Category Archives: Comment

The Lynn and Fakenham Railway – Part 1

Although first mooted in the 1840s, the Lynn & Fakenham Railway was not opened, over its full length, until 1880. It only had a short independent life, being absorbed into the Eastern & Midlands Railway in 1883.

A look at the history of the line and it’s route through the Norfolk countryside is for a future post.

The Lynn & Fakenham Railway is mentioned in an article in the journal “Railway Archive.” Interestingly, that article is about the locomotives which were initially purchased for the Cornwall Minerals Railway. [1]

The Cornwall Minerals Railway developed out of a series of older Tramroad which served the Cornish Mining Industry. It owned and operated a network of 45 miles (72 km) of standard standard gauge railway lines in central Cornwall. It started by taking over an obsolescent horse-operated tramway in 1862, and it improved and extended it, connecting Newquay and Par Harbours and Fowey.

It  had a chequered history having been hurt by a collapse in mineral extraction due to a slump in prices. But after a period in bankruptcy it recovered enough to take over a defunct route between Fowey and Lostwithiel – the Lostwithiel and Fowey line.

In 1896 it finally sold its line to the Great Western Railway which had been leasing it for some time.

Its main passenger line from Par to Newquay is still in use as the Atlantic Coast Line, and also carries some mineral traffic, but the Par to Fowey line has been converted to a private road. [2]

CMR No. 1, Treffrey was built, along with all of the CMR locomotives, by Sharp, Stewart & Co. Ltd of Manchester. It was named for Joseph Austin Treffrey but the name plates were mis-spelt. These locus were intended to work in pairs, back to back and it is likely that the lack of rear bunker and the open cab were intended to facilitate this way of working. There is no evidence to suggest that the traffic on the railway was ever large enough to justify this intention. [1][2]

The Cornwall Minerals Railway was adventurous in its intentions and purchases. It anticipated far more traffic from the mines than was to materialise and bought 18 (yes, eighteen) 0-6-0T steam engines to serve the anticipated high demand. [1] When the line was leased to the GWR in 1877, the new lease-holders quickly realised that the over provision of motive power was a financial drain on the Line. The GWR returned 9 of the engines to their makers, leaving 9 to serve the needs of the Line. [1:p30]

Of the 9 remains locos, a further one was sold by 1883 to the Sharpness New Docks Company and based on the opposite side of the River Severn from the Forest of Dean. [1:p31]

We are interested, in this article, in the fate of the 9 locos returned to Sharp, Stewart. Or, at least, 8 of those 9 locomotives. 8 were purchased by the Lynn & Fakenham Railway and ended their days in various guises on the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway (M&GNJR) which was the ultimate successor to the Lynn & Fakenham Railway. [1:p30] A first batch of three were sold to the Lynn & Fakenham in 1880, a further five were sent to the Lynn & Fakenham in 1881. [1: p36]

Incidentally, the last of the 9 locos returned to Sharp, Stewart was sold to the Colne Valley & Halstead Railway before ending up at a colliery in Northumberland. [1: p30]

Treloar comments that the Lynn & Fakenham’s successor, the M&GNJR was “despite their lack of success … inspired … to design and build a later type of 0-6-0 tank with similarities to the original locomotives, some of them even using the wheels from the ex-CMR engines.” [1: p30]

This is recognised at least in part by the LNER Encyclopedia which says:

“The Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway’s (M&GNJR) ‘Shunting’ Class (LNER J93) were designed by Marriott and built at the M&GN’s Melton Constable’s works. In common with many M&GN types, the Shunting Class followed Midland Railway practice and included a number of Derby design features, such as the cab, tanks, and boiler mountings. The boiler drawing was made at Derby in 1896, and the nine locomotives were built at Melton Constable between 1897 and 1905.

Most of the J93s were built carrying the ‘Rebuilt Melton Constable’ plates, and six of the class (Nos. 93-8) were reputed to have been rebuilt from locomotives that had started out on the Cornwall Minerals Railway (CMR). These were built by Sharp, Stewart & Co. in 1874, and acquired by the Lynn & Fakenham Railway in 1880-1. These were then inherited by the Eastern & Midlands Railway – predecessor of the M&GN. The stock register describes the J93s as new locomotives, and Mr G.B. Clarke (draughtsman to Marriott) is on record as emphatically stating that the J93s were new locomotives. Therefore, J93s Nos. 93-8 should really be considered replacements for the ex-CMR engines. After saying this, there is some evidence that some of the J93s carried ex-CMR wheels at one time or another. These had ten spokes and built-up balance weights, whilst the new wheels had twelve spokes and cast-in crescent weights. Some photographs from the 1940s show individual J93s carrying a mixture of both wheel types!” [3]

The LNER/M&GNJR J93 Class of shunting locomotive which was based to some extent on the original CMR locomotives design by Sharp, Stewart. [1][3]

Eastern & Midland No. 11, one of the original CMR locomotives with the Sharp, Stewart Tender. [4]

The Lynn & Fakenham Railway and it’s successors clearly had problems with the original CMR locomotives. They did not last long in their original guise. The lack of coal space was a major problem! By the time they were in use on the M&GNJR, they had been provided with tenders, as shown above. The tenders were all fabricated by Sharp, Stewart in the 1880s to their standard 4-wheel design. A series of pictures is provided with the article in Railway Archive. [1: p36-39]

In addition to these 0-6-0 locomotives, the Lynn and Fakenham bequeathed a number of other engines to the Eastern and Midland Railway. These included:

Seven 4-4-0T locomotives built by Hudswell Clarke for the Lbetween 1878 and 1881; [5][6]

and

Four Beyer Peacock 4-4-0 locomotives built 1882/1883. These were the first of a total of fifteen of the class. The remaining eleven were built for the Eastern and Midlands Railway before 1888. [5][7]

References

1. Peter Treloar; A Scattered Family: The Cornwall Minerals Railway’s 0-6-0Ts; Railway Archive Issue 30, Black Dwarf Lightmoor Press, 2011, p27-40.

2. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornwall_Minerals_Railway, accessed on 16th November 2019.

3. https://www.lner.info/locos/J/j93.php, accessed on 16th November 2019.

4. https://www.rmweb.co.uk/community/index.php?/topic/131449-creating-a-believable-freelance-pre-group-company, accessed on 16th November 2019. The provenance of the photograph is unclear. It appears on ‘rmweb’ as part of a long discussion about creating a realistic pre-grouping model railway.

5. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_and_Midlands_Railway, accessed on 16th November 2019.

6. https://railway-photography.smugmug.com/LNERSteam/1893-MGNR-Midland-Great-Northern-Railway/EMR-Eastern-Midlands-Railway-Hudswell-Clarke-4-4-0T/i-v4ZHNHZ, accessed on 16th November 2019.

7. https://www.lner.info/locos/D/mgn_arebuild.php, accessed on 16th November 2019.

 

So, Someone Shot Jesus!

On Thursday 7th  November 2019, the Guardian carried a half-page article about the artist Lorna May Wadsworth, and particularly about a painting that she painted as a devotional object for a Church in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. [1]

The painting  was commissioned by the Parochial Church Council for Nailsworth to hang behind the altar in St George’s Church in September 2008.

It was the request of the late Alan Denman, an ex-church warden who died in January 2008 aged 86. He left £5,000 to the church and the painting was part of a bequest. [2]

A new exhibition of Lorna May Wadsworth’s work was being assembled in Sheffield at the Graves Gallery. [3] The exhibition was planned as a retrospective of her work and ran/runs from 9th November 2019 to 15th February 2020.

When the painting of the Last Supper was being unpacked the painter noticed that there was a hole in Jesus’ right side which, after investigation, was found to have been caused by an air-rifle pellet.

Wadsworth expressed a concern that someone was so aggrieved by her portrayal of Christ that they wanted to attack it. …

What makes this painting unusual in a British context is the choice Wadsworth made to depict Jesus as black. The model is Tafari Hinds and Wadsworth’s intention was to challenge people’s perceptions, to ask the viewer to ‘look with fresh eyes’.

I am not too sure why anyone should have taken exception to the painting, but to have done so reflects more on the iconoclast than on the artist.

It is normal for us to create God in our own image. We have no warrant for doing so, but most of our religious paintings do just that. They reflect the culture in which they have been painted. So we tend to imagine Jesus as white with longer hair and blue eyes – the ‘Robert Powell Jesus’.

The truth is that Jesus would have been middle-eastern in appearance, probably not over tall, with swarthy skin and a prominent nose. Ultimately we domesticate our images of the divine, because to do so allows us to comprehend God better. If our whole perceptual framework is challenged, everything is uncertain. ….

What was Jesus like?  …….. Someone not to different from me! …. That is a valid and helpful response when first thinking about what it means for God to be incarnate.

However, we cannot stay there. We must not leave it at that. ……

For God incarnate, one of us, is God incarnate, one of us.

And we are all different. We cannot appropriate Jesus as our own. He belongs to us all. Every culture over the centuries has an equal stake in the person of Jesus. Jesus is one of us.

References

1.  https://amp.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/nov/06/artist-lorna-may-wadsworth-discovers-bullet-hole-in-jesus-in-last-supper-painting

2. https://www.stroudnewsandjournal.co.uk/news/4769963.huge-painting-of-the-last-supper-for-st-georges-church-nailsworth-is-complete

3. https://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/museums/graves-gallery/exhibitions/coming-soon

 

Harvest 2019 – John 6: 25-35

This is a shortened version of a post from 2015. ….

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” – John 6:35 .

These words from Jesus follow the story of the feeding of the 5,000. …

We have all probably experienced what is is like to be physically hungry. Just as those 5,000 who were fed by Jesus did. However, in the context of that miracle, Jesus talks about our hunger and thirst – not so much physical but spiritual.

Just as we feel hunger, all of us experience deep longings at the core of our beings which need to be fulfilled. Longings to be accepted, to be loved, to count for something, to make an impact, for others to see us as significant, as important or as strong.

Often these longings are well hidden away, but at times we encounter them in powerful ways. Perhaps in grief over the loss of a loved one, perhaps in the dark of the night when we are less in control of our emotions, perhaps at the point where everything seems to be going so well for us, yet something seems to be missing.

So many of us are driven to fulfil these longings for significance, for meaning in our lives. Perhaps we become workaholics, or we become demanding and jealous in our relationships, or we pursue success at the cost of everything else, or we turn to alcohol or drugs, or … some of us, to add a little levity,  even go shopping.

It’s part of the human condition! We long for our deepest needs to be met and we search for ways to make this happen!

Jesus says: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Or to put it more succinctly, “I am all you will ever need.”

All those desires for meaning, for hope, for significance, for love – those thirsts, those hungers. Pursue me, get to know me, spend time with me – and I will meet them. This is not just some idle promise made by a preacher looking for something to say on a Sunday evening. These are the timeless words of Jesus. They are Jesus promise to us.

And note: he doesn’t say “I’ll find you something to do for me, and then you’ll feel better” No, Jesus is talking about our very being, the very core of who we are, the bit no one else can see. Right at the core of who we are, that’s where Jesus will be – meeting our deepest desires for wholeness. And not just sparingly, but overwhelmingly, generously, and, just as in the story of the feeding of the five thousand, there’ll be plenty of leftovers, flowing out of hearts that are truly loved. For once we really know that we are loved, we can really begin to love others.

Our thankfulness to God will overflow in love towards others. This is ultimately what our Harvest Thanksgiving is all about. We express our gratitude to God for God’s love and provision for us and as we do so we seek to make a difference in the lives of others. … We give because we have ourselves been given so much.

Faith or Faithfulness? Luke 17: 5-10

What does it mean to ‘have faith’?

Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this tree, ‘Be uprooted and plated in the sea’, and it would obey you.”

Jesus seems to be saying: “If you can screw up enough faith, if you pray hard enough, if you really believe, then you’ll be able to do powerful things. You’ll be in control of life and God will be able to work through you! If you are just prepared to leap across that chasm believing that I will miraculously get you to the other side, then you are my disciple!  ”

But is he really? ……  Or is it rather the case that we hear him saying what we think he is saying rather than listen to him properly. After all, what do we say when things go wrong for us? …… “What have I done to deserve this?” “Why is this illness happening to me?” … It is as though we do really believe that we have the power to make our circumstances right, just be being better people, by having more faith?

And so, when we hear the word ‘faith’ we so often think of something rather like the flexing of spiritual muscles, or determinedly screwing ourselves up to believe. “If only I had more faith,” we say. “If only I really believed.” … And so many of us fail to achieve this … and as a result so many turn their back on ‘faith’: “It does not work,” they say.

And so when we hear those verses in Luke 17 we hear Jesus saying something, perhaps quite sarcastic: “Faith, don’t talk to me about your faith, you have not even got enough to fill a mustard seed, if you had you’d be doing all sorts of marvellous things in my name.”

But when we do so, we miss the point.

called_chosen_-faithful_part3-680x300What Jesus is actually saying is something much more like this: “Faith is about trusting in an all powerful God, it is about living faithfully to what you believe, it is about faithful service. Just a tiny little bit of that kind of faithful living will change the world.”

Where is the evidence for reading the Gospel this way?

Firstly, there is the whole of the reading above. In the first two verses Jesus talks about faith – but then he goes on to talk about masters and slaves. He could be talking about the way in which the physical world should obey its masters, those masters being his followers who have faith. But I don’t think he is. Let’s just focus on Luke 17:10 which tells us so much about ‘faith’ …

Jesus says: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

‘Faith’  is all about being ‘faithful’. We are slaves, servants of our master, and the greatest and the best thing that we can say of ourselves is that we have lived faithful to that calling – we have served our master, we have lived faith-fully.

Second, there is that word ‘faith’; ‘pisteo‘ in the Greek. It is used consistently through the Greek version of the bible for being faithful, trustworthy, sure and true. Just here in Luke:

Luke 12:42                faithful and prudentfruitosp_faithfulness

Luke 16:10-12          faithful, faithful, faithful

Luke 19:17                trustworthy

In each of these cases, and throughout the New testament, it is the same root word,  ‘pisteo‘. So when Jesus uses the word ‘faith’, he is not asking us to screw ourselves up to believe, but he is asking us to live faithfully to what we believe, to be his trustworthy followers. To be faithful and prudent. “Those who live this way,” says Jesus, “Are people of faith. … And, (in the figurative language that he is using) it won’t just be a mulberry tree that is uprooted, even the gates of hell will not prevail against them.”gar-19

Angels and Mirrors ….. John 1: 47-51 … Michaelmas 2019

First, I have to say that I believe in Angels … both as God’s messengers and as beings that sometimes intervene.

A true story. … A few years ago now, my wife, Jo, my mother-in-law, Elisabeth and I were travelling back from West Wales to Leominster where Elisabeth lived. The A-roads in the area are relatively narrow and they twist and turn with high hedges either side. It was late in the evening and dark. Just after rounding a sharp 90-degree bend, a tyre blew on our car. It was a dangerous location and the road was too narrow to be changing a tyre without some sort of ‘protection’. Jo headed round the bend with a torch to flag down drivers and let them know of the obstruction ahead. We all tried our mobiles. … There was no signal. We tried to work out where the nearest house was but could see nothing.

At that moment a Range Rover stopped near Jo and ask what the problems was. The driver left his vehicle beyond the bend with hazard lights flashing walked over to our car, changed the tyre, shook our hands and left. We did get chance to say thank you. But before we knew it he was on his way and gone. We encountered an angel!

Let’s set aside ‘Angels’ for a moment and think a little about the Gospel reading set for Michaelmas in 2019. … John 1: 47-51.

What do you see when you look in the mirror? … Do you like what you see?

I am still surprised by the age of the person who looks back at me out of the mirror. I feel as though I am no different than I was twenty years ago but the mirror does not lie!

Many of us when we look in the mirror can be quite critical and wish that a different face was looking back at us.  And yet, if we say these things to someone else, they often wonder what we are talking about!

If we see an image that we wish was different – others don’t seem to see the flaws that we can see.  Those close to us see the face of the person they know and love – yes, not perfect – but certainly not someone who needs to worry about their appearance!

I am always surprised when I read a column is the glossy magazines that come with weekend papers, and hear someone famous or beautiful, or both, talking about themselves. It is as though someone who seems attractive and self-confident has looked in the mirror and as a result they are surprisingly over-critical of the face that looks back at them, the person that they see.

And it’s not just our looks, is it. … We can underestimate our abilities, our gifts and skills; we can be reticent about trying out something new because we think that we’ll be no good at it; we can even get some kind of distorted sense that it’s wrong to think about the things that we’re good at, in case we’re thought to be overconfident or boastful!  Sadly, so often, this holds people back from reaching their God-given potential – using their gifts and talents to help others and being comfortable with who they are.

Many of us keep parts of ourselves hidden even from our nearest and dearest.

Nathaniel, in our Gospel reading, was probably no different – he assumed that he could control what people knew about him. And then he met Jesus. … Jesus seems to know all about him, without having met him.

Jesus sees Nathaniel coming towards him and says ‘Here’s a true Israelite – without a false bone in his body.’ Nathaniel is amazed ‘How do you know me?’ he asks. ‘Ahh… says Jesus, ‘One day before Philip brought you to me, I saw you sitting under the fig tree’.

Jesus seemed to know everything about Nathaniel – from just having seen him under a fig tree. … From that glance, Jesus was able to decide that here was someone he wanted in the group of his twelve closest companions. No lengthy interview, not gathering of references – Jesus just knew.

We see this throughout the Bible, that God, that Jesus, knows things about people that enable God to give those people a new direction in life.  Jesus, meeting the woman at the well, surprises her because he knows about her past – and instead of feeling embarrassed, she runs off to tell her town all about this man. They put their faith in him – she’s an unlikely evangelist!

God is not a distant authoritarian figure judging us from afar, but a God who is tender, who is loving, who knows and experiences the messy-ness of life.  God knows us, warts and all, and keeps on loving us. God sees the good and the bad in us, and keeps on loving us. God is saddened when we stray from the way of living that he knows is best for us – but he’s not there with a notebook putting down another note about our failings, he’s longing for us to recognise where we get things wrong and to turn to him to show us how to live differently.

God lovingly ‘created our inmost parts and knit us together in our mother’s womb’ and who is saddened when we don’t like the way we look, because we’re rejecting his gift of creation.

God made us who we are, giving us unique gifts, and is saddened when we don’t use them, as if we’re saying that we know better than him.

What do we see when we look at ourselves in a mirror, or in our weakest moments? Is it an image that we have developed ourselves, is it based on rude and unfair comments made by someone in the past, or is it going to be based on what God thinks of us. A God who knows me and loves me.

In the grand scheme of things, that is all that really matters.  That knowledge allows me to be truly me, the me that God has created, known and called.

What does this have to do with St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael and Michaelmas?

Just this, I think. …. Angels are messengers. The most famous are Michael and Gabriel. They bring God’s message to his people. They speak the words of God. Overwhelmingly in the Bible we see Angels bringing words of hope, encouragement and blessing, whether it is to Abram and Sarah, to Jacob or to Samson’s parents, or to Gideon or to Joseph or Mary or Zechariah, or to us.

Angels are truth-speakers and overwhelmingly their message to us will be encouraging and up-building, they see us and speak to us through the eyes and mouth of God. They see us as children of God.

Michael and Gabriel, and Jesus, all call on us to be the people God intended us to be, loved and loving, blessed and blessing others, full of grace and gracious towards others.

And finally. ……………………. Angels drive Range Rovers!

The Dishonest Steward – Luke 16:1-13

I find it almost impossible to talk to people when the TV is on. Somehow the television just grabs my attention. Perhaps more amusing is what happens to me at the cinema. I’m one of those people who get completely engrossed in the film, so completely drawn into the story that I’m oblivious to anything else.

I once went with some friends to watch Braveheart (Mel Gibson) – if you’ve seen it you’ll remember that there were lots of graphic battle scenes. I’m told that every time anyone got hit by an axe or a spear my body convulsed in sympathy. After one particularly grusome bit I glanced along the row and was embarrassed to find all my friends watching me rather than the screen. … As we were leaving the cinema a friend grabbed my arm and said that it was almost as entertaining watching me as watching the film itself.

Films are meant to take a hold of us. Good films draw us into the plot. The skill of a film director is measured by how well s/he is able to draw us into the story. Gifted preachers and story tellers are just the same; they draw us into the plot of their sermon or story.

Do you remember the story in the Old Testament of the prophet Nathan confronting King David after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba. He told him a story about a poor man with only one lamb whose rich neighbour took the lamb to feed a guest. David was indignant when he heard the story and shouted, “The man who did this deserves to die”. … And after a long pause, Nathan replied, “You are that man”. … He had trapped David. His skilled storytelling brought David to the point where he couldn’t but admit his guilt.

Jesus was the best story teller of all. His stories interested, gripped and intrigued people. People were drawn to listen and to make judgements on what he said. In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells one of these stories. A story which seems to condone dishonesty. Perhaps you can imagine the possible responses of those who heard the story:

Some might have said, “There you are, I told you there was nothing wrong with the way that I am running the business. If Jesus says its alright that’s good enough for me”.

Others might have sat in the corner shaking their heads and tutting.

Perhaps others wanted to write in and complain about standards. “This Jesus is teaching things that will corrupt our children”.

Some might just have been confused, … “Why is Jesus condoning something that we know is wrong?”

Others, who were well aware of the moral complexities of life might have felt something of the strength of the dilemma the steward in the story faced. For decisions that many people face in their working lives are not black and white issues but are made up of many shades of grey. Perhaps Jesus is letting us know that he understands the difficulty of such decisions.

Whatever response it provoked, J esus’ story would have had everyone gripped and intrigued. Wondering what to make of it.

We are told, specifically, of two groups of people listening to the parable:

•     his disciples – who seemed to be the main audience;

•     and in the verse immediately after our reading we are told that the Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. The response of the two groups and the message they heard was completely different:

Τhe disciples may have been confused by the story but they listened to the lessons that Jesus had for them.

In the Gospel reading, we heard Jesus challenging his first disciples about their attitude to wealth and responsibility. The same challenges apply to us! ……

First, Jesus challenges us to use what God gives us here on earth (wealth, gifts & time) for his eternal purposes, for the work of his kingdom.

Secondly, Jesus says that God gives us smaller responsibilities through which we can learn faithfulness to him, before he places heavier or bigger burdens on us (at church or in the world).

Thirdly, (in v13), he reminds us that if money & material things become too important to us we’ll lose sight of the God that we worship. In fact we’ll become worshippers of money and possessions.

Τhe Pharisees, on the other hand, sneered at Jesus. They heard the same as the disciples but they chose not to listen. We know from the rest of the NT that the disciples continued to struggle to follow Jesus but that the Pharisees saw themselves as superior to him. They rejected him and his teaching.

These questions or lessons about money and responsibilities are important ones. Many people in business struggle with just the same kind of issues as the steward or manager in the parable. It is so hard to decide where the narrow dividing line falls between dishonesty or sharp practice and a healthy competition for work. It is sometimes difficult to know when we have crossed that fine line. Ultimately, Jesus seems to be making it clear that money and wealth, jobs and security are all intended to be our servants and not our masters.

Don’t worry if you struggle to understand what Jesus is saying. Keep struggling, for in many ways that is the point of the parable. Let the parable worry away at you. For honest doubt, tentative faith and belief are all part of growing as a Christian.

14042-12697-man_fog_walking_edited-1200w-tn-1-1200w-tnWhen God speaks we always have a choice – we can respond with faith (struggling faith) like the disciples, honesty admitting our doubts, or we can sneer at what Jesus is saying to us, like the Pharisees did. We can turn away from Jesus. There is always a choice. God draws us into the story and brings us to the point of decision, but the choice is always ours. As disciples, we can trust him, struggling to work out our faith in the midst of a confusing world, or like the Pharisees we can reject him, turn our back on him and walk away.

Just telling a joke! – Luke 15:1-10

How do you recognize a joke? What are the signals you look out for?

There’s: ‘Did you hear the one about…’ or ‘A man goes into a pub …’ or ‘A man goes to see his doctor …’

The introduction tells you that there is a funny story coming and you set yourself up for it, you’re ready to laugh!

Have you noticed as well that often when we tell jokes, even though we’re telling a story about the past we use the present tense.

Someone once told me that much as English comedians tell jokes about Irish people. (Although, of course, we don’t do it so often now because we have recognized that it causes offence.) Much as we tell jokes about the Irish, people in Jesus day used to tell jokes about shepherds. They were considered to be country bumpkins of relatively low intelligence. Now I really don’t know how true that statement was. But there is one story in the Bible that really does seem to me to be a case of Jesus telling a joke, or at least a funny story to make a point. And that is the first half of our Gospel reading this morning.

I can almost imagine Jesus starting his parable with the words. ‘Did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep …’ And how does the story run? ‘Did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep – he left 99 out in the open field and went searching for the one that had gone missing.’

And I can imagine the sniggers, the knowing looks, perhaps even the ribald laughter. ‘How foolish, how stupid, typical of a shepherd,’ some of Jesus listeners might say.

And can you imagine the increased laughter when Jesus goes on to say that the shepherd goes home when he finds the lost sheep and has a party. Not a thought anymore for the 99!! As far as this shepherd is concerned they can look after themselves.

It is manifestly stupid. It is a silly story. No sensible shepherd would do anything like this. The loss would be too great. Better to leave the one who is lost and look after the 99 that are still fine. That makes economic sense. And Jesus audience fall around laughing, all their prejudices confirmed.

But laughter has softened them up for the punch-line. … Says Jesus, ‘This is what God is like, this is what it is like in heaven. God is more concerned for the lost than those who are OK.’

God is more concerned for the sinner who needs to repent than he is for the Pharisee who believes that he is righteous. God is more concerned for the backslider than for the good upstanding Christian. God seeks out the lost and rejoices when they are found again – even if in the doing of it, he seems foolish and ludicrous – even if everyone else thinks that God is on a wild goose chase. God chases after the lost, longing to show them his love, longing to draw them back into relationship with him.

This means that if we, in our wisdom, feel sure enough of ourselves to say what is right and what is wrong; if we, in our wisdom, define someone as a sinner. Then, rather than putting them beyond the reach of God’s love, we place them at the centre of God’s love. … Our parable suggests that God is happy to leave us to fend for ourselves as God focusses on them, as he turns his love towards them. The joke is on us!

And if we were to go on to read the story of the Prodigal Son later in this chapter 15 of Luke, it would be little different. In that story the Father is prepared to make a mockery of himself, all for the sake of a worthless good for nothing son. A fine upstanding Jewish father is prepared to suffer the shame of his village seeing him running through the streets to greet his wayward Son. And the story tells us that the Father places the lost Son ahead of the faithful but self-righteous Son! … We’ve got to be fools to miss the point of these parables. God cares nothing for what people think of him. God’s eyes are focussed on those who are lost, spiritually and physically. God’s eyes are fixed on those in need.

This is what God is like. God seeks out those who are lost, who feel unloved and abandoned. God doesn’t mind looking foolish, if only God manages to draw one lost human being back from the brink, back into his arms. And God is so taken up with joy when one of us hears of his love and responds to that love, that everything else for that moment fades completely into insignificance.

God’s love centres on the cross where Jesus died. It is consummated as Jesus rises from the dead. Just like the sheep that was lost allowed the shepherd to pick it up and take it in his arms, so God encourages us all to have that kind of trusting faith. To allow God to throw his arms around us in love. ‘Yes, Lord, I want that kind of love, please be my shepherd, now and always.’

And God calls us to have this same self-negating, self-deprecating, foolish, silly love, that goes after the lost with complete abandon. Nothing sensible, nothing thought out. Just a headlong rush to share God’s love with those who need him. To love and not to count the cost. To seek out those in need and commit ourselves to their welfare.

imagesJohn in one of his epistles says, ‘This is love – not that we loved God, but that God loved us and gave his Son to die for us.’ This is the measure by which we judge our love for our partners, for our family for our friends, for our neighbours and for others who are in need. Love that reaches out unconditionally, foolishly, ridiculously without thought for the cost. That is love like God’s love. This is no joke, it’s the gist of Jesus parable set for today!