(1 Tim. 1, 12-17; Luke 15, 1-10)
My family will tell you that I’m addicted to Facebook!
One of the pages that I check up on almost every day is the page covering the district where we live. It’s a great source of local news, recommendations and information.
People frequently make use of the page to ask for help with things that have been lost: bikes, mobile phones, cats and dogs – and this last week, a ferret, and, sadly, two women who have gone missing from home.
There was no social media to locate things that had got lost in the time of Jesus. If you wanted to find them you had to set to, exert a lot of effort in the search, and even take some risks. Hence the joy when what was lost was eventually found.
In chapter 15, Luke records three parables from Jesus about things that were lost and found. The best known one is the parable of the Prodigal Son, which should more accurately be called the parable of the Two Sons. That is different in many ways from the two we heard this morning; not least because the son in that story got himself lost, and was able to make some effort to help in his return. In the case of the coin and the sheep, the lost things bore no responsibility for their state: it was their owner who had lost them, and therefore it was up to their owner to find them again.
In the case of the sheep, it was unlikely the man owned all of the 100 sheep; if he had been wealthy enough to own that many, he would have been wealthy enough to employ someone else (a hired man) to look after them. It is more likely that they belonged to an extended family, or a clan in the village, and certain of the men folk had the duty of looking after them. Since they represented the wealth of the community, it brought shame on the shepherd to have lost one of them.
As usual, Luke balances a story about a man with a story about a woman. It could be that the coins represented the woman’s dowry. She could have been wearing them around her head as a headdress, or around her neck as a necklace. Whatever they were, they represented her family’s wealth, and to lose one of the ten was very serious indeed. The woman would have rarely left her house so she knew where she had lost the coin. Hence the effort sweeping the dirt floor in a windowless house and the cost of lighting a lamp in daytime in order to try to retrieve it.
Luke shows Jesus telling these stories in response to criticism from the local religious leaders about the sort of people he socialises with. Not only does he accept invitations from ‘tax collectors and sinners’, )Luke’s catch-all phrase for all those who don’t measure up to the high standards of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law), Jesus even returns their hospitality, inviting such people to come and eat at his table.
Even more than now, in the time of Jesus, meals were very important; who was invited, where they sat in relation to the host, the courtesies shown to them, and even the quality of food that was served were very important indicators of your social status, relative to the host and other guests. And having been shown such hospitality, if you were not to lose face, you had to return it in equal style. So, you would normally only invite those in your social network, people like you; it would be a waste of your time to invite people who couldn’t pay back the honour, and even more, those who would diminish your social status. Jesus demonstrates the love of God when he socialises with ‘the lost’ – those who can never pay him back, those whose company brings him no social status.
Since, in the Bible, formal meals were often used to stand for the Kingdom of Heaven, and the final heavenly banquet to which all those in God’s favour would be invited, what Jesus says and does with regard to sharing table fellowship is an important part of his teaching about who is to be regarded as the most significant members of the kingdom.
These two stories though, are not just about God’s love and concern for those who the religious leaders regarded as hopelessly lost, or about Jesus’ association with them. They are a challenge to his critics, who he is saying are responsible for losing these people from the Kingdom, and a challenge about their lack of effort to retrieve them. And that is a challenge not just to the religious leaders and committed religious believers of Jesus’ time; it’s also a challenge to the leaders of the church in our time, and a challenge to us!
So who are the people we have lost from active participation in the Christian faith, and how do we find them?
When I have lost something, I find that a good way to start the search is to go back in my memory to the time I last had it, and to try to trace my steps from there.
There are a lot of statistics that show the decline in religious practice generally, and in the Christian Church and the Church of England in particular. Many of them compare the position now with the position in the 1960s. Weekly attendance in the Anglican Church has declined from around 5% of the population in 1960 to around 2% now. Forty years ago usual attendance on a normal Sunday was around 1.25 million people – now it is 784,000. The average urban church congregation now numbers 60; the average rural congregation just 19. The decline is getting steeper, year on year; average weekly attendance declined by 12% in the last decade. This decline is not just found in the Christian churches: Counting Religion in Britain found that only 11% of Britons now attend any sort of religious service regularly (and regularly is once a month, not weekly), 65% practically never attend any sort of service.
More detailed statistics show the decline is the greatest among the young adult age groups. On the whole, older people are more churchgoing. The decline among children and younger adults is much steeper than the decline among older people. The figures show that the main reason for the decline in affiliation and attendance is not adults leaving the church; it is that the children of churchgoing parents do not attend when they reach adulthood, and in turn their children never attend. So retaining children and youth is critical, because it is far easier to raise people as churchgoers than to turn the unchurched into churchgoers.
So trying to ensure that we do not lose our children and young people is very important; our children and youth work should be a priority. It won’t be as easy as it was in the days before TV and computers and the internet, when sometimes the main social life for children and younger people was centred around the church. Now, there are lots of competing activities, many of which are organised with a sophistication the church cannot hope to equal. But the church can offer a personal interest, a safe environment, and a care for children and young people as unique and beloved children of God, rather than just consumers, valued only for their spending power.
Mostly however, the church will have to go out and search for those we have lost since their baptism or confirmation, or since their parents were regular churchgoers. We will have contact with some of them in schools, through school visits and assemblies, which are important because they may be the only time these children and young people come into contact with a Christian speaking about their faith. We are asked to think particularly about this contact today, which is being kept across the churches as Education Sunday. Such valuable contact needs careful planning, and need to be as interesting as we can make it. I remember being warned very early on in my training to remember that no-one was ever bored into faith! Messy Church is another way we can make contact without being boring, which is why I think it is so important!
It is even more difficult at secondary level than primary; pupils are much more likely to answer back and argue, and will base their arguments on a set of values that they see as being disregarded in the beliefs and practices of many religions. Important values to the younger generations today are respect for difference, acknowledgement of the discoveries of science, history and literary criticism with regard to sacred writings as well as secular books, and an absolute opposition to denying people their rights – so no discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexuality is likely to be acceptable.
We will also have to go out from our church buildings to make contact with older people who have lost contact with church. Before the days of the welfare state, the church had a lot of contact with non-churchgoers through social work, providing homes for children and unmarried mothers, hospitals and education. Now that money for education and care is getting tighter, it may be that the churches will have to step up to fill in the gaps, as they are already doing in many areas, in projects like Food Banks. Such work will not bring quick results, but will need to be sustained over many years of patient provision, living the faith, accepting people as they are, so that people see the love of God reaching out to them through what Christians do in Jesus’ name.
These parables of the lost give us a picture of God painstakingly searching out those who have become lost to faith and membership of the church, concentrating every effort on the work, and rejoicing as each one is brought back into the fold, one by one. They challenge us all to do this work in God’s name.
How are we, each one of us, being asked to search out the lost in our communities today?