Llama or sheep? Sermon for ‘Good shepherd Sunday’, Adel Parish Church.

sheep

Llama or sheep? Sermon for ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’, April 25th 2021, Adel Parish Church.

John 10: 11 – 18

After the magic 12th April re-opening, we were blessed to spend a fantastic week at the top end of Swaledale. We’ve been going there around Easter for over 20 years, one of the many joys being that it’s usually lambing time. We walked every day – and passed mile after mile of Swaledale sheep and their lambs.

Not surprising I suppose that the favoured breed should be the one native to the dale. But it then came as a bit of a shock when we passed a small group of blue faced Leicesters. At first glance, my brain tried to tell me these were not sheep but llamas or similar; the are much taller with longer faces than Swaledales. We had to enlarge our idea of what a sheep is to accept that these too fit that category!

Jesus talks often of sheep and shepherds, presumably because the people he spoke to would have been as familiar as the hill farmers of Swaledale with how sheep and shepherds interact. We too are lucky enough to see lambs in nearby fields, and the picture of Jesus as the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep is not totally alien.

In the middle of today’s reading though, there is a line that’s never really explained… ”I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” What was that all about? I wonder whether it’s a warning not to get too cosy a picture of shepherd and sheep. A shepherd has their own flock, the flock know the shepherd’s voice…other flocks know the voice of other shepherds.

But lest we take the metaphor too literally, Jesus reminds us he’s the only shepherd, so he will have other sheep, in other sheep folds. Humans need this reminder because our brains have evolved to find patterns. We’re able to process vast quantities of information because we automatically put things into categories. Spotting things that don’t fit help us to react quickly to danger; but it also means we build up pictures of what a ‘doctor’, an ‘engineer’, a ‘Christian’ should look like.

These pictures can be very hard to shift – as pioneering women in science and engineering found. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold”, is a reminder we will always need.

For Jesus’ first audience it perhaps prepared them for his message to spread from the Jews to other peoples. What about us? Who are the ‘other sheep’ we need reminding of? Sheep who are not like us.

Now I’ve heard, and seen, repeatedly, how welcoming a church this is. So we might think we don’t need this reminder. But I think we’re precisely the people who need to keep reminding ourselves and the wider church of those ‘other sheep’.

If you saw the BBC Panorama programme this week, or have followed any of the recent arguments about sexuality and the church, you will know that the Church of England as an organisation has a huge problem recognising sheep that do not look like us.

Hopefully most churches are now able to welcome people from all backgrounds to worship with them. But what about when they feel called to positions of leadership, to ordination? The Church of England is desperate to encourage vocations amongst minority groups. But once they start training, and even worse, once they start applying for jobs, they often find they are less welcome.

The Panorama programme heard how trainee clergy felt compelled to conform, to become less ‘foreign’; to put up with racist comments, rather than ‘rock the boat’; how they struggle to get jobs once trained.

And these were not people whose English was poor, just people who looked, sounded and acted a little differently from the ‘typical’ vicar. There was a heart-breaking interview with a man saying…’I have tried so hard to fit in, I have given so much for the church, but I can only be me.’ Apparently as himself he is not welcome.

Now I’ve heard, and seen, repeatedly, how welcoming a church this is. So is this our problem? I think it is.

Being a welcoming church isn’t something we tick off our to do list. Sadly, our brains will keep giving us those ‘typical Christian’ pictures. We’ve got something precious here that needs protecting.

Secondly though, we can contribute to the wider church in the way we encourage and interact with those who feel called to any sort of leadership role.

Today is vocations Sunday – when we’re asked to think about what we might be called to do as Christians. It has a particular focus on callings to ordained or licensed ministry, but is also a good time to think about any ways we feel called to help in the running of our church.

We’ve been blessed over the last year to have so many people willing to lead parts of online and in person worship. This isn’t for everyone, but it’s for anyone with the gifts and the calling. It’s really important that we don’t dismiss anyone as too old, too young, the wrong colour, too new, the wrong type of person, to take a lead in our church.

At our extra Easter Sunday Eucharist, one of our young people acted as deacon. It looked different, it stretched and enlarged our picture of what leadership in the church looks like. And it was good!

When Jesus talks about the sheep of his flock, the only description he gives is that: ‘they listen to my voice’. The voice is Jesus’, our job as his church is to provide a space where all are welcome to listen to that voice and follow where it calls them.

We may have little influence on the national church. But we can work hard to enlarge our vision, to fight our brains’ tendency to look for people like us. We can try to develop a picture of a church leader that can encompass differences in colour, culture, class; and looks only for someone who is listening to and following the voice of Christ the good shepherd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus enters…even though our doors are locked. Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, Adel Parish Church.

JesusDisciples

Jesus enters…even though our doors are locked. Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, Adel Parish Church.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the adverts…’A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’…it’s at this time of year I sometimes feel we should say, ‘Alleluias are for life, not just for Easter Sunday.’

In fact, I have a clergy friend who, about now, starts putting regular posts on social media saying ‘It’s still Easter’, and continues until the Easter season ends after 50 days, at Pentecost.

A timely reminder not just for the secular world – but for us in the church too. There is so much effort involved in the wonderful celebrations of Holy Week and Easter Day, that ‘Alleluia’ can seem a little like a triumphant ‘The end’. Certainly, last Monday, I had no energy for any more Easter! But today’s gospel reading shows us very clearly why those 50 days are important.

As we proclaim ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen’ – with joy on Easter morning, I suspect we imagine the disciples doing the same. At dawn on Easter morning, we read in John’s gospel how Mary met the risen Christ and told the disciples ‘I have seen the Lord’. Even allowing for the male chauvinism of the day…why are they then not out looking…even in the vague hope she might be right?

But no, as we’ve just heard, on the evening of that same day, they were not out and about shouting ‘Alleluia’, looking for the risen Christ, but hiding in a locked room.

We’re told it’s ‘for fear of the Jews’. Yet ‘the Jews’ could easily have arrested them along with Jesus, had they wanted. I wonder – is it really Jesus they’re afraid of? After all, last time they saw him they protested their undying support and then ran away, leaving him to his fate.

Jesus has burst the tomb and is on the loose, but perhaps they aren’t very keen to run into him. Are the disciples locked in by their shame, fear, doubt perhaps?

Whatever is keeping them there doesn’t matter, because Jesus comes to them. He comes to them, where they are, and he says ‘Peace be with you’. Not, ‘Where were you?’, not ‘How could you run off and leave me?’, not even ‘I forgive you’, but ‘Peace be with you’.

‘Then they rejoiced when they saw the Lord’! I bet they did – perhaps partly with relief at knowing they were loved and forgiven.

And yet…and yet, a week later, there they are still shut in that room. This time Thomas is there – doubting Thomas as we remember him; but it seems the others also need convincing, since they’re still not out spreading the good news.

But Jesus comes to them…again without recrimination…offers his peace, and the chance to touch his wounds.

Jesus comes…’even though the doors were locked’.

I’ve heard this story so many times, and I think I’ve always sort of supposed Jesus came through the wall to show he was God. But he’s at pains to show he’s a very human, bodily Jesus. Here he offers his wounded hands and side, in Luke’s gospel he eats a piece of fish. He seems to want them to know he’s the same Jesus they’ve spent the last 3 years with.

I wonder then – does Jesus come in without unlocking the door because he’s leaving this for the disciples to do? He invites them to be part of the new resurrection life he has begun, he offers them the reassurance they need, but leaves them to make their own move when they’re ready.

And so he comes to us, though we lock doors to keep him out. Sometimes the door is locked for fear of what Jesus might find when he enters our lives. Sometimes it’s locked out of disbelief…because the idea of a crucified and risen saviour is so difficult to grasp…or because God seems so absent in the world we see around us. Sometimes it’s locked out of anger, resentment or sorrow.

I think I’ve locked my door for all of those reasons, and probably others besides at different times in my life. But Jesus still enters.

He brings his peace when we’re ready to accept it, to accept we can be forgiven and loved.

He can’t say, as he did to the disciples, touch my hands and side…but he knows our need for something we can touch and hold. So he gives himself to us in bread and wine at the Eucharist. In the last fortnight I’ve shared the Eucharist with a number of people who have had to make do with online offerings for a year – and seen just how much it means to them.

That first Easter wasn’t just one morning of ‘Alleluia he is risen’…it was 40 days of Jesus coming into the locked rooms of people’s lives. Days of giving them physical proof, and of helping them know anything can be forgiven.

There are two beautiful phrases at the end of today’s reading that I want to end with. Jesus says to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

…’have come to believe.’ Not – got it, in a flash one Easter morning – but have come to believe. I think today’s gospel tells us that believing is often a gradual process of Jesus coming into our locked rooms and giving us reason to open the door and venture out.

Then the final lines tell us ‘through believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, you may have life in his name.’

So ‘Alleluia’ is not just the Easter morning moment of joy, it’s Jesus coming again and again, as many times as we need, to where we are; Jesus saying ‘peace be with you’…whether we have feared, denied, betrayed, ignored him; Jesus giving us the means to touch him in bread and wine; until we are ready to open the door and find that in his name is life indeed.

Alleluia – amen.

 

 

Not the end, but the way to a new beginning…words for Good Friday 2021, Adel Parish church.

Jesus Christ on the Cross

Not the end, but the way to a new beginning…words for Good Friday 2021, Adel Parish church.

I wonder how many of you are fans of the film Titanic? I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch it – after all, with that title it’s hardly going to end well!

Today is somewhat similar. We follow Jesus to the rubbish heap outside Jerusalem, the place of execution. And we fear we do know the ending; we fear that today we’ve reached the ending.

After all, we’ve just heard from Jesus’ lips, ‘It is finished.’

‘It is finished’, that’s certainly how it must have appeared to Jesus’ followers, and to those who couldn’t cope with his brand of radical love and needed rid of him. All those hopes for a new way of life seem to have ended at the cross. We seem to have reached the bottom, a dead end.

But the Greek for ‘It is finished’ can also be translated, ‘the work is completed’.

We could see the work of Jesus’ as living a human life in total obedience to God. Not the obedience of following orders, but of reflecting God’s perfect love back to God. Jesus’ whole life was one of showing what God’s love looks like in human form.

And this leads to the cross. Not because God demands it – but because perfect love refuses to use power, to manipulate, to repay violence with violence; so perfect love is vulnerable to the human need to be on top, to be in control. Perfect love asks for a new way of ordering society where every life matters. The cross is the response of those who feel they have too much to lose in this new world.

In his life Jesus sought out the outcast, the poor and downtrodden, the sorrowful, and declared God’s love for them…whatever the consequences. Those who were threatened by this had him put to death, and he died declaring God’s love and forgiveness for those who killed him.

The work is completed, not because it’s failed, but because even violence and death have not defeated God’s love. At the cross it’s hard to see the ending, but somehow we know that this is not it. Jesus died abandoned, betrayed, alone…but still loving. So when we reach the absolute depths of human life – God is there. Although God’s love reaches to the depths – the depths cannot hold it. We know what the disciples didn’t, that on Sunday it will burst the tomb and there will be a new beginning.

But there is no way to that new beginning except via the cross. This is not the ending – but it is our way ahead. Jesus overcame hatred, violence and death not by avoiding it – but by confronting it with love. Those who found new life on Easter Sunday had to face their part in the cross – their betrayal, abandoning, cruelty or indifference. They had to accept that God could deal with these, then they had to leave behind the people they had been, and begin new lives trying to share God’s love with others.

The cross is not the end, but nor is it a magical solution to life’s problems. The end is how we deal with all the ills exposed by the cross. 2000 years ago society’s attitude to the poor, the mentally and physically ill, the stranger, women, those who struggled with strict religious laws were all laid bare by Jesus’ life and death.

Those for whom the cross turned from disastrous end to new life had to leave such attitudes behind as they formed the earliest Christian communities.

This year COVID has done something similar for us, putting a spotlight on things we perhaps knew but preferred not to examine too closely. It’s been a difficult year for us all, but the load has fallen disproportionately on some parts of society. The poor, the disabled, the elderly, black and Asian communities, prisoners, asylum seekers have suffered the most. They have seen more deaths, but also greater loss in income, loss of freedom, loss of access to green spaces, disrupted education.

On the whole these groups suffered more because they were already disadvantaged. COVID exposed how little our society values many workers even as we discovered how much we rely on them. COVID reminded us how precious a thing our National Health Service is. COVID highlighted how many isolated lonely people there are. COVID helped us relearn the importance of community and family.

We are still some way from the end of this crisis, but hopefully we have passed the lowest point. We are looking forward with hope to a new beginning…and we hear the idea that we should ‘build back better’. We are at a point in history – a little like the end of the last war – when there is appetite for change.

As Christians I think what we offer to the debate is the knowledge that real new beginnings are reached only via the cross. We cannot improve the lives of those who have suffered most without recognising the sins of society that underpin that suffering. Jesus showed us that obedience to God’s love means valuing every life, caring especially for the vulnerable. He also showed us it means leaving our tendency to selfishness, and our reliance on power over others at the foot of the cross.

This church, like many others has a long history of generosity to those in need. As we look forward to post-COVID life, let’s also think about how we can contribute to eradicating that need.

On Sunday we will share the joy of Easter, but today we stand at the cross. Let’s use this time to recognise the evils humans inflict on one another. Let consider what, individually and as a community we need to leave at the cross as we seek to share Christ’s love with all in the new beginning that is coming.

Sanctified for the journey…words for Maundy Thursday 2021, Adel Parish church.

foot washing

Sanctified for the journey…words for Maundy Thursday 2021, Adel Parish Church.

Here we are, on Maundy Thursday. We gather, with Jesus, in that upper room. We know something’s afoot. We know Jesus is travelling, increasingly wearily perhaps, towards the climax of his ministry. The disciples couldn’t grasp how it would end for Jesus, but they knew their lives were bound up in whatever was coming. As we put ourselves in their shoes, I suppose that tonight we face the same choice…to go with Jesus to wherever this journey ends, or to turn away.

This is where it gets difficult. If we’re going to stay with this story to its outcome, we can’t bypass the next three days. It’s perhaps only in the hard work of these days that we can really find out how the story ends for us.

We come to this holy night, not sure whether we have the courage to stay with Jesus…or even if we are the right people to accompany him. Perhaps that’s how the disciples felt. Perhaps, despite their protestations, they suspected they were going to be found wanting.

I wonder, as they gathered on that momentous night, whether they expected a ‘pep talk’…a rousing speech, Henry V perhaps, or Churchill? Or maybe a symbolic passing on of some of Jesus’ power. Instead, there was Jesus, kneeling before them, washing their feet.

Perhaps you’re relieved that this is a second Maundy Thursday where I’ve not been able to wash your feet…don’t worry, I can wait, I’ll get you eventually! I will, because it’s often been a moment that’s taken me deeper into the encounter of Holy Week, that’s helped it become my story too.

There’s something about feet. In Jesus’ day they would have been the dirtiest part of the body, dusty and smelly from the streets. But even today they’re often the bit of us we prefer others not to see, and certainly not to touch. It’s as if they still represent the part of us we don’t want exposed to the light.

That’s perhaps what makes it such an important part of the story…it takes us out of our comfort zone. And it’s when I’m out of my comfort zone that I’m most ready to be changed.

So, let’s imagine ourselves there now. The lights are low, the talk is intense, there is anxiety in the air. Imagine Jesus, a towel around his waist, kneeling at your feet. He has a bowl of warm water; he takes your foot, tired from the streets, perhaps calloused and sore. Taking his time, focused only on you, he gently washes it…easing the aches. Then he wipes it dry with his towel.

Do you look at him? Or are you too embarrassed to meet his eyes? I suspect he is looking at you – looking with love. Using that look to say…I’ve seen the worst of you, the dirtiest parts you try to hide…and still I love you’.

Using that look to say, ‘I’ve seen the worst of you, and there is nothing here that cannot be washed clean by my love.’

Using that look to say…’I know these feet will run away, but I bless them anyway, and I trust that one day they will carry you back to my side.’

After all, Jesus washed Judas’ feet, I guess with the same loving care. As if to say…even these feet are sanctified, made holy…even these feet can one day find their way back to God.

After the foot washing, Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ He laid aside his power and authority, putting himself in the most humble and vulnerable position…and challenged them to accept him as Lord and follow him. He didn’t tell them how to love…he loved them into it. Perhaps that’s why I find it so important that we actually experience the foot washing for ourselves.

It’s about me, in some ways here as Christ’s representative, being reminded that the first tools of my trade should be the bowl and towel. But it’s also about you not keeping the church and your faith at arm’s length, but letting me wash your feet. It’s about sharing our flaws and vulnerabilities. It’s about coming in humility…and finding ourselves bound more deeply to one another, and to this story of faith.

Tonight, we don’t know how the story will end for us. We don’t know how we will react to tomorrow’s pain and suffering, to Saturday’s emptiness. But by washing our feet, and sharing his supper with us, Christ sanctifies and blesses us for the journey. He shows us there is nothing in us, or in those around us, that cannot be redeemed by his love. He shows us how to love one another as we step out in faith to discover the ending together.