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Being led to pastures new

Easter 2 BCP

30 April 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

The driver and guide who showed me around Sri Lanka nearly ten years ago seemed to have extra powers of observation in the jungle and elsewhere - what we describe as eyes in the back of his head. He noticed all the wildlife, and was alert to elephants at a distance, or exotic birds and other points of interest, and would stop the car to show me. I guess shepherds have extra powers of observation and awareness, and occasionally I feel rather inferior to people, who, like shepherds, seem so wide-awake and aware. Whereas I walk around sometimes without even glancing at where I am. It is good to remind myself at these times, that it is still possible to be a sort of shepherd - though shepherding other concerns, different priorities - sometimes important ones, and not always day-dreaming!

Jesus' claim to the Pharisees to be the good shepherd, and pastor of his flock, confirms his complete break with the religious establishment in Israel, and with those mercenaries for whom the sheep meant very little, or nothing at all. A good shepherd stands still and scans the horizon, watching out for the stragglers and the ones who don't quite measure up. A good shepherd warns about the dangers of wolves hiding behind quick fixes and bright promises.

I cannot imagine that the life of a shepherd - day in, day out, is particularly exciting. Just think how easy it is to get bored and fall asleep. Think how tempting to leave the flock, to look for a more interesting and spectacular view than that in the local valley or hills. It is widely observed how we miss what is in our local pasture, on our own God-given doorstep, and how as a society we seem to live for the next far distant holiday break.

The imagery of the good shepherd is popular and enduring. It speaks of comfort, and expresses the deepest human need for security, which comes from knowing ourselves to be loved and wanted, understood and accepted, and of being special to someone, and held firm. St. John in his gospel today suggests that 'to be loved by Jesus Christ, and to be known by Jesus Christ' - that is more than happiness, that is…eternal life.

It seems there is a logical progression which flows from the imagery of the good shepherd. The security of being known and loved in a unique way, gives confidence to be part of the flock, and, as part of the fold, the openness together to be led by the shepherd to new pastures.

The gospel, the good news of God's love, may indeed demand a renunciation of atomised individualism from us Christians, but promises in return, the development of our individuality. Hearing the voice, and following the call, of the Good Shepherd, requires us to leave behind any sort of proud isolation, in which we might think we can live the gospel cut off from our brothers and sisters in Christ. We take our place as part of the fold. But, neither should we settle for dull passivity, idly taking an intellectual or spiritual back seat, anonymously amongst the masses, with unquestioning sheepishness.

'All we like sheep have gone astray'…we are each of us called lovingly by name, and are welcomed back as repentant sinners…and drawn on by that love to enjoy true freedom. The love of the shepherd who feeds us in pastures green, converts our soul, to paraphrase Psalm 23. As part of the flock our task remains to be vigilant and watchful… alert…literally 'looking' after those who are marginalized and easily overlooked by an impatient and uninterested society. It can be a serious sin not to notice things.

The final part of the logic I mentioned was the need to be open to being led. There was an interesting short article by Giles Fraser in Friday's Church Times, in which he writes about resistance to mission from people he describes as 'blockers'. These are Christians who have things fixed how they like them over the years. Fraser speaks about the process of removing the blocks on mission and how this often initiates conflict.

'The problem is that blockers are often long-standing members of the congregation. They have done a great deal to support the church. Naturally, people don't want to upset them. But, as a church shrinks, it becomes even more reliant on blockers, and the downward spiral continues. It's a cycle that must be broken if a church is to become effective in mission. One of the hallmarks of a blocker is a proprietorial sense of ownership of all things relating to the church - particularly keys and the fabric of the building. The blocker is the person who asks "How can I help you?" in a way that sounds much like "What are you doing here?" The blocker thinks the clergy are here today, gone tomorrow. The blocker sees a problem (often several) in every solution. He or she says things like: "We've tried that before. It didn't work."

Not many people, if any, find change easy. Our inclination is to hold on to structures, systems of thought and inherited institutions, when, in our heart of hearts, we know that the historical sun has set upon them. Being led by the Good Shepherd means being open and humble before the voice of God spoken in the movements of human history. Our shepherd was good because he lays down his life for us. He died for us because of a new future. We must not stifle new growth in our refusal to allow the death of some things, which, though they provided protection and security for us, will only depress and imprison those who come after us. We know we cannot flourish simply by repeating past formulae, and being led as a flock by the Good Shepherd will entail allowing new possibilities for mission to emerge.

And so I say again: the security of being known and loved in a unique way, gives confidence to be part of the flock, and, as part of the fold, the openness together to be led by the shepherd to new pastures. O Lamb of God, we come.
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