Sunday, 22 April 2018

‘I am the good shepherd.
I know my own and
my own know me’

Christ as the Good Shepherd … a mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 22 April (Easter 4):

9.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Castletown Church, Kilcornan, Co Limerick.

Readings: Acts 4: 5-12; Psalm 23; I John 3: 16-24; John 10: 11-18.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

After our busy round of Easter Vestry meetings, and work parties in the rectory gardens, I took a few days off at the end of the week, and spent a night in Ballinskelligs on the tip of the Iveragh Peninsula in south-west Kerry.

It is over 50 years since I spent a summer month there back in 1966.

It was the year of the 1916 commemorations, and I was doing badly in Irish at school.

To make things more difficult, I think I may have been having a hard time because I had a slightly English accent at the time. And I was also objecting, in my own rebellious teenage way, against the way the Irish language was being used politically, and I remember it too as the year I went off and took part in my first anti-war CND demonstration.

Those were the days when if you failed Irish in the ‘Inter Cert’ you failed the whole exam. The options for parents at the time were to take those children out of school, or to send us to school in England.

Instead of being packed off to Downside or Ampleforth, I was packed off to the Kerry Gaeltacht. To my parents’ relief, I learned enough Irish to scrape through with a pass on the pass paper. But I learned more on that summer holiday in Ballinskelligs, and – probably to the chagrin of our teachers – a rebellious group of us, including some of my cousins, spent the afternoon of 30 July 1966 in, of all places, a convent, watching the World Cup Final between England Germany.

What did those cloistered nuns make of us whooping and cheering for England? I certainly remember them as far more benign than many think of them because of the inherited stereotypes and legacy from the 1960s.

From an early stage in life, I was what was then known as a ‘black sheep’ in my family.

I learned too that summer how we divide ourselves, how we use sports, schools, language, dance, story and song to divide us and to label us.

Having emerged from the hushed tones in my childhood in the south-east of whispered conversations about the Fethard-on-Sea boycott in the 1950s, I moved on to an atmosphere in the 1960s where so many things were still used to label us and to create divisions that had nothing to do with theology, faith, belief, the practice of that faith, or what Christ is calling us to.

I remember being asked to leave the science lab in my boarding school in November 1968 because I dared to wear a poppy in the classroom.

I grew up in an Ireland filled with those divisions. But they are divisions that have nothing at all to do with being a member of the Church of Ireland.

And they are so ludicrous that you just have to transfer all that to France: French Protestants and Catholics know nothing of the sectarian divisions created and fomented by playing Gaelic games or rugby, and still less about a minority language.

And then – as we travelled back up through the breadth and length of Kerry and Limerick to the introduction of two new priests in Kilcolman Parish on Friday – I realised that all sheep graze together: the black sheep and the white sheep together.

Indeed, in Greece and Turkey, even the sheep and the goats graze together, and there they are often almost difficult to tell apart until the shepherd calls his own.

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

In Saint John’s Gospel, there are seven ‘I AM’ sayings in which Christ says who he is. The Dominican author and theologian, Timothy Radcliffe, points out that that in the Bible, seven is the number of perfection. We know of the six days of creation and how God rested on the seventh day. In Saint John’s Gospel, we have seven signs and seven ‘I AM’ sayings disclosing for us who Christ truly is.

The seven ‘I AM’ sayings in Saint John’s Gospel, disclosing for us who Christ truly is, are:

● the Bread of Life (John 6: 35, 41, 48-51);
● the Light of the World (John 8: 12, 9: 5);
● the Door of the Sheepfold (John 10: 7, 9);
● the Good Shepherd (John 10: 11, 14);
● the Resurrection and the Life (John 11: 25);
● the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14: 6);
● the True Vine (John 15:1, 5).

The best-known and best-loved of these ‘I AM’ sayings is repeated twice in this morning’s Gospel reading: ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ (John 10: 11, 14).

But in this story, it is the shepherd who is good. The sheep are often lost, go astray, and, as you can imagine, in the process of being lost, they get torn by brambles, lose their wool, soon they are bleeding and messy, covered in droppings, slip on the rocks, are in danger of not only losing themselves but losing their lives.

But Christ who is the Good Shepherd seeks out the lost sheep, in the face of great risks from wolves and from the terrain. Against all common wisdom, he 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.

Earlier, a few verses before this reading, Christ has said he is the door or the gate of the sheepfold and calls us, that we may have life, and have it abundantly (verse 9-10). Now, when he speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd, his sheep recognise him and his voice.

Christ calls us by name – not by the names others use for us. It is easy to call sheep, but the shepherd knows their name, the names he gives them.

We give ourselves names like Anglican, Church of Ireland, Protestant, Catholic, and so on. They are names that do not exist in the Bible. At times they are useful, but when they stop being useful, when they start being barriers, when they single us or someone else out as the black sheep in our family, or the lost sheep, then we have to turn again to the Good Shepherd who loves us, the Good Shepherd who names us, the Good Shepherd who knows us and who calls us.

I was delighted with the inscription I saw last week in Cahersiveen, on the road to Balinskelligs, on the grave of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, the ‘Pimpernel of the Vatican.’ It says simply, ‘God has no country.’

Canon Gillian Wharton is known for the signs she places on her ‘wayside pulpit’ outside Saint Thomas’s Church in Mount Merrion. They catch the eye of many commuters on their way along the Stillorgan Road into Dublin. In the past week, the new sign reads: ‘Male, Female, Gay, Straight, Black, White ... All precious in God’s sight.’

It’s simple, it’s true. The pity is that in the church, of all places, it should have to be said at all.

I was reminded at the introduction of the two new priests [the Revd Isabel Keegan and the Revd Ann-Marie Stuart] in Kilcolman Parish (Kilorglin) on the Friday night that, when the churchwardens presented the keys of the churches to me, the bishop told me to ‘received these keys and let the doors of the churches be open to all people.’

I have said at each of our Easter Vestries over the past two weeks that no matter who comes to any one of the four churches in this group of parishes, they will be welcome for the Church’s ministrations of pastoral care and for Baptism, Weddings and Funerals. Christ is the door, and I am not going to close it against anyone, even if some see them as ‘black sheep.’ I am just asked to follow Christ as the Good Shepherd.

In our Epistle reading (I John 3:16-24), Saint John the Divine, Saint John the Evangelist, tells us that our response to this outpouring of love from God, an outpouring that is risky and beyond all human understanding of generosity, is to love. To love not just those who are easy to love, but to love those who are difficult to love too. And to love beyond words.

He says: ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’

‘Little children, love one another … because it truly is enough.’

And so, as our Easter blessing prays,

May the God of peace,
who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus
that great shepherd of the sheep,
through the blood of the eternal covenant,
make you perfect in every good work to do his will,
working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight.

Christ is Risen!

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

John 10: 11-18

[Jesus said:] 11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 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. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

‘He shall gather the lambs with his arm and carry them in his bosom’ (Isaiah 40: 11) … a stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Colour: White.

The Greeting (from Easter Day until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you raised your Son from the dead.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
through you we are more than conquerors.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
you help us in our weakness.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day (Easter IV):

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.

Introduction to the Peace:

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples and said, Peace be with you. Then were they glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20: 19, 20).

Blessing:

The God of peace,
who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus
that great shepherd of the sheep,
through the blood of the eternal covenant,
make you perfect in every good work to do his will,
working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight:

or:

God the Father,
by whose glory Christ was raised from the dead,
raise you up to walk with him in the newness of his risen life:

Dismissal: (from Easter Day to Pentecost):

Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Christ the Good Shepherd … a window in Christ Church, Leamonsley, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

21, The Lord’s my shepherd; I’ll not want

515, A new commandment I give unto you

20, The King of love my shepherd is

This sermon was prepared for Sunday 22 April 2016.

Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

The new sign on the ‘wayside pulpit’ outside Saint Thomas’s Church, Mount Merrion, Dublin

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