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"Feeling lost and disoriented is a part of the human condition and experiencing lostness is also a significant dynamic of the faith journey." - Martyn Watson preaching at 'Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation', the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 1 November 2020.
Listen to the sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/the-scandalous-shepherd-and-the-traumatised-sheep
Read the sermon script below:
The Scandalous Shepherd and the Traumatised sheep
As I took my seat, I was aware of my anxiety. I was starting a familiar journey and yet my surroundings felt so different. Facemask on, and hands sanitised before entering the carriage. A few more people got on at the next station, all with their masks on and thankfully no one sat close to me.
I let out a deep sigh … and my glasses steamed up!
As I sat there, on my first tube journey after lockdown I realised how lost I felt. As with others I was adjusting to the new travel norms plus the last few days had been challenging. My mother had been admitted into a care home due to her increased confusion through dementia and we had the unnerving experience of handing over mum to strangers on the steps of her new residence not knowing when we would see her.
Yes, I felt lost …. ‘And where on earth is God in all this?’
The ‘vulnerable’ sheep?
My brain tends to work in pictures and as I sat on that underground carriage the image of a lost sheep came to mind and of course the familiar parable that Jesus taught recorded in Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels. To be honest I wasn’t too happy with that picture in my head, as images of Sunday school classes came to mind, collages’ made out of cotton wool and pipe cleaners and the point being made that the lost sheep went astray, and therefore it was a bad sheep for leaving the herd. As the traditional hymn says ‘perverse and foolish oft I strayed’. But as I began to think about it was this sheep really bad for becoming lost?
Over these past few months, I have found myself continually drawn to this parable and the images of a cute sheep being made out of cotton wool who was ‘bad’ has been replaced with an understanding regarding the depth of a very human experience of feeling lost, disoriented and isolated. And that our lostness is not simply about us being bad or indeed perverse.
Sheep do not simply leave a herd; they are very social beings and it is usually with good reason that a sheep becomes lost. For example, in March 2013 blizzards hit the UK which was desperately difficult for some UK farmers as sheep and new born lambs were left stranded in snowdrifts. Sheep get lost in storms, or they become sick or get injured on uneven terrain in such a way that the sheep is trapped, unable to get up.
As I said earlier feeling lost and disoriented is a part of the human condition and experiencing lostness is also a significant dynamic of the faith journey. This isn’t simply a story about the sinner ‘out there’, the non-Christian who once and for all has a faith awakening and never again feels isolated, alone and lost.
O yes, I yearn to be back in church, and with the organ playing and singing the hymns that I love including ‘Amazing Grace’. And I apologise now to anyone standing in close proximity as I belt out the words ‘I once was lost but now I’m found’ however… if I was honest my faith journey doesn’t really fit in with a neat before and after story.
And the experience of lostness comes in many ways…. When we lose our sense of belonging, when we lose our capacity to trust, when we lose our felt experience of God, when we lose the energy to persevere. Sometimes we feel lost when illness descends, or when death seems to come too soon for a loved one and our faith is in crisis. Some of us get lost when relationships are ruptured , or when we face redundancy. And yes, some of us experience lostness in addictions, hatred and bitterness. When the table of bread and wine that once nourished leaves us bewildered.
Now I think it’s important to remember that this parable alongside many other aspects of Jesus life scandalised many of the listeners and the story of the lost sheep is told in response to the Pharisees who were outraged by Jesus’ lack of purity, a religious teacher didn’t mix with those who were considered unclean, never mind share a meal with them. And in a way Jesus use of imagery here would have been familiar with the Pharisees, aspects of God being likened to a shepherd is rooted in Hebrew Scriptures, Ezekiel 34, psalm we but what would have possibly scandalised the Pharisees is the recognition that it’s in the lostness, in the unclean, in the mess of life that God can be found and that’s what so amazing, and scandalous about God’s grace.
You see the Pharisees were I think, desperately trying to find God, but for them it was about a type of religious perfectionism that depended upon their effort to make themselves worthy in God’s eyes, where as Jesus came along and provided a different path to God that has relationship at the centre. He sat with the sinner, the lost, the bewildered, the hurt.
Indeed, if the parable is to be believed God’s love is found in our lostness and our vulnerability.
The Scandalous Shepherd
And so, we have an image of God’s grace. The shepherd, aware of the lost sheep, seeks out to find it. For many of us it’s such a familiar aspect of this parable and yet it is such a stunning dynamic. As Pope Francis points out the only living being who moves in this parable is the Shepherd and in relation to understanding God’s grace, that’s significant.
When I first started coming to Bloomsbury it was my first experience of attending a Baptist church regularly. As some of you know it took a little while for me to feel at home in a new church tradition but one of the significant parts of my Baptist journey was my first communion service. I remember doing a little a piece of research so I knew what to expect, that the bread and the wine would be brought to us in the pew. And yet I was really caught off guard by that simple act … the bread and the wine were brought to me in the pew. I didn’t have to move, I simply had to receive.
One of the familiar images of this parable is of the Shepherd carrying the sheep on his shoulders back to the herd. Now I have been doing a little research in regard to Shepherding and the psychology of sheep with some of my family as sheep farming has been an aspect of my family’s recent history. I was reliably informed that some sheep when they are traumatised play dead, and don’t move and indeed part of the trauma for a Sheep would be the level of isolation that they experience when separated from the herd.
I was also reliably informed that putting a sheep on the shepherds’ shoulders isn’t a great way of carrying a sheep as it potentially harms the sheep’s rumen, i.e. part of the stomach and that in contemporary farming a lost sheep would be placed on a quad bike to be brought back home.
God is where the lost are, in the darkness, of the wilderness. Perhaps God does God’s best work when I’m utterly afraid, unable to move, unable to find myself when I have to let Him carry me upon his shoulders. All I have to do is to receive from him? Well perhaps for many of us our dependency upon God’s grace isn’t an easy path. We want to be strong, in control, prove our sense of worth, show others that we can soldier on in the toughest of storms.
Perhaps for some of us, to let go of our pride, admit our lostness and let ourselves be carried is one of the biggest challenges of our faith journey.
At the conclusion of the parable Jesus focuses on rejoicing because a lost ‘soul’ has repented, and has been carried back to the fold. Now over the years the word repentance has held a strange fascination for me. The root of the word in Greek is ‘Metanoia’ which actually means ‘changing of heart and mind’.
Jesus came to be with those who were lost. And by being with them, with us, the hope is given that they will receive His love, God’s grace, that our hearts and minds are changed as we re-discover that we are of worth, a child of God, and that we belong.
And perhaps that this isn’t a one off ‘neat’ event.
Where is God in all this? Perhaps God looks for us when our lostness is so absolute that we can’t pretend to look for God. But even in that bleak place. God finds us. This is amazing grace …. And it’s ours.
Be still for the power of the Lord
Is moving in this place
He comes to cleanse and heal,
To minister his grace,
No work to hard for him
In faith receive from Him
Be still for the power of the Lord
Is moving in this place.