Exodus 32:7-14, Luke 15:1-10
Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on 11th September 2016 at St Michael & All Angels.
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. Today we remember those who still feel loss, 15 years after the events of 11 September 2001.
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.
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.
Does our gospel reading today provide any clues about the future of this church, of St Michael and All Angels, as we look ahead?
My impression is that St Michael’s is at a crucial moment in its history. The energy and life here which I’ve already sensed needs to find a direction. I see my main role here as simply enabling you to find your way forward. I want to be a catalyst, an enabler, a facilitator, so that each of you can discover your own ministry and vocation: so that together you can flourish in faith.
Many of us are here today because we’ve known what it means to be lost. Here is Kettering there is no shortage of people who feel lost, even if they don’t admit it. They are struggling, hurt, confused. What does the owner of the sheep do in our story? For a while he leaves the warmth and security of the flock, looks out into the wider world, finds the lost sheep and brings it home.
As St Michael’s grows and flourishes – as I’m sure it will – never forget what it is that brings us together. It is that we are people who know what it means to be lost. That is what the people in neighbouring streets most need. They need to see a community of people who, like them, know what it’s like to feel lost and yet who have been found.
And as you grow and flourish, have as your model the owner of the sheep in our story, who turns his face outwards to search for the lost one. St Michael’s is here for a reason, for a purpose. And part of that purpose is nothing less than the transformation of this corner of Kettering so that the lost can be found and so that the values of God’s kingdom – healing, reconciliation, justice – can become visible in our streets, signs of the presence of the kingdom of God.