Sunday, 7 May 2017

Was the Good Shepherd our model
at the General Synod in Limerick?

Christ the Good Shepherd, depicted on the reredos in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford,

Sunday 7 May 2017,

the Fourth Sunday of Easter,

11.30 a.m.:
Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert, Co Kerry, Morning Prayer.

Readings: Acts 2: 42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2: 19-25; John 10: 1-10.

In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

I have spent the last three days at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, which met for the first time this year in Limerick.

We began synod proceedings, appropriately, with a celebration of the Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Cathedral on Thursday morning, which I robed for as Precentor of the Cathedral, and on Thursday evening there was a reception for Synod members in the hallowed grounds of Thomond Park Stadium.

Traditionally, the synod prayers are led each day by the most-recently appointed bishop. But in a departure from that tradition, the prayers this were led by the Dean of Killaloe, the Very Revd Gary Paulsen, who was the Synod chaplain.

We had some friends to stay with us in the Rectory in Askeaton throughout the General Synod, there were many opportunities to meet more friends and colleagues, and the South Court Hotel was a pleasant place to work in for three days.

But, despite the setting and the social aspect to all of this, the General Synod is no holiday, and on sunny days, of course there are more pleasant ways of enjoying the sunshine.

Some of the work may seem tedious on the surface. The book of reports included a 163-page report from the Representative Church Body, including detailed accounts of what the Church has done with the money it holds on your behalf, on our behalf, where it is spent and invested, how much we pay the clergy in stipends, pensions and expenses, and what our policies are when it comes to ethical investment, for example.

All this is not just about responsible spending and housekeeping, but it is about being open and transparent. This money has been given by ordinary church members, and we should know it is being spent well and wisely.

The reports on funds held by the RCB also show how generous people were in the past, and how the Church needs fresh fundraising initiatives if we are going to pass on things we have inherited in good order to succeeding generations.

There were reports from different synod boards, such as the Board of Education and the Church in Society Commission.

The report of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Group, for example spoke of tackling bigotry and sectarianism on the ground. There was discussion too of how we have marked important centenaries, such as 1916 and World War I – indeed the Historical Centenaries Working Group is now chaired by Bishop Kenneth Kearon.

There were reports from the Working Group on Disability, the Refugee Working Group, the Youth Department and the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, of which I am a member.

The report of the European Affairs Working Group taps into the concerns throughout the Church of the impacts of ‘Brexit’ on church life, which we cannot yet estimate. The Priorities Fund report shows contributions to church projects and to groups outside the Church of Ireland.

The Liturgical Advisory Committee produced proposals for new forms of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer for Sundays, and readings and collects for Remembrance Sunday.

The report of the Commission on Ministry introduced discussions on Ordained Local Ministry and on whether the Church of Ireland ought to have our own retreat centre.

On Friday morning, within the context of the Council for Mission report, David Breen from Rathkeale and I had an opportunity to speak about the work of the Rathkeale Pre-Social Cohesion Group, which is supported in part by some of my work in this group of parishes, by the Diocese, and in the past by the Church of Ireland Priorities’ Fund.

And this diocese also came up for discussion when the General Synod encouraged the talks and co-operation that that have been going on with the Diocese of Tuam, Killala and Achonry and our joint working group. The discussions also include some changes that will be discussed again next year.

The report from the Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the context of Christian belief was not without controversy. Even the very phrasing of an addendum to this report, and the way it was included, shows how deep the divisions on this issue are in the Church, and how open, vulnerable and hurt many people are.

We don’t always get it right … far from it.

But we go through all of this – with its heady mixture of fun and heartbreak, humour and tedium – because we care for the Church and we take our responsibilities for it seriously.

We are all – and not just the bishops and priests – we are all charged with being good pastors of the church, good shepherds of the sheep.

Most of us warm to our Gospel reading this morning (John 10: 1-10), as we think about Christ as the Good Shepherd.

The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is a popular image. So popular, perhaps, that this is one of the most popular images in stained-glass windows in churches of every tradition. In this group of parishes, we have one in the chancel in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

But sometimes I have problems with our cosy, comfortable image of the Good Shepherd. Christ is so often portrayed in clean, spick-and-span, neatly tailored, nicely dry-cleaned, red and white robes, complete with a golden clasp to hold all those robes together.

And the lost sheep is a huggable, lovable, white fluffy Little Lamb, a little pet, so like the Little Lamb that Mary had and that followed her to school one day.

But shepherds and sheep, in real life, are not like that.

Lost sheep get torn by brambles, lose their wool, end up bleeding and messy. Any shepherd going down after lost sheep gets torn by brambles, covered in sheep droppings, slips on rocks, risks his life.

City people – removed from rural life by two or generations – have little idea of what it is to be a shepherd, to look after sheep, to keep them in a sheepfold, how sheep follow the voice of their shepherds, but also how easy it is to lead them astray.

The good news of the incarnation first came, not to kings in their bright palaces, nor to Roman governors surrounded by power and might, but to hard-working, humble shepherds in the middle of the night.

Yet they were among the poor, the exploited and the marginalised of their day. They had a hard life. They had to stay out at night in the cold and the dark, on the hostile hills as they herded their sheep. They faced all the dangers and difficulties the sheep faced, and were just as vulnerable. They shared the heat of the day, and they slept with their flocks at night, sharing the dangers of cold weather and threats of preying wolves.

They were poor and had no prospects as husbands or fathers – and their work meant they left their families alone and vulnerable at night too.

But that is the kind of life Christ lives for us and with us. And that is why it is worth working through all the tedium, and the reports, and the finance and the figures at General Synod each year. So that people can find Christ who journeys with the most vulnerable, and takes on all our vulnerability. ‘The Lord is my shepherd … he guides me in the paths … for his name’s sake’ (Psalm 23: 3).

Christ knows what it is like to be out in the cold. He knows what he is asking when he calls on people to leave their homes and villages, and even their families, since he has done the same himself. ‘The Lord is my shepherd … I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’ (Psalm 23: 6).

He knows what it is to be homeless, helpless and hungry. The Lord is my shepherd … ‘he spreads a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me’ (Psalm 23: 5).

Christ knows the risks and hardships of life. The Lord is my shepherd … ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’ (Psalm 23: 4).

Christ, against all the prevailing wisdom, identifies with those who are lost, those who are socially on the margins, who are smelly and dirty, injured and broken, regarded by everyone else as worthless, as simply not worth the bother.

God sees us – all of us – in our human condition, with all our collective and individual faults and failings, and in Christ God totally identifies with us. He is the shepherd and the guardian of our souls (I Peter 2: 25).

And so we get it wrong at times in General Synod, but we keep on trying, because we know it is worth, and because Christ knows we – all of us, everyone – are worth it.

And so, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 7 May 2017.

Christ the Good Shepherd … a window in Saint John’s Church, Wall, near Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
Raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Merciful Father,
you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again.
Keep us always under his protection,
and give us grace to follow in his steps;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Christ the Good Shepherd … the Hewson Memorial Window in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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