Then Jesus drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.
And the pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, "This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them."
And he spake this parable unto them, saying, "What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, 'Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.' I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
"Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, 'Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.' Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth."
I am no hater of change and I am more than happy to use whatever order of service the congregations I visit are used to. But the 1662, "Book of Common Prayer" has a special place in my heart. It has become a part of my very being in a way that no other form of worship has ever achieved. I am familiar with it and I have been for as long as I can remember. I am cosy with it. It's like slipping into my favourite armchair after being on my feet all day. The language is beautiful. It is poetic far beyond anything any committee of liturgists have ever come up with. But there is something else. It is my opinion that it teaches the Christian faith in a way that sticks in the mind far more effectively than any of the more modern books of church prayer.
One of my favourite sentences from the "Book of Common Prayer," a sentence that reflects very well the teaching of Jesus Christ in today's gospel reading, can be found at the beginning of the absolution pronounced after the general confession at evening prayer.
"Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live..."
Our God "DESIRETH not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live..."
I live with my wife and three border collies, Delphi, Quiz and Edric. I have shared my life with border collies since before I was six months old and I started training them for obedience competitions when I was just fourteen. To be honest, I am not a very competitive person and I rarely compete nowadays but I do take on the occasional judging appointment.
There seems to be two main ways that judges go about designing their course and assessing the dogs that come before them. Some, and I really hope I am in this category, design the course to get the best out of the dogs, allowing them to shine and then judging the dogs and their handlers based on what they get right. Other judges go for courses that are designed to trick the dog into making mistakes and they judge the competitors based very much on what they get wrong.
The second way is by far, the most common way. It seems to be the way of human nature. A high proportion of us have a tendency to look for what is wrong rather than what is right. Not only are we a glass half full people, the beer in the glass is not cold enough for us and it doesn't taste as nice as the one we had yesterday.
The way that some Christians go on you would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that God has set up the course of all our lives in a similar, negative way and that he is watching us hoping that we slip up so that he can note our mistakes down in his notebook and so separate the few winners from the many losers. That's the way the bad judges at dog shows go about their task and they do so because it is the easiest way. In fact, such judges want most of the dogs working in their class to get it wrong so that they only have a very few dogs left at the end of the day to choose the winner from.
God is a judge, but he is, most certainly, not of the same mind as such bad human judges. God will separate the wheat from the chaff but only after he has spent the growing season looking after the crop with such care that the harvest is as near to being one hundred percent wheat as possible. Human farmers take it for granted that they will lose some of their annual crop to misfortune of one kind or another but Farmer God does not. He cares for every single stem of wheat individually. God will not be satisfied unless, come harvest time all is safely gathered in.
God does not want us to die. God wants eternal life for every single one of us, even the most wicked of us.
He "desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live..."
In a dog obedience competition the handler and the dog get just one chance to get it right. At the end of the round they don't get to have another go because they didn't quite get it right the first time. However, in the "obedience" competition of our lives God does allow us to keep trying.
We are allowed to say to our judge, "Whoops, sorry, I got that wrong, can I try again?"
God will surely reply, "Of course, go ahead. In fact, let my son help you this time."
God is a perfectionist but he is a perfectionist in a good way. God's idea of perfection is not one where all the imperfect has been ejected and only the perfect remains. No. God's idea of perfection is one where nothing has been thrown out because everything has been made perfect.
God is totally inclined to inclusivity. God is committed to not losing one of us. If just one of us wanders off from his presence like the wayward sheep in today's gospel reading he will come and find us even if it takes him all the metaphorical day.
And we have all, like sheep, gone astray, probably many times during our life. And, outside of the parable, in the real world, it is not a story time shepherd who comes out to find us, but the very real, son of God, Jesus Christ, who came down from heaven to lead us all to the safety of the fold that is the kingdom of God.
"John," chapter seventeen, verse twelve.
"While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled."
So, like the woman who rejoiced with her friends when she found the coin she had lost let us rejoice with Jesus Christ who has found us, who has rescued us, who, even now, is leading us home.