We too are to search

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

Exodus 32: 7-14
I Timothy 1: 12-17
Luke 15: 1-10

‘There will be more joy in heaven or in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’.

Early this week, I spent a few days at Christ Church College in  Oxford for a Preaching conference, a bi-annual event which brings together speakers from different fields in order to reflect about developments in preaching and how preachers today might practice their craft in a world and a church that continues to be in movement, seemingly sometimes spinning out of control.

Offerings this year included topics such as ‘worship that destroys (and saves) the world’, ‘sermons seldom heard’, ‘danger in the pulpit: the sermon I want to preach but never quite can’, ‘preaching in divided times’ or ‘the Fool’s pardon: the polity and parables of Jesus’.

I am sure that in due course you will be able to decide whether attending the course was time well spent – and whether the preaching style changes markedly at the Cathedral as a consequence.  As one major element of faith communication and connecting the dots between Jesus and our times, preaching is key in helping us make sense of our faith today. Clergy here in Montreal will be focusing further on preaching at our time away with the bishop next week.

At the conference which I attended, we were inevitably led on a reflection on ‘preaching the parables’ since they are a plentiful fare of the preacher’s material and feature prominently in the lectionary of the church, so we hear them often during our Sunday worship.  UK new testament scholar Paula Gooder took us on a whistle stop tour of current thinking on this particular aspect of Jesus’s most characteristic way of teaching, one used widely at the time, yet one that Jesus uses extensively.

I am sure most of us are familiar with the genre, yet we may be surprised to learn that – if we include the short ‘I am…’ statements that Jesus makes at different times, there are broadly 60 parables in the Gospels, parables being these short stories which leave us having to think for ourselves what they might really mean for us about the nature of God, even if their meaning may often seem obvious.

The temptation of course is for the preacher to interpret these stories and provide an immediate translation of the metaphor, thus killing the parable – and even Jesus in is time was tempted to do this by his disciples, who either chose to be a little unimaginative or could not quite face the implications of those stories.

Unpacking the meaning for all does a disservice to the whole process of parabolic speech, which is meant to stimulate our imagination so that hidden meanings beyond the obvious may come to light and that faith may be illumined.

Yet, as most of us are steeped in the scripture and we have been hearing preachers for years, we may automatically assume a meaning for parables as we read and hear them, therefore feeling smuggingly part of the cognoscenti.

Today’s offerings from the lectionary in our Gospel readings are a case in point.  The parable of the lost sheep and that of the lost coin seems to us obvious.  What was lost has been found after much searching – the implication is that the shepherd and the old woman stand for God searching for the lost.

And ‘There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents’.

This is all very well, until we change our approach to these stories trying to hear them as if for the first time, and allow them to speak afresh to us.

‘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.

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to imagine what it is really like to look after one hundred sheep day in day out, but also not sure whether it would be the prudent thing to leave ninety nine safe sheep together on their own in order to find one missing one – who could have been taken by wild animals waiting to pounce again, fallen in a ditch or got lost in the immensity of the landscape.

And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

A very short story where order is restored quickly and where the neighbours are all apprised of the good news that the missing sheep has been found.  Surely there must be more to this, and our imagination may be able to come up with more questions that need answers.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one 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 neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’

This may sound more like a story with which we might identify better.

Note that the listeners are immediately asked to identify with the main protagonist (which one of you who?) –to identify with the frenetic search for the lost sheep or the lost coin, and to feel the sense of relief at having found it.  In that way we are made to both own those stories as part of our emotional environment, while at the same time drawing conclusions as to the nature of God.

We are relieved with the shepherd and can almost feel that sheep round our shoulders, and we can empathise with the woman’s relief of finding that lost coin – after all, we would be frantic if we lost 10% of our savings, would we not?

But I wonder what you, we, learn about the nature of God through these stories today?

Perhaps we may be shocked to realise that God’s nature is not like that of a patrician alpha male in control, but instead more like some of the lowest members of society.  Shepherds were pretty much as far down as you might be on the pecking order, even if over the years, we have internalised the idea of Jesus as the good shepherd, with the appropriate Victorian illustrations of a beautiful pastoral scene of reunification in the sunset.

As for the old woman, well she did not count really in the society of the time at all.

And yet they both are given to us in stories to reflect on the nature, generosity, compassion and deep care of God for the lost and the marginalised. A care that is so urgent that everything else is left behind, until there is truly time for celebration when all are safely gathered in.

I wonder what your own insights might be as you ponder on those stories more.

Let’s remember that these two stories were told by Jesus to the Pharisees around him who once again were complaining that he was spending far too much time welcoming sinners and eating with them.  For them, who thought they had all sides covered with regards to their relationship with God, these two vignettes would be utterly shocking.

Some take home messages for them and for us today are that God will leave everything to search for the lost, but God will not look anything like what we anticipate God to be.

You may want to think about who, in your life, has been God’s agent when you were lost? Who has come looking for you, found you, brought you home and rejoiced?  Shepherd, old woman, stranger friend?

This is the scandal of the Gospel that so many cannot bear to comprehend.

For far too many, God is remote, a figure of power and judgement, of separation and rejection, of mindless rules and regulations and lines that can’t be crossed. Or a being co-opted to condone the dubious and manipulative activities of the wealthy and powerful in order to vindicate their thirst for dominance in the straightjackets of orthodoxies that suit their social and financial status.

But in these and many other parables, Jesus once again reassures us that God is nothing like what we may imagine God to be.

The one thing we know is that God loves us so much – unconditionally – that God will search hell and high water until we are found and brought back into God’s fold – as full sharers in God’s kingdom.

As they comfort us, these parables also challenge us to be more like God in the world, a world currently in great distress and peril under the attacks on the Godly values which for too long we took for granted.  Care for the lost, compassion and unconditional love, care for creation.

We too, like the shepherd and the old woman, are to search for the lost and to rejoice with the unbounded joy of Godw hen they are found – whether they be erring politicians or those on the bread line.  Amen.




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