Sunday, 15 September 2013

Losing, Seeking, Welcoming

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells two stories about loss. The shepherd who has a hundred sheep. One wanders off, leaving him with 99. Is it worth it - or even wise - to go and search for the lost sheep? And the woman who has ten silver coins. She loses one and then turns the house upside down until she finds it. I wonder how you manage with losing things…

I don’t lose things very often. But when I do, I’m quite perplexed. Looking for my spare keys to leave with a neighbour while we were away, I recalled putting them somewhere safe where no one else might think of looking. The problem now is I can’t think of where to look either! So they’re somewhere safe, but I’m just not quite sure where. This got me quite worried because our holiday destination was a house which belongs to a friend. He gave me a bunch of keys for the house - a thousand miles away in the South of France. That’s when it dawned on me that if we lost these keys, we’d really be in trouble with no means of access and rather a long way away from anyone who could help. And it wouldn’t be a case of search through the house until you find the keys - we’d simply be locked out.

I’m glad to say that we managed to keep the keys safely with us wherever we went - and in the house itself we made sure that we always put them on the same hook as soon as we got in. But even routines can get you into trouble. Just over halfway through the holiday I lost my camera. We’d gone back to the car, parked outside an ancient walled hilltop town in Provence - and I knew straightaway the camera just wasn’t round my neck. It wasn’t in my bag either - the bag in which I’d made sure the keys to the house were kept safely zipped into an internal pocket. So I must have put it down - and I knew it couldn’t have been long ago because I’d taken so many photos. We went back to the local Tourist Information Office by the town gate - we’d stopped there to make use of their Wi-Fi internet access. But it wasn’t there - and the lady behind the desk said no one had handed it in. So we went up to the last place we’d visited before that, where I knew I’d definitely taken pictures. But it wasn’t there either. We looked high and low along the road between the two buildings - but nothing… I wondered if we should ask in all the shops along the way, but they were all so busy. We went back to the Tourist Information Office - still nothing, so I left my name and phone number. And then we walked out the door to find an American tourist using the exact same model of camera. But would she use my camera so flagrantly near the scene of its loss? Anyone could have picked it up and walked off with it. As we walked back to the car I felt quite upset. It had spoiled a wonderful day, I’d lost all those pictures I’d taken over the previous week, and I started getting annoyed at the dishonesty of people who find something and take the opportunity to keep it for themselves. I didn’t really want to go on with the day out, but we had to go back to the car anyway. We checked rubbish bins along the way on the off-chance that someone had dumped the camera case. But there was nothing. So we got in the car - and straightaway I found the camera sitting in the driver’s door pocket where I always left it.

What I thought was lost had never been lost at all. It was where I put it to keep it safe. And putting it there had become so much of a routine that I hadn’t even noticed that I’d taken the camera off as soon as I reached the car.

The two sorts of loss in the parables of Jesus which we hear today are quite different from each other. The sheep which has strayed - and perhaps the shepherd is a bit foolhardy to go looking for it. Isn’t he taking something of a chance when he leaves the other 99 in the wilderness? What’s the likelihood that he’s going to find this other sheep that could have wandered anywhere? - or might have been killed by a predator? It would be quite understandable if he simply wrote it off as one of those losses in life you have to bear.

It’s different for the woman who loses one of her ten silver coins. Not only are they precious, but they seem to have particular personal value to her - part of a set, perhaps part of a necklace. She needs the missing coin to make it complete. And because it’s somewhere in the house there’s a good reason for searching for it. Put the light on, be methodical and get looking. And her careful search is finally rewarded when she finds the coin.

But both stories have one thing in common… Thankfulness when what is lost is found. And it’s a thankfulness which is shared to draw other people in. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost,” says the shepherd. “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost,” says the woman.

These are stories which beg the question, what is precious to me? Not just things that I want to look after. But things which I’ll really put myself out for if I need to find them. And people who really need my care - who need me to look out for them.

And do people around us know the value these things and people have for us? So that we share our joy in them?

So much these days we keep to ourselves. There’s maybe a problem when we talk about having “belongings.” The word “belonging” itself implies that what I own is for me alone - so I keep it to myself… Quite unlike the woman who shares her joy at finding the lost coin. Most definitely unlike the shepherd whose joy follows on from a search in the most unpromising of circumstances.

The woman searching for the lost coin is so careful and methodical in searching for it. The shepherd, on the other hand, seems almost reckless in abandoning the other sheep to search for the one that is lost - and we might think him at least over-optimistic as to his chances of finding it.

But the point is in the identity of the shepherd. The shepherd is Jesus himself - and that sheep could be me. “Could be” I say, because the Pharisees and the scribes who grumble at Jesus just don’t get it. They can only complain - and their complaint is about other people. Jesus is letting all these people you don’t really want to mix with get too close. Tax collectors and sinners shouldn’t get to listen in on what he has to say. They should change their ways first. But Jesus simply encourages this wrong sort of person: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Can we hear ourselves saying that? Complaining about other people? Judging people who don’t behave the right way? Reckoning that some people just aren’t worth trying with? Writing off the sheep that has gone astray?

But - says Jesus - “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

What do we need? In this Eucharist Jesus invites us to eat and drink with him at his table. The bread and wine we take to the altar are given back to us as his Body and his Blood. They’re given to us by the one who welcomes sinners and eats with them.
Homily preached Trinity 16 - Year C – Eucharist – 15.ix.2013
(Exodus 32.7-14; Luke 15.1-10)