The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
1 Timothy 1:12-17
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses on of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost." Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
As some of you know, I'm a fan of Emily Dickinson, the reclusive American poet of Amherst, Massachusetts (she lived from1830-86.) On the pewsheet you'll find one of her little poems, which like most of them is also a bit of a riddle. (Sadly we no longer have Gerald to offer a more detailed commentary in the vestry after the service.) Here it is:
I lost a World – the other day! / Has Anybody found?
You'll know it by the Row of Stars / Around its forehead bound.
A Rich man－ might not notice it－ / Yet－ to my frugal Eye,
Of more Esteem than Ducats－ / Oh find it－ Sir－ for me!
The 'row of stars around its forehead bound' is the clue: it shows that she was thinking of a small coin, perhaps a half-dime which bore the words 'liberty', together with a row of stars. These were minted from 1792 and discontinued in 1873, so she might have been reacting to its withdrawal from circulation (replaced by the 5¢ nickel). Originally there were 15, then 16 stars, but as more states were added to the union the number was limited to 13. She complains that she had lost, not just a small coin (as compared with ducats – valuable silver or gold coins), but her liberty, and cries out Oh find it, sir, for me! (It's not clear who this 'sir' might be.)
At the end of yet another a turbulent and extraordinary week in politics, the question of where 'liberty' lies, both in this country and the USA, is an urgent one – and our bishops are trying to respond appropriately to the crisis, and point towards what the scriptures teach about true freedom in Christ.
The widow in the gospel, who had lost one of her ten precious coins, rejoices when after her diligent sweeping she has found it: not just because her modest savings are restored, but because she herself is restored; as Emily Dickinson would have put it, she has re-gained her liberty. Maybe George Herbert had this parable in mind when he wrote
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws, makes that and the action fine.
Drudgery becomes divine when it is done 'for thy sake' – for the sake of the one whose service is perfect freedom.
The parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep, then, are not about recovering possessions, but about the recovery, the restoration of lost individuals. Maybe today Jesus might have used the example of a child trapped under a building or in an earthquake, or a group of miners down a pit after an explosion. For the sake of those individuals, we drop everything. We don’t sit down to work out how much the rescue operation might cost. The drama becomes the main headline of the day. There is grief when the rescue attempt is abandoned; there is great rejoicing when it succeeds.
If you are fans of Vic and Bob, you may remember a Reeves and Mortimer sketch long ago featuring a van of the kind which often carried a sign ‘no job too small’. Theirs had various strange messages, including ‘pancakes removed’; it also proclaimed ‘no sheep too lost’ - an excellent summary of today’s gospel: no sheep too lost.
God’s kingdom is like that, says Jesus: the dramatic contrast between being lost (when all seems hopeless) and being found. When God’s reign is acknowledged, when all things are found and brought under God's authority, there will be great rejoicing, over each individual, set free to live in the image and likeness of Christ.
So the church must always reach out to individuals who are in need – lost, despairing, in danger. This ministry is both pastoral (a word which originally meant to do with sheep) and evangelistic – bringing people to salvation and to faith, as well as sorting out their practical problems. The individual soul is of infinite value to God, and no trouble should be spared in caring for individuals.
Other stories of Jesus give the same priority to individuals - the good Samaritan, the prodigal son. Drop everything else and give your full attention to the neighbour in need, however inconvenient it may be; reach out to welcome back the black sheep of the family. Our task is not just to get people into church; it is to meet people where they are, to recognise their needs, to help people find themselves and in the process find God’s love.
When Trevor Huddleston, of blessed memory, was working in the slums of South Africa in the 1950’s he noticed a poor boy with a talent for music and bought him a trumpet. The boy was Hugh Masekele – 'father of South African jazz' who played a key part in the dismantling of apartheid through his music, who died last year: by fostering his talent he was helped to see the relevance of his Christian faith for that struggle. And so the personal, pastoral ministry fed into the political – as it should.
For some people, being found when they were lost is an overwhelming, dramatic experience – a sudden conversion, repentance – both words which mean turning around, facing a new direction. For example, John Newton, the slave trader from Liverpool, experienced such a conversion, and wrote the hymn Amazing grace – ‘I once was lost, but now am found’ – as simple as that: and again we see in its implications the personal becoming political.
For many others, whose lives are not so much corrupt and evil as dull and fairly decent, it’s not quite so simple. They would never recognise that they were lost in the first place. It’s not so much that they don’t have a living faith, a saving faith, a faith that can change their lives; they don’t really have any conception of what faith is, of what it might mean to believe. Our task as Christians is to reach out to such people, not just as good neighbours, but with the challenge of the gospel, to show the difference that a living faith can make. This means that we have to have a living faith to start with – that we must know what it means to have been lost and found.
So – caring for individuals, and sharing our faith with them, is vital, and something we must all be involved in if we mean business. But this individual soul-saving, our individual acts of charity, must necessarily have wider consequences. The quote When people say that the Bible and politics don't mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading is usually attributed to Desmond Tutu, but was said by others too. It reminds us that we are called to balance concern for individuals with concern for the common good, for the salvation of society and its structures – to work together for a more just society, developing the life of the community, the city, the nation, the world. For the parables are parables about God’s kingdom, the divine society, not just about private religious convictions. As James Fenton says, most of the first Christians saw themselves as part of a movement whose life was expressed in groups; they did not think of themselves as isolated individual believers, existing separately. The Lord is present ‘when two or three meet in his name’ - which doesn’t mean that small is beautiful, but that we find salvation together, in community, as members of the one body.
The sacraments of baptism and holy communion both show us how to hold together the individual and the communal, for they are both intensely personal and intensely corporate. We are baptized as individuals - we pass alone through the waters, and are called by name. Receiving holy communion, too, is a personal encounter, as we each stretch out our hands in giving and receiving. But both are also community activities, to do with the whole body of Christ. They cannot (except in emergency) be private activities. We share in professing the faith of the newly-baptized, and we welcome them into the family of Christ’s church; and when we come to the altar, we receive bread that has to be broken before it can be shared - we break this bread to share in the body of Christ. It is never ‘my’ communion.
There are times when the needs of the individual and the needs of the community are in conflict. For instance, there are some difficult choices that have to be made in the high tech world of medicine, with limited choices. Do we go to any extreme to preserve an individual’s life at all costs, whatever their quality of life? Should we spend millions on infertility programmes, or on treatments for obesity, to benefit a handful of people in an overpopulated world where many are denied the most basic primary health care? Hard as it is, we always have to balance concern for the individual against the common good, and ask what is the most healthy way forward for the whole of society. It’s the same in the life of the church.
But for today, let us give thanks for the church’s ministry to individuals – reaching out to meet them where they are, to bring the light of the gospel to them. To restore them to liberty. And let us rejoice that nothing and on-one are too small for God’s concern, as by his love he seeks and finds his lost sheep – which includes you and me! No sheep too lost.…