Sermon for High Mass – Easter 4 Sunday 12 May 2019
4 EASTER, 2019 HIGH MASS
Readings: Acts 9.36-end; Psalm 23; Revelation 7.9-end; John 10.22-30
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
Today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, because each year at Mass we hear a passage from the 10th chapter of St. John’s Gospel; in which Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.
It is a day on which the Church invites us to pray for vocations to the pastoral ministry. The Church of England is urging us to do this with a sense of urgency – for not only are Fr. Beauchamp and I retiring shortly, but 40% of the clergy will do so over the next ten years. Of course, many of us will continue to minister in our “retirement,” but the Church cannot keep going on the retired for ever.
Sheep were a familiar part of the world in which Jesus lived in a way they are not for city-dwellers like us. But they are very much part of life in the world I grew up in. When we were visiting my mother in her care home in a dales town recently we found ourselves listening in conversation about them. Jules, one of the nurses is a farmer’s wife. Her husband is the sixth generation of his family to keep sheep on the same farm in the dale.
As anyone who has watched Amanda Owen’s Yorkshire Shepherdess on television or read James Reebank’s A Shepherd’s Life knows, hill-farming is a hard and precarious way of making a living, and Jules has to combine her job caring for people like my mother with working on the farm.
Spring is lambing time and Jules talked of the lambs she had been raising by hand– because their mothers had died or they were the third of triplets; the one a ewe could not feed. These are called ‘pet lambs’ because you get to know them and they get to know you: they know your voice and they follow you.
You may have noticed that in our reading from Revelation, with its vision of the worship of heaven, the adoration of God and of the Lamb by that “great multitude which no one can count, from every nation. From all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands,” that the Lamb is also “their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life…”
In the words of Psalm 23, the Lord is our shepherd, who makes us lie down in green pastures, and leads us beside still waters; who revives our souls and guides us along right pathways; who is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death so that we need fear no evil; who spreads a table before us and anoints our heads with oil; whose goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our life, so that we might dwell in his house for ever.
How does the Lamb who is also our shepherd continue to guide and lead us? How do we hear his voice? How does he tend his lambs and feed his sheep, as we heard Peter being commissioned to do in the Gospel last Sunday? Well, in part, by calling and commissioning others to share in his pastoral ministry of word and sacrament and care.
We hear his voice as he speaks to us through the scriptures as they are read and preached on in the worship of the Church; in what we are doing now. The scriptures are not just ancient texts, they are living oracles in which we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. That is why the Church reads and listens to them week-by-week, day by day. That is why men and women are called and set apart to study and preach on and from them. That is why our usual practice here is to preach on the readings – even when they can be hard work to preach on. Sticking to the texts saves you from the preacher’s own enthusiasms or tired ideas. It can save the preacher from the temptation to “tickle your ears,” to tell you only what you want to hear – because we’ll be so much more popular that way.
Preaching on the scriptures is a challenge for all of us. The preacher has to study and pray over them as he prepares; a business which can involve burning a lot of midnight or early morning oil. We all have to listen to them and meditate on them, so that we might hear and get to know the voice of Christ.
The Good Shepherd knows us, knows the sheep. Well, of course, God knows everything – he’s omniscient – as the prayer says, he knows our needs before we ask and our ignorance in asking, – but he does want us to ask – for our good not his – because knowing is about more than information. It is about relationship, about companionship and communion. In worship and prayer, we come not just to know about God, but to know God and as we come to know God, so we come to know ourselves. The same applies to our human relationships if we let them work on us as they should; rather than trying to control them so that they do not disturb us.
We tend to think of pastoral care in individual terms, as a pastor counselling an individual in need or distress or grief. We might think of a priest taking the Blessed Sacrament to someone who is ill in hospital or at home; as I did for Chris on Friday afternoon; or being called to the home of the bereaved, as Peter was to the home of Tabitha. Here at All Saints, a significant part of our ministry is with people who come to us for the sacrament of confession or spiritual direction.
But undergirding all such personal pastoral ministry is the communal one which goes on all the time in the Church’s worshipping life. This is not just what happens when nothing else is going on; when there is no crisis to be faced. It is where we are prepared to face and deal with the challenges that life may throw at us; it is here that we learn to fear no evil. It is in worship that we are prepared and formed, not simply to deal with the extraordinary, but with the ordinary; to find in it our calling to witness and service. It is in these ordinary things – things which God has “ordered” for good – the “holy order” of word and sacrament, prayer and ministry – that God acts as our shepherd. If we open ourselves to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, then we find ourselves noticing things in the world around us; needs and opportunities which might have passed us by otherwise.
And in all this, the Lord who is our Shepherd spreads a table before us to feed and strengthen us with the sacrament of his Body and Blood, the bread of eternal life, the cup which overflows with blessing; the pledges of that eternal life which no one can take from us. The more we listen to our Lord speaking to us, the more we will need and want to come to him in the sacrament.
I mentioned Tabitha or Dorcas a few moments ago, and I wrote about her in the parish email – one of the other ways in which we seek to help people hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. She represents the countless quiet practical ways in which the ministry of the Good Shepherd takes effect through the life of the Church. It is not a clerical monopoly. People see needs and respond to them. Sometimes these needs are very local or personal – someone we know is sick or bereaved or lonely and we visit them. Sometimes they are on a much larger scale.
A couple of weeks ago, some of us went to Oxford to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the religious profession of Sister Frances Dominica of the All Saints Sisters of the Poor. Out of that calling came the establishment of the first hospice to care for terminally ill children and to support their families. The hospice movement, to care for the terminally ill, sprang itself from the Christian faith and inspiration of Doctor Cicely Saunders.
In the prayers at Mass today, we remember Jean Vanier, whose L’Arche movement, in which people with various disabilities live in community with those the world thinks of as ‘normal’, grew out of his Christian faith and his encounter with people living bleak and isolated lives in institutions.
Yesterday evening I went to Westminster Abbey for a memorial Mass for Gelda James who used to be a parishioner here. Waiting to catch a bus home, I noticed a couple puzzling over the map of bus routes. They turned out to be visitors from Mexico and after a long day of sight-seeing they were trying – without much success – to work out how to get back to their hotel. So, in a mixture of Spanish and English, I suggested that they come up to Oxford Circus on the bus with me, so that they could then catch the Central Line to Lancaster Gate and their hotel. That little piece of good shepherding accomplished, I crossed Oxford Street to come home feeling cheered by being able to help strangers far from home; only to be accosted by a young American who had spotted my clerical attire and homed in on me like a smart bomb.
“Are you going to All Souls?” he asked. I said, no, I was on my way to All Saints. “Are you an Anglican?” I said, “Yes?” He told me that he was a Baptist – converted a few years ago. I told him I had been a Christian all my life and a priest for over 40 years. Unimpressed, he asked: “Did I know why Baptists consider Anglicans to be apostates?” I suspected I knew where this line of questioning was going, but said something diplomatic about our historical differences on sacraments and church order. This was clearly not what he was after. Did I accept the authority of scripture? Yes, I said, and I read large portions of it every day in the daily office and Eucharist and preach on them at mass each day.
Of course, as I had suspected, the only scriptures whose authority he was really concerned about were those condemning homosexuality. When I suggested that we might all heed Jesus’ warning to “Judge not lest you be judged,” this was swept aside as if it was so much wishy-washy liberalism. His parting shot – as I put my key in the Vicarage door – was to tell me that unless I repented and left the Church of England, I was going to hell because I was not prepared to condemn others to it simply because they are gay!
I fear it was not a very fruitful pastoral encounter. I decided I should remember from last night’s experiences, the memories of Gelda’s faithful life, with her great capacity for humour and fun. I will remember the story the Dean of Westminster recalled in his sermon. When Gelda was young, she was at Mass with her grandmother. In those days of strict fasting before communion, she felt faint and told her grandmother. Her only response was: “Brace up, girl, that’s what comes of having a clergyman for a father.” Grandmother’s father was an admiral and she clearly considered the clergy a feeble lot. Gelda resolved never to feel faint again, and she never did. And I will remember that nice couple from Mexico City who were loving their time in London, in spite of being lost and tired. And I will pray, as I promised him I would, for that young man, that the Good Shepherd might help him to find some joy and peace in his faith instead of anger and condemnation.
And in the meantime, I will take Gelda’s imperious granny’s instruction and “Brace up;” to get on with what I can do and entrust the rest to God.