The Parable of the Lost Sheep
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
13 September 1998
The reading today is from Luke's Gospel, one that emphasises God's love for the poor, the disadvantaged, minorities, outcasts, sinners and lepers. (Women play a more prominent part than in the other gospels). This reading asks questions about the 'lost' and our reaction towards them.
Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering round to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them." Then Jesus told them this parable: "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Try to imagine that you are a Pharisee returning from the synagogue. You are feeling suitably dutiful having said your prayers thanking God for making you the wonderful human being that you are, read the Torah and sung a few hymns. You walk down the street, home to where the little wife is preparing your dinner chatting with fellow Pharisees and you hear laughter. (Lots of laughter). Wondering what is going on you cross over the road towards your house and see that there is a party in your next door neighbours courtyard. You look inside, there sat at a table surrounded by people who would never be allowed access to the synagogue is Jesus. There is a bit of a party going on and some well-known fast living blokes have come along with their scantily clad bimbo girlfriends. One of the women is even kneeling next to Jesus caressing him and wiping his feet with her hair. The noise is terrible and there seems little chance of the evening finishing early because one of the louder participants at the party is just telling everybody that Jesus had just done another great trick filling the 'empties' with more wine.
As you look at Jesus surrounded by these undesirables, the dregs of society. You remember that things have been said about Jesus being specially chosen by God, moreover he is coming to the synagogue tomorrow and he's on the rota to read the lesson. How do you feel? Sorry that you didn't get invited ? No you would feel insulted by the behaviour cross and angry about Jesus.
Would we have been Pharisees—given the chance?
Those who thought that they were better, took objection to the fact that Jesus was mixing with 'low life.' He had no right to compromise his own position and undermine religious practice by the kinds of company which he kept and his attitudes. Would you and I have criticised Jesus for the company which he kept? Would we have resented his attention being given to somebody less deserving than ourselves? I think that we would.
The chances are that we would be exactly the same because if we are honest we exhibit the same characteristics as the Pharisees. If we are honest with ourselves—
- Each one of us has in-built tendencies towards self-righteousness. We think better of ourselves than we really are.
- Each one of us has taken the opportunity to be openly critical of others when actually we didn't fully understand the situation of why that person was the way that they were, and we didn't care
- Each one of us has criticised the religious behaviour or lack of religious behaviour of another person
- We like everybody else can be less than accepting of people who are not like us
- Too readily we forget that we are all as bad as one another and we are in constant need of forgiveness ourselves, that there but for the grace of God goes each one of us
This does not mean that can not in any way make judgements about what is right and wrong, what is good and bad behaviour. How can we seek for the lost unless we know what lost is? Christians can make value judgements. So you too can make judgements about behaviour and what is acceptable to God and what is not. More than that you must make judgements and you must teach your children and grandchildren. Christians do not believe that anything goes.
So for instance, objectively we all know that people who steal are behaving in a sinful manner. It is wrong to steal, we are not being critical of them simply because they are different from us and we do not steal. So too we believe that paedophiles are behaving in a sinful manner, we are not being critical of them simply because they have a different sexuality from us. The Anglican Bishops at Lambeth this year made a statement that homosexuality was wrong, not because most Bishops are heterosexual, but because they considered scripture to teach against it.
You must try to make your own minds up on what is right and what is wrong, in the light of scripture, common sense and the teaching of the church. But never forget that this does not mean that you have any right to think of yourself as better than somebody else, more worthy of God's care and attention.
Many times I have parents who have lost a child question why God took their good child and not one of the bad ones. Now we say all sorts of things when we loose somebody we love and the death of a child is especially painful. But I think it betrays the understanding which many people have, that God will be nice to the people who are good and somehow punish those who let him down and go astray. Jesus tells us that God does not send misfortunes upon us when we misbehave, in love he comes after us and calls us home. How often do people suffering in some way say to me 'do you think that God is punishing me?'
- Christian girl loses a baby, 'was God punishing me because I had sex outside marriage?'
- Person get cancer and asks 'is God teaching me a lesson'
Now I firmly believe that the natural order of this world means that when we act contrary to God's pattern we suffer, in the same way that a petrol engine would suffer if we tried to run it on diesel, it's not made that way. I am sure that God cries to see us behaving in self-destructive ways, but the idea that God looks for ways to get even and teach us a lesson is explicitly contrary to scripture. This would not be God, this would be a monster. It should be the most obvious thing in the world that God forgives us no matter what we say or do to him.
Christ on the cross does not say to those who crucified him,
'now God's really going to let you have it, you're all going to get cancer and loose your jobs'.
What does he say?
'Father forgive them, they don't know what they are doing'
Actually they did know what they were doing and they should have known better. But what Jesus was saying was that they didn't really know because deep inside they were unreceptive to his message, blinded by their prejudice and hatred. At the end of time 'when the call is heard up yonder' will we be surprised in sharing the Kingdom with some of those who God welcomes?
I received a letter only last week from a lady who resented our equal opportunities activities and thought it terrible that we should allow the local Muslim community to use our premises. She reminded me that these people did not believe in Jesus 'the only way to God.' The implication being that because they were Muslim they were all going to hell and we didn't want to be contaminated. (The spirit of the crusades is alive and well in Putnoe). We are too ready to focus on that which divides, too willing to see our faith as good reason to erect barriers between those who hold beliefs which are different from our own.
One of the most badly quoted passages of scripture must surely be from John Chapter 14
'I am the way the truth and the life, nobody comes to the father except through me'
This is a verse used by many fundamentalist Christians to justify the fact that people who do not express Christian faith in certain ways are going to burn. Well go back to your bibles and think about the scene around cross. 'Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life,' asks for forgiveness for those who caused his death. They do not ask for forgiveness, they are too busy killing him, hating him, plotting against him. Jesus calls for it nevertheless. It seems that if Jesus has his way there will be all sorts of people there who many of our churches have condemned to the place of darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. I just wonder whether when we get to heaven and we go down to dinner some of us might find ourselves sitting next to Muslims!
It is hard for us to be prepared to accept people when they seek forgiveness. Because we are so critical and willing to judge we naturally think God wants people to be punished. Its hard for us to forgive, it has to be conditional; and measured and not to freely given in case it encourages bad behaviour. We tend to think like public utility companies and we want every drop of God's grace metered and paid for. It's hard for us to forgive, forgiveness has to be earned in some way, even if its only by asking for it properly. Forgiveness is easy for God.
Jesus tells us about going in search of the lost sheep. Why does the shepherd search for the lost sheep? Is it because it is a favourite sheep? Is it because the sheep is a special sheep? Or because it has a woollier coat than the rest of the sheep? No! The only qualification the sheep has which justifies leaving the other sheep and going off after it is that it is lost. So too Jesus cares for the lost, because they are lost and seeks them out. We so often get concerned about our qualifications for God, are we good enough for him to bother with us. And perhaps the church has and still does reinforce this, making hurdles over which we have to cross before we are good enough. I think of the teaching that You can't have communion because you're not confirmed yet. Does Jesus who shares his last meal with the disciples only come after those who have passed the test with this He doesn't bother with us because we are confirmed
As a priest my task is to reassure people of God's forgiveness and because you are a Christian God calls you to share in that priestly task, it is your job too. Jesus shows us from the cross that he forgives even when people do not ask for it. The Christian faith teaches us that God cares for all of us and especially the lost, we are never beyond redemption, we are never so far from God that he gives up on us. The further we have fallen the deeper God's grace to rescue us.
Self righteousness, begrudging attitudes are alive and well. They didn't die out in 1st century Palestine. We can see self-righteous politicians having the time of their lives over Bill Clinton this week. Shock horror they have discovered that politicians tell lies! How many politicians from how many countries have said 'watch my lips', promised not to raise taxes. How many politicians have had affairs and lied not just to the public but to their own families.
Neither is the church immune from this self-righteous hypocrisy. Think of the hypocrisy of the church over the years. I think of a woman vicar only this week, The Reverend Sheila Stephenson, who recently ministered at the Stodden group of churches in our Diocese in England. This week she was turfed out of her new parish because she has separated from her husband. This is a woman that any sensible parish would be fortunate to have as its priest. No allegations of improper conduct or anything like that. Her crime—none, except that she is going through a marital break up. But she came up against the sort of self righteous attitudes which characterised those Pharisees.
Of course there are those who like the brother of the prodigal son will resent the fact that God is so forgiving. For many people recovery of the lost means that we are only happy when people decide that they want to join us and be like us. For Jesus recovery of the lost meant taking time befriend and to associate with the lost. Even if it meant getting his own reputation tarnished. Think of the stories and gossip which there must have been about Jesus.
We begrudge the mercy of God being so freely given to the undeserving. We don't like people who threaten us, who appear different, who don't measure up to our standards. So it is that Jesus tells these two stories from our lesson this morning to show that God has time for us and takes time over us. Even when the rest of the world thinks that we are too far gone, Jesus comes after us and carries us home.
Material not used
Christian confession is different from spilling the beans to the public. Celebrities are not confessing when they write books telling their stories of; they are not after forgiveness, they are after publicity with royalties attached. Nor do you and I confess when we tell all to an understanding psychiatrist; we don't want forgiveness, we want to feel good. We confess when we cannot stand the hurt we cause to God and others.