Dave, the eldest of my two closest friends, by Chinese artist Ding Fang

Dave, the eldest of my two closest friends, by Chinese artist Ding Fang

The image of the Good Shepherd is one that meant far more to those who either heard Jesus utter it or those who heard John’s a/c of the Gospel read in the context in which it was written than it does for most people today.

Indeed today it is probably only those in the Christian community who will grasp much but not all of its original significance.

The image had evolved over centuries.

We know that the image of Shepherd was important at the tiome Psalm 23 was composed. In the psalm the shepherd brings the lost sheep back.

Jeremiah would criticize bad shepherds for losing their flock – the inference being that the leaders of 8th century BCE Israel had failed.

Ezekiel would tell essentially the same parable as told by Jesus and recorded by Luke – here Ezekiel again criticises the bad shepherds but he also introduces the element of bad sheep!

Along comes Jesus with the image of a good shepherd who seeks out not only the lost but the bad sheep, challenging the bad shepherds on the way.

So we can see that the image of the Good Shepherd evolved over time.

Those who first heard Jesus speak in such terms would have been far more familiar with the background than we are today and even more so than the vast majority of those amongst whom we live.

The Good Shepherd is one of those titles that mean virtually nothing to our world.

Just as the Bread of the Life meant nothing to Eskimos when they first heard the Gospel – they didn’t know what bread was!

And there was the difficulty some had with the notion of eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood when they had been discouraged from participating in human sacrifice.

So where are we to go with this?

Well the title may no longer be as valid as once it was, but the sentiments are.

What did Jesus imply by naming himself as the Good Shepherd?

Why was this title so important for the Early Church?

Well, they had come to discover a number of things:

  • that Jesus stuck by them through thick and thin.
  • that Jesus suffers with them.
  • that Jesus is in charge.

Let’s take each of these in turn

1.  Jesus sticks with us through thick and thin.

There was a little ditty that I came across years ago but like so many little ditties that bear great truth I haven’t forgotten it.

‘Friends walk in when others walk out.’

Maybe the title Good Shepherd no longer has the same impact as once it had but perhaps we should all know what a Good Friend is.

Of course even the meaning of friend has been watered down in recent years.

I have 166 friends on facebook – but I don’t send them all Christmas cards and I doubt that many of them would knock on my door and offer support if I were to find myself in trouble.

Unlike Mother Mary in the Beatles track ‘Let it be’ –

‘Whenever I find myself in trouble Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.’

Maybe Lennon and McCartney did more for Protestant Catholic relations than they were ever given credit for!

The Early Church had come to appreciate that though Jesus had been crucified years before, his resurrection presence was guiding them through the Holy Spirit.

The hired hand abandoned the flock when he saw the wolf coming.  The Good Shepherd sticks with the flock even to the point of sacrificing his life.

Today we face all sorts of wolves that stalk us.

Having a faith is not always appreciated by those about us.

  • It discomforts them.
  • It reminds them of their own shortcomings
  • It challenges them to examine their lives.

The easiest form of defence is attack.

And it’s not just the Christian faith that is under attack.

Anti-Semitism continues to disguise itself in all sorts of ways, particularly in the form of alleged legitimate protest against Israel.  So Judaism is under attack.

Only this past week the Chief Rabbi spoke at the NUS Annual Conference being held in Sheffield.  In his speech he had reminded his audience that University should be a safe haven for people to explore and express their faith and views.  Just a few hours later the Jewish Students’ stall was destroyed, vandalised with all sorts of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel literature and comments.

And anyone who dares to support Jews by criticising such attacks comes under fire themselves.

But it’s not just Christians and Jews who are under attack.

I often tell the story of a group of women walking through London covered head to toe, with just their faces and hands showing.  They came under attack with all sorts of vile abuse and spat upon – they could have been Muslim women but they were nuns taking a stroll outside their inner city convent shortly after Catholic emancipation.  We don’t have to go far back to see that we treated our own just as we tend to treat Muslims today.

I could go on but won’t.

Suffice to say that when we come under attack, and we will if we are true to the core values of the Gospel, Jesus will not abandon us.

Those who remain true to his teaching will find greater protection in the face of adversity.

2. Secondly, the Early Church discovered that Jesus suffered with them.

The martyrs of the first centuries found in the crucifixion not only inspiration but solidarity.

Contrary to what some would have us believe God is not even distant let alone absent in times of suffering.

The graffiti written on a wall by a Jewish prisoner in Cologne said it all:

‘I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.

I believe in love even when I cannot feel it.

I believe in God even when he is silent.’

The apparent silence of God may be to leave space for us to express the sound of our own suffering;

  • for they are God’s cries that echo through the bedroom in time of grief.
  • they are God’s tears that we weep for the sake of others.
  • they are God’s words when we plead for justice and equality in our world.

In my own personal experience, when the days were long and the nights never ending, when I felt there was little or no future that would be worth my while staying round for and the pain of fear too great to express in words, I found a resilient hope that held me while I was prepared to let go of everything.  A hope I can only describe as God.

I have also discovered that when I have given of myself on behalf of others in their distress and despair I have found an energy that has been sufficient for the task.

And when I have stood on the side of the marginalised, spoken up on behalf of the stammering and acted as advocate for those who lack the necessary confidence I have found words I never knew I had.

None of this can be explained unless we look to Jesus as the source, the one who shares in our suffering.

3. So we lead into our third and final point – Jesus is in charge.

Clearly Jesus is one who knows his team.  It would appear that the disciples couldn’t take him by surprise.

  • He was always one step ahead of them.
  • He knew what they were talking about on the road.
  • He knew how they would react.
  • He knew that they would let him down
  • He also knew where to find them.

A true leader knows his team.

In so knowing he knows their strengths and weaknesses yet he loves them all the same.

Whenever I am tempted to beat myself up over a mistake or my inability to do something that I was perhaps never intended to do I remember that Jesus is in charge and so long as I am doing what I can with what resources are at my disposal I can do no more.

This came home to me when Karen had her appraisal some years ago.

Imagine there were ten criteria that were to be appraised.

Imagine five were found to be excellent, four were very good and one was poor.

The concluding remarks focussed on how that last criteria was to be brought up to scratch.

A better approach might have been to celebrate the five criteria that were judged excellent and ignore the one that was poor.

This is so for us as churches too.

For too long we have focussed on where we lack and not where we are plentiful.

  • ‘We don’t have any children any more’ – no but we can now do what we probably couldn’t do in the past, reach out to others in a particular generation.
  • ‘We no longer have an organist’ – no but we do have a pianist, or guitarist or a flautist.
  • ‘We are having difficulty with keeping up the maintenance on the building’ – yes but we are not property services, we are a movement of people and if need be we abandon the buildings and hire somewhere suitable and affordable.

Bold steps yes but we seek to follow the one who had nowhere to lay his head and yet stuck by those who followed him, the one who suffers with us and who will lead us to a place of celebration.

 

Swanholme Sunrise

Swanholme Sunrise

“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s a tall order. That’s why we shy away from preaching on this text. I can’t recall preaching on this text for twenty-eight years. What I have learnt to do since then is put a text into context. I have learnt to not lift a verse from scripture as if it stands alone from that which precedes it and follows it.

The verse is of course part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew has located this verse at this point in his account for a reason.

There are a number of things I want to say as I seek to draw something from this text.

The first is this:

Just as this verse should not be seen in isolation so we, as individuals, as a church, as a community we should not consider ourselves as being isolated. We are not alone.

If I dredge deep into the dark, distant philosophy classes of theological college I can pull a something out that has helped me enormously over the years.

As I have sought to live out as best I can the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, and more often than not failing in the process, I recall something that Kierkegaard said, or at least as I recall the tutor paraphrasing what he said:

‘If I were to live out the Sermon on the Mount as an individual it would be hell on earth. But if the world were to live out the Sermon on the Mount that would be heaven on earth.’

I am too much of a realist these days to think that the whole world will one day live by the values that I believe are right for peace and justice to reign in every home, town and nation of our world.  But I still believe that it is possible to experience glimpses on earth of the heaven we will one day inherit.

  • Through communion when we are given a taste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all humankind.
  • Through that moment when a love so deep, so rich, so free becomes real for us.
  • Through that perhaps once in a lifetime experience when we encounter something greater than we could have ever imagined, something that is indescribably beautiful, something that puts us in touch with eternity.  And if it is only once that we experience it then the rest will have been worth it.

So we are not alone. Clearly we are not. We have one another to walk beside, to lean on when we get weary, to lift us when we stumble. We are not alone.

And when we know this, it becomes more possible for us to live as kingdom subjects, with a God-created identity, with generosity and grace just as God lives toward us. In other words in the ‘perfection’ that is God.

 

The second thing I want to say about this text is that it is a very social, even politically active text. We are called to act.

The first point reminded us that we are not alone.

In not being along we are social beings.  We interact.  We have to live alongside others.  In so doing we either sit back and let the world do as it pleases or we engage with it, seeking to change it into the world God would have it become.

In this we cannot avoid being politically active.  This is not to suggest the Church becomes a political party.  But it does mean we have a voice to use and lives to lay down in the pursuit of justice, freedom and peace.  And the first step toward these goals of justice, freedom and peace is equality.

The Early Church would seek to understand the coming of Jesus into this world by creating the Magnificat of Mary in which the proud are scattered, the powerful are brought low, the pockets of the rich are emptied while the hungry and humble are fed and lifted high.

We do not then allow the injustice of inequality to go unchallenged.

I now believe that the time is coming when we must engage with the local authorities and seek a way forward to ensure we all do what we can to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities.  A society is judged by how it cares for the young and elderly, the frail and the sick, the lonely and overlooked. A church that fails to be a part of this is not worthy of its calling.

Some say we should not get too involved in such things.  Indeed the verses that precede Matthew 5.48 have sometimes been used to
justify a laissez faire approach. Turn the other cheek, give your accuser more than he asks for, walk the extra mile.  This is a shockingly bad interpretation.  We are not called to be a doormat for Christ but to shame the hostile, the oppressor and those who seek to intimidate us.

John Shea (On Earth As it is in Heaven, the Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Matthew Year A, Liturgical Press 2004, p85) tells the story of a snake. “The snake hears the teaching of Jesus from a wandering preacher and immediately refuses all violence. He will bite no one.  When the local children realize he won’t bite, they begin to beat him with sticks every day.  The snake is near death when the preacher returns and asks about his health.  The snake tells him of his heroic actions expecting to be praised.  But the preacher says, ‘I told you not to bite.  I didn’t tell you not to hiss.’”

As churches we are called to hiss.

This means that in the local communities we hiss, we act as a voice for those who have no voice, we provide for those who cannot provide for themselves and if we can’t do so then we hiss some more and ask why those who can provide choose not to.

Just as the church of a century ago was the hub of activity for all ages in the village and town so we must seek to do what we can with what resources we have at our disposal.

  • Maybe to provide a place to meet and a cup of tea for the lonely.
  • Maybe phone networks to ensure the isolated folk in our wider community receive a call now and again.
  • Maybe partnering Citizens Advice Bureaux, Age UK and other agencies to meet the needs that are becoming manifold in this age of austerity.

So we are not isolated, we are called to act together.

And thirdly we will realize the kingdom in our midst because we will be confident in what we proclaim through word and deed.

It is an understatement to suggest that there are many who long for a better world, perhaps almost everyone longs for a better world, a better world not just for themselves but for their children, grandchildren and all God’s people. What we can do is make the world in which we live, our homes, family and friendship circles, and neighbourhood and churches a better world for all within them.

One of the things I have noticed recently and it’s something that has been brewing for some time, is that so many of us are lacking confidence.

  • The numbers have changed.
  • The ability to do things on a large scale has changed.
  • The landscape in which we operate has changed.

But I remain convinced that we should not lose hope.  We can achieve much and we will achieve much.

We are after not alone, we can speak out and act on behalf of those about and in so doing we will experience the kingdom in our midst.

Look to one another, look to what we stand for, look to what we are aiming at and find in all of this the love of God, the strength and companionship of the Spirit and the life of Jesus to live by in our time and place.

In short to be as perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

 

A Quantock Memorial, Seven Sisters, Somerset, March 2012

A Quantock Memorial, Seven Sisters, Somerset, March 2012

 

 

Some scholars have suggested that Jesus being found in Galilee is Mark’s way of saying ‘go back to the beginning’.

In other words :

If you want to know what’s going on here;

If you want to understand what has happened through the death of Jesus and why the tomb is empty;

If you want to find out what to do next, where to go

then go back to the beginning of the Gospel account.

It’s the teaching and way of life that is the most important aspect of the empty tomb. Yes Jesus has been vindicated; yes Jesus was right all along; yes the powers that seemed to have won on Friday have now been beaten once and for all, but how and what are we to learn from this?

It’s clearly not true that the authorities whose ways included the upholding of self-serving systems that led to an abuse of power, injustice and disrespect for the individual are the last arbiters of how things should work out.  God has spoken and God has spoken in a very clear and unique way.  Jesus has risen, Jesus is Lord.

The healings that featured so heavily at the beginning of Mark’s account of the Gospel were just precursors to the ultimate healing that occurs at the end.  Namely that through a living relationship with God even death is overcome.

There is very little oral teaching in Mark’s account– all that is to be found in the other accounts. There are no Beatitudes, hardly any parables and much of the account is about getting people’s lives back on track through making them whole again.

There is a very real and relevant message here for us.

To experience the resurrection of Jesus in our lives and world  :

– we need to live out the life he lived,

– one of making people’s lives worthwhile and whole.

This was certainly the practice of the great saints. Few of the great saints left volumes of teaching, that was the domain of the theologians and philosophers important though they are.  But the saints changed the lives of people: St Francis, Wilberforce, Martin Luther King.  These were the people who sought to make the lives of those around them more worthwhile and whole.

So what is the message for us

At a time when unemployment is rife and seems to be getting worse what are we to do?

At a time when fear of the future is on the increase what are we to do?

At a time when people are lonely because we live in a more mobile world what are we to do?

I believe that we can do and achieve a very great deal.

I used to carry with me a photograph of an insignificant looking Church; it happened to be the church whose minister was one Martin Luther King.  From unassuming and humble beginnings the history of the United States was changed forever.

We may not aspire to such dizzying heights but I have every confidence that each and every follower of Jesus can gaze into the empty tomb and change the world about them.

Jesus is to be found ahead of us, in a familiar place, the home village, a place of work and rest, amongst the places we have walked and talked.

Driftwood from Kilve Beach, Somerset

Driftwood from Kilve Beach, Somerset

Silence may be the best word.

Maybe it’s the only word

now his voice is no longer heard.

Silence in the heart

where once the beat was loud,

clear for all to hear

so clear the beat could be seen.

Silence in the room

where silence once focussed on him.

Silence in the world

where once a sigh changed its course.

Now all is silent for real.

My cry is unheard,

my loss too great to name

and my nights too long.

Eyes close to take time back,

back to the encounters,

back to the warmth and light,

back to a day without dark and cold

back to a place that will forever be silent without his voice.

 

God of the silent morning and silent evening,

for those who long to hear a lover return we pray.

God in the blinding grief,

for those who are unable to live today we pray.

God in the end and hoped-for new beginning,

for us all we pray.

Amen.

Concentration camp survivors receive shoes

Concentration camp survivors receive shoes

 

This particular image deeply moved me whilst on a seminar at Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Centre.  No further words are needed.

My copy of the 1855 edition held by a stone from the shore of Lake Galilee

My copy of the 1855 edition held by a stone from the shore of Lake Galilee

 

“The present condition and future of Palestine, is a theme too copious for this work, even if it were not above the capacity of its author.  I can only express an opinion, founded upon what I have seen and heard, that the fanaticism of the Turks is fast subsiding, with the rapid diminution of their number, while the Christian and Jewish population is increasing.  As yet, this holds good only of the capital.  The country traversed by nomadic tribes, and cultivated but in patches, continues to be as insecure as it is unproductive.  But, like the swelling of the waters which precede the tide of the flood, there are indications of a favourable change.  The Muhammedan rule (sic), that political sirocco, which withers all before it, is fast losing the fierce energy which was its peculiar characteristic, and the world is being gradually prepared for the final dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.

It needs but the destruction of that power which, for so many centuries, has rested like an incubus upon the eastern world, to ensure the restoration of the Jews to Palestine.  The increase of toleration; the assimilation of creeds; the unanimity with which all works of charity are undertaken, prove, to the observing mind, that, ere long, with every other vestige of bigotry, the prejudices against this unhappy race will be obliterated with a noble and God-like sympathy.  ‘Many a Thor, with all his eddas, must be swept into dimness;’ – but the time will come.  All things are onward; and, in God’s providence, all things are good.”

W.F.Lynch USN writing in May 1848 (page 342 ‘Narrative of the Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea’ published by James Blackwood 1855) twelve years before Theodor Herzl was born and half a century before his ‘Der Judenstaat’ (‘The Jewish State’) was published.

Palm Sunday Sermon

1 April 2012

Palm Cross made from fresh palm fallen at Dalmanutha March 2012

Palm Cross made from fresh palm fallen at Dalmanutha March 2012

My friends Brian and Sue had a surprise.

After a break of almost ten years Sue was pregnant for the third time.

Some might think of the impending arrival as a gift from God.

Brian could only see disturbed nights’ sleep,

additional expenditure,

extra bedroom!

Then Joannae arrived – bright and bouncy, cuddly and cute.

They and their two other children were besotted with her.

Even the extra bedroom, additional expenditure and disturbed nights’ sleep didn’t seem to be insurmountable, well almost…

Until Joanne reached about two and a half.

Each morning, very early, sometimes as early as 5.30 Brian and Sue’s bedroom door would burst open and Joanne would come rushing in, arms outstretched and theatrically declare – ‘Da Daaaa!!!’ before using the bed as a trampoline

The day was underway.

The way we announce our arrival is important.

It can set the tone for all that is to follow.

How we are perceived, how others react to us, whether our encounter will get off to a good start or whether there will be barriers erected in our relationship.

Jesus was neither the first nor the last to make a statement on entering the city of Jerusalem.

Just a few days earlier Pilate would have preceded Jesus.  He would have travelled from his palatial residence at Caesarea.  Jesus will have travelled from a borrowed room.

Pilate’s entry would have been grand by comparison.  Surrounded by several hundred heavily-armed guards in fine uniforms, Pilate would have entered by the northern gate atop a fine and well-trained horse.  Jesus accompanied by a dozen or so humble fishermen, women of ill-repute and an assortment of others in the rags of everyday life, entered the city from the opposite side on anything but a fine animal.

Pilate would have been greeted by children excited at the colour, pomp and majesty of the occasion.  Children do that; even when the triumphal entry is made by enemies of their own kind.  We only have to watch newsreels of twentieth century European cities at the moment of occupation.

I am one of those who happen to think that the entry into the city by Jesus was a very low key affair.  Had it have been the statement some like to claim it was then Jesus wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did – the Romans would have dispatched him far sooner.

Almost 1900 years later in 1898 the thirty-nine year old Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the city of Jerusalem as a guest of the Ottoman Sultan who was concerned about the growing number of Jews fleeing persecution across Europe adding to the already well-established Jewish communities.  Wilhelm was a well-known anti-Semite describing Jews as ‘parasites’ holding ‘nefarious positions’.  He entered the city on the same side as Pilate but his was probably even grander than Pilate’s.  A huge chunk of the ancient wall around the Jaffa Gate was demolished to make way for the extraordinary procession.

Nineteen years later at noon on 11 December 1917 another entry again via the Jaffa Gate; this time led by General Allenby and representatives of the forces that had just defeated the Ottomans.  They entered the city by foot.  First-hand accounts describe relief and joy.

There have been many entries since.  Day after day local people enter the city for work and prayer; Jews, Muslims and Christians.

I have recently returned from a ten-day seminar at Yad Vashem’s Israel’s Holocaust Centre and of course entered the old city on a number of occasions.

It had been eleven years since I last visited.  I made several trips in the 90’s up to and including the intifada of 2001.  I have to say that I had never witnessed Jerusalem and Bethlehem as relaxed as I did a fortnight ago.

Separation barriers may not be pretty but they do the job of putting an end to killing and when that happens people get to enjoy going out without fear of suicide bombings and incursions as a consequence.

Countless millions of pilgrims have entered the city over the centuries.  Jews and Christians will have used the ancient pilgrimage psalm 122:

“I was glad when they said to me ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’…… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you.  Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.’  For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.”

Tragically many today look for faults and not for peace.  Fuelled by agendas many go with a campaign in mind, a point to make and overlook the facts, the reality and the complexity of living in such a fraught place.

How we make our appearance is crucial in all sorts of ways.

The way we announce our arrival is important.

It can set the tone for all that is to follow.

How we are perceived, how others react to us, whether our encounter will get off to a good start or whether there will be barriers erected in our relationship.

Whilst working alongside Kosovan refugees during the Kosova war of 1999 the pastor of a local independent evangelical church turned up at the refugee centre with a Bible in hand.  His agenda amongst vulnerable people of a nominal Muslim faith having recently fled their homes and lost members of the families was clear.  But he didn’t last long.  He was met with a brick wall.

Those who, without ulterior motives, simply stood alongside the men, women and children grieving their losses, horrified by what they had witnessed were welcomed with a growing respect and affection.

After two years or so, Sulleiman asked me ‘Why is it that you have done all this for my family?’  It was only then that I could tell him why – ‘Because I seek to be a disciple of Jesus.’

Yesterday there was another entry into another city.  Not a peaceful one.  An entry with hostile intent.

Far right groups marched on the Danish city of Aarhus led by the fascist group English Defence League.  Their aim was to protest against what they claim to be the ‘islamification of Europe’.

Anyone who knows the history of twentieth century Europe will know that such protests and sentiments can become viciously divisive, dangerous and difficult to counter.

There is no place in Christian teaching and practice for hostility toward those whose colour, culture or even creed is different to our own.  As I said at Synod last Saturday once people start attacking those of a faith different to our own then it isn’t long before we are attacked.

Let us not forget that those who went before us once spoke of Catholics as some now speak of Muslims.

So, how are we to approach our own situation?

How are we to make our presence felt?

Tomorrow, when we visit the shops, go to our places of work, queue at the petrol station, how will our arrival be perceived?

Will we be seen as peacemakers?

As Christians who are called to challenge the injustices, indifference and laissez-faire attitude of so many to the injustices, complicity and prejudices of society will the trouble we make be for the greater good?

Are we to cheer the arrogance and force of Pilate or the humility and piecemeal approach of Jesus?  Both are statements of power but which I ask is the one that stands the test of time.