The Very Reverend Wesley Carr Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 12th September 2004
Gospel :Luke 15 1-10
Today's gospel is about something we all know only too well - loss: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, or prodigal, which we did not read this morning. It looks like three illustrations of the same point you can lose something and find it again, and every one in heaven and on earth rejoices. But take another look.
The shepherd in the wilderness with his sheep sees that one is missing. He goes after this one, leaving the other 99 at risk to their lives. If the wolf had come while he was away looking, his job would not have been worth tuppence. What he did was impetuous and quite irrational - some might say ill-considered.
Or take the woman who loses a piece of silver. It may have been a piece from her headdress which she received as dowry when she married. It was her own personal treasury. To lose it therefore was not just to lose some money but to have lost something which signifies status and was part of her whole life. And it would not have been easy to find: the houses of the poor would have no windows. So she was hunting in the dark. And when she found it, she rejoiced and why not? But bringing in all the friends and neighbours to say I lost something as small as this and found it again, could also seem somewhat over the top.
So what are the stories about? The clue lies in the end line. Jesus says, There is joy in heaven among the angels over one sinner who repents. Just as the shepherd risks his reputation by going after the one sheep, and the woman goes over the top with the party when she finds her coin, so Gods concern for people looks irrational and even excessive. Or to put it another way: for all the wonders of his creation, the marvels of his activity, his worshipful presence in glory, there is nothing more pleasing to the heart of God than when one sinner turns from his old ways to a new life in Christ
Some years ago I resolved that I would not preach a sermon on anything to do with the church for a whole twelvemonth. Many people expressed their delight. It is too easy to talk about them and bishops, the clergy and the people, alleged incidents and all the rest of it, but undoubtedly this is a way of avoiding the individual. In part it may be a reaction against the evangelical emphasis on personal salvation which the Parish Communion movement, from which todays liturgies are virtually devised. I obliterated by we and the emphasis upon sharing and participation. Even the creed becomes not I believe but We believe. As the individual disappears from the scene, so a major dimension of the Christian faith becomes either difficult or irrelevant. For if we ignore concern with the individual, then we lose a sense of sin and salvation, and with that a clear sense of yourself. For example, look at the wonderful 16t century prayer carved on the west end of the abbey. Its the one that begins God grant to the living, grace.. But how does it continue? There are two versions: the original which said. and/to us sinners life everlasting. But toned down for modern individuals the priest sometimes says, and to us, his servants much more respectable than sinners in church we can lose ourselves as servants; but in the quiet when we analyse ourselves and our hearts, we know that we are not such a person. The demons are not outside to be blamed but within.
In a marvellous poem entitled Ithaka, the Greek poet George Cavafy tells a young man as he sets out like Odysseus on the adventure of life, not to worry about Laistrygonians (gigantic cannibals), Cyclops (the one eyed giant) or angry Poseidon (the impetuous god of the sea.). You wont, he says, encounter them, unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets then up in front of you.
The trouble is, it does. We seem programmed to self examination; to extract something from our lives of more than ephemeral importance. Yet the more you do that, the more we become, in Martin Luthers phrase, turned in on our selves. Instead of being free in the freedom of living, this introverted process restricts every semblance of liberty.
This is one of the points at which modern spirituality and traditional religion are in conflict. It is sometimes said that the concern of modern spirituality is with people as individuals, each with his or her own spiritual journey; whereas the Christian tradition is about the church, gospel, social action and loving your neighbour and ecclesiastical togetherness. The former is portrayed as selfish; but the latter also portrays me as deluded about my own self importance!
But this view or belief is being negatively held today. We remove sin and sinners in our attempts to ameliorate the demand of Christian faith. Yet when we lose a sense being sinners, we also lose any means of hoping for the future. We are, to use the title of a book which a friend and I wrote some years ago, Lost In Familiar Places.
And here is the truly remarkable thing about sin as Christians understand it: it is not an end in itself which just destroys and which God might remove. Sin always lies at the beginning of genuine hope: not that every cloud has a silver lining nothing so trite. But that in order to live as a responsible inhabitant in Gods world, with or without others, we need to be told what our authority is and what we can do with it that is, we need salvation. And thats the stuff of our stories this morning the foolishness of deep concern: leaving the flock unattended to go and find the missing one, risking all for the sake of one. The wild celebration which is disproportionate to the loss.
Then salvation becomes wholeness. Sin divides us within from without, and our neighbours from us and from one another. It is disruptive. The past is dominated by the fall and our foundering relationships: but the future hope is of wholeness. Salvation is liberation. Through his death and resurrection Jesus Christ liberates us from the forces which tyrannise us. One may be death itself. But even this old enemy cannot prevail. Salvation is forgiveness. Here comes the heart of the mystery of the incarnation. God cannot simply declare sin removed, otherwise moral guilt is discounted. Yet if he does nothing, we shall remain tied up with sin. A compromise of hope is needed here. And salvation is personal affirmation. What did you hear just now? Such is the richness of Gods grace that he will risk 99 others in order to save you; he will encourage the choirs of heaven to sing if he can save you, if we can see Gods work for each of us and realise this: even if you were the only sinner in the world, Christ would still have died for you.
A seventeenth century poet wrote this:
Lord, what is man?
Why should he cost the so deare?
What has his ruine lost thee?
Lord, what is man,
that thou hast over - bought
So much a thing of nought
A famous bishop said:
You have been saved from the penalty of sin; you are being saved from the power of sin; and you will saved from the presence of sin
Tha Abbey Prayer
God grant us sinners life everlasting