29 April 2012

Lost sheep and little children

The Good Shepherd ... a stained glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 April 2012, The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin

11 a.m.: Choral Eucharist

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

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

This morning, the Psalm and the Gospel reading are going to prompt plenty of sermons throughout the Church of Ireland on the Good Shepherd, doubtlessly heavy-laden not just with fluffy little lambs but with romantic images of shepherds, dressed in white flowing robes and covered with red cope-like cloaks buckled with gold clasps.

Think about the many stained glass windows in parish churches up and down this land, or the images being presented in Sunday School lessons in most parishes this morning, and you realise how we have romanticised the Good Shepherd … along with romanticising the idea of laying down my life for the sake of the sheep.

The reality, of course, is that there is nothing romantic about laying down your life for someone else, and certainly not for a little lamb. And in the time of Christ there was nothing romantic either about being a shepherd, good or bad.

But the story of the Good Shepherd is so familiar that for the vast majority of people in church this morning, it is going to be very difficult for us to get to grips with the force of a Gospel reading coloured by stained-glass windows and Sunday school colouring books … a cultural perception that has even been reinforced by nursery rhymes that tell us “Mary had a little lamb.”

How sweet. But there was nothing sweet about being a shepherd in the time of Christ.

This Gospel reading recalls a pre-Crucifixion event in the life of Christ. But it has been chosen in the lectionary for this Sunday in the Easter Season to challenge us to think about who the Risen Christ is for us today.

This is probably the best-known and best-loved of the seven ‘I AM’ sayings in Saint John’s Gospel. But it suffers from urban understandings or misunderstandings about shepherds and sheep.

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

The lamb survived, but in the process of being lost had been torn by brambles, had lost a lot of its wool, was bleeding and messy. Any shepherd going down that island cliff after a lost lamb would be torn by brambles too, covered in sheep droppings, would slip on the rocks and risk his life.

And all for what?

And yet Christ 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.

Against all the prevailing wisdom of his day, Christ identifies with those who are lost, those who are socially and religiously 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.

Perhaps the disciples – as they listened to Christ describing himself as the Good Shepherd – recalled that David too had been a good shepherd (see I Samuel 17: 34-35). But that was when David lived on the margins, before he became king. Would they recall the many Old Testament promises that God would come to shepherd his people (see Isaiah 40: 11; Jeremiah 23: 1-6; Ezekiel 34: 11)?

By the time of Christ, shepherds are among the dispossessed, on the lowest rung of society. They neither own their own land nor own their own sheep. They often end up as the hired hands of the wealthy urban dwellers, the absentee landlords who figure prominently in so many of the Gospel parables.

These hired shepherd-servants depend for their livelihood on work that requires being out at night, in unsociable hours, in the dark, in the fields – away from their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, the family members any honourable man would have stayed at home to protect.

As a consequence, shepherds were seen as men without honour. At best, they were unreliable; at worst, they were borderline bandits.

The story of the Good Samaritan is unique to Saint Luke’s Gospel; and the image of the Good Shepherd is unique to Saint John’s Gospel.

In those days, shepherds were despised as much as Samaritans. In this context, a good shepherd, like a good Samaritan, is a contradiction in terms.

Yet it was to shepherds that the Good News of the Incarnation was first proclaimed in Saint Luke’s Gospel.

And, as with Saint Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan, Christ uses the image of the Good Shepherd, a despised external “other,” to challenge our preconceptions about others. The invitation is to think about what is really important in human relationships.

And Christ’s answer is always the same: compassion, individual moral character, and generous, inclusive action. We are not to condemn by assigning human beings to hated categories.

Christ constantly challenges his followers to live out the Gospel on the margins, just as he consistently places himself among those society has pushed to the margins: tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, Samaritans, shepherds …

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the members of the Sanhedrin sitting in judgment on Peter and John are offended, not because the two disciples have performed a healing ministry … it is difficult for us to understand today, but at the time healing miracles were expected and accepted.

The problems arise because Peter and John have done this without the authority of the High Priests, scribes and Sadducees, and have done this for a disabled beggar outside the Temple gates.

John and Peter are asked to explain who gave them power or authority to cure the lame beggar (verse 7).

The power and authority that challenges and perplexes the ruling elite in Jerusalem is not a challenge to their right to monopolise the office of High Priest. It is threatening because it counts in those who are counted out, those who are counted outside the Temple cult and sacred and secular society.

Peter and John work with an authority that brings new meaning and new life to someone who, because he is both disabled and poor, has been forced outside the Temple gates, who has been excluded from full religious rights, who is not accepted as a member of the religious community, who is one of the lost sheep.

The work of the Good Shepherd continues not by going after the insider but by going after the outsider, risking our reputations, and risking our place in life, in polite society, for the one who is categorised as the outsider, who is seen as having no value.

Even if we have little value in the eyes of those who see us day-by-day, we all have value in Christ’s eyes.

In our Epistle reading (I John 3: 16-24), Saint John 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” (I John 3: 18).

‘Little Children, love one another’ … the Basilica of Saint John on the hill of Ayasoluk, overlooking Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Jerome tells the well-loved story that Saint John continued preaching even when he was in his 90s (Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10).

He was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher.

And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long sermon, his custom was to lean up on one elbow each time and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”

This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his deathbed.

Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out.

Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, with the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?”

And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”

If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one. “Little children, love one another.”

That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week, and that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in his first letter (I John), over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”
But John tells us this morning that this love is shown not so much in word or speech but in truth and action.

Peter and John, in their deeds and action this morning, give this love visible expression. It is a love that that is a true living out of the Resurrection faith. It is a love that embraces not just those like us but those God counts in too, calls in from the margins, counts in when others count them out of sacred and secular society, and counts them in as children of God.

“Little children, love one another … because it truly is enough.”


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.

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.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a con of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Choral Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on Sunday 29 April 2012.

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