Beauty surrounds us, but we usually need to be walking in a garden to know it - Rumi
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday from the Gospel reading for the day. Jesus often used the imagery of shepherds because it was central to the economy of the Jews, but more importantly to their history and religious thought. Many of the great figures of their history and religion had been shepherds at least for part of their lives. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all had flocks of sheep whilst Moses and David both worked as shepherds before they were called to lead God’s people to a better life. They were called by God to become shepherds of men. God worked through them but they brought their shepherding skills to their new work. So what about us?
In the Gospel reading St John tells us that Jesus says: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ John 10:11 NRSV. This is indeed Good News but later he says: ‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd’. Where do they fit in to God’s plan and who are they anyway? The disciples who first heard those words probably assumed that Jesus was referring to other Jews who did not at present follow “The Way” as they were known. At His Ascension Jesus made it clear to them that: ‘… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ Acts 1:8NRSV, yet, despite this they still held to the view that Christianity was part of their Jewish religion, a fulfilment of it, for Jews wherever they were throughout the world. Indeed, had it not been for the evangelism of St Paul Christianity might well have remained just that, a small Jewish sect among many others, which would probably have died out when the Roman Emperor Nero wreaked havoc on the Jewish people blaming the Christians for the Jewish Revolt.
All countries, and all communities are necessarily made up of so many disparate parts; persons of different ethnicity, sexual orientation perhaps, rich and poor, well fed and starving, able and disabled, some living in multi-million pound mansions whilst some exist homeless, begging on the streets. Some may be Christian whilst many may not, yet, I believe that Jesus encompasses all of these when he says; ‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.’ Each member of society, whoever he or she is needs to hear His voice so that ‘there will be one flock, one shepherd’.
Now, we need to remember that as Christians we are not an elite, privileged few who by our regular attendance at church, putting money in the collection plate and singing the right hymns have already booked our place on the bus heading for heaven. We are called to be ‘good shepherds’. We must, therefore be open to accepting those of a different flock, those who are “not like us” into our church family, making provision for their disability, understanding their difficulties and listening to their problems. In other words making them truly welcome so that they feel comfortable and accepted in the family of the church. We are to invite them to join the adventure of following Jesus, to discover with us a new way of being human – a way to live differently. After all, there are usually at least two doors to any church and whilst it may be easy to get people in by the front door they can leave just as quickly by the back door.
You may feel that this is all so very obvious as not to need repeating, but reflect on this event which I am told happened at a church recently.
Mother and her six young children had attended Messy Church for a while and everyone enjoyed themselves. One Sunday morning she brought them to Sung Eucharist at 10am. Being children the youngsters enjoyed themselves playing with the familiar toys at the back of the church. Unfortunately some of the congregation found it unsettling and left the service, although the majority stayed. Embarrassed at the confusion she felt she had caused she gathered up her little flock and fled the building never to be seen again; which is a pity since she may have been the one lost sheep that Jesus was looking for having left the other ninety nine singing their hymns of worship as they always did at this time on a Sunday.
So let us take a good look at ourselves and our church and ask if we really are ‘good shepherds’. Do we welcome those ‘other sheep that do not belong to this fold’, into our church family, allowing them also to ‘listen to my voice’, so that there will be ‘one flock, one shepherd’ our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us take time this week to think and pray about that.
This week I take as my text a verse from St Peter’s first letter to one of the young churches: ‘like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ 1 Peter 2:5 NRSV
A stone must be the most inanimate object around! And yet we are called to be ‘living stones’. What is that all about? We don’t think of building houses with blocks of stone nowadays, although it was common in earlier times. The Temple at Jerusalem would have been constructed that way and you just need to look at the ruins of the old abbeys and churches around Europe today to see examples of the stonemason’s craft. I’m sure we’ve all seen pictures of them fashioning huge blocks of stone into a piece to fit exactly into the building. But the word stone covers a whole variety of pieces of rock so let’s explore further. It is a bright sunny morning so come take a walk with me in our local country park.
As we leave the car park we enter through a gate where we see much of the country park laid out before us. The ground slopes down to the lake before rising to woodlands and open fields on the other side. On our left is a path through the trees leading to St Peter’s Church at the top of the hill. However, we won’t take that path at present but will continue down to the lake for a stroll around it. There are a variety of waterfowl swimming and feeding on the lake, whilst at one point there is a small beach like area to assist small water-birds gain access to the shore, if they wish. The area is covered with shingle, small pebble like stones. Now, in my youth I always liked to skim stones across the surface of the water to see how many times I could make the stone bounce before sinking under the water. I was never very successful but it was interesting to see how far the ripples spread. Think for a moment just what effect throwing a large block of stone into the lake would have. It would cause a tidal wave whose ripples would reach the furthest shore, and maybe beyond!
In the same way, whilst your kind word or caring action will make someone feel better it will also have an effect on their mental wellbeing and their outlook. For example, you may be the only person they have spoken to today and it could affect how they speak to the next person who rings them, or even whether they bother to cook a meal for themselves today. Or maybe your act of compassion will enable a carer to get some rest before starting all over the following morning. Any number of small words and acts of compassion that will make a huge difference. Those ripples will spread out far beyond their original recipient. Now remember that those pebbles came from the same earth compacted over millennia as the blocks of stone used to build the abbeys, cathedrals and temples in past times. We, likewise are part of the Body of Christ, the spiritual house of which St Peter speaks, and God created us to be a holy priesthood, stewards of His Creation and created in His image:
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind[c] in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ Genesis 1:26 NRSV
Being part of that priesthood, our task is to work towards the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as Jesus promised it would and as we pray each day: ‘Thy Kingdom come…. On earth as it is in Heaven’
Whilst each individual action of kindness, each act of compassion is vital, and if we feel that is all we can offer, well and good. Nevertheless working together in unity we can, like the large block of stone dropped in the lake, make a much greater impact on the world; a tsunami effect really. Our joint action in standing together against social injustice, against the rape of the planet, the greed, the racial hatred that is so much in evidence today, will make a difference. Of course, lifting a large block of stone is not easy and we will need help to do so. But we have the help and support of the Holy Spirit working with us and within us, as Jesus promised.
So will you join me in making a difference to this world? It sorely needs it!
Over the last couple of weeks I have reflected on this page on two of the three Spiritual Graces of which St Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Corinthian church; Faith and Hope. This week I want to focus on the greatest of them all, Love. God’s all-embracing, all encompassing, unconditional love for each and every member of His Creation, which of course includes you and me.
But why should God love man with all his faults and foibles, his wanderings and his disobedience, not to mention his downright disregard for God and His Creation for much of the time? Even the Psalmist asks: ‘When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Psalm 8:3-6 KJV. The answer lies in the first chapter of the first book of the Hebrew Bible where we read that on the sixth day God created Man in His own image and gave him dominion over all that He had made. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good. Genesis 1:31. In other words, nothing God had made or ever does make is bad, rotten or unwanted. Thus everything has a purpose, everything serves and loves God in its own way, and that must include you and me.
My question last week asking where you found God today, prompted several responses but two completely different replies, each of which in its own way, illustrate God’s love for us.
The first came from a friend who sent me a photograph he had taken during a walk along the riverbank. The trees were coming into leaf, the wild spring flowers bloomed shyly at the water edge, the river flowed lazily onwards who knows where and you could almost hear the birds singing in the trees and the animals snuffling in the undergrowth. It was altogether a beautiful tranquil scene and one where there could be no doubt of God’s presence. The love and the glory of God’s Creation was on display everywhere on that bright but no doubt chilly day. It seems that even the grass snake had been forgiven!
Speaking of snakes the second story came from a Methodist preacher who, at one time, lived on one of the Canary Islands. He told me about two priests, one Roman Catholic and the other Anglican, who were discussing the need for an ecumenical church on the island. The Catholic priest toured the island in search of a suitable site but having very little money was unable to find anything he or his community could afford. Until one day, that is, when he was drawn to an unused, derelict two storey car park behind a supermarket. It was filthy, filled with rubbish, used needles and much else of an unsavoury nature. This unloved building was in the process of falling down and yet, standing here the priest said he heard God say to him, “This is where I want you to build my church. Here among the rubbish and ruins.” As no one wanted it the priest was able to buy the site for a ridiculously small sum and then the money started rolling in from the community to build and fit it out. In amongst the grime, the rubbish thrown away, the discarded detritus of the town, God was there speaking to the priest because it was where He wanted His church to be built. No ordinary building but: ‘A spiritual house, built with living stones, a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.’ 1 Peter 2:5. At the first service he took there, sometime after it had been built, the preacher announced the first hymn and was amazed to hear it sung in so many different languages all at the same time! The church had grown to be a true church for people of all nationalities and traditions. God was there too to be with them and to hear their songs of praise. Choosing this most unlikely of places to build a church shows His love for the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the disappointed, the discouraged which shines through in this story.
So yes, we will find that God is with us in the most unlikely places; in the muck and mire of our broken human relations as in the beauty of nature. God can be found everywhere, in everything and in every body, if only we open our eyes to look; and be assured we will not have to look too far. Indeed, the Psalmist asks the question: ‘Where can I escape from your spirit, where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I travel to the limits of the east, or dwell at the bounds of the western sea even there your hand will be guiding me, your right hand holding me fast.’ Psalm 139:7-10 NRSV.
Does that sound a bit eerie; a bit frightening? Is God following me, watching me at every turn? I don’t want to offend him but I am only human and so I do make mistakes, get things wrong occasionally. Well, quite often really. Will he understand and forgive me? Yes, He will, because our God is not an authoritarian God who is sitting up there in heaven waiting to punish our every wrongdoing. He is there to hold our right hand to guide and to support us through life. When we stumble along the rocky path he is there to pick us up. Remember that Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit, the Counsellor, the Spirit of Truth, would remain with us and will be in us. (John 14:16-17). Take comfort too that God’s love for the whole of His Creation is unconditional, we do not have to earn it, or deserve it. How reassuring is that? God understands our human frailties and will forgive us because He loves us unconditionally and here I want to offer a word of warning; this is not some ‘get out of jail free’ card. Earlier I referred to the book of Genesis Man is made in God’s image. Now, if God loves us unconditionally we, the God within us, should love Him in the same way. But how do we do that? Once we have seen our Lord, as he heals, teaches, includes, consoles, and loves us, we are changed. And, once we’ve been loved, we are able to love one another as God loves us. As Jesus taught us: This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. John 15:12. KJV. That is what we are called to do; to love one another as God loves us.
So, where did you find God today?
Sadly, in this country, whilst churchgoing used to be a habit of the majority, it has become a hobby of the few. Organised religion seems, to many people, to have lost its relevance to modern living. It is distrusted and discredited in their eyes. Many people, including growing numbers of once faithful church goers view Christianity as a religious institution and reject it. If you asked the man in the street where he saw God today I suspect the answer would be on the lines of: “I don’t believe in that superstitious mumbo jumbo. It’s for the old fogeys who like to put on their Sunday best to go to church and feel superior to the rest of us. If your God is so loving and merciful, as you say he is, why did he inflict this coronavirus pandemic on us? And if you tell me he didn’t, then why did he not do something to stop it? Why? I’ll tell you why. Because he doesn’t exist! Now go away and stop bothering me.”
Since the pandemic has devastated the whole world bringing suffering, and in some cases death, to so many people, whilst many have lost their jobs, their homes, their loved ones, you can understand why he might say this. And as I write these words on Holy Saturday I am reminded of another name for this day – the day of absence. The last year or so has felt like one long Holy Saturday; Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah is dead, horribly crucified on Good Friday. He has gone, left us alone. ‘He descended into Hell’ as we repeat each time we pray the Apostles Creed. This all seems to confirm the anguished cry of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) “God is dead! God is dead! And we have killed him!” Some years ago Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was then wrote a meditation on Holy Saturday, in fact he wrote three but I will quote from just one. He reminds us of the Gospel story wherein Jesus is asleep in a boat which buffeted by a storm is about to sink. He wrote:
‘God sleeps while his very own are about to drown –is not this the experience of our lives now? The disciples cry out in dire desperation and shake the Lord to wake him but he is surprised and rebukes them for their small faith. But are things any different for us?’ Once the storm has passed we will realise our stupidity in thinking that God has abandoned us.
He is with us now as he always has been and always will be. He has promised that: ‘He will never leave or forsake you.’ Deuteronomy 31:8 Now let us be clear the Cardinal did not say that Jesus did not die on Good Friday but simply slept. He was using this Gospel story to illustrate our own lack of faith. This I think is the whole crux of the matter. Without faith in God we can never acknowledge him, never see him. Yet faith can be fallible, we are, after all, only human. Indeed, even Thomas, one of Jesus’ closest companions had his doubts. You will remember that Jesus asked him: ‘Do you believe because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.’ John 20:26. Yet too often we say as the boy’s father said: ‘I believe Lord. Help thou mine unbelief’ Mark 9:24
So let me ask you that question again. Where did you find God today? Perhaps you have received a phone call from a long lost friend or a kind word from a neighbour or maybe a stranger. Now we are able to mix a little more there will be even more opportunities to witness God in our everyday lives. And here is just one other example; one which more than one of you will expect me to use. Last week I mentioned that I had spent some time working in the garden. Some years ago we planted daffodil bulbs in the front lawn so that each year at this time we, and anyone passing by will see ‘a host of golden daffodils…. Fluttering and dancing in the breeze’ as Wordsworth put it. Yes, God is there in the garden, too.
So our task this week is twofold. Firstly, to ask ourselves each day, where did I see God today and to give thanks for it, but secondly to show God to others in our lives and actions so that ‘they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven’ Matthew 5:16 AKJV
On Palm Sunday we remember the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, thus fulfilling the prophecy: Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Zechariah (9:9) NIV. The disciples who had followed Him over the last three years had seen the miracles and the healings he performed and heard his teachings. They accompanied Him into the city enthusiastically shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”Matt21:9 NIV. To those who had seen Him raise Lazarus from the dead there was no doubt that, if he could do that, he must be the Messiah who would overthrow the Roman oppressors and return Israel to the glory days of King David when Israel was an important kingdom, a force to be reckoned with. But, as we now know, it didn’t work out as they had expected. Within a short period of time the man they had hailed as Messiah had been crucified as a common criminal, and things returned to normal, just as they always had been.
Fast forward 2000 years and we find that just like the followers of Jesus on that Palm Sunday we are all looking forward to the future with hope for a better world. After all, in the UK the vaccination programme is going well and the government restrictions are being cautiously lifted. It looks as if things will soon return to normal. But what will the new normal look like? Will it be a return to the old ways, where I can say “I don’t need to abide by your rules now? I can please myself where I go and with whom I can mix. If I want to go on a foreign holiday I will do so regardless of the risks of coronavirus in that country. I’ve been vaccinated so I’m all right. The fact that despite vaccination I can bring the virus back into this country to infect people here is not for me to worry about. In fact, if the Prime Minister’s chief adviser can break the rules by travelling 600 miles to see his family there is no reason why I shouldn’t.” What you will notice here is the number of times the word “I” is mentioned. What seems, sadly, important is “Me” holding the view that, “I will do it my way and you can’t judge me because I know my rights!” That sounds to me like a return to the old “normal”. Is that the future in store for us? Or can we live a different, a new “normal”? What would that look like?
Let us return for a moment to the Gospel story of Palm Sunday. The Jews did not recognise that Jesus was the Messiah they had been expecting all these years, because they were not looking forward, but back to the old glory days. But those days had gone forever as they would discover 50 years later when city of Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans. What they failed to understand was that Jesus came to bring in a different kind of kingdom, an upside down kingdom perhaps, but still a kingdom foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament. ‘The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.’ Isaiah 11:6-7 NIV. But the concept of a kingdom like this was alien to them at the time. It just would not work! Would it? After Pentecost Peter and the other disciples began to explain to the Jews and subsequently to all nations that kingdom like that was not only possible but was indeed the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a kingdom embracing the whole world. In due time Christianity swept the world being taken up by peoples and nations down the centuries. However, we still do not seem to have grasped it. Like the Jews on Good Friday 2000 years ago we still tend to look back to how things used to be in the ‘good old days’ rather than forward to something new.
Now, one feature that has been remarkable during the pandemic has been the kindness and the compassion of others. The examples are endless but let me remind you of a few. We all remember the tireless self-sacrifice of NHS doctors and nurses, the scientists developing vaccines in record breaking time, the extraordinary fund raising of Captain Sir Tom Moore and others for the NHS and for the welfare of others. We remember too, those working in shops supplying foods and medicines, our neighbours and friends who have offered to fetch shopping or collect medicine or just phoned for a chat. Whilst face to face contact with friends and family has been impossible, the internet, especially Zoom has proved invaluable for keeping in touch. And as Pope Francis says in ‘On Hope’ ‘Compassion is to endure with the other, to suffer with the other, to draw near to the one who is suffering. A word, a caress, but given from the heart; this is compassion, for the one who needs comfort and consolation. This is more important than ever. Christian hope cannot do without genuine and concrete charity.’ This compassion for others is a vital element in building the Kingdom Jesus came to establish on this earth, because that Kingdom is a community embracing the whole of God’s Creation. As the Body of Christ, and thus stewards of God’s Kingdom, we are called to build on the love and compassion for our fellow humankind shown during the pandemic. It is up to each one of us to work together so that with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we may help to build the New Jerusalem here on earth in preparation for the time when He will return to unite heaven and earth as He has promised and as we pray every day: ‘Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’. The words of Anglican Dismissal after Sung Eucharist that we hear each Sunday sum up our duty: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
So, get up from that comfortable chair in which you are sitting and do something to follow that command. Right now!
I am an Authorised Local Preacher in an Anglo Catholic parish church, in the Diocese of Essex UK