Matthew 18:10 – 14
Unless you are a shepherd; perhaps even if you are, it seems to make no sense, this gospel reading. Jesus picks up on the scripture from Ezekiel, and offers a picture saying, well of course the shepherd goes after the lost sheep. But I have this image in my head of our shepherd returning, two or three days later, with the stray beast, clutched by the feet, slung around his shoulders. And as he unlatches the last hurdle, he finds to his horror that while he’s been off seeking the one lost sheep, the rest of the flock have also strayed. Or been attacked by a wolf who sees that his luck is in. Or rustled, by a couple a blokes with a trailer and a landy, and an eye to the main chance.
Because Hil and I come across lost sheep quite frequently, and no-one seems to be out looking for them. Stuck fast in a bog, for instance, on the ridge up onto Nethermost Pike. Fortunately this one had those handle thingies on her head, and we could haul her out of the quagmire in which she was mired up to her neck. Or the lame lamb on the side of Base Brown, that was going no-where fast, but who was quite invisible unless you happened to walk this particularly unfrequented path. Sometimes, we come across only fleece and bones: three different carcasses on one short walk above Patterdale. Perhaps St Cuthbert, the other famous shepherd we commemorate today, could explain it to me. Maybe, even in Jesus’ day, shepherds would cut their losses, rather than risk the whole flock for the sake of one stray, which might already be supper somewhere. If that is so, as he paints this picture of God’s love in seeking out the lost sheep, Jesus is turning the world on its head.
We still need God’s love to turn the world on its head.
Because wherever we look, we see love besieged. The so-called Islamic Caliphate that fell at last this week. It has visited propaganda, terror, torture and destruction upon the lives of thousands, in Syria, and across the world. It has almost nothing to do with Islam, and almost everything to do with hate. Hatred of westerners, hatred of Christians, hatred of other, peace-loving Muslims, hatred of joy and love and laughter, hatred of life itself. At the other end of the political spectrum, we see the growth of the alternative right, attacking synagogues in the US, murdering Muslims in cold blood in Christchurch this month, driving vehicles into people, exploding bombs out of sheer, blind hatred. Over the last few years in our own country, how many innocent bystanders have been randomly murdered by those with nothing left alive in their hearts but hate?
We have an epidemic of knife crime, with the lives of victims snuffed out, but the lives of perpetrators also wrecked, as they carry criminal records for the rest of their days. We have on-line trolling, where people anonymously threaten, abuse, spread hatred and issue threats of death and other violence against people with whom they disagree. Populist politicians across the world divert attention from their own failures by singling out some minority group as a focus for public anger and discontent, just as they did in the years leading up to the Second World War. And just in case we’d all forgotten, Brexit has polarised our nation as nothing else in a generation. Wherever we look, love is besieged.
We still need God’s love to turn the world on its head, then. Each of our readings today is about God’s love. But not love as an abstract emotion; rather, love as practical action. Ezekiel and Jesus speak about love that seeks out the lost and frightened sheep. Paul writes of love, born of faith, expressed in support for the poor saints of Jerusalem.
But what can I do to stop the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or knife crime? What difference does it make that I don’t spend my time on-line sending death threats to the lady who started the petition about Brexit this week? We can only start from where we are. But it’s worth considering the ways in which God’s love is made real here in our own community. We could do worse than start by reading Larry Winger’s daily on-line diary. Already he has already explored so many ways in which practical love is expressed in our valleys, and is itself a kind of love-letter to the Allen dales. He records how people look after one another, and organise events of all kinds that bring us together. Children are encouraged. Life is enjoyed and celebrated. Creation is cared for.
We held a funeral here on Thursday, one of more than a hundred over the last ten years, to celebrate the life of a member of our community, and to offer comfort to those who mourn. A ministry our churches are pleased and proud to be able to offer all who need it, regardless of whether they are church members. Next week we hold Messy Church once again, thanks mostly to the generosity of Trinity Methodist Church, as we have each month for the last five years or more. More than twenty children and their carers will come and learn that faith can be fun.
The leaflet about the next Parish Outing might not appear to have much to do with God’s love. But the building up of our relationships with each other, just getting to know each other better, means that when any of us needs help and support, others are aware, and able to provide it. Whenever we need to know God’s love, in other words. Those of us who have been involved in the diocesan project, Know your Church, know your Neighbourhood, have been reminded of just how much people do for each other in our valleys: how much goes on, how much relies upon the generosity of volunteers. How much God’s love is shared through human action.
God’s love makes no sense. Why would he go to the trouble of sending his Son to suffer and die? Why would he put Mary through the pain of watching a crucifixion? Why would he concern himself with a species that can be so hate-filled, so cruel, so selfish, so heartless as we humans? Why would he, in other words, seek out the lost sheep wherever it has strayed? Because we have the capacity to be loved. And being loved, we have the capacity to love others. Love breaks the siege of hatred. Love turns the world on its head.
© Jon Russell 2019