A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 15 September 2019- 10:30am- 13 After Trinity
1 Timothy 1: 12-17 and Luke 15: 1-10
There’s a striking poem called “Demeter” by the poet Fiona Benson which the priest and author Mark Oakley explores in his book The Splash of Words. Looking at the relationship between faith and contemporary poetry, this book won the Michael Ramsey prize at the Greenbelt Festival a couple of weeks ago. I loved all the poems discussed in it, but this one especially stayed in my mind.
Named after the Greek goddess of agriculture and the harvest, “Demeter” is set in a hay meadow, and is a poem, in Fiona Benson’s own words, “about how becoming a mother turns you into a crazy person”.
In the poem, walking amongst the hay bales with her young daughter, Benson panics when her daughter disappears out of sight, playing in the field. “When I look back she’s gone and my own voice/ snags at her name like barbed wire on skin,” she writes with escalating tension. Before long, her daughter disappearing in and out of sight between the hay bales, she is screaming like Demeter losing her daughter Persephone when she was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld, and imagining all kinds of terrible things that might happen to a child, from car accidents and illness to abduction and abuse: “I can’t bear it,” she writes, “and I cannot pray enough/ to spare it, I’ll pray to any listening god/ to keep her safe from harm”. She goes and picks up her protesting daughter and takes her home, safe out of all trouble. As it turns out, her fears are out of all proportion, and the reader can just imagine her daughter looking up at her, wondering what all the fuss was about.
This poem struck me because, as one of four siblings all quite close together in age, it made me think of my own mother’s fear if ever, as very young children, one of us got lost. And I thought of it again when I read today’s Gospel. There’s a visceral quality to the poem that for me resonates with these two very emotional parables, both of which are about frantic searching for something precious until it is found.
Like a poem, a parable uses human images, everyday experiences to reveal something about God, here the strength of God’s love for every human person- and especially for the one who is lost. Instead of being named after the lost objects themselves, the sheep, the coin, these Gospel parables could just as well be labelled, “The Parable of the seeking shepherd” and “The parable of the searching woman”.
First, there’s the shepherd, desperate to find the one lost sheep. Presumably he’s quite wealthy- an average family owned between five and fifteen animals; he has a hundred- but he’s thinking not of the ninety-nine he still has, but of the one that’s somehow become detached from the others. Leaving the others in safety, the shepherd searches frantically. It might now be dark, but back into the wilderness he goes, in perilous weather conditions, maybe, or dangerous countryside, such is his concern to find the lost one. A sheep lost from its flock quickly gets agitated and disorientated and so must be carried back to the other sheep, the easiest way on long journeys being across the shoulders.
And what about the woman who has lost the coin? She, by contrast, is an impoverished widow. With this second parable, the feeling of panic is even greater. More than the sheep, which is one in a hundred, the loss of one coin out of ten highlights the urgency of recovering it. A village peasant, living in a house with no window- hence the need for a lamp, the woman’s coins most likely represent the family savings- so not much, totalling the equivalent of only approximately ten days’ wages. The loss of even one would be catastrophic. Jesus describes her efforts in detail: she lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully. Like the highly energetic piece by the composer Beethoven nick-named after this story, “Rage over a lost penny,” this parable is popular, because it’s so human and full of emotion: everyone can relate to in its fervour, its busy, agitated searching for the valuable object that is lost.
Both parables, then, show a God who doesn’t stand on ceremony but who, as in the parable of the prodigal son which follows, abandons his dignity and runs to meet his lost child, and in whose love each us of us finds healing and fulfilment. This isn’t a grasping kind of love or manipulative desire: it’s a love that’s beyond control, that allows us, like the sheep, to wander or stray or, like the coin, to hide away. But it’s also a love that takes the initiative and seeks us out with dedication and persistence.
As these parables show, it’s easier to turn back to this kind of God when you’re lost. The Pharisees, complaining about Jesus- with their sophistication and theological knowledge- in the end can’t respond in the simple and honest way that a lost child- or a lost sheep- can. Their status and grandeur, their fear of God’s generous, overflowing love that loses dignity and accepts all, creates a barrier.
A few weeks ago I heard an interview with the children’s writer and famous author of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo. Working on a farm for city children, Morpurgo had been worrying because he wanted to write a story about a horse in the First World War, and he knew the story had to be told from the first person, but it felt too sentimental and he didn’t know whether he should do it and kept putting off starting. At the same time, he met a foster child from a very rough city estate who hadn’t spoken for two years, and he was advised by the child’s teachers that, if he did try to speak to the child, there was a risk he might run away. So Morpurgo heeded the advice, he observed the child the whole week he was there – the boy was totally silent. Then one day he was watching him by the stable, and suddenly saw the boy reaching up and stroking the side of a horse’s face, and realised that he was talking to it, telling the horse everything he had done on the farm that day. From that point on, he knew that there was a real relationship- not a sentimental one- between those two creatures, that between them there existed respect, comfort and love, and it gave him the courage to go and write War Horse.
For Morpurgo, an experienced writer, it was the response of a lost child that unlocked something in him, enabling him to write in a way that was real and that spoke to people. In our two short parables, we see God pictured as a rustic shepherd or vulnerable widow, who acts with honest emotion. We experience a God who understands the deeper and more chaotic parts of what makes us human. God, the seeking shepherd or frantic woman, doesn’t hide behind what is right or proper. Both parables end in a scene of utter delight and wonder and rejoicing that that which was lost now is found. Everything depends on God’s grace and our gracious and humble response.
And so we come to the Eucharist, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, as those who “have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep”. In this season of creationtide, and as we approach harvest, the vision of the Kingdom of God which the parables herald and the Eucharist- with “angels and archangels”- prefigures is of a creation renewed and rejoicing, with nothing lost and all restored in the fullness of creation. In this vision, nothing and no one is destined to be lost; no one can be pushed away from the generous love of God.