before they died, which was just as real as the grief of those left behind after they had died. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified 5 main stages of the grief cycle:

  • Shock, denial and isolation
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Such stages are not necessarily a straight line. Those who suffer loss go in and out of the various stages in a cyclical fashion.

In our gospel reading today from Luke Jesus tells 2 parables – the parable of the lost sheep – and the parable of the lost coin. Both parables are clearly about loss. In each parable Jesus describes – first, a shepherd who realises one of his 100 sheep has gone astray, and so he leaves the 99 sheep and goes in search of the one that is lost. Secondly, in the other parable, Jesus describes a woman who has 10 silver coins, and she discovers that one of them is missing. So she more or less turns the house upside down until she finds it. In both parables whatever has been lost is eventually found, and there is great rejoicing.

The purpose of these parables – as in all Jesus’ parables – is to show what God, and God’s Kingdom, is like. God is like the shepherd who has lost a beloved sheep, or the woman who has lost a valuable amount of money. In other words, God grieves over what is lost, and will do all in God’s power to find what is lost. And what has God lost? Well, it is obvious from these parables that Jesus is really talking not about sheep or money but about people – people who have somehow strayed from their true purpose in life – their true purpose being to love and serve God, and to love others as themselves.

And of course there is a multitude of ways in which people can stray from their true purpose. When Jesus tells these parables he has an interesting audience. Luke’s account tells us that the tax-collectors and “sinners” were drawing near to listen to Jesus – all those looked down on, the despised and rejected of society – people of ill-repute. But also present were the Pharisees and scribes – the respectable religious leaders of the day. These religious leaders despised the tax collectors and “sinners” and they complained about the fact that Jesus was welcoming such people and even eating with them. Jesus knows exactly what the Pharisees and scribes are thinking, and so he tells these two parables for the benefit of all those listening; for the benefit of both very different groups of people gathered around him.

Jesus describes the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents – the joy is analogous to, but much greater than, the joy of finding a beloved animal, object or person who has gone missing. Jesus makes it clear, without explicitly having to state it (and that is the advantage of speaking in parables) that God is like the shepherd and the woman. God really does grieve over those who have strayed and turned away from their real purpose in life. God’s heart aches for such people, and yearns for them to be in loving relationship with God and their fellow human beings.

It is interesting that in these two parables Jesus makes the same point twice by using two different illustrations. In the first story God is represented as a (presumably) male shepherd, whereas in the second God is a woman. Here Jesus hints that both the masculine and the feminine are complementary facets of God. And what also comes over in these two parables is the idea of God’s persistence. Neither the shepherd nor the woman will give up searching until they have found what they are looking for.   And their persistent search may even involve risk – for the 99 sheep are left unattended while the shepherd searches for the one sheep that is lost. God longs to meet with those in greatest need.

And above all God is generous and merciful. This is shown very clearly in our other two readings for today. In the story from Exodus, Moses has been delayed on the mountain, while God gives him the Law, notably the 10 Commandments. The people are left without their principal leader, and they weaken. They make the golden calf and worship it instead of God. But Moses pleads with God on behalf of the people not to punish them, and the reading closes with the extraordinary sentence:

“And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people”.

The passage is a great testament to the power of prayer. In the second reading from the first letter to Timothy, Paul describes his former strident, even violent opposition to Christians, yet God was merciful to him. In an amazing turn-around, Paul had been converted on the road to Damascus, and the former persecutor of Christianity became instead a chief proclaimer of the faith.

There is plenty going on in the world that can be the subject of our prayers: the terrible state of affairs in Syria and ISIL’s evil regime to name just one. And we are mindful that today is the fifteenth anniversary of the destruction of the Twin Towers. At times we might wonder what is the point of our prayers when evil is so rampant. But of course it is precisely when confronted with evil that we need most to pray. We may never in this life know how far-reaching and effective our prayers may be. But we must, like God, be persistent in continuing to reach out to others in hope and love, ever waiting for signs of transformation and regeneration. The signs of the Kingdom are around us, for those who have eyes to see. May God give us patience and faithfulness in our desire to persist in following in the way of Christ’s call upon our lives.

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