A sermon preached at the Presbyteral Synod of the Birmingham District on 20 March 2019
Why did the lost sheep have to go and ruin things?
If you’ve ever watched the shepherds and goatherds going about their business today in the hills of Palestine, you’ll have some sympathy. The terrain is inhospitable at best, water is scarce and, in those days, the night brought with it thieves and wild animals. The shepherds’ task was getting them from one cistern to another whilst keeping as many of the flock as possible - and themselves - alive! Imagine the anxiety and stress when one of little beggars heads off into the wilderness on its lonesome?
Anxiety over loss has become the mood music of our time. Half the population wish to recover a sense of identity and assert the kind of power and influence they feel has been whittled away or watered down. The other half see a cliff edge approaching and the imminent loss of all the economic and strategic power built up over decades of negotiation and cooperation. In the midst of this uncertainty, our politics have become increasingly shrill as our leaders struggle to offer answers. Meanwhile, half a world away, we witness an explosion of anger and hate borne of a ideology of a lost racial purity.
Loss also stalks the Church. We know all too well how much of the our flock has been lost, and there is a growing sense that life in our society is going on without us. The real fear that the Methodist Church in Britain might cease to exist within our lifetime is ever present if not always acknowledged. In an anxious and nervous world, it is hard to resist the zeitgeist ….
Fear is contagious, luring us to turn inward, as individuals, organisations, and societies, in a vain attempt to find a secure place from which to face the future. But it is a false security based on supposed shared identity, a common threat, ideological purity or self-reliance. But the 99 are not enough ...
The antidote to anxiety is action. Those of us who live with depression and mental health challenges know that the first step to recovery is often literally the first step we take. The energy to do something comes from doing something.
Today is the feast of the great 7th century Celtic Bishop, St Cuthbert. He spent most of his life in Northumbria and Cumbria and when he was a young monk, the story goes, one frosty December day, he was on his way to morning prayers when he noticed a young man huddled in the cloister. The stranger was poorly dressed and freezing to the touch. It was obvious he hadn’t eaten in days. Since Cuthbert was in charge of the kitchen, he offered him some food, but the stranger refused. Cuthbert insisted and ran off to the kitchen for some bread. When he got back, the stranger was gone, but there was no sign of any footprints in the snow. Perplexed, Cuthbert returned to the kitchen to kind that the oven he had just emptied was full of bread. At that moment, he realised who the stranger had been.
While other monks had passed by, the important thing about St Cuthbert was that he noticed. He became famous for his ability to see things that others couldn’t, and offer insight into people’s lives. It wasn’t magic powers – he was simply so aware of the world around him that he saw the connections that others missed.
At our ordination, we were charged to:
Declare the Good News.
Celebrate the Sacraments.
Serve the needy.
Minister to the sick.
Welcome the stranger.
Seek the lost.
Be shepherds of the flock of Christ.
We have been set aside in order to notice things that others are too busy to see, to notice people that systems have forgotten. For we live in an age where we see everything and notice nothing. We have become so distracted by ourselves! Our task, as presbyters, is to notice, and to help others see more clearly what is really going on.
The shepherd noticed the one missing from the 99. When Jesus asks his audience ‘What do you think?’ about the actions of a shepherd who does this, I imagine they thought it was foolish at best, reckless at worst. But the nameless shepherd doesn’t just head off - he has a vision of the one to be rescued and engages in targeted recklessness, calculated foolishness. He must do it because the love that compels him demands nothing less. The subversive love of God challenges the norms and expectations (and balance-sheets) of the world. It is prepared to risk everything for the one. It is not content with ‘most’ - it will be only be satisfied with ‘all’.
The late great Donald English once asked a group of preachers, including me: Do you still love God, or do you just work for him now? Know the answer to that question. ‘Remember your call.’
In 1953, Ray Bradbury had a vision of the future. In Fahrenheit 451, he foresaw a time when houses would be fireproof … and books would be hated. The job of the fire brigade would no longer be the fighting of fire, but the burning of books. Knowledge, in this dystopia, is the enemy of fun. But a fireman becomes disillusioned by it all. So he steals a book – the Bible as it happens – and seeks out an old academic called Faber to teach him about it. Faber tries to explain the importance of books:
‘The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.’
But to understand and use books well, Faber says you need three things:
‘Number one … quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.’ (Bradbury, 1953, p72f)
The task of the presbyter is to contemplate, and then to share the fruits of contemplation. We are called to be a seamstresses, to assist others to join their little patch of experience together with others and reveal a richer, larger, deeper picture of how life is. But more than that - we are called, together, as ministers of the gospel, to hold a vision for others, a vision that challenges those in leadership that say this is as good as it gets.
A vision built on hope and not mere optimism. The difference between hope and optimism is clear. Optimism is a feeling, a feeling that life might be better tomorrow. But a feeling that carries no more responsibility that waking up positive. Hope knows that tomorrow can be better, that tomorrow can be better because of what I do today. Hope is the fruit of faithful living.
Hope may become infected with the contagion of fear, but is not paralysed by it. It is only hope that will enable people in Christchurch to rebuild after this vicious attack; to hold a vision of the future in the midst of prejudice and violence.
Hope seeks the lost:
- those bits of our calling that we have misplaced in the midst of ministry - our passion, our vision, our confidence.;
- those bits of ourselves that ministry forces us to hide, or deny, or suppress.
Only by leaving the 99, will we have any chance to find the one. Only by risking it all, will we do enough so that,
‘...when Christ the Chief Shepherd comes in glory
he may count you among his faithful servants.
To God be the glory for ever. Amen.’
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