I am preaching at an induction of a minister - adding a church to an existing pastorate.
1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
Any new phase of ministry provides a good opportunity to take stock of who we are as Christians, who our Minister is, and what we expect of them, and what our churches are doing in their communities – and how that can changes with this new ministry.
So I’m delighted that in all that thinking the lectionary has provided us with a chance to hear again the story of the lost sheep. It’s a story we might have heard many times.
But I have a question you might not have wondered before: it’s one that comes to us from Godly Play – a way of helping children, particularly, to engage with Bible stories. It asks “where are you in the story?”.
Perhaps you see yourself as an observer or a listener – one of the crowd who were originally around Jesus. Maybe you have been wondering – even grumbling “What is Jesus doing with tax-collectors and sinners?” “Why are there so many dodgy types in this crowd of listeners?”. “Maybe Jesus should be a bit more picky about who he mixes with?”.
Then how does the story sound, when it ends “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”.
You might want to grumble even more -
You might also be forced to re-think.
God’s love is for everyone, not just ‘decent types’…
Perhaps you see yourself as one of the flock of sheep. One of the good ones, the obedient ones – who stay where the grass is green and there is comfort in the flock, and you can see the shepherd out of the corner of your eye, and you know you are safe. What do you do when you see someone wandering off? Do you put your head down and decide not to get involved? Or do you let out a warning ‘baa’, trying to call the stray back, letting them know where you are, where they can be cared for?
What little experience I have of sheep suggests that they are rarely silent – there is usual quite a lot of calling to each other, the mothers checking out where their lambs are – even when the lambs look big enough to look after themselves. Sheep are not made to be solitary, they instinctively flock, and keep together, and care for each other. Maybe if we are the sheep in this story we should be a bit more watchful and caring of others, looking out beyond our church walls to ask where people need our help and support,a nd how we can provide a place of safety for them.
Or are you the good shepherd? Or do you see Janos (your minister) as the good shepherd? Caring for the sheep, seeking the wandering, gathering the straggler back into the flock, doing all the difficult work, while the rest of you just munch on in the luscious pasture. Well, I’m sure Janos doesn’t see himself in that way – and I hope you don’t either. Jesus is clear when he speaks in the John's Gospel “I am the Good Shepherd”. Ministers of the gospel are, at most, sheep dogs following the whistling call of the Shepherd.
But of course most of us, hearing the story, will identify most readily with the lost sheep, the stray, wandering foolish one.
Just this week, at the Moderators’ meeting, one of my colleagues was telling me about reading a book by a Roman Catholic priest (he couldn’t remember the title or the author!) but he remembered one story the author told of asking a group of school children why they had chosen the part they had had in the story of the lost sheep, which they had just acted out. One was the narrator, because he loved telling stories, one was the shepherd, because she liked to feel strong. Lots of them were sheep because they really liked making ‘Baaing’ noises. One little girl. Laura, had been desperate to be the lost sheep. ‘Why?’ asked the priest.
“because I want to be found.”
That’s the great thing about being the lost sheep – we don’t stay lost – we are found. And when we are found, the Good Shepherd heaves us up onto his shoulder and rejoices, and the neighbours come round for a party, and heaven itself is filled with joy.
This is our identity in Christ – we are found and saved and rejoiced in.
In this new phase of ministry, I pray you will rejoice together when anyone lost is found, and rejoice in your own identity as treasured children of God and rejoice that you have a minister who is also a precious found sheep in the eyes of God.
The first letter of Timothy tells us how powerful it is to be found and saved and rejoiced in by God.
Paul writes about the mercy he has received in Christ which makes him a servant of God who is filled with overflowing grace. It is this grace of God which takes each one of us and forgives, changes and strengthens us for service.
As minister and churches together, may you be filled with grace and formed into a powerful witness to God’s love, so that others who are lost may be found
To God’s praise & glory. Amen.