A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 1 March 2020 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
It will not surprise you that Sandra and I are now in the throes of that exercise known as “downsizing”. I have to tell you that it is a depressing job. Live for 27 years in a seven-bedroomed Victorian wind tunnel, and you discover that all sorts of “stuff” accumulates. Where on earth has it come from? How did we ever manage to accumulate so many coat hangers? Do they breed when your back is turned? And as for the books – there are something like 30,000 of them. They are flying out of the Vicarage in banana boxes and going all over the place: to Africa, via a charity called “Book Aid”, to Hilfield Friary Library, to the Sue Ryder Shop, our own shop and even to colleagues who haven’t entirely given up on reading!
But things I had lost and had expected to find are slow to surface. A wonderful little silver oil stock used for the anointing of the sick has reappeared hidden behind a load of Old Testament commentaries after our last burglary. But what about those cufflinks given to me after our first burglary, which I was sure were somewhere behind the “Christian Ethics” shelves? No sign so far.
For the people in the Second Lesson we heard just now [Luke 15.1-10] the things they lost were much more important than a pair of cufflinks. The sheep was a part of the shepherd’s life and livelihood; he could not afford to lose even one member of his small flock. And the woman’s silver coin was one of ten, which Jesus’ hearers would probably have taken to mean her dowry, worn in Palestinian fashion on a chain, as a headdress. It would be a significant part of her savings.
Precious things – and finding them again would not be easy. The shepherd would have had no idea in which direction his missing sheep had strayed; in the Judean wilderness it could easily have fallen down one of the many steep escarpments or wandered deep into a cave. Finding it would be arduous, time-consuming – and risky.
Similarly for the woman, searching the straw covering the earth floor in her windowless, flat-roofed home – a task similar to searching for a needle in the proverbial haystack. But she did not rest until she found her missing coin, even though it meant turning the house upside down. And when at last she retrieved it, then – like the shepherd – she rejoiced with her friends and neighbours. And this, says Jesus, is what happens when one sinner repents, when a lost soul is found.
Jesus did not tell these parables as nice, comfortable little stories. He told them to demonstrate his identification with those on the margins of the society of his day: the despised and the vulnerable. Shepherds were looked down upon by the devoutly religious: their duties prevented their attendance at synagogue and temple, so they were regular breakers of the religious laws. And widows had no support other than their savings, their dowry. This widow’s coins were her security in an age which offered her no pension.
Jesus made a point of seeking out such people – even the detested tax gatherers who were hated for their collaboration with the occupying Roman power. He ate with them, told parables about them in which they came off far better than the utterly respectable scribes and Pharisees, invited himself to their homes and even – in the case of Matthew – called them to be part of his inner band of disciples. It was Jesus’ fondness for such people which so outraged the Establishment figures of his day. And from that fondness I think we can deduce three things.
First, that no-one is an outsider in God’s sight. We are all made and kept and loved by him with the same intensity and fullness of his love. Second, Jesus seemed to find it easier to deal with those who had sinned notoriously and knew their need of forgiveness than with apparently respectable religious folk who kept their mean little sins well hidden (or so they supposed). Third, that God calls the most unlikely, the most unpromising people to do his work. Let us look at these three things more closely.
First, in God’s sight no-one is an outsider. You and I probably recoil instinctively from some people. For me it is the sort of traveller, so unlike the old ‘gentlemen of the road’, who arrives at the door demanding money, is dismissive of a Vicarage sandwich, and readily becomes both abusive and aggressive. I dislike such unwelcome visitors intensely. Yet God loves them. Jesus saw everyone as the sons or daughters of his heavenly Father. I need, you need, to battle with our prejudices against our fellow human beings – prejudice of colour or class or creed – and to ask God to help us overcome them, to pray that we might see all people with the eyes of Christ.
Second, ‘notorious sinners’ are often easier for God to deal with, because on the whole they know all too well that they are sinners and are prepared to admit to those sins. That is half the battle; that is to be half-way to repentance, and without repentance we cannot know forgiveness. But for those of us who think ourselves OK – good, solid, respectable, pious people – Jesus has a name, and it’s not very polite: ‘whited sepulchres’. Squeaky clean on the outside; corrupt and in decay within. Pray for the honesty to know yourself, to know your sinfulness, and to have the humility to admit it.
Third, God calls the least-likely people to be instruments of his will. Jesus went for his first disciples not to the learned and wise of his day, not to the professional religious men of temple and synagogue, but to simple fishermen, humble countrymen – and Matthew, the hated tax collector. And that means, even though you might think you are the least talented, the least gifted, the most unlikely person here today to be needed or used by God, you are probably exactly the person he needs to do this or attempt that for him. He needs you: it is as simple as that.
Or perhaps you’re still lost. You have wandered away and are out on your own. The Lord Jesus is still the good shepherd, and is still in the business of finding the lost. It’s no accident that the parable Jesus tells immediately after those of the lost sheep and the lost coin is that of the lost son, the Prodigal. His father never stopped looking out for him, and when he saw him dragging his weary way home he ran to meet him. The son once was lost, but then was found.
Listen to the voice of Christ, and remember that this church is for sinners only. That is what we all have in common. Once we were lost. But no-one needs to stay lost. As a company of those who once were lost, but now are found, we are now a holy community making holy communion. And for that, thanks be to God.