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Sunday 15 September 2019 – Sung Eucharist
1 Timothy 1:12-17 Luke 15:1-20
The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Lost Son. These three parables constitute the entirety of chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel. We heard the first two in today’s gospel reading. If you’re wondering whether you’ve ever heard of the Lost Son, then you’ll almost certainly know it well but under a different title: The Prodigal Son, although it’s not really the son who’s prodigal – which is to say spendthrift or extravagant – but the father, and it’s not just one son who’s lost but two. By contrast the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin seem a little less complicated. What all three undoubtedly have in common, though, is a concern for the recovery of the lost, of what’s gone astray or missing or has somehow become separated.
Luke’s gospel has a particular concern for the restoration of the lost. What’s interesting is who Luke puts in the category of the lost: not just those conventionally deemed to be sinners but also the poor, women, strangers, foreigners, social outcasts. If we’re inclined to assume that the lost have only themselves to blame, Luke’s concerns would suggest otherwise. The lost in these instances have become separated at the hands of others as a result of greed, the abuse of power, fear, prejudice and discrimination. And Luke’s absolutely clear that the overcoming of separation and exclusion lies at the heart of who God is and what God’s all about.
It’s not only Luke who’s concerned about the lost, though. Indeed, the whole gospel message is about the restoration to wholeness of all things and all people. After the feeding of the large crowd in John’s gospel – a number that’s calculated in the other gospels as 5000 men, to say nothing of women and children – Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ ‘So that nothing may be lost.’ That phrase could be used as a summary of the whole gospel story. The whole purpose of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is precisely so that nothing and no one may be lost, so that everything and everyone might be brought into the embrace of God’s utterly spendthrift, extravagant, abundant, generous love, which knows no bounds. It knows no bounds because it rejects nothing, not even those who wish to exclude and do away with Jesus altogether. Instead, Jesus meets such attitudes and actions with love, compassion and forgiveness and, in so doing, holds everything and everyone in his embrace.
If the whole gospel story could be summarised in the words, ‘so that nothing may be lost,’ then the reading we heard today from the First Letter to Timothy puts it in a slightly different way, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’ ‘Salvation’ is the word most commonly used in theological circles to describe the underlying purpose of the gospel, but we find that this concept embraces all sorts of other related notions, things like restoration, healing, wholeness and holiness. Salvation or wholeness is what we’re made for, far more than separation or exclusion, but this involves – not surprisingly, perhaps – every aspect of our lives and experience. It has to do, of course, with relationships, relationships not only with God and other people but also relationships with bits of ourselves, from which, for whatever reason, we’ve become disassociated. This happens to all of us unavoidably and the journey towards wholeness, towards the recovery of anything or anyone that’s lost can be a difficult, challenging and often painful one. I’d like to tell you about Marian Partington, because her story not only illustrates what I’m trying to say, but also the capacity to move and inspire.
Her book, If You Sit Very Still, begins on 27th December 1973 with the abduction, either by force or deceit, of her sister Lucy. It wasn’t until 4th March 1994, 21 years later, that the heart-wrenching truth about what had happened to Lucy began to come to light. Frederick West revealed to the police that there were several bodies buried in the basement of 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, where he lived with his wife, Rosemary. Among these bodies was Lucy’s. It transpired that she was one of at least 12 young women who were raped, tortured and murdered by the Wests between 1971 and 1987. Marian’s book details with extraordinary candour the impact of these events on her and her family. For 21 years Lucy was lost. The not knowing was almost impossible to bear. Not only were they distraught about Lucy’s disappearance, not knowing what had become of her, hoping year after year that she’d suddenly turn up, but their own lives had been put on hold. They’d lost the capacity to function, as it were, normally.
The discovery of Lucy’s body, though, wasn’t the end of the matter. Marian then set about the task of trying to piece together the very uncertain fragments of the story, trying to make some kind of sense of them, moulding them into something vaguely coherent and understandable. This was motivated in part by a desire that Lucy herself should not be lost. At the time of her disappearance she’d been a student of English literature at Exeter University, a poet who’d recently become a Roman Catholic. Marian was concerned above all else that her sister’s life hadn’t been for nothing, that even her terrible ordeal might somehow contribute to something unimaginably creative and redemptive. Piecing together these fragments, though, involved trying to make sense of her own life, of what she, her siblings and indeed her parents had lost not only as a result of Lucy’s disappearance, but also of their parents’ separation when they were younger, and of what she herself had lost in all sorts of ways throughout her life.
Unlike her sister, Marian was a Quaker and at some stage she committed herself to the practice of meditation in a disciplined way. This led her to undertake three intensive retreats. On the second, she found herself consumed by what she describes as a ‘murderous rage’ welling up within her, directed not surprisingly at Fred and Rosemary West. Paradoxically, you might think, this was the turning point in her journey, for she realised that in some respects she was no different from Rosemary West. What was it that had led Rosemary West to become embroiled in the awful goings-on in 25 Cromwell Street?
Marian discovered that Rosemary herself had been brutalised as a teenager, having been continuously raped and abused. What had been taken away from her, such that the only way she could deal with it was to deprive Lucy ultimately of her life? In working all this through she discovered an extraordinary bond with Rosemary, and she was clear that this connection was rooted in unresolved pain. ‘Hatred, anger, rage and vengeance all come from that place of unresolved pain,’ she writes. ‘I think the actions of the Wests come from that place. So I have compassion for them because I know that once you are brutalised you lose the sense of who you are, the sense of beauty, the sense that God is within you.’
This realisation of shared pain led Marian to write to Rosemary, now in prison, telling her that she forgave her and requesting a visit. Sadly, Rosemary clearly wasn’t yet in a place to face her own pain and asked the prison authorities to send her letter back with the request that Marian cease from all further contact. Marian, though, now works with sexual offenders in prisons, and acts as a storyteller and ambassador for the Forgiveness Project, founded by Marina Cantacuzino, who gave an Ebor Lecture here a couple of years ago.
There’s so much more that could be said about this story but there isn’t time. So allow me to let the story stand on its own feet for you to ponder, except to say that as far as I’m concerned it’s a story shot through with the gospel. I see in it the Spirit of God patiently at work recovering and restoring so much that had been lost. For Marian, that recovery came at a considerable cost to herself, but the reward was a wonderfully creative and compassionate commitment in her own life to do everything in her power to reach out to those who, like her, are lost in some way but don’t necessarily know it. To my mind, her story acts as an embodiment in a particular life of what the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son are all about: the Christ-like action of God ceaselessly at work restoring anything and anyone that’s lost, bringing everything and everyone into wholeness. At a time when things seem to be falling apart on a national, international and global scale, to say nothing of what may be happening in our own personal lives, this story can encourage us to trust that in the end nothing’s ever irretrievably lost.
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