Sunday, 15 September 2019

All We, Like Sheep

Luke 15: Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Friend of mine moved out to a village. He was one of these tele-commuters. And he figured this village - not a highland Scottish village, or Northern England or Wales one - just an hour from London and set between decent sized towns - he thought this village would be full of similar minded people. You know, he an architect and his wife with her line in high-end sculpture. So they joined the local Facebook group to find out where the best coffee was to be sourced and where they all hang out for a sociable time with free wi-fi. First posting on the page: "Does anybody know whose sheep has its head stuck in the railings by the park?"
Spot the Lost Sheep
 Yep. 21st Century in Dibley. Turns out sheep still matter.

In Northamptonshire, the sheep farmers are suffering terribly. There are people rounding up sheep, slaughtering them in their fields, and then stealing the meat. The sheep farmers are reported to be "devastated". And with good reason. It's not like having some shirts nicked from a clothes shop. The lives of shepherds are tied up to those of the sheep. They're in it with the sheep - in all weather. Out lambing in some of the darkest, coldest - sometimes snowiest - days. Helping struggling ewes to give birth. Keeping them off the wrong plants. Removing them when they get their heads stuck in fences. Worry they'll work out how to get over cattle grids. Making sure they're all the right way up - because there's no end of ways a sheep can bring itself to danger. Remember Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd? When his daft dog drives his flock of sheep over a cliff, Gabriel has lost his livelihood. He's also lost his trade: because which farmer would hire a shepherd whose last sheep farm was his own? The shepherd's life is tied to the flock.

In using the parable of a shepherd, Jesus tells us a couple of very important things about God's relationship to us. He's adopting that Old Testament imagery of God as the good shepherd who cares for the sheep, whereas all the bad rulers are just in it to fleece them. But it's also about the closeness of God to God's people. God is in it with us - in the mud and dag and blood and dark and fears.

Compare it to today's other parable of God finding the lost coin. The woman loses a coin. She searches for that lost coin, and celebrates when she finds it, but the others are nice and safe in the house.

Is it me ewe're looking for?

Whereas this tale of the shepherd.  Wouldn't you all, asks Jesus, leave 99 sheep out in the field, and go and find the other one? To which I suspect the answer might be, we don't know. Because the Judean uplands in the 1st Century weren't Dunstable Downs. The wolves and lions on Dunstable Downs are safely caged away in Whipsnade zoo. Whereas the Judean uplands have wild animals wandering around. Things with teeth and muscle. Are you going out in the day time, Shepherd? Or the night? How many ravines and places where wild things can hide are you planning to go through?

David went around with his sling in case he met a wolf, or a gigantic Philistine. What are you going to meet, O rather Lacksadaisical Shepherd, and what do you have to protect you as you try and find that last woolly-minded member of your flock? And how many are you going to lose of the ones you've left behind?  What's so special about the lost one when all the good ones are stood there nervous wondering what time you'll be back?

But that's what God is like, Jesus tells his audience. God's not happy to take the 99 that are already safe - like contestants on Bullseye in the 1970s knowing the money's safe to take home but do they want to try and win a motor boat? God's going to take a chance and go and get the other one. The one who is - remember - not rebellious, not evil, just.... lost.

Remember that, O safe sheepy friends, as you enjoy your safeness on this heavenly ewelease, field or downs according to your locality and tradition. As we sing our songs of our heavenly sheepfold and how much we love the Shepherd - and isn't it great to have such a loving Shepherd - the Shepherd knows there's other sheep need finding and bringing home. And we're not to judge them and decide they're goats. We're to love them and accept them into our woolly flock.

So the Shepherd comes to earth, and gathers the lost ones, and they know his name and follow him. And then he turns to the place that should be the best of all fields - where the grass is juiciest - where God's Presence has been enthroned among the cherubim - on and off - since the people of Israel first came across the Jordan. And there, where he should find other shepherds, instead - in the palaces - he finds foxes and wolves. And he is taken outside the walls and crucified.

And there, he finds two more last lost sheep. One who is nailed to the cross next to his is told he'll be with him today in Paradise. And one, a Roman soldier - one of the army that keeps the Jews under oppression. One of the ones who slung him up there.  Who turns out to be a lost sheep in wolf's clothing. Who looks up at him and realises who he is. And Jesus calls him home too.

More rejoicing, says Jesus, over one that is found than over 99 that were never lost. But the ones that were never lost - they were always lucky. Always by the side of the Shepherd. Always in green pastures, by still waters. And the ones that are found - we are blessed. We never knew where our true home was. Never knew where our Shepherd was. Scraped around for the blessings we could find. But now our Shepherd has found us, we're safe with the flock - we've finally found our way home.

 "A Hint of Death in the Morning Air" - 97 poems to make you wonder, laugh or shake your head sadly. At only £1 on Kindle. Or if you want to know what the people in the pews really think, and you prefer your words printed on paper, why not try "Writes of the Church"?  The letters to the Church magazine the vicar really didn't need.

1 comment :

  1. I remember practising “All we like sheep” from Messiah and the conductor saying “It’s a comparison not an instruction”. Because a hundred people weeing like sheep would not be a pretty sight.


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