Dearest readers, I really hope to return to writing something other than sermons soon. Honestly. But I’m in the midst of applications and interviews, and between those and sermon writing and other ministry gifts and curses, my words have disappeared temporarily. However, I’m in the process of starting a blipfoto account which requires fewer words and creativity of a different sort, so when that’s up, you’re welcome to join me there too.
Anyway, here’s the sermon from High Mass today, at which we had a baptism, and after which we interred the ashes of a long-time member of OSP. In the interest of full disclosure, I took inspiration for the final paragraphs from Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘This Preaching Life’.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18
I don’t know anything at all about sheep. Or shepherds for that matter.
Somehow, I suspect I’m not the only preacher today starting with that line.
Justin and I lived in the Borders for a number of years, and across the road from our place is a field full of sheep. Each spring, we’d spend a rather ridiculous amount of time watching the new lambs gambolling and feeding and doing their cute little lamb things. But a few years of observation didn’t teach me much, other than that lambs are entertaining but they grow up into rather boring, dumb looking creatures.
So yesterday evening, in a moment of equal parts procrastination and preparation for today, I did what anyone of my generation would do on a Saturday evening when avoiding other tasks: I went on to Twitter. I actually follow a Cumbrian shepherd (as you do) who has been tweeting a lot recently about the lambs he’s losing to foxes.
Someone asked him a genuine question the other day: ‘If the wilderness is so dangerous, why don’t you keep the lambs inside?’
And his reply was that, if they were kept indoors or in a smaller pen, disease would spread rapidly. Despite the apparent safety of confined space, and the very real dangers of the wilderness, the chances of survival — and flourishing — are actually higher out of doors than in.
Though it is best for the sheep, it still seems a huge risk for the shepherd to leave them to struggle through harsh weather, scramble through rugged landscape and flee from hungry predators.
And in such an environment, a relationship — maybe of trust, but certainly of dependency — must be built between sheep and shepherd. As John writes in his epistle, love is not known merely through word and speech, but in truth and action. The sheep come to know the voice of the shepherd because it is the voice that they have learned to associate with care, safety, warmth, food. In a crisis, they will follow the shepherd because he has proved himself trustworthy before in providing for their basic needs. His voice would not be the one they believed if they had not experienced it first as the voice of practical care.
Even so, it seems a bit scary to be a sheep out there in the wilderness. And if Jesus is calling us his flock, it seems a bit scary for us too.
And it raises questions about how we know his voice, especially when there are so many voices clamouring for our attention in the wilderness of our world. How do we know which is the voice of the hired hand which will allow the flock to scatter and desert us at the first sign of a threat, and which is the voice of the shepherd who will call us to himself and offer protection when danger appears?
Shortly, baby Flora will be baptised. She has learned in the first few months of her life the voices she can trust. The voices she associates with food and warmth and love.
Kirsty and Fin, too, as they walk through the rocky wilderness of new parenthood, will be listening out for the voices they can trust to guide them, voices of family and friends who have trod this way before them.
Today, Flora will learn through experience that she is — and we will remind ourselves that in our own baptism we were — not entering into the safety of an enclosure but instead being drenched in wild living waters and released into a flock wandering free in a beautifully rugged landscape that contains both the hill of Calvary and the garden of new life.
And today, a different voice will call to her and welcome her as one of his own. The voice of one who has known her since before she was born. The voice of one who will love her beyond her death. The voice of one who will keep watch over her through the wildness of her life, who will lead her through its light and shadows, through times of plenty and times of scarcity, to streams that refresh and to waters that threaten to overcome her.
Those of you presenting Flora for baptism, those of us witnessing and supporting you, our task is to help her hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in her life. But that means knowing what the voice sounds like in our lives as well.
After this service, we will be burying the ashes of Barnaby, a long-time member of this congregation, a man who most definitely lived wild and free, but who, throughout it all — and especially towards the end — knew the voice of his shepherd calling him.
So, be patient. Be patient with yourselves if you’re not always sure what that voice sounds like. Because some days, the voice might sound like a whistle and other days like a shout. Some days it sounds like a love song and others like a curse. It doesn’t often speak in words, much less in complete sentences. But it can usually be heard some time between your getting up and your lying down each day, calling you by name, extending compassion and forgiveness, offering rest and refreshment for your soul.
Be patient with yourselves, and while you are at it, be patient with the rest of us too. You cannot follow a shepherd all by yourself, after all. Like it or not, you are stuck with this flock, as ridiculous and odd as we all may seem.
But stick with the flock. Because even out here in this vast wilderness, that’s where the shepherd can be found. Which makes it your best bet not only for survival but also for joy.