Today was one of those days at church in the valley.
You know? the ones where half your regulars are away, for all sorts of good reasons, and none of the occasionals appear, and you find yourself at the head of the nave staring down at a half empty church?
Actually, it was a bit worse than that. I found myself staring down at an acceptably occupied south side of the nave - and a north side that was completely empty except for - yup, that's right, the last 3 rows.
Now these pews are occupied by some of my very dearest parishioners....ladies whom I respect, admire and love.....people to whom I would turn without hesitation for wise advice or a sympathetic ear at any time...but I did get cross with them this morning. Pleas, both good humoured and a bit more desperate, have no effect. .
It just doesn't seem to occur to them how lonely it feels standing at the front gazing out upon row upon row of empty pews...nor does it worry them in the least that those same empty pews create a deserted waste spanning the distance between them and the altar.
All this is by the way, really - except that it meant that I started the Eucharist feeling a bit disgruntled, and with a particularly clear sense that there were people missing, that we in no way matched my vision of a "successful" church on this particular Sunday morning.
Yes. I know. I know. It's not about the numbers.......but sometimes that's hard to believe - particularly if you feel that people beyond the parish may have an unrealistically positive view of the health of your church.
So, I stood there and looked at the gaps, and felt a bit miserable, really....but hey, it's Sunday and I get to preside at the Eucharist.....and that's really what I'm for - so the miseries didn't last long.
And so it was that half way through my sermon I heard my own words as I looked down at the people scattered about my larger-than-necessary building...and I realised that actually, THIS is what the church is like....what she has always been like.
A rag-taggle collection of people of all sorts and conditions, older and younger, highly educated and with learning difficulties, happy and sad, weary and enlivened, faithful and wavering.
Ridiculous, really, that this should be Christ's Body here - that, to this little flock, it is the Father's good pleasure to give the Kingdom.
Here's what I said in the sermon (with thanks to colleagues on the PRCL lists, who kick started me in a most helpful way)
I hope you’ll forgive me if I begin by acknowledging an open secret about life in the vicarage. Despite my best endeavours, I’m one of those chaotic people who works on the principle of a place for nothing and NOTHING in its place, so that not a day goes by without an anguished cry from the study
“Has anyone seen my keys?” Or my phone?Or my diary?
On a really bad day it might be all three!
Generally, of course, they are there amid the debris and it only takes a moment for my discerning offspring to produce them triumphantly. Sometimes, though, things go missing for a longer period, during which anxiety mounts at first but then, perhaps, I abandon the search and replace the item - at which point it appears, in the most unlikely place. So, when it comes to losing things, I guess I’m something of an expert, and can empathise with the shepherd in the parable. However, one important thing to do when hearing a reading from Scripture is to decide whereabouts in the story you find yourself…it may not necessarily be in the role of the narrator.
Let's think of the three viewpoints we're offered...
First, of course, there's the wandering sheep....After all, if she hadn't strayed, there wouldn't have been any parable. But imagine going down in history as the LOST sheep...Not the sort of image any of us would choose to cultivate.
I'd imagine she tried to justify herself.
“The grass really was greener over the hill, - until I got there - but when I reached it, it was the same scrubby mixture as before, so I kept on going...until, suddenly, I realised that I was lost. I hadn't a clue which way was home – so I went blindly onwards. If I had rested, even for a moment, I would have had to face my fear – and I simply couldn't do that.
I guess I might have gone on like that til I could go on no further – but a voice stopped me.....a voice, through the darkness, calling my name.
I almost wanted to hide – I felt so stupid, having to be rescued ..but my need got the better of my pride, so I called out in return – and then he came. The shepherd. He came to the very place where I was huddled and picked me up on his broad shoulders and carried me all the way home – and suddenly I didn't feel stupid and scared but loved and special and so very safe...safe in the arms of the shepherd.”
That sounds like a good place to end up...
I know I can recognise quite a lot of myself in that sheep – heading off on a deceptively attractive path that leads nowhere – unwilling or unable to admit my folly, and my need til it's almost too late.
Yes, there's alot of me there.
But I can see myself among the stay-at-home flock as well, though I rather wish I couldn't.
They are the ones who have got things right, who are behaving just the way sheep are supposed to.....so I'd imagine they might feel quite indignant at the shepherd's quixotic behaviour. With 99 perfectly good sheep all lined up awaiting his attention, he's turned his back and gone off after just ONE.
What's so special about her, then?
Why does she get all the attention when we're all here, bleating in concert, minding our manners, maybe just a little smug – because, after all, we know we're safe – and we don't really feel the need to fret about those left outside.
I don't want to admit it, but there are times when I feel like this.
I look at the lives of those who, by pretty much any standard you might choose, are well and truly lost – and I'm so relieved that I'm not in a similar state, I don't honestly care if anyone takes the trouble to rescue them at all.
Actually, with an attitude like that, maybe I'm the one that needs saving – once again.
Whereabouts are you in the story??
Then, of course, there's the shepherd. What ought he to do? Recount? Pretend he hasn't noticed that there's one missing?
The sensible thing would be to stay with the flock and just chalk up
the loss as natural wastage, just one of those things…But a shepherd is paid to care – to look after the flock – all of them.
How could he balance competing needs? Should he opt for the safe and sensible course of action – staying with the 99, closing his eyes to the gap in the corner...? that's surely tempting....but remember this is a story told by Jesus – so we are in the upside down world of God's kingdom, where one sheep is worth just as much as 99......and where a shepherd will take any risk at all for the sake of that one sheep.
Well versed in the ways of parables, we know, do we not, just who that shepherd really is.
So – if the shepherd is Jesus, we are assuredly the sheep.
Remember, I wanted you to consider where you are in the story.
If Jesus is somewhere out there on the margins, hunting for missing sheep,
where should we be?
Shouldn’t we be out there with him?
If one sheep is WITH the shepherd, - who's actually lost?
Could it be that the 99 are in the wrong place?
Surely the most important question for each of us is not
“Is Jesus with me?” but “Am I where Jesus is?” for we can trust him to lead us into new pastures, among people and situations we would never have chosen...
We can trust him to keep us from harm, and indeed to lay down his life for us.
That's what the good shepherd does.
Thanks be to God!