Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Not all those who are lost, have wandered

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

7th March 2021


Luke 15.1-32

Listen to this sermon here:

In the book The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien,

              there is a character called Aragorn, also known as Strider,

              who wanders Middle Earth in humble clothing,

              hiding his kingly origin and destiny.

 

When Gandalf is trying to explain Aragorn’s significance to the Hobbit Frodo,

              he does so in the form of a short riddle:

 

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

 

The point is clear: sometimes you have to look beneath the surface

              to appreciate the true value of something or someone.

 

And as we come to our consideration this morning

              of the three linked parables that Jesus told,

              of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son,

I want to offer a slight re-framing of Gandalf’s riddle for us:

              Instead of Tolkien’s ‘Not all those who wander are lost’,

              I’d like to suggest that,

              not all those who are lost, have wandered.

 

So now, let’s turn to the first in this trilogy of parables in our reading for today,

              the story of the lost sheep.

 

The first rule in coming to read the parables of Jesus

              is to seek to remove our presuppositions about them.

 

Many of us assume, often wrongly, that we already know them perfectly well,

              whereas in actual fact we may well have overlooked some aspect,

              or allowed our perceptions to be formed by memories of sermons and hymns,

              or by retellings of these stories by parents, teachers, preachers and books down the years

 

An example of this is the summary of the parable of the Lost Sheep

              which forms one of the verses of H.W. Baker’s beloved hymn

              “The King of Love my shepherd is” - I’m sure you know it.

 

Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed

But yet in love he sought me

And on his shoulder gently laid

And home rejoicing brought me

 

The author of the hymn here accurately picks up the picture from Luke

              of a sheep on a shepherd’s shoulder,

              and the theme of rejoicing at its recovery.

However, in interpreting the parable, we need to be wary.

 

The hymn makes a definite identification between the shepherd of the parable

              and Jesus, the Good Shepherd from John 10:11.

And whilst it’s not impossible that these stories can be held together,

              it ain’t, as the Gershwin Brothers famously wrote, necessarily so.

 

But more significant, I think, than the easy yet questionable identification

              of the shepherd in Luke’s parable with the Good Shepherd of John’s gospel,

is the troubling blame that the song lays on the sheep for getting lost in the first place:

              The sheep, we are told, is ‘perverse and foolish’, and strays ‘oft’.

 

To which I’d want to say:

              Not all those who are lost, have wandered.

 

Luke 15:4 actually says

              "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?”

 

In Luke’s narrative, as in the companion parable of the Lost Coin

              it is the owner who seems to be responsible for the loss.

 

The shepherd lost the sheep, the woman lost the coin,

              and this raises all kinds of interpretive difficulties

              if we assume that the shepherd in this parable

              is Jesus the Good Shepherd from John’s gospel.

 

Luke’s way of emphasising it puts the emphasis on the shepherd and his ownership,

              and makes no mention of any blame on the sheep for its folly

              nor any wrongdoing on its part in getting lost.

 

The sheep is not a sinner for getting lost,

              any more than the coin sinned by being dropped on the floor.

 

Further, in the hymn, the shepherd’s rejoicing is extended throughout the journey home

              whereas in Luke, the shepherd rejoices twice

                           once when he finds the sheep

                           and again in the company of his friends and neighbours

                                         when he has completed the task of rescuing it.

 

I point all this out, because when we come to deeply loved and oft-preached parables,

              such as the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons,

it can be hard to hear them with ‘fresh ears’,

              and yet this is what we must try to do,

              to hear them speaking afresh to us.

 

So, to return to my theme for this morning,

              not all those that are lost, have wandered.

 

These three parables of lost-ness need to be heard in dialogue with one another,

              because Luke has carefully arranged them together, here in his gospel.

 

And our starting point should be where Luke starts,

              the parable of the lost sheep.

 

So we should resist reading backwards from the story of the lost sons,

              to infer that the lost sheep or lost coin

              were in some way were culpable for their being lost,

and I think we should resist reading back from John’s gospel

              to suggest that the shepherd who loses a sheep

              is Jesus the Good Shepherd.

 

Rather, these are parables of the kingdom of God,

and they speak about God by extension from the lesser to the greater:

if even a careless shepherd searches until the sheep is found…

if even a careless woman searches until the coin is found…

how much more will God never case searching for that which is lost!


These are parables that reveal the action of God 

to bring in those whom others would write off or exclude,

they are about the celebration that marks the bringing home of those who have been lost.


 

The previous chapter in Luke’s gospel is relevant here

              because it’s the story of the great banquet;

              you know the one, where the invited guests make their excuses,

              and the host invites the excluded and marginalised to take their places.

 

And the controversy that Luke sets as the introduction to the three parables about lost-ness

              is also about food,

with the Pharisees and their scribes grumbling

              that Jesus persists in welcoming sinners and eating with them (15.2).

 

It seems Jesus didn’t just tell stories about God’s inclusive banquet,

              he lived it into reality - literally sharing table with those whom others would deny.

 

And the Pharisees had a problem with this,

              because their teaching was one which emphasised personal responsibility

              for maintaining one’s own state of righteousness before God.

 

Now, I don’t think we should be too hard on the Pharisees here,

              because most of us would want to emphasise the importance of diligent discipleship.

But there’s a fine line between making every effort to live rightly before God,

              and starting to think that one is better in some way than those who don’t live in the same way.

 

It’s a bit like the parable of the workers in the vineyard,

              where the late arrivals get paid the same

              as those who have been working faithfully since daybreak.

God’s inclusion of the sinners, the outcast, and the lost,

              can feel very unfair to those who have been in for ages,

              toiling in the vineyard of God’s kingdom.

 

So you can see why the Pharisees grumbled

              when Jesus persisted in eating with outsiders,

              claiming that this is how God’s kingdom works.

 

And in reply to their grumbling, we find Jesus giving these three parables of lost-ness,

              which simultaneously deconstruct the Pharisees’ objections

              and expound Jesus’s proclamation

              of the radical, inclusive, expansive nature of the Kingdom of God.

 

Which brings me to the issue of repentance.

 

I don’t know what you think of when you hear the word repent?

              Is it a fiery preacher, shouting ‘repent’

              whilst wagging a judgmental finger at your sinful thoughts and deeds?

 

If so, you’re bang in there with the Pharisees’ understanding of repentance.

              For them, to repent was to ‘turn from’,

              to turn away from sin, to turn away from unfaithfulness.

 

But is this what Jesus has in mind when he says,

              after both the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin,

              that there is great rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents?

 

I don’t think so,

              because the lost sheep and lost coins did nothing to be found.

Lost things don’t find themselves,

              any more than they lose themselves in the first place.

 

The key to this is to realise that repentance isn’t just about turning from

              it is also about turning towards.

 

The Pharisees had turning from nailed,

              it was all about careful, righteous living,

              keeping away from sin, away from temptation,

              away from those who were unclean, reviled, and excluded.

In other words, it was about what you, as an individual, did.

 

But Jesus is showing that repentance is not so much about what we do,

              as it is about what God does.

We don’t hear the sheep confessing its sin of straying,

              nor the coin confessing its sin of being dropped.

They are just lost,

              and then they are found,

              and then there is much rejoicing in heaven.

 

Through these opening two parables,

              Jesus invites a realisation of the driven desire of God

              to form relationship with those who are the lost, the least, and the loveless.

 

The Pharisees thought repentance started with an individual’s actions to change themselves,

              but Jesus shows that it starts with God breaking through,

              with the one who cares enough to search, and search, and search, until the lost are found.

 

So hear this, if you are feeling lost:

              God is never going to give up until you are found,

              and you are welcome at the table of Christ, at the banquet of the kingdom of heaven.

 

And if you’ve already secured your seat at the communion table of God’s people, hear this:

              it’s not about you, and it never was.

None of us have earned our place in God’s kingdom,

              we are here by grace alone,

              and not because of any righteousness on our part.

 

By this understanding, repentance means not so much a turning from sin,

              although that may follow, as sin loses its vice-like grip on our lives.

Rather, repentance means ‘being claimed’ by God,

              the turning towards God of repentance,

              is the state of being found, being loved, being sought, and being saved.

 

And, as I’ve said, not all those who are lost, have wandered.

 

These parables are not about the 99 sheep who remained,

              nor are they about the 9 coins that were not lost,

they are about the one who was lost,

              and is sought, and is found.

 

And those, like the Pharisees, and like some of us too,

              need to hear that sometimes, it’s not about us.

 

There is a parallel here with the Black Lives Matter movement.

              Many of us have heard someone say, in wake of BLM,

                           that ‘All Lives Matter’.

 

And of course, objectively speaking, this is true.

              All lives do indeed matter.

 

But not all lives are threatened, not all lives are marginalised and excluded,

              and the power of Black Lives Matter

                           is that it highlights the injustices faced by some,

                           and that it calls the many to be part of addressing these.

 

I can hear the Pharisees, who are part of the 99 sheep, or the 9 coins,

              saying, ‘yes, but all sheep matter’; or ‘yes, but all coins matter’

 

It’s like the elder son in the final parable,

              angry at the part that greeted his returning brother.

I can hear him saying, ‘yes, but all sons matter’.

 

But the truth is that not all sons are lost,

              and not all those who are lost, have wandered.

 

The mechanisms for exclusion, that lead to lost-ness,

              are many and varied.

Some, certainly, are the result of actions taken by an individual,

              as the younger son in the final parable shows;

              but others are just a state of being.

 

The person excluded because of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, or poverty,

              are not lost from society because of their sin.

Rather, it is the sin of others that has pushed them to the margins,

              and there will be rejoicing in heaven when they are found,

              when they are able to take their rightful place at the banquet table of the kingdom of God.

 

Jesus’ actions in sitting and eating with the lost of his world,

              which so upset the Pharisees of his day,

were a prophetic enactment of the nature of the kingdom of God

              where all are invited to the table, without exclusion or exception.

 

There is a warning here for those expressions of Christian identity

              that are predicted on a ideological and theological construction of a group we can call ‘other’,

              against whose so-called sinfulness we can measure ourselves as righteous.

 

But there is also good news,

              for all those who feel lost, excluded, marginalised, or oppressed;

and this is that God, like the shepherd and the woman in the parables,

              seeks and searches, and hunts, and never gives up,

              until all those who are lost have been found.

 

And there is also a challenge,

              for us all to realise that, whoever we are, we too are lost until we are found.

This is not a once only state of being,

              we all need to be found, and found again.

 

The younger son was lost before he left home,

              while the elder son was lost even though he remained at home;

and the younger son was found,

              long before he eventually made his way home.

 

The story of the two sons is not a story about ‘finding yourself’,

              it is, of course, another story of ‘being found’.

And it is a story of a compassionate father loves both of his children in their lost-ness,

              never giving up on them, never writing them out of his family.

 

So this morning, as we come to our own expression of the great banquet of the kingdom of God,

              gathering around the Lord’s table to celebrate Communion together,

              we do so rejoicing that each of us, whoever we are, is invited to this table.

 

Bloomsbury was famously an ‘open table’ church from its founding,

              and it is with great joy that we continue to extend the welcome of God

              to all those who ‘find themselves’ at the table of the Lord.

1 comment:

Marie said...

Thank you, very much, for placing all this beauty into words. My challenge, now, is to not steal it wholesale (I'm a preacher too) but let it percolate, nourish and grow in my soul. How on earth had you time to write it by TUESDAY?? :) Many blessings, and thank you. ~ Marie