A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday after Trinity, 11 September 2016, by Canon Robert Titley, Precentor.
Readings Luke 15.1-10
At this service the Cathedral welcomed students, staff and families from Godolphin School, Salisbury
I’m grateful to students from Godolphin for their research on the subject of today’s sermon. Question- what’s the worst thing you can lose? Several responded that, when they were little, it was their teddy bear. One was lost at the airport: inconsolable crying, Dad going to extreme lengths (unspecified) to get it back. Top of the list now is games kit: you’re going to get it in the neck both from home - hockey and lacrosse sticks are expensive - and from school, because you haven't got the right stuff with you for PE. And students don't lose their phones: they keep them on their persons at all times.
Now, Jesus’ stories about losing things. Our lives are indescribably different from those who heard Jesus teach twenty centuries ago. Imagine, then, that we somehow transport a teenager from then to now. She simply won’t comprehend much of what fills our lives. But (assume we’ve overcome the language problem somehow) if she says, ‘I suppose you’ve got things now to stop you losing stuff,’ we say, ‘No, we still do that, only now we have more things to lose and more places to lose them. And this is how it feels…
An ordinary, boring day suddenly gets animated as you look for - glasses, scissors, wallet, utility bills (especially inflamed red ones); CDs, CD cases, tax documents, bank cards, lottery tickets, phone numbers on scraps of paper. Mislay your keys and the time before church begins, or school starts, or the train leaves, simply flies by. Tired? Feel the energy surge back as you hunt for your passport. But (as someone in the last century called Frank Sinatra once told us), the best is yet to come. Find the thing you lost and you feel great. You return to ordinary life - which minutes ago had seemed so humdrum - and you say, ‘Oh - that’s wonderful!’ And the first-century teenager will say, ‘Yep. I don’t know what any of those things are but that’s just how it feels for us.’
She may have heard Jesus tell those stories about a shepherd tracking a lost sheep and a woman raking the dust for a lost coin, and how each throws a party once their lost property is found. These stories - called parables - Jesus tells them to give us a glimpse into another world, into heaven, into God’s place. I hear them and I say, ‘Yes, that’s how it feels;’ and then the penny drops: that’s how God feels. God is the shepherd, God is the woman on her hands and knees in the dirt. That is how God searches for me.
The drama of losing and finding only works, of course, if you care about the thing you have lost. I left a document case on a train yesterday - irritating, but I don’t really care: it was made of plastic and the sermon notes inside - these sermon notes - were on my computer. When you lose people (which is what these stories are really about) it’s different. Our student researchers said the most scary times - for them and their parents - were when they got lost.
Today’s date, September 11th, is the anniversary of terrible loss. The obscenity of that day in 2001, which saw nearly 3000 people killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, has been repeated many times since, right up to yesterday’s seemingly indiscriminate bombing in Syria. The terrorist (who can be a state actor) does not set out to kill particular people. He or she plans the act knowing, intending, that people - ordinary people, civilian people, any people - will be lost. It might be one, it might be another, it doesn’t really matter, because they don’t really matter, they are not part of the terrorist’s world, at least not as people: they are just symbols, or instruments for the purpose.
God, Jesus says, is not like that. Well of course God isn't like that, but Jesus' God is even less like that than you might imagine. I have known the story of the lost sheep most of my life. I always knew there was something odd about it, but never thought seriously enough about it to pin it down, until I read a writer who has, and so has discovered something about Jesus' God that I had not seen. Francis Spufford's Unapologetic (shortlisted for last month’s Michael Ramsey Prize and quoted in my last sermon) talks about how Jesus' stories seem odder and odder the more you think about them. Like today's.
Say you have a hundred sheep, and one goes missing. You'll leave the rest in the wilderness, says Jesus, and go after the lost one, won't you? Oh, yes. Or, actually, no, because sheep wander, don't they? And the point of being a shepherd is to end up with as many sheep as you started with. So I'd lock the ninety-nine up first, so I didn't lose them too, and then look for the lost one. That would be what Spufford calls a ‘rational sheep-maximising strategy'.
But not for Jesus. Jesus doesn't seem bothered about quantity or ownership. What matters to him is simply that 'what is lost should be found'. And that is how he is with people. Crowds follow him, but he doesn't set out to recruit more and more. He is not a politician garnering votes, or a vicar trying to get more bottoms on pews. It's not just that he doesn't see them as means to an end. No, more than that, Jesus’ sense of people is not ‘additive’. More is not better. Each person in front of him is, for that moment, the one missing sheep.
This is hard to hear, when so much in our lives is additive. 'Value added' is the watchword for assessing schools. Childhood and teenage years are about adding up scores, outside school as well as in, like how many social-media-accredited 'friends' or ‘followers’ you have. And it's all good training, because your performance at work is probably going to be judged by some more or less sophisticated adding up exercise.
Everywhere we are told that more is better. Even here, in church, where I confess, I am one of those vicars who wants fuller pews. I want more people to worship here week by week. I hope you do too, because inviting someone to church is much the most fruitful way of increasing a congregation. Our art programme is explicitly in part about boosting visitor numbers. It’s naïve, wrong, to say that numbers simply don’t matter. We should want more people - but only if the point is that more people come to know God, who is the point of everything.
And what do we discover as we get to know God? God is the shepherd in the rain, God is the woman on her hands and knees in the dirt. That is how God searches for me. That's how God searches for me when I stop listening for God’s voice. That's how God searches when I get caught up in things that lead me towards bad stuff. And when God finds me, what then? Detention? Fine? Final written warning? No, apparently, there is a party in heaven, all because of me.
We need to realise that God cares that much, not just about humankind in general but about you; that God loves you, me, each of us, as if there was no other; that each of us is the one God searches for so recklessly, not as a valuable asset, but as the one missing sheep.
Unapologetic Francis Spufford, Faber and Faber, 2012, especially pages 126-129.