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Good Shepherd Sunday – Rev’d John Paton

 

Today, as many of you will know, is the Sunday known as Good Shepherd Sunday. I don’t know about you, but I find that shepherds and sheep don’t generally loom very large on the horizons of my life. It’s a shame: it’s not often realised quite how much sheep resent the lack of interest that human beings show in them. Do you remember, for instance, when it was reported a couple of years ago that scientists had discovered how to clone sheep? They were going to be able to create tens of thousands of identical sheep. Even the sheep’s mothers weren’t going to be able to tell them apart. They were going to look the same, bleat in the same way, smell the same, talk about the same things, support the same football teams, wear identical clothes, watch the same television programmes, have the same opinions about everything, and so on. The story broke on the Ten o’clock News; and all over the country sheep drinking their Ovaltine burst out into wild celebration as they realised that the morning papers were going to be full of the story – perhaps even with interviews and photographs of some famous sheep. At last humans would have to take sheep seriously. But it was a different story when they actually saw the morning papers. The Times led with the headline, “Hitler Superman fears revived by Frankenstein scientists”. The Guardian had “No woolly thinking pledge by ethical dilemma genetic engineers”. The Sun’s headline was, “My day with Posh Spice’, by kiss-and-tell weightlifter.” Nowhere was there any hint that anyone had considered what the news might mean for sheepdom.And really, I suppose, that’s about how it is with humans and sheep. We don’t have a lot of time for them. They don’t seem to have minds of their own. They need to be led. They constantly fall prey to parasite worms and maggots; if they haven’t got sheep scab or scrapie; if they’re not finding some poisonous plant or rolling onto their back, then you can be sure that they’re wandering off into the path of a fox or dog or some other predator. As a farmer once told me, “A sheep is an animal looking for a reason to die.”And yet this is so unfair to the sheep. The sheep is an animal that we should never underestimate. Sheep may not be the brightest of God’s creatures; and yet there is probably no other animal in the world which is so completely useful. In addition to its wool for clothing, meat for food, hoof horn and bone for fertiliser and lanoline for ointment and cosmetics, the sheep gives fresh life to the soil, turns grass into protein by natural feeding quicker and better than any other animal, and under good management provides the farmer with a satisfying livelihood.And that’s why, in the Old Testament, God’s people are referred to as the sheep of his pasture. For the nomads and Patriarchs of Israel’s primitive years, sheep were the most valuable possession. They were walking wealth; something to be cherished; something to be valued; something by which a man’s worth was measured. Nothing was more important than to protect your sheep properly; no other kind of work gave a better return. Shepherds were consequential and responsible people: Moses and King David were both called away from their flocks to play their part in the destiny of the Nation. So it was natural that people should be described as the people of God’s pasture and the flock of his hand.And what we celebrate today is Christ’s affirmation of his role in the Christian’s life as our shepherd. “I am the Good Shepherd, and I know my flock and am known by mine.’ I am the Good Shepherd”; or, more idiomatically perhaps; “The Good Shepherd is me.” Christ finds good pasture for his people; he protects his sheep from thieves who come to steal, to kill, to destroy; he defends them from the attacks of wolves that harry the flock and scatter the sheep.Why does he do this? Well, don’t say this too close to a sheep, but he has an end in view for them. An economic end. He wants a return from them. Christ’s parables are much more often about business than about prayer. Next week we’ll be hearing about a vine that doesn’t give good grapes, that provides a bad return to the one who planted it. Somewhere else we hear about a fig tree that was threatened with being axed because it failed to bear fruit; we hear about people being given money to invest and being sacked if they don’t make a decent profit. And it’s the same with sheep. Sheep are about wool, about mutton. It’s all about sitting on a plate next to a spoonful of redcurrant jelly. That’s the return a shepherd gets for his work, that’s why the owner has invested in his sheep. And mark my words a return is expected of us. We’re being fattened up to be the body of Christ in the world. We’re here to do his works, to love his love, to work with him in bringing in his kingdom. And if we’re going to do that we have to be kept together; and we have to be fed.The role of the shepherd in Christ’s world was to protect the flock, keep it together, and ensure it was fed. Remember Palestine is a dry country; vegetation is sparse and slow-growing for most of the year. A flock has to move on quickly to pastures new when there is nothing left to feed on. That’s where the idea comes from that the shepherd is a leader. But for most of the time the shepherd is ensuring that the flock is being fed and watered. Pasco pascere pavi pastum, to feed. The pastor is the one who feeds you. My flesh is meat indeed, said Jesus; my blood is your true drink. You cannot live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. A balanced diet of word and sacrament.And what’s all this for? What end does the great shepherd have inmind for us?Let’s look at that word end. The word end is something we hear a lot of in the Bible. Christ loved his own and loved them to the end. I am with you until the end, he said to his disciples. The end can sound quite frightening sometimes, straing as it does with earthquakes and wars and rumours of wars and goijg on to plagues and angels and the horsemen of the Apocalypse. Some people prayed that God would make the end short. But the end is the whole point, and we need to take it on board. It’s often hidden in the translations from the Greek, and we need to search it out. It’s the same word as perfection, completeness: be perfect, even as God is perfect, means ‘be people of the end, even as God is of the end’. All things returning to perfection, to endfulness, through him from whom they took their origin. Returning to perfection, returning to endfulness – this strange nostalgia for the future by which Christians sense the purposes of God’s creation.The purpose of God’s creation is the end. And we have the option of working with God towards that end or not.The word that Paul uses in one of his letters in synergy, and let’s never forget that synergy is a Christian word. We can choose to work with God or not – we can choose to live in all abundance or to tread the paths of futility and decay. We can choose to rebel, we can choose to do it our own way and see where it gets us. We’ve got free will, we can choose to reject God’s purpose, to turn our backs on what he asks of us. We can choose to walk in light or to walk in darkness.Or we can be seduced by the world. Because the world may have other plans for us. Did you see what Susan Greenfield said about young people last week? ‘We are rearing a generation who are in danger of becoming emotionally stunted, inarticulate hedonists, with the attention span of a gnat.’ How do you feel about that? What they’re blaming is consumerism; and the economists are coming right back and saying don’t blame capitalism, it’s not inherently evil, and if you don’t like it why don’t you see if you can come up with something better?I don’t want to make this a long sermon, but I want to say something about consumerism. When I was young Erich Fromm wrote a book called to have or to be. The idea was that we were turning away from love, from relationship, from the pleasure of being alive and purely existing, and getting our kicks from the things we own. That may have been true once, but things have moved on. Perhaps that was maetrialsim, but we’ve moved on from that. Consumerism is a next setp. Because when you buy something you’ve become economically inert. If you buy a car, you’re not likely to buy another one for some years, so you’re no use any more. The market isn’t getting your money, Revenue and Customs aren’t collecting any VAT from you. So you have to be persuaded to buy again, and again; to be dissatisfied with what you have so that you can satisfy the demands of the market. This can become the purpose of your life. Just as a Bible loses its proper purpose if it’s used to prop up a broken piano leg; just as a beautiful grand piano loses its purpose if you keep it closed and just use it for displaying photos; so you can devote your life to being a consumer. We can refuse our high calling as the children of God and devote all our energy to consuming, filling our garbage cans and consuming again. Humans can live the life of cattle, Aristotle said, and that’s how it goes. And what goes for cattle, I suppose, goes for sheep as well.Because you can lead a sheep to grass; but you can’t make it eat. The sheep have to want the food and drink that’s on offer; they have to be willing to be fattened up; they have to accept the calling to be part of the flock that is asked to give a return for its investor. God didn’t make his promises to blocks of wood, said St John Chrysostom; we have to be prepared to acknowledge our hunger, to open our mouths, to accept the feeding that is offered. It is open for us to refuse our calling, or neglect it; we can decline to stand just a little lower than the angels, and revert to being creatures of appetite and passion.Every minute of every day that choice is ours. Become a mere consumer or follow on to glory.Lord, as you have called us to your service, make us worthy of our calling. In the name of Jesus Christ, our shepherd and our great High Priest. Amen.

Rev. John Paton, Precentor Christ Church
3rd May 2009