Paradoxical Sheep

Sunday 5th March 2017
The First Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Luke 15.1-10

Earlier this week Margaret and I went to see Ryan Wigglesworth's new opera based on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and late last year we enjoyed Jeanette Winterson's novel, The Gap of Time, based on the same play so much that we read it twice. Indeed, one of my many passions, or maybe obsessions, is the late plays of Shakespeare, culminating in The Tempest whose themes are repentance and reconciliation which are, if we think about it, rare commodities in drama and literature whose tension so frequently depends upon the clash between people who are unbelievably good and those who are unbelievably wicked. In Shakespeare the interest in reconciliation comes at the end of a lifelong attempt to understand the worst aspects of humanity, occasionally leavened with pragmatism and even more rarely lit by virtue. In Dickens, Fagin, Quilp, Gride, Heap, Blandois and Orlick never relent or repent; of the whole massive cast of villains only Scrooge stands out and, let's face it, he takes a good deal of supernatural prompting! Let us be honest, we are more convinced by the wicked people than the good ones; I mean who can take Little Nell or Little Dorritt seriously. The devil not only gets the best tunes, he also gets the best lines!

Repentant sinners, then, are not so plentiful in drama and literature as we might think. What about in real life? Alas, there is no-one so repentant as the found out and, more subversively, our capacity to re-write our own histories makes it very difficult to find ourselves out. And this is the crucial point about self-conscious beings, as opposed to sheep: we have the capacity both to delude ourselves and to understand ourselves; and the essence of our falling short is not what we do, nor even, more widely, what we fail to do, but what we deny in ourselves and about ourselves.

Reverting to drama and literature again, for just a moment, what we like about traditional plays and novels up until, say the anticipation in the second half of  the 19th Century of the work of Freud, is the way in which motives and actions are relatively uncomplicated, even transparent; but we have all learned in the last hundred years to see how multi-layered are our motives, actions and reactions. This is what passes among us for sophistication; but I don't buy it. There's no such thing as a sophisticated lost sheep and we are, in spite of everything, lost sheep!

Looked at pragmatically, in the way in which God is not pragmatic, we aren't really worth the bother. Certainly if a shepherd was looking after 100 sheep and one went missing he wouldn't risk the 99 in order to get the stray back. But God doesn't work like that; we are  all made in his image and we are all equal in his sight, bearing in mind that the joy in heaven is not over a sheep that was lost and is now found by the shepherd and brought back as if nothing had happened really; the joy is over a sinner who actively repents.

The fundamental reason why we can't  believe in Little Nell and Little Dorritt is because they are too good; they have nothing to repent of; no reason to question the inner workings of their intellect or emotions. They are, in fact caricatures. A great deal of what passes for entertainment is caricature but unfortunately it has crossed over into news and current affairs; and the general intellectual reaction to this seems not to be hope but cynical dystopia. But the root of dystopia is helplessness and we are not helpless: first, because we have been given impressive faculties for self analysis; secondly, because we understand both the necessity for and the liberating quality of repentance; and, finally, because we have a shepherd who, unlike the earthly shepherd, does not only care for us but made us, as I have said, in his own image.

Of these three mitigating factors, I want to concentrate on the first because it seems to me that at precisely this time it has never been so important to face the facts of our individual and collective self understanding, not only because of the egregious, unashamed, unscrupulous mendacity of President Trump but because we are being inundated by the plausible. Everything is fine! But look again: we are loading massive debts on our children; we are intellectually convinced but still not moved to do anything radical about pollution and climate change; we want ever better services for static or lower taxes; we too often think of ourselves badly done by, or even as victims of, the system; and, finally, we have forgotten that we were not made for comfort but for striving, intellectually as well as physically.

Recently, I switched radio channels when a play to which I was listening turned unpleasant; and I am not so good as I used to be at hearing the sports teams I follow losing games but this is quite different in degree from The Daily Mail calling judges the "Enemies of the people" or Donald Trump calling media who say things he does not like "The enemies of the people". And more  and more, as we spend more time selecting what we view and listen to, we slip into communities of interest and practice, hardly ever making ourselves aware of how others live and think. And that  lack of empathy and enquiry has not only marred the world of politics, it has also seriously damaged our ability within the Church to hold adult conversations about the things that divide us or, more to the point, the things that ought and ought not to divide us.

The condition in which we find ourselves as paradoxical sheep is the result of living in two incommensurate worlds: we live in our world; and we live in God's world; wise in the first, foolish in the second; required to be brave in the first but knowing that we are wholly dependent in the second; and, most of all, blind to ourselves in the first but totally known to God in the second.

It is because we are so complex in our own world that self-understanding demands such great effort from us but in God's world we are required to be simple; but what unites the two is the requirement in both worlds, our world and God's world, to be penitent, not just in Lent but at the end of every day, after we have examined our consciences. And no matter how often we fail, as long as we repent we know the result; these two parables are the precursor to the story of the Prodigal Son.