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.