15 May 2011

The Good Shepherd … a model for ministry and for parish life

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me’ (Psalm 23: 5) … Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 15 May 2011, The Fourth Sunday of Easter:

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

12 noon: Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin, Holy Communion.

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

I once saw a T-shirt with the slogan: “Three good reasons to be a teacher: June, July, August.”

However, it seems June, July and August are going to be busy months for those of us teaching at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. There are student appraisals, courts of examiners, new courses and modules to prepare, timetables to agree on.

And then there is a series of ordinations of students as deacons and priests in the Church of God from this month right through to September.

The students who are being ordained in the coming weeks have worked on a variety of major projects with immediate relevance and sowing a deep pastoral sensitivity to the needs of the church, the needs of parishioners, and the needs of the world.

They are an outstanding group of students, and they will be a blessing to the parishes they work in. But I know too that they will see the parishes and dioceses they are going to as blessings for them at the start of their ministries.

I imagine as they sit in church this morning, all our ordinands will warm to our Gospel reading, as they think about Christ showing us the model of pastoral care as the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd ... a stained glass window in Saint Mark’s Church, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

It’s a popular image. I think, perhaps, that the image of the Good Shepherd is one of the most popular images to fill stained-glass windows in churches of every tradition, surpassed in popularity only by windows showing the Crucifixion or the Last Supper.

But, you know, 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, no different from the Little Lamb that Mary had and that followed her to school.

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

I remember once, on Achill Island, hearing about a shepherd who went down a rock-face looking for a lost sheep, and who lost his life. Local people were shocked – lambs then did not fetch a price that made them worth losing your life for.

The sheep survived. But in the process it had been torn by brambles, had lost a lot of its wool, was bleeding and messy. Any shepherd going down after lost sheep gets torn by brambles, covered in sheep droppings, slips on rocks, risks his life. And all for what?

The parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46) is a good illustration of how vulnerable and easily-led sheep are.

In the Palestine of Christ’s time, and even to this very day, throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, sheep and goats are often difficult to tell apart until they have been separated.

Goats are lively animals and very curious. They are happy living either in herds with other goats or by themselves, while sheep are more docile, easily led, and always stay in groups.

Sheep are greedier than goats – they are more likely to overeat than goats if they have access to more food than they need. Sheep are destructive grazers, while goats are browsers. This means sheep eat grass and other plants all the way down to the ground, while goats, on the other hand, despite popular misconceptions, simply nibble here and there, sampling a variety of bushes and leaves, chewing on a lot of things without actually eating them.

Goats are among the best climbers in the world: they almost never fall or slip, while sheep, on the other hand, are much less sure-footed and can easily fall and get stuck upside down.

We all know the parable of the lost sheep, but the parable of the lost goat just wouldn’t have had the same resonance, would it?

Sheep can and will stay out all night, and are more resilient in bad weather, which is why the shepherds on that first Christmas were out on the hillsides looking after their flocks. Goats on the other hand need warmth at night, so might even have been in the stable alongside the ox and the ass.

So: sheep are outsiders, goats are insiders. And so the parable of the sheep and the goats made sense in the Eastern Mediterranean in the first or second century: Christ is the Good Shepherd who goes out of his way for the outside, who risks his life to seek and find the wayward, the vulnerable, those who are easily led and easily led astray, those who are regarded by others as having little value.

Most of us – removed from farm 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 how easy it is to lead them astray.

The good news of the incarnation first came, not kings in their palaces or to the Roman governor, but to shepherds.

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 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’s the kind of life Christ lives for us and with us.

Christ 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’s like to be out in the cold. He knows what he’s 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’s like to have people think that you are crazy or irresponsible because of what you leave behind and let go of – after all, people said the same things about him. 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, he knows how hard as it is to follow the shepherd, but that it’s much better than being prey to the others, to the thieves and the bandits. 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 is the good shepherd. Like his Father, he leads us together to what we need: food, water, air, true security, deep rest, and real love. Trusting him frees us to enjoy all of those good gifts as fully as God gives them, and the richness of God’s blessings are far beyond what I know how to describe.

When he’s our shepherd, we experience abundant life that no thief can take away.

When he’s the gate, there’s no need for us to try to do that job for him, and our anxieties about whether the “wrong” sort of people are getting in are replaced with freedom to love whoever we find ourselves with in the flock.

Christ is our Lord and shepherd, and so we need fear no evil; surely, as we follow him, goodness and mercy shall follow us (Psalm 23: 6).

Saint Peter, in our epistle reading this morning, reminds us that we are like sheep who have gone astray but who have returned to the guardian of our souls (I Peter 2: 25).

“I am the Good Shepherd”

And, in our Gospel reading and the verses that follow Christ compares himself to the Good Shepherd. In those verses that follow (verses 11-18) – but that we are not reading this morning – he says he is the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep, in the face of great risks from wolves and from the terrain, and against all common wisdom, as the hired hands would know.

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 totally identifies with us.

And how should we respond to that?

A beautiful example of the response to Christ’s unfailing, immeasurable love for us is provided by the early Church, in the way the Apostolic Church is described in our first reading (Acts 2: 42-47), their openness and warm welcome to the newcomers, their devotion to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to breaking bread together and to prayers.

They were generous, sharing and filled with joy beyond their measure. They were filled with glad and generous hearts. And, because of that, they added to their numbers day-by-day.

And for me, that’s the best model for ministry of the deacons and priests who are being ordained this summer, and for the life of the church at parish level, yes, even for parishes such as this.

May we keep this in mind as we too break bread this morning, and in the Eucharist enter into communion with Christ, who is the Good Shepherd, and with one another and with the whole church, which is his true flock.

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

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin, on Sunday 15 May 2011.

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