The Crazy Logic of the Good Shepherd
A sermon by David Barton on Sunday 15th September.
Each Sunday the lectionary gives us a set of readings which are supposed to relate to each other – but it’s sometimes very difficult to see the connections! But this time the connections are clear – and important, and take us to the heart of our faith.
The question we all ponder – and have from humanity’s beginning is: What is the nature of God? And above all, what is God’s attitude to human wrong doing? The first reading (Exodus 32:7-14) is a record of some of our earliest struggles to tease out an answer from our encounters with God. It’s rather like a reading a few weeks ago, where Abraham similarly argues with God about the destruction of Sodom. Don’t take too much notice of who says what here – just follow the drift of the argument. These are ancient stories – written down 2,500 years ago and resting on an oral tradition going back much further.
God first called Abraham, and now calls a whole nation – rescuing them from slavery. It was an act of love, and God is consistent. God does not suddenly change. What begins here is the slow learning of a lesson in how a God of Love deals with human stupidity and wrongdoing – by patiently bearing with it. That’s the lesson Moses begins to learn, and it’s a lesson the prophets explore down the long years of Israel’s history. It’s the road that will eventually lead to the cross, when God in Christ takes upon God’s self the mess and pain of human wrongdoing, and utterly transforms it.
Jesus read that in the history of his people, and understood it deeply. And he spells out what it means for us in those two short parables we heard in the Gospel (Luke 15:1-10:12-17). A shepherd goes to great lengths to find a lost sheep. A woman scours her house to find a lost coin. They are hugely familiar, and the image of the good shepherd is everywhere in pictures and stained glass windows. But we mustn’t miss the essence of it: the point here is that neither the woman, nor the shepherd would have done what they did. The first audience knew that. They must have been startled. The coin was decorative, of no value – the kind of loss where you would shrug your shoulders and say “Oh well, it’ll turn up sometime.” And she certainly wouldn’t throw a party if she found it! No ancient shepherd would have risked the ninety nine others to look for one lost sheep. What was it about that sheep? That it had a very woolly coat? That it had a particularly attractive bleat? None of those things. It was a wanderer. It had no good sense. It didn’t stick with the rest. It’s one qualification was a disqualification. And yet, that was the sheep that got to ride home on the shepherd’s shoulders. That was the one that made the angels sing for joy.
The unspoken part of the story here of course, is the journey of the shepherd. Because that was a journey into the wilderness of human wrongdoing, all the way to Calvary. It was a journey made out of sheer love and completed with joy. The single, simple lesson of these two parables that Jesus wants to drive home is that nothing, absolutely nothing, qualifies us for being lifted onto the shoulders of the good shepherd. Not being here faithfully Sunday by Sunday. Not saying our prayers and reading the bible or being good. We are loved for who we are in our erring selves, without qualification and without reserve. Prayer and bible reading are the inadequate response we can make to this overwhelming, wonderful love.
It’s only when we see that. When we ditch the pretences and accept our disqualification – then do we actually see the change and what it means. We see the world quite differently. It no longer centres round us and our concerns as we once thought it did. It’s centre is outside ourselves, in the mystery that holds us. To discover that is to discover a world of connectedness and joy, in which we are gifted and empowered. That’s why the shepherd could leave the ninety nine because they had lives that overflowed with the shepherd’s grace. They were safe and secure in it, empowered to live as they should.
That’s the upside down world our faith takes us to. The one in the early church who really saw and understood the crazy logic of the good shepherd was Paul. You couldn’t call him a lost sheep. He was a wolf that harried and devoured the flock. But even he found himself carried home on the shepherd’s shoulders. And it amazed him even in his old age. The letter to Timothy, the middle reading (1 Timothy 1:12-17) is from the end of Paul’s life. But you can still hear the wonder in his voice: I am a teacher and apostle he says. I really am. “I tell the truth and don’t lie.” It is incredible to him, even after all those years.
We hear this word of God in world that swirls about us in ways that are troubling and bewildering. Hostilities in the Middle East, political and constitutional uncertainty at home, and behind it all something that is more important than any of those things, which we should spend much time thinking about but don’t: the disastrous changes taking place in our climate. I guess most of us worry about what our children and grandchildren will face. And more immediately, perhaps in response to the daunting seriousness of all of this, we seem to be retreating into silos of “us” and “them”, and what someone called “a surly, self protective localism.” Our public politics so easily degenerates into insult, with an unpleasant fallout into so many everyday interchanges.
So what can we, who are recipients of the crazy logic of God’s love do? We are all of us more than aware that this is a love that is always reaching out through us to those who do not yet know or understand. So what does it ask of us?
I’d like to suggest that the answer lies in the simplicity of the thing: the crazy, astounding discovery that we are set in a world that shines, even through the mess and failure, with the glory and wonder of God. It’s the discovery that we are not separate. We are part of creation and at one with others, knitted into a vast human fellowship. And that is a matter of delight, wonder, joy. Somewhere there lies our response. We can’t challenge a secular mindset, with it’s easy retreat into retail therapy and computer driven distractions. But we can delight in what we are given, and foster that delight in ourselves.
I was struck by an essay I read recently, by Roman Williams in which he emphasised just that. “We need,” he says, “a fresh sense of the delight to be found in human and non human creation, and a fresh sense of the importance of living in tune with who we are and what the world is..”. And he talks about us all having a natural intelligence: we can open our eyes to see the interaction of things; see the energy that pulses through the universe – what one modern scientific writer wonderfully called “the fire in the equations.”
When we wake up to the love of God, we and the world around us are always on fire. And our awareness of that simple gift is perhaps what we have to offer a troubled world. Not lectures, not preaching, certainly not anger, or even argument. Perhaps not even words. Just delight in what the world and those around us reflect. That is the kind of context where hope can flourish and imagination can flower.