A Sermon from Sherborne

Lost and found

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 15 September 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


What, do you think, do these objects have in common: a life-sized Spider Man doll; a stuffed puffer fish; a human skull; a box full of dentures and a pair of breast implants? The answer is, all have been lost on the London underground and London’s buses. Thousands of items pass through Transport for London’s Lost Property Office every week; many are never reclaimed. Curiously enough, the breast implants were, and no doubt were subsequently used in a surgical procedure. Somewhere there is a good lady unaware of how her new chest once was lost, and then was found!

Losing things is always irritating. I remember losing a cufflink on its very first outing, which was highly annoying. But for the people in the two parables we heard in today’s Gospel [Luke 15.1-10] the things they lost were much more important than a cufflink. 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; her security in an age which offered widows and the elderly no pensions.

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 as a rebuke to the Pharisees and the scribes, who were complaining about the company he kept. ‘Tax collectors and sinners’ – how outrageous. No rabbi with an ounce of self-respect would be seen with such riffraff.

And in a way they had a point. The tax collectors of Israel in those days were very different from the staff of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. It was, of course, the Roman Empire which imposed the taxation on its subject peoples, and its method of doing so was so ingenious that I sincerely hope none of you tells the Prime Minister about it. I can quite imagine him thinking the privatisation of the tax system a wizard wheeze.

The Romans certainly did. It worked like this. They divided each province into tax districts, and then put them up for auction. The franchise to collect taxes in each district went to the highest bidder. The Roman Governor and his Imperial masters were happy: they had their money up-front, as it were, with no need to get involved in the messy business of collecting it from a reluctant and resentful people.

As for the tax collectors themselves, of course they had had to pay hard cash for the franchise to collect taxes in their particular district, so their aim was to collect much more than they had paid the Roman authorities. And the more they could squeeze from the population, the greater their profit, and the richer they would become. They could always call on the local garrison to send a few soldiers if people were recalcitrant about paying, and some tax collectors, by forcing far more out of the people than had been set by the Romans, grew very wealthy indeed. Zacchaeus was a notable example. But the downside for them was that they had very few friends. The Jewish tax collector was seen as a collaborator, a traitor, a betrayer of his race and an exploiter of his fellow Jews.

And yet Jesus made a point of seeking out these despised and detested men. 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 gather round the Lord’s Table – a holy community making holy communion. And for that, thanks be to God.

Canon Eric Woods 15/09/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne