As I began to think about this service I wondered why I am here? You are probably wondering the same since Fr Andrew is on sabbatical and so not here to tell you. As far as I can make out I am here because Fr Andrew and I are good friends, we were colleagues when he was the vicar of St Peter’s Streatham. I arrived there as the Methodist Minister in 1995 and so we have been good friends ever since. I am also here because I set up the London HIV Chaplaincy and am currently the chair of the board of trustees for that charity.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is long, and along the way we can forget that the trip has begun and that there is a destination in view. On this first Sunday in Lent we are reminded by this reading that we may also join Jesus on his trail towards Jerusalem. In this passage Luke recalls parables that Jesus told to his listeners as he made that journey towards his passion.
The audience is mixed, so-called tax collectors and sinners gather about Jesus as do the Pharisees and Scribes. The tax collectors and sinners seem drawn to Jesus by his openness to them, which is evident in Jesus’ actions – he heals the sick etc; but the Pharisees and Scribes are portrayed as Jesus’ critics, even as his adversaries. We observe the mixed audience with its different dispositions towards Jesus. As Luke’s readers and with both groups in view, we listen to Jesus as he tells two stories about being lost and found or about searching for that which is lost.
The people we meet with in the HIV Chaplaincy are all searching for something: I would say they are searching to make some kind of sense to their lives. They are wanting to discover answers to their own questions. Almost without exception they are all people of faith but they have been told by their faith leaders what they should think and believe. When our clients ask a gender question they are not given a straight forward answer or even “I’m afraid I have no answer to your question”; but they are given an answer that does not treat them as intelligent human beings.
On the other hand what about the faith communities? Their reactions to the questions that those who seek help from the HIV Chaplaincy ask is to try and keep them within the community as “bums on seats” appear to be more important than treating people as real human beings. Faith communities are more interested in keeping to the letter of their law – so sex is a dirty word, after all, “you have HIV and therefore you must have been very promiscuous sleeping around with many partners”.
I wonder which group, the chaplaincy’s clients or faith communities are the sinners and which are the Pharisees and Scribes?
These two parables of Jesus tells us that God cares for humanity, one hundred percent, for all one hundred sheep and for all ten coins. The assembled ninety nine or nine do not obscure God’s universal vision that sees each human in her or his own condition. This initial observation tells us the heart of the good news of God’s love.
Along with this good news, however, comes somewhat less pleasant information. The parables tell us that individuals become lost, separated from God’s care, guidance and grace. Moreover, while one does not want to push the allegory too far, the images of the parables tell us that this condition of lostness is simultaneously a condition of estrangement from God and other humans. The sheep and the coin were lost from the other sheep and the other coins as well as from the shepherd and the sweeper.
At the end of the day I have come to the conclusion that both client and faith community are lost and maybe faith community more than the other. My conclusion therefore is that we are all in need of healing.
In the context of Luke’s gospel we should see that God pursues humanity in the person and work of Christ. Like the shepherd in pursuit of his beloved but lost sheep and like the sweeper in search of her precious lost coin, God in Jesus relentlessly pursues us to bring us out of lostness and into fellowship with God and God’s people. (I add a rider here: often those who call themselves God’s people have become less than God’s people just like the Pharisees! It just does not do to say “well God loves you whoever you are!” The searcher does not feel that at all; they have nothing to hang that sentence on).
The shepherd searched, not until dark but until he found the sheep; the woman swept, not until her broom wore out, but until she found the coin. Does God in Jesus pursue us likewise until we too are healed? I pray that she will.
All the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
5th March 2017