"Are you a Good Shepherd?"
A sermon preached on the occasion of
the Rededication of Pastoral Team Members
at the Mint Methodist Church Exeter
on Sunday 3rd February 2013
by the Minister Rev Andrew Sails
THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD I SHALL NOT WANT (Ps 23:1)
In 1989 the people of Liverpool gathered in the Cathedral to remember the dead of Hillsborough.
The Cathedral choir sang “You’ll never walk alone” and the sermon text came from Ps 23 –
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.
In 1915 Shackleton’s ship Endurance was destroyed by the antarctic ice pack.
He and his crew took to sledges overland.
Everything which was not vital was left behind.
Gold sovereigns were thrown on the ground.
Of the Bible presented to the expedition by the queen
– just three pages were kept.
In the TV dramatization of those events, Kenneth Brannagh
(playing Shackleton) takes one of the three pages and reads to the crew
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
All the men survived – though ironically a number died a few years later in the mud of the Somme.
In the film version of War Horse,
a soldier crossing no man’s land quotes those same words….
The valley of the shadow of death appears in so many places.
Some of us shared in the funeral for David Tapp on Friday –
walking again that same dark valley.
Others here I know are going through other dark valleys right now.
And Scripture says – you may be lost on the moor,
you may be at the mercy of the wolf,
you may be in dark places
overshadowed by grief, guilt, confusion or despair -
But - through the wind and rain and storm – walk on –
you’ll never walk alone, in this world or the world to come,
because the Good Shepherd goes with you always.
I remember seeing the picture of a sweatshirt for sale in a shopping mall in Minnesota -
The words on the sweatshirt were as follows:
Yea, though I walk through the Mall of America, I shall Fear No Evil
For with Time and Plastic in my Pocket
There's Nothing to FEAR Anyway.
I still don’t know if the proud wearers of that shirt
thought the words true or ironic – I hope the latter -
Could anyone really believe
that credit cards and shopping are the key to life.
Yes I guess we all indulge in retail therapy from time to time –
we know that buying things may take the edge off sorrow or nightmare –
but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
The Lord is not my Mastercard – he is my shepherd
My credit card company knows me as a 16 digit number &an expiry date
But the Lord is my shepherd who knows me by name,
and there is no expiry date on his love and care.
He doesn’t promise that we will not walk in the shadow,
he does promise that he will be there if we will be follow.
And he calls us to share in his pastoral work -
we are called to work alongside the Great Shepherd of the Sheep
and care for each other in his name.
This is of course a special message to those of you
renewing your vows as members of our pastoral team -
but God’s call to love, to care, is a call to every one of us.
- to protect those who are persecuted and victimized
from the ravages of the wolf
- to rescue those who are lost, lonely and confused
high on the rocky crags far from home
- to bring light to those who live in the darkness,
whose lives are overshadowed by suffering death and despair,
We are called to care for each other here in this congregation
(those gathered within this sheepfold)
and we have but to read our weekly and monthly prayer lists to know
something of the heartaches we share together here.
We are equally called to care for those far off –
even the 100th sheep wherever he or she may be.
I mention here just one group – on Feb 6 each year we are called to mark
the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation.
Just one example of a great tranch of suffering and exploitation which for many of us
in Western Europe is quite off our cultural map -
yet what is out of sight should not be out of mind -
we are called to care for every lost and suffering sheep.
So the question is – not only for Pastoral Visitors but for us all –
how good are we at caring for the sheep?
Our Gospel passage (picking up incidentally similar imagery in the Book of Ezekiel)
contrasts the true Godly Shepherd and the hireling shepherd who fails to care or notice
when the sheep stray and the wolf attacks.
In 1851 Holman Hunt displayed a painting called “The Hireling” at the
Royal Academy. It showed a rural scene – with a rather red faced young fellow sat on a bank.
Some critics thought he had been drinking too much local cider –
certainly he was leaning suggestively over the girl sat next to him.
Behind the couple, and totally ignored by them, is a flock of sheep/
They are presumably in the care of the man as their shepherd,
but he has left them quite unattended –
one sheep at least has strayed across into a field of standing corn.
Lots of people argued about the meaning & significance of the picture.
Later Hunt wrote saying that he painted the picture with theologians and Churchmen in mind –
he intended the couple to symbolise the pointless theological debates
which occupied Christian churchmen while their "flock" went astray due to a lack of proper moral guidance.
You may have seen that the theologians have been in the press this week–
complaining about a disrespectful name given to a brand of potato crisps.
There we are again – so busy examining the minutiae of our picnic hamper
that we miss the big story – the wolf is ravaging God’s people,
many of whom have no food, whatever the brand name.
Do we follow the good shepherd, or do we simply concern and amuse ourselves with our own petty concerns whatever they may be?
Its like the story of the shepherd who bought a gold plated crook
and housed his sheep in an immaculate sheepfold.
Then he sat down to play his beautifully crafted pipes.
He was much too preoccupied to notice the wolf carrying the sheep away from their beautiful pen.
We don’t have gold plated crooks –
but we now have a mighty fine building which is valuable precisely insofar as we care for the sheep –
otherwise all our fundraising has been a waste of time!
Whatever we do, we are but clanging cymbals if we do it not with love.
So, are we Shepherds or hirelings?
I see that last night BBC1 was re-running Matt Damon and Angela Jolie in “The Good Shepherd” –
it’s actually a movie about the early years of the CIA and Damon plays an early CIA boss.
His idealism to bring a better world for his family and for his country all go awry as the film develops –
by the end he has messed up his life and arguably all the groups he set out to protect –
he has allowed the calculated compromise and habitual violence of the secret service to destroy his dreams.
The original final shot of the movie got cut before the film appeared,
but it showed Damon walking away with a voice over from John 14 –
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”.
The lines were evidently to be understood with deep irony –
the CIA in the 1950s kept itself safe and sacrificed anyone else - any sheep
that were necessary – they were hirelings of the worst sort.
So will we sacrifice our lives to share in the work of the true shepherd?
It is said that in the Victorian age there was an elderly inmate in Dartmoor Prison.
As a trusty, he had been appointed years ago as the prison shepherd
and was often allowed out on the moor to look after the prison sheep.
He had served several stretches and upon release he would always deliberately commit another felony,
solely to get back to the prison and be with his beloved sheep again.
Finally on one occasion after his release he did not return to Dartmoor in his customary way –
and it was discovered that he had appeared in Court as usual,
but sadly before a different judge who had thoughtlessly sent him to another prison.
And, so the story goes, if you go out a-night on Dartmoor you may still see
the ghostly figure of the convict shepherd searching for his sheep….
Well I am not so sure about the last bit –
but the main story makes a good point -
The shepherd of Dartmoor knew that the only way
to be with the prison flock was to enter the prison himself.
True shepherds are Christ-like –
they don’t stay at a safe distance to dispense advice
on how to cope with the valley, the crag and the wolf –
they search out the flock in their prison, in their sorrow,
to suffer and share alongside them.
So there is the challenge for every one of us –
to give our very lives if need be for those in our pastoral care.
And there is our glorious promise –
the Great & Good Shepherd of the sheep
will go with us every step of the way