Familiarity breeds contempt – I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase? It’s often used when people have grown apart, or perhaps just need to take a break from each other.
It’s not just used about relationships, though. It can apply to anything we do often that once used to be unfamiliar – as a child, for me, pizza was one of the most exciting meals I could have. Now, don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy a good pizza, but the increased availability of it – and the regularity in which I eat it – has diminished its excitement somewhat.
It applies in our faith, too. Many of us have said the Lord’s Prayer at least once weekly for many years. We know it off by heart, and can reel it off without even thinking about it – and there is the issue. At that point, it stops being a prayer, and becomes a chant or a mantra; an unthinking utterance that we can say out loud, off-pat, whilst probably thinking of something else entirely. We’re so familiar with it, we forget to think about its meaning.
And so, I come onto our Gospel reading today – when we heard again, one of Christ’s most familiar parables – the story of the lost sheep. It’s such a famous one, and one we know so well, that you’d be forgiven for having tuned out when it was read to us. Many of you could probably reel it off, like the Lord’s Prayer.
That familiarity can be a hindrance, though – it can breed contempt or indifference to the Gospel message we heard. It can hide a meaning that we may not realise is there, because we know the story so well – we’ve heard its meaning ever since we were little children – God loves us, even if we go astray and get lost, he’ll welcome us back.
But this morning, I’d like to suggest that, although that is absolutely true, and a reading that can be found in our Gospel today, it was not the primary meaning that Jesus was trying to state. Take a moment to read it again – perhaps you’ll notice something a bit different than you heard the first time.
Did you notice the first time round that there was a second, less famous parable there – about a woman who loses a coin?
Maybe you missed the introduction to the parables earlier too? The reason why Christ told the stories in the first place, and who he told them to?
“…the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable”
The religious people around Jesus were upset that Jesus, a supposedly holy man, was hanging around with the wrong crowd. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, he’d been accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus was not behaving in the way a religious person should, and they told him such.
So he told them about the lost sheep. And the lost coin. And straight after, he told them about the prodigal son too.
The message that Christ was telling his fellow religious teachers was not “God loves us”. It’s not even “God loves everybody”, but a very, very specific “God loves them” – those people out there who’d never think of darkening our doors – the tax collectors, skimming off a cut of your money before passing it onto the authorities; the drunks and the gluttons and the hedonists, partying too hard and indulging in substances they shouldn’t; the prostitutes and their clients; the black sheep who have wandered off, and the tarnished silver which has no concept it is even lost; the dirty, the unwashed and the unclean.
“Oh,” but the Pharisees reply, ”We know God loves them. We will happily welcome them back should they turn up on a Sunday morning. As long, of course, as they’re not still drunk, or high, or dirty. God’s house is holy, and deserves some respect.”
“No,” says Christ. “That is not how God loves them.” The shepherd doesn’t wait in the fold, whistling and calling back the lost sheep, shuffling his feet whilst he waits. The woman doesn’t despair and wait for the light of day to find her lost coin, or go to bed thinking ‘ah well, it’ll turn up eventually – it’s got to be here somewhere’. The wronged father in the story of the prodigal son does not righteously sit back, waiting for his son, who wished him dead, to come crawling back on his knees.
No – the shepherd leaves the safety of the fold, and goes out into the danger of the wilderness alone, searching for the lost sheep until he finds it, and when he does, he carries it home. The woman lights a lamp, and gets down amongst the dirt of the floor, sweeping every inch until she has found her lost coin. The father runs to meet his no-good son, ‘when he is still far off’.
|A shepherd carrying a sheep|
That’s how God loves them, says Christ, he hunts in the dessert, she searches on her knees in the dirt, he runs undignified to a child who has badly, badly wronged him, and he carries them all home. As they are; a sheep, ignorant of what it did wrong; a coin, still dirty from the dust and muck of the floor; a son, only returning home because he ran out of money.
That, says Christ to the Pharisees, is how God loves them. That is why, Christ says, I eat with gluttons and drink with drunkards and party with sinners. I am not just waiting for them. I am hunting, searching and running, in the desert, in the muck, on the road, to find what I have lost, and I will bring them home.
That, says Christ to us, is our mission too. To “go into all the world, and proclaim the good news to the whole creation”. Sometimes, I think the highest honour non-Christians can bestow upon us Christians is that we are ‘normal – not like you’d expect a Christian to be’. They mean, I think, non-judgemental, non-pious, down-to-earth and someone who likes to be with them.
The Pharisees saw that in Jesus and called it gluttony and being drunk. Jesus knew, though, that he was searching for what his Father had lost, and actively bringing them home.
Lord, help us to love in the same way, to search like the shepherd and the woman did, to run like the father did, to meet people like Jesus did, and to help bring them home to you.