Sunday 6th May 2001

All Saints, Benhilton

Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Lost Parrot


Last Thursday evening I returned home to find a hastily-scribbled note pushed through my letterbox which read:

"Hello! I'm in your garden trying to catch my parrot I'm sorry to intrude".

Well, there, in the garden was a young woman I'd never met, complete with birdcage and binoculars; and there, high up in a tall tree, some twenty feet off the ground, was the parrot. She was calling him to come back to her, and he, to judge from his replies, hadn't the slightest intention of doing so, at least not for a long while yet.

She stayed out all night calling to him; but the story has a happy ending, for another note came through the door to say that at 6:30am he'd finally condescended to come home for breakfast, and thanking me for the groundsheet which I had provided for her to sleep on.

Now parrots don't do much for me personally. But it's only necessary to see how attached people become to their pets, be they dogs, cats, horses, rabbits or budgerigars, to realise how deeply their loss, whether permanent by death or by their temporary disappearance, affects their owners.

It's not the cost of the animal that matters most. That parrot may have been a particularly rare and valuable one, but that's not the point. It's the investment which humans make in their pets (in several senses of that word "investment") which gives them a value which they would not otherwise have.

Yes, there usually is a financial investment: feeding, vet's bills and the original cost of the creature. But there's also the investment of time: taking for walks, cleaning out the litter tray, hutch or cage, brushing and grooming, to say nothing of having to sweep up the hairs of the carpet during moulting season; thirdly, there is the way owning a pet ties you down. Even going away for a single night means that someone has to look after the dog or feed the guinea-pig. But perhaps most significant of all is the emotional investment, the relationships which we form with domestic animals which for some people can do duty for other, human relationships.

Yet before we dismiss this investment as "mere sentimentality", let's remember that the image of shepherd-and-sheep is one which constantly recurs throughout Holy Scripture, Old Testament as well as New, to describe God's relationship with us, and, in certain critical ways, our relationship with each other through his Body, the Church.

In Jesus's teaching the Good Shepherd stands in marked contrast to the hireling. The Good Shepherd actually owns the sheep, which the hireling does not. Hence, the hireling's investment in the sheep's welfare is significantly less than that of their owner. This comes to light when danger in the form of the wolf appears: the hireling runs away, the good Shepherd stands by his charges and, if need be, gives up his own life to protect them.

Trying to follow this example of the Good Shepherd leads us into a curious paradox. Common-sense would suggest that the principal interest of the Good Shepherd lies with the sheep who remain securely in the sheepfold.

"Not so", says Jesus to us, his disciples, his trainee shepherds. "It isn't quite as simple as that. There are occasions, let me assure you, when it's the one who has become separated from the flock who is the chief concern of our Heavenly Father, yours and mine".

So it's the lost sheep, like that girl's lost parrot, who suddenly assumes an importance all of its own. Can't you imagine the indignation of the ninety-nine when they see their pastor spend such a disproportionate amount of time on the one who has strayed from the fold or the cage and got lost" "It's not fair!", they wail. "Here are we who've been coming to St Grizelda's by the Gasworks for forty years and he wastes all his time on that good-for-nothing young wastrel who's made such a total mess of his life."

There are two answers to this paradox, one addressed to the pastor himself and the other to the disgruntled sheep.

To the ninety-nine Jesus says "It's precisely because of your faithfulness and loyalty on which your pastor can depend that he is able to spend a disproportionate amount of time with a lost sheep. It may surprise you to know that from the very moment of that person's conception I knew and loved him, and I have a plan for his ultimate reconciliation with me and my Church which lies at present beyond your imagining. So give us all a chance to make this plan work, and if, through your pastor's diligence and the grace of my atoning sacrifice he does return to the fold, let's make his return an occasion for rejoicing, a local Easter, a Resurrection from the dead: for this my son was lost and is found, was dead and is now alive"

And to the pastor the Good Shepherd says this: "You are quite right to be looking for the lost sheep; but remember there are some who stray who simply do not want to be found and restored, at least not for the present. So don't let your worthy efforts to go after them develop into a single-minded crusade to save someone who, in the last analysis, doesn't want to be saved. Remember where the Spirit guided Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey. They rightly worked their fingers to the bone to convert their fellow-Jews; but there came for them a Moment of Truth at Antioch in Pisidia when they realised, with great reluctance no doubt, that they were wasting their time and that they should now switch their attention to the Gentiles instead. It was only really at that moment that my full purposes for the redemption of the world really dawned on them."

To "give up" as Paul and Barnabas did on their fellow-Jews in Pisidia, and as the parrot-lady might have had to do on Thursday, is never an easy decision. It should never be taken in haste or in exasperation. But we have to recognize that, from time to time, it is God's will, and our duty, to switch our attention and affections away from one object and focus it on another.

How difficult it is for a parish priest who has a real gift for reaching out to the fallen and the lapsed to have to turn his attention towards trying to preach better sermons, or raising the money to repair the church roof. How difficult, too, for the lay-leader who has spent their lifetime ministering to young people, to accept that the age-gap between them now makes their particular ministry, at least in its present form, unprofitable for all concerned. How difficult, and yet what an opportunity to discover something new that one can do.

Diligence and perseverance are indeed two hallmarks of good shepherding; but let's always be aware that "out there" are many people, who at present have no association with the Church of God, but who might benefit critically by discovering the love of God through Jesus Christ which we, as his shepherds and ministers would be able to extend towards them.

Since there are more ways than one of catching an errant parrot, there are, we can be sure, more ways than one of ministering to lost sheep.

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