Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 September 2019
TRINITY 13, 2019 HIGH MASS
Readings: Exodus 32.7-14; Psalm 51.1-10; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10
This past week we have had the sad news of Jean Harmsworth’s death. Jean’s spiritual background included time in Pentecostalism and she held on to a love of old-fashioned evangelical hymns – not the worship songs of slick modern charismatic praise bands – but those of the evangelical revival like Charles Wesley’s “And can it be” or of Moody and Sankey. These she would sing enthusiastically in a voice which threatened to shatter ear drums and stained glass windows alike.
In the old version of the English Hymnal there was a section tucked away at the back called “Mission Services.” Ralph Vaughan Williams, the music editor, called it the “Chamber of Horrors.” It was a selection of such hymns which the editors did not think suitable to accompany the hallowed cadences of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible – but they could be used at mission services for the poor and uneducated.
There is no equivalent section in the New English Hymnal we use. That may say something about the priorities and prejudices of its editors and the Church – although they did allow a few hymns from it into the main collection – along with catholic devotional ones like ‘Soul of my Saviour‘ and ‘Sweet Sacrament Divine,’ which would probably have sent shudders down the spine of the more liturgically and musically fastidious. We shall have to see what the latest version, which is about to appear, has for us.
One hymn which did not survive the cut was based on today’s Gospel: “There were ninety and nine in the fold.” It began life as a poem for children, written by an Edinburgh woman called Elizabeth Clephane. When the famous American evangelist Dwight Moody – the Billy Graham of the time – was conducting a revival in Scotland, his musical assistant Ira Sankey came across this poem. He went to the organ stool, composed a tune for it and it became a much-loved mission hymn. Hymns and poems written for children have a way of making it into the hearts of grown-ups – perhaps because we all have to become like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven.
But if you were listening attentively to the Gospel, you might have noticed that Miss Clephane’s version departs from the parable in a significant detail. The ninety and nine were not left in the safety of the fold but in the wilderness. The shepherd leaves them at risk while he goes off in search of the one that is lost.
Sometime preachers will try to make this sound less irresponsible by suggesting that there would have been other shepherds around who would have kept an eye on them – but there is no mention of them either. There is no attempt to soften the impact of the parable by making it all sound quite reasonable behaviour, when it is not.
The background to this, and the parable of the woman searching for the lost coin, is that ‘All the tax-collectors and sinners were coming to near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”‘
The scribes were the experts in the interpretation of the Torah, the Jewish Law. You went to them for guidance if you needed to know how the law applied in one case or another. The Pharisees were zealous lay people, who were determined to observe the law in its most rigorous form in preparation for the coming of the kingdom of God. This involved keeping a strict separation from those who did not observe the law. That separation certainly included a refusal to eat and drink with those who were considered ‘sinners’ – among whom tax-collectors were a notorious example – because their activities were seen as not just as financial crime but collaboration with the foreign oppressor.
There was much about the Pharisees and their conduct which was admirable – but like many who take their religious and moral life seriously they could be tempted to fall into a censorious and judgemental attitude to those who failed to measure up to their standards. Paul, or his disciple who wrote the First Letter to Timothy and is probably quoting him, speaks of himself as an extreme case of this tendency: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence;” and all in the cause of religion.
It is to such an audience, one which includes devout and respectable church-going Christians like us, that Jesus tells three parables – the two we have heard this morning – and that of a father with two sons – which follows them.
Each of today’s parables begins with a question: “Which one of you…? or “What woman…?” Jesus invites us to ask ourselves: “How would I respond in such a situation?” “What would I do?”
And our rational response, if we are honest, might well be to say “If I were in their shoes I would not do that.” For what is described in both cases seems quite foolish, extravagant or obsessive. The sensible shepherd would have weighed the cost of one lost sheep against the risk of losing even more if he left the ninety-nine unattended and defenceless in the wild– and decided that to cut his loss.
What would the neighbours really of thought of him carrying the lost sheep home on his shoulders and summoning them to a joyful celebration – one which might have cost more than the sheep was worth? Wouldn’t sensible folk, people like us, have though this a lot of wasted effort over one sheep? And, as for the woman spending all that time and effort over one lost coin? Surely it would have turned up eventually!
But this is how the parables work. They use extravagance and exaggeration to provoke our imagination, to disturb our preconceptions of how God thinks and acts towards us. Miss Clephane may have got one detail wrong but as her poem continues, she gets the big picture right because she sees the Good Shepherd’s pursuit of the lost sheep as the length to which God will go those whom he loves; a length far beyond reason or common sense; that the search for the lost is Christ’s way to the Cross.
There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold.
And one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold ;
Away on the mountains wild and bare,
Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.
‘ Lord, thou hast here thy ninety and nine ;
Are they not enough for thee ? ‘
But the Shepherd made answer : * This of mine
Has wandered away from me ;
And although the road be rough and steep,
I go to the desert to find my sheep.’
But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed ;
Nor how dark the night that the Lord passed through
Ere he found his sheep that was lost.
Out in the desert he heard its cry —
Sick and hopeless, and ready to die.
‘Lord, when are those blood-drops all the way,
That mark out the mountain’s track?’
‘They were shed for one that had gone astray
Ere the Shepherd could bring them back.
‘Lord, whence are thy hands so rent and torn?’
‘They are pierced tonight by many a thorn.’
Like each parable, the hymn ends with rejoicing in heaven.
And all through the mountains, thunder-riven,
And up from the rocky steep,
There rise a cry to the gates of heaven,
‘Rejoice, I have found my sheep!’
And the angels echoes around the throne,
‘Rejoice, for the Lord brings back his own!’
Why? Because God loves each and every human being and rejoices over finding even one that has been lost in the death that is sin. Jesus’ celebrating joyful meals with repentant sinners during his ministry enacts on earth than heavenly joy. His celebration with us in the Mass is meant to do the same. Whether we do it with Mozart or Moody and Sankey, or a combination of the two, we celebrate not just because Jesus has saved those other people, those lost sheep, those notorious sinners, but because he has saved us.
And at Jean’s funeral we will sing some of those hymns and we will pray for her, as one day we trust people will pray for us:
Into your hands, O merciful Saviour, we commend your faithful servant Jean. Acknowledge, we pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Enfold her in the arms of your mercy, in the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and in the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.