Good Shepherd Sunday

Sunday 3rd May 2009

The concept of a shepherd - more than a concept - was full of meaning for  the inhabitants of the Middle East 2000 years ago This is not so in the 21st century in our western world.  Many of us here I guess have never seen a shepherd except on TV.

And in any case, the idea of being led like sheep are led, is offensive to the view we have of ourselves today.  Yes, we like to be led but only in the paths  we choose for ourselves. The Archbishop of Canterbury knows this too well, as he tries to shepherd with his symbolic crook, his unsheeplike, unruly and sometimes mutinous flock scattered over the four corners of the earth. 

Ps. 23 ‘The Lord is my shepherd, he leads me beside quiet waters or still waters which I prefer.  But note what the shepherd does, he leads.  And he does not always lead us to still waters . Often we are led to troubled waters of our  time indeed live out our lives in the troubled waters - wherever in our lives he leads us, whether it be convent or otherwise (and don’t imagine  for one moment that we can escape troubled waters in a convent) - to represent Jesus in those troubled waters- make sure that others see us as friends and associates of  the Jesus who  walks in the streets and byways of our towns, villages and cities in the 21st century, in this country where we live - in very troubled waters.

Good shepherd though he is - and today has been named  Good Shepherd Sunday - vast majority of the lost  in our  secular society are not looking for a shepherd to lead them  out of the mess, the economic mess, the environmental  mess the spiritual mess they are sinking in. They look for someone who will lead them out of the mess - inevitably  they look for a political leader. And here I introduce one of several quotations I intend to quote at you this morning.  The first one is simple and familiar.

It comes from Mark’s gospel - ‘If a blind man leads a blind man both will fall into the ditch’

A promising alternative to the failed leaders of our time could be Jesus, the Leader. People might look up and take notice if we made that claim  - proclaim it metaphorically- from the house  tops in the same  way that today’s political parties proclaim their messages of salvation. Can we, fully paid up members of the  church,  call today The Good Leader Day?  For some of us it would mean the sacrifice, perhaps, of a life-times devotion to the hallowed ways of tradition and orthodoxy not to mention language and clothing.  Jesus says to us,“They will listen to my voice - not that  there shall be one flock and one shepherd, -   but one people and one Leader:

But take notice of how the devil can quote scripture, too. 

‘One realm, one people, one leader,’ sounds OK but it happens to have been the  Nazi Party slogan in the early 1930s and  it led the people to disaster under the leadership of Adolph Hitler that archetypal hireling.

Truly,‘If a blind man leads a blind man both will fall into the pit’(Mk15:14)

This is Tony Blair’s precept on the art of leadership: the art of leadership, he claims, is ‘saying no’. There is an art in saying ‘no’ - though he didn’t always practise it. 

Jesus  is not just a good shepherd, he is more than a good shepherd - he is many things - all things to all men and women. For me, personally, he is the Rock and that leads me to one of my favourite biblical quotation from psalm 61:2

Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.  Higher than my little ego with its petty concerns - a rock where waters rage below and cannot overwhelm me  or distort my perspective.

We cannot escape leaders - neither those  who seek greatness nor those  who have greatness thrust upon them.   If we spurn the overt leadership of others, we are still vulnerable to the hidden leaders at work within ourselves and  some of them are hirelings.  It was Byron who said or wrote somewhere ‘When we think we lead, we are most led’.

Leaders notoriously want to change the world or, at least, that little bit of the world in which they live, from which they may gain a following. But the only way to change others is by changing ourselves.

If  we linger beside the still waters, or reflect at the top of the Rock we may recognise some blind instinctual drives which threaten to pervert our opinions, our choices - which can compromise our calling as Christians to extend the heavenly kingdom of God on earth.  The prophet Isaiah referred to them as leopards, lions, wolves..This is what he says - Is.11:6 -  of the age to come - 

‘the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them.’

What does that mean - A LITTLE CHILD WILL LEAD THEM?

I am reminded of the Hans Anderson story about the Emperor’s New Clothes which his fawning and fearful courtiers pretended to exist though in fact the Emperor  did not have any clothes at all, and it was a child who innocently remarked upon it, told the truth.

And again I remember a true story which the Vicar of Croydon told some years ago.  The bishop was coming to tea. The vicar  and his family were on their best behaviour and eager to make a good impression. In fact they thought it better, unusually, to put a butter knife by the side of the butter for the occasion. They were all assembled at the tea table when his youngest suddenly piped up ‘Mummy what is that knife beside the butter for?’  The moral from that must be, if your  sins do not find you out your pretensions  surely will.

What is it about   little children that led Jesus to say ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven’ and that if we do not become like them we’d never enter it ourselves.    An unspoilt child always tells it as it is. without malice or self interest. The childlike quality which we, as adults, are meant to adopt is without pretension. A limpid honesty which can discern the truth of things and point to it without fear or favour, without fear of being unpopular without thought of being honoured.  In a manner which disarms, which confronts in its innocence and re-assures in its good-will. The Good Leader.  Dare we trust in such a one?

Eternal God

whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life:

grant us to walk in his way,

to rejoice in his truth, and to share his risen life; 

who is alive and reigns, now and forever.

Sister Ann Mechtilde CSC