Exodus 32:7-14, Luke 15:1-10
Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on September 11th at Ss Peter & Paul
It’s very good to be here this morning and I know many of you are relieved that at last you have a new Rector in place.
It is an honour – and rather humbling – to become the 53rd Rector of this parish. In just three years’ time it will be the 800th anniversary of the appointment of the first Rector here in Kettering, something I hope we will all want to celebrate.
I want to thank you once again for your warm and generous welcome. And for the way so many of you have stepped up and played your part in the church during the vacancy.
I’m grateful also to the Patron of this parish, James Sanders Watson, with us here this morning.
I’m especially grateful the selection process didn’t resemble one almost two hundred years ago in 1827, when the successful candidate just happened to be the Patron’s brother.
Right at the start of my ministry here in Kettering comes a gift in the shape of this morning’s Gospel reading. A reading from the heart of Luke’s Gospel which gets to the very heart of what the gospel is about.
The author Luke takes a special interest in things that are lost and in Luke’s Gospel Jesus is especially concerned with things that are lost and with people who have lost things.
We use the word ‘lost’ to cover a range of experiences. Yesterday I was doing some hospital visiting and lost my hospital parking ticket. It was annoying and preoccupied me for around twenty minutes. But it wasn’t life-changing.
But sometimes we lose things which are closely wrapped up with our sense of who we are, with our identity. And then we ourselves become truly lost. In extreme cases, people lose their memories. We talk about people losing their minds. But many of us will have had knocks in life which led to us losing our way for a while. We lose a job. Or a partner, a lover, a friend. We lose someone through bereavement.
Luke’s Gospel is interested in these experiences of lostness because Luke’s Jesus is interested in them.
This kind of being lost is never good in itself. And yet out of this lostness new things become possible. Our true moments of glory come not at times of success, of welfare and plenty, but of lostness, hardship & uncertainty. These are the moments of transformation.
The experience of being lost, then found, is at the very heart of the Christian experience.
Exactly 250 years ago last month a man stood in this very pulpit who wrote our best-known words about being lost, lines in the most recorded song in history.
‘I once was lost
but now am found’
When John Newton came to Kettering on 5 August 1766, it was 18 years after the religious conversion which began to change his life. It would be another six years before he wrote ‘Amazing Grace’.
Right at the heart of Luke’s Gospel are three stories about being lost and losing things, following one after the other: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and a third parable we didn’t hear today, the parable of the lost son. The parable of the lost son may sound unfamiliar to you, and yet it is one of the greatest of all the parables, better known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is bizarre that it’s not known as the Parable of the Lost Son, because ‘being lost’ is so clearly the common thread running through all three stories; and because the parable ends with these words: ‘this brother of yours was lost and has been found.’
But lostness isn’t something we find just at the heart of Luke’s gospel. It’s there also at the start and at the end.
In Luke Chapter 2 it’s Jesus himself – twelve years old – who is lost. Mary and Joseph are travelling away from Jerusalem following the Feast of the Passover. And then they realise Jesus is missing. After three days they find him, back in the Jerusalem Temple, talking with the religious teachers. Jesus says to his parents: ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’
Luke is a great storyteller and it’s hard to believe he wrote this story without having at the back of his mind another story, one which he tells towards the end of his gospel.
Because this is not the last time in Luke’s gospel we meet two people walking away from Jerusalem following the Passover Festival, distraught because they have lost Jesus. It’s not the last time they encounter Jesus again after three days, engaged in a discussion of the scriptures. It’s not the last time the two people interrupt their journey and head back to Jerusalem.
Luke tells these stories in such a way that when we read the story of the Road to Emmaus, at some level we’re reminded of the earlier story, of Joseph and Mary, out of their minds with worry because they’ve lost Jesus.
Many of us will have had times in our lives when we have lost Jesus. When we can’t quite work out how once we felt close to him, and then somehow he no longer seemed to be part of our lives in the same way. And we try to retrace our steps and work out how that happened, and how we can change things so that Jesus is once more part of our lives, so that God’s presence, rather than his absence, is something we once again experience.
When Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus again, he appears to be completely at home. He says to them: ’Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’
Which raises the question: ‘Who was really lost?’
It is we who are lost when we lose Jesus, when we lose sight of God, when we lose touch with the spiritual side of our character. I speak from experience, having spent fifteen years of my life away from Christian faith. Like the people of Israel we heard about in our first reading, I spent many years wandering in a wilderness. I often regret it and lament what I see as wasted years. And yet, like the people of Israel, that time has shaped who I am and now shapes my ministry, especially with those on the edge of the church, those who find faith difficult.
Fortunately, as Luke’s Gospel makes clear, it is precisely at such moments of lostness that we can experience God in a new way.
When the lost son returns to his father, his father sees him when he is still far off and runs and puts his arms around him and kisses him. This is a picture of God, one of the best we have.
Once we find our way again, how is life different? What is it that keeps us on track and stops us getting derailed? A detailed map, perhaps, so we need never get lost again?
That’s not my experience. There are Christians – there are indeed whole churches – who believe God provides such a detailed map. In my experience, that’s rare. Less a map, more a compass. Indeed, less a compass, more a homing instinct. That feels more true to those moments in life when things do seem to go right, when we feel as if by God’s grace, we are living within God’s purposes. It was such a homing instinct that took the boy Jesus to his true home – to his Father’s house.
I believe it was such a homing instinct which has brought me here to Kettering.
There is perhaps just one thing worse than being lost. And that’s being lost and not realising it.
To be relying, for example, on a mental map which is no longer helpful because a place has changed.
Churches can get lost, not because they change but because the world around them changes. It can happen to any church. It could even happen here.
The way to stay true to ourselves when the world is changing is not simply to carry on as before. The authentic way to be true to ourselves is to find creative ways of being the same person in very different circumstances.
And something similar is true for churches. The world is changing. Kettering is changing. So the question for our churches is: how do we remain true to ourselves when around us we see change? This parish’s distinguished history provides clues. This year is the 100th anniversary of the creation of three new parishes in Kettering, the result of an imaginative and resourceful response by this church to the growing population. It built three new churches, St Andrews, All Saints and St Mary’s and by 1916 these churches had become strong and resilient enough to have their own parishes. This visionary act of generosity undoubtedly led to a growth in the Christian Church in Kettering.
Kettering is once again growing. It’s unlikely that our response is going to be the same as 100 years ago. And yet the need for vision, for imagination, for confidence in God and for generosity remains as strong as ever. 100 years ago this church knew that Christian life and ministry were an adventure. Let’s join them and be true to our heritage. And in doing so, find ourselves again in a new way.