The Lost Sheep
When we heard of the death of the Queen, like so many, Sue and I felt such a strong sense of loss – we cried, and I know many of you will have done the same. Even people who are not Royalists, found themselves standing outside Buckingham Palace surprised by tears. This period of mourning is a time for us to reflect on this sense of loss of a life that has passed. There was a lovely poem I read by a young curate on maternity leave which I think goes a long way towards explaining these surprising tears:
You were old, already when I was born
And I took your gentle face for granted:
On every coin and every postage stamp,
Each Christmas message, poppy wreath laid.
Most famous of faces around the world,
I saw you, once or twice, felt I knew you
And many people cherish their stories
Of garden parties and medals received.
We feel the sands of time shift beneath us
As history is marked before our eyes.
We feel the cold wind blow, the night draw in
And pull our coats tightly around our chests;
We arise our heads, as you did, say a prayer;
We cling to the true rock, the true anchor
As you did. We live with faith, hope and love.
That lovely poem underlines our loss of a sense of constancy. If, for instance, we lost a coin like the woman in today’s other parable, on it there would be an image of Queen Elizabeth. For 70 years she has been a constant through so many changes and chances of our fleeting world Gradually the images on our currency will change which will be weird – as when we sing the National Anthem.
In his first speech on Friday Evening our new King spoke of his mother’s pledge of service aged 21:
In 1947, on her 21st birthday, she pledged in a broadcast from Cape Town to the Commonwealth to devote her life, whether it be short or long, to the service of her peoples. That was more than a promise: it was a profound personal commitment which defined her whole life … As the queen herself did with such unswerving devotion, I too now solemnly pledge … I shall endeavour to serve you with loyalty, respect and love, as I have throughout my life.
This gives us assurance, the crown is in good hands. The young princess ended her speech making it explicit that her life of service would be underpinned by her faith in God – something sealed at her Coronation when she was anointed and set apart for ours and God’s service.
God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.
How similar they are to Paul’s words in today’s epistle:
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service.
Her life of service was profound – to the end when just 2 days before she died she appointed the 15th Prime Minister of her reign. But it’s the overt emphasis on faith in God that I believe should really inspire us. Even in the pageantry and pomp, there is an acknowledgment of God’s involvement in all things. Even in the Proclamation of the new King there is the overt statement of the Lord’s involvement in the Queen’s death:
Whereas it has pleased almighty God to call to his mercy our late sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth the Second of blessed and glorious memory
In this period of official mourning – I believe one way we can honour her memory is to make the influence of God more explicit in our lives as did our late queen
The Queen’s faith was not sophisticated – indeed I’m sure we could say her simple faith might have been based on the trite little acronym WWJD – What Would Jesus Do?
This leads me to today’s Gospel parable of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd is not like the Absent or Inattentive Shepherd who lost three of his flock near Spinney Meadow last week.
After phoning a couple of local farms they were eventually tracked down because by Tuesday afternoon they had returned to their flock. The Good Shepherd, on the other hand – is attentive to the situation that something is missing and goes in search of the one who is lost. Queen Elizabeth would search out those who were lost – like the families of Aberfan where 116 children and 28 adults were killed in the landslide of 1966. Jeff Edwards, who the Queen referred to as the “little boy with the blond hair” had been the last child to be rescued. He recalled in later life:
" She too was a young mother, and she was visibly upset and she walked down from the cemetery to a local house.
When she went into that house she was really upset and she had to compose herself before she went on to meet the relatives and families who had lost children and relatives.”
Similarly, just 30 years later, she visited Dunblane where 16 children and their teacher had been murdered. I learned yesterday that she went to the cathedral and on her own walked into the vestry to be with the grieving parents. She also visited survivors of the Manchester Bombing and the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.
Equally, however, Her Majesty was not a plaster saint, demonstrating humility after the death of princess Diana.
She learned the importance of knowing how ‘her’ flock was feeling - and our feelings were mixed. We were puzzled and needed to know that the Queen knew how we felt. We saw her sadness as she looked at the mountains of flowers outside Buckingham Palace.
We were heartened by the humility when the Queen broke with protocol – she demonstrated a marked change in her style after heeding the groundswell of feeling. The Queen acknowledged this in her Annus Horribilis speech of 1992:
There can be no doubt, of course, that criticism is good for people and institutions that are part of public life. No institution – City, Monarchy, whatever – should expect to be free from the scrutiny of those who give it their loyalty and support, not to mention those who don’t.
In her Christmas message of 2014, she demonstrated how her life was inspired by a simple faith:
“For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace … is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance, and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”
I pray this might inspire us to make more overt the life of Jesus as an inspiration and anchor for our life as well. However, there is one last aspect of her life that we might reflect on.
When I witnessed the funeral of Prince Philip last year the image of the Queen sitting alone in the chapel of Windsor accompanies the many other images of her life in my mind. In deepest black her face covered with a mask as she faithfully obeyed the Covid restrictions of the time like most of us. She looked like a sheep that was lost – I got a strong sense that there was a flock beyond this life for which she now yearned and with which she longed to be reunited. Who could ‘she’ turn to except Jesus the Good Shepherd. From the perspective of the lost sheep The Baptist theologian and mystic, Howard Thurman, reflects:
A sheep was enjoying her grass . . . suddenly she became aware that she was cold, and … she realized that she had been cold for some time. But, the grass had been so good. Then she looked around, and she discovered that she was alone … And then the shepherd, who had many sheep, missed her when he got back to the fold, and he left his ninety and nine . . . to try to find this sheep that was lost.
And Jesus says, “God is like that.” Nothing heavy and theological about that. Very little that is dogmatic, technically, about it. Something that can help us as we wonder in our ‘lostness’ today.
On the day of the Queen’s death there were rainbows over Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. The Bow in the Clouds is a Biblical sign of hope. In her final Christmas message, Her Majesty the Queen said, somewhat Prophetically,
“Life consists of final passings as well as first meetings”
For me, the Rainbows were the sign of hope that now Elizabeth, the daughter, sister, mother and wife is reunited. The Lost Sheep of the Parable was restored to those she had lost – that is the Good News of the Good Shepherd. We grieve a constancy that Her Majesty gave for 70 years; we grieve a life of service; a life of humility; and a life of someone who shared in the changes and chances of this fleeting life with a simple life of faith and a sheep whom the Good Shepherd has now taken in His arms.
Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing but life everlasting.
May "flights of Angels sing thee to thy rest.”