A sermon preached on Sunday 15 September at the St Mary's/Christ Church Eucharists. Having been inspired by the William Blake exhibition, the themes of being radicals/visionaries seemed apt as a way of thinking afresh about lost sheep/coins.
The readings were: Exodus 32.7-14; Psalm 51.1-11; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10
The three words used by the Tate to describe William Blake the printmaker, painter and poet.
The visionary artist whose work projected the hopes and fears of his own age.
Projected them, not on large canvases; but concentrated them in little small pages.
Printed. Hand coloured.
You have to look closely at these little images.
Mysterious; terrifying; radiant; weird;
As we are drawn into his world, do we see ours afresh?
As one critic puts it: ‘His symbols blaze with truth. These are images that look death and suffering in the eye and still believe in a redeemed humanity, a Glad Day’.
Blake saw the worst and best of our human condition.
His wife Catherine once said: ‘I have very little of Mr Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise’.
This Paradise was often turbulent such was his sensitivity to the callousness and injustice of the world.
And yet, that turbulence leads to a restless questing after a glimmer of hope; or a trace of grace.
In a sense, the more you look at Blake’s images, we see ourselves as both lost and found.
We carry the marks and anxieties of experience; we long for the joy and divine security of innocence.
We live in the bustling, vibrant, consuming city which inspired Blake, in which he struggled for survival. We know the fierce, burning brightness of the Tyger and the soft, tender meekness of the Lamb.
Both made and loved; lost and found.
Today we hear Jesus tell two stories about things that are lost - either in the wilderness or in a house. These things have value and are sought out by the shepherd and the woman - who evolve into symbols of Jesus; revealing the depth of God’s love in redeeming or restoring or finding us.
What might if feel like for us to know that God’s love reaches out to each individual? Does it strengthen or weaken the group?
One of the wisest writers on the parables, the late Kenneth Bailey, helps us see these stories through the lens of Middle-Eastern eyes. He shows how Jesus inhabits the Hebrew tradition and reshapes it in relation to who he is as God’s beloved Son.
Bailey writes: “If the one [sheep] is sacrificed in the name of the larger group, then each individual in the group is insecure, knowing that he or she is of little value. If lost, he or she will be left to die. When the shepherd pays a high price to find the one, he thereby offers the profoundest security to the many”.
It is good news for all that one is found; it is a source of human and heavenly joy that the lost is love; we become more complete, more whole, when another is beloved.
Bailey sees in the stories about sheep and coins a cluster of theological ideas: the nature of leadership within community and the abundant gift of grace offered to the rescued one; the cost to the shepherd of finding and restoring that one to its place or home.
There is an acknowledgement of what happens when humanity is lost - and unable to find its way home. The isolation and fear, the hurt and fragmentation. What in short hand we call ‘sin’ - our separation from God and others.
Yet rather than being despairing, there’s much joy and celebration in these stories. Our repentance is imagined as an acceptance of being found - of being carried when we are lost and helpless.
The images of these stories invite us to imagine ourselves within them. Like Blake’s paintings, they blaze with truth; they look suffering in the face - and also reveal the glad day of redeemed humanity.
This is about us as individuals, yes; but it is also about the life of the community. It speaks of God’s self-giving love rippling through the wilderness until we are brought home. Neither the one nor the many are abandoned. Jesus is talking about himself as well as us. He is the one who demonstrates costly love in the turbulence of our world to bring us to new life.
The story of the woman and her coins deepens the meaning of these themes: there is a shining light and diligent searching; we see the cracks in the floor, the dirty, grimy corners; and there is joy at being found and restored.
A sheep might become sick or injured when it is lost; there might be hurt or scarring. And yet the coin reminds us that we lose nothing of our value, our worth or our dignity for having been lost. The choice of Jesus’ imagery also elevates the world of all women.
In addition, whereas the shepherd must search a vast wilderness, the woman knows that the coin is in the house. We are assured that the lost will be found because the coin is definitely in the house.
This work of reconciling humanity to God’s very self, God’s heart of love, is refracted in our other readings. In vivid and personal terms, they reveal the impact of our impatient, unjust or selfish desires; but also reassure us that those things are not the end of the story.
In Exodus, we hear of the ‘stiff-necked’ people who decide to melt down their precious metal to turn their tangible wealth into a tangible idol: they contain and limit their vision of god by producing ‘a thing’; an object within their control.
Their anxiety echoes in our lives and our world - in Blake’s depiction of the worst of our human condition - when we place our security in what we can do, in our wealth, our ambition or ability. Our trust in God wavers in the turbulence of the world; we forget God’s blessings; and seek out dark corners away from the light.
Whatever the vagaries of the human heart, God’s love for us remains constant: this love is fierce and faithful; just and merciful. Such love names the ways in which stray like lost sheep; but also reminds us that we are lambs called by name.
God knows that we need to constantly rediscover and relearn the truth that blazes deep within us. God rebukes and forgives precisely in order that we might grow in wisdom; God’s acts of justice call us to a more radical way of life.
We are sought after, rescued, carried and redeemed in order that we might witness to the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself.
This love is not abstract. It is revealed once and for all in Jesus Christ. When he was lifted up on the cross, looking suffering in the face; and when he lay in the depths of the grave, overcoming death; when he burst from the tomb, revealing the radiance of light divine and the hope of redeemed humanity.
This love is not abstract. It is revealed in transformed lives and in the stories we tell. Paul’s story is one such act of testimony. He writes to the young man Timothy of his own journey. He was lost - dawn to violence and injustice. He was found in the blazing light of the risen Christ. He was carried in this overflowing love.
That experience of patience and mercy becomes a song of praise to God who is immortal and invisible. Today we share that praise as we are invited to see ourselves afresh as worthy of full acceptance.
Jesus came into the world to save us; to bring healing and hope. In bread and wine, we touch and taste the grace of God’s love. Receiving those gifts, we become what we are: members of one body. We are rooted and in a true sense radicals. Visionaries for God’s Kingdom; concentrating the light of God’s truth in each gesture. In the power of the Spirit we are sent to be agents of hope, compassion and blessing.
you search us out and know us:
may we rely on you in strength
and rest on you weakness,
now and infall our days;
though Jesus Christ our Lord.
© Julie Gittoes 2019