Easter 4, 30 Apr 23
The season of trips is almost upon us, my friends. We host three trips to Walsingham, one trip to Lourdes, and soon we’ll be advertising the day trip to Brighton. They’re great ways to form relationships within our Church family and enable us to pray together in different contexts. They embrace pilgrimages to holy places and the more light-hearted trip to Brighton, such is the abundant living our Lord Jesus Christ comes to share with us.
Trips are not always easy to organise though. Things go wrong. Dare I say it, people have even been known to fall out with each other. Teachers will know this from school trips, Boys’ Brigade Officers from Camp, families from their own experiences. The biggest problem I’ve had to deal with was going to Lourdes by train some seven years ago, leading a group of about 25 of us, but no one from this parish if I remember correctly. We had to change at a railway station in Paris, Montparnasse. The train was about to depart and we hadn’t much notice of which platform the train was going to depart from so it was all a bit of a rush. We had headed off as speedily as possible and I turned round as we walked alongside the train and shouted out, “Get on this train.” On I got. We were separated from each other so I got the list out and walked through the packed train ticking everyone off. And yes, there were four missing. Quick phone call to discover where they were and, yes, they had got on a different train and were heading off in completely the wrong direction. They arrived safely in the end thankfully but I’m never taking a group to Lourdes by train again! So we fly now.
Never work with children or animals, it is said. Well, imagine what it must be like with sheep. Not known as far as I’m aware for their natural obedience or indeed general intelligence! Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “I am the Good Shepherd,” but there’s not a sense of a disorganised band of wanderers each going in their own direction such as I would imagine from my brief observations of sheep on the English countryside. However, there seems to be something of this assumption in what we heard from St Peter’s first letter: “You had gone astray like sheep,” picking up language we also hear in Isaiah 53:6. But the sheep in the Lord’s extended reflection on Him being the Good Shepherd know the voice of the Shepherd and follow Him accordingly. “They never follow a stranger.” Impressive.
It’s one of my favourite images for God: Jesus the Good Shepherd. I would encourage you all to be be able to say what your favourite image of God is. Close your eyes and what do you see when you think of Him? Our Lord on the Cross? Old man with beard? Light of the world? Creating the Heavens and the earth? Babe in Bethlehem? Under the forms of Bread and Wine at Mass? The fire of the Holy Spirit? It’s good to have an image of God so as to be able to describe Him to others. For me, the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd conjures up a sense of intimacy and support. “He guides me along the right path; He is true to His name,” we heard in the psalm, “You are there with your crook and your staff; with these you give me comfort.” No one else can carry me like the Saviour of the world.
Let’s explore this image of the Good Shepherd more. One thing I’m not sure I’d really considered before was how ungrateful people were - and perhaps still are - towards shepherds. In the first century world in which Jesus preached, shepherds were generally outcasts. They were dirty, both physically and ritually, and this is part of the shock of the Gospels we perhaps forget when we read St Luke’s account of the birth of our Lord and he tells us that the new-born Jesus was visited by a group of shepherds. This would seem highly unlikely and highly undesirable to the first Christians. But they did important work: if the sheep were not cared for properly their valuable products would be lost, be it wool for clothing or indeed their flesh for meat. People soon knew if the shepherds weren’t doing their job properly and yet because the shepherds generally slept with the sheep they weren’t like vineyard workers who could have gone to and from the city. It would be very easy, in other words, to take them for granted.
We live in a society where we have lots of shepherds in this regard: folk who have to do their work so that our lives can function and who receive little thanks for it. Perhaps this will be particularly true of the age of humanity we live in where people pay anonymous providers for services. We take folk for granted, normally until something goes wrong. Our prayer life should be so oriented to consider those whom we take for granted and turn out hearts to a greater gratitude. It will also mean we are a little less likely to stand on our own dignity when someone fails to say thank you to us, if we are mindful how easy it is to forget those who serve us. Surpremely, of course, we should put God in this category: He who does inestimably so much for us and for the whole world and yet we and everyone fail to say thank you to Him. The Good Shepherd is taken for granted.
The Good Shepherd is also the beginning of all mission and evangelism. In our first readings at Mass in Eastertide, both on Sundays and weekdays, we hear from the Acts of the Apostles. This was written by the same St Luke who wrote the Gospel that bears his name and it goes in to detail about the growth of the early Church from the time of the Lord’s Ascension (which we celebrate on Thursday 18th May this year: come to Mass!), until just before the time of St Paul’s death. We hear throughout the Acts of the Apostles of the Church growing: people believing and being baptised; and this should give us great joy. But what is clear throughout is that God is the initiator of that conversion. There’s a particularly wonderful line when St Luke describes the conversion of the non-Jews in Antioch by saying: “as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers,” (13:48). Isn’t that wonderful? Not saying the disciples did a great job and so lots believed, but recognising that God had already decided and those who were meant to be believers became believers. As our Lord says in today’s Gospel: “He calls his own sheep and leads them out … and the sheep follow because they know his voice.” We can take comfort that when we encourage people to believe in Jesus - as indeed we should - we are simply encouraging them to cooperate with a seed God has already planted.
And the call of all mission and evangelism is to draw souls in to the community and fellowship of the Church, nourished by the word of God and the sacraments of the New Covenant. In this set of relationships we each have highs and lows in our following of the Good Shepherd, but it is nonetheless always whilst part of the flock. Instrumental to the flock Jesus describes is listening and discernment. The sheep listen for the voice of the Shepherd and discern whether it is His or not. This cannot be a listening though without reference to the other sheep. For the sheep on the edge of the flock will start saying ‘danger, danger,’ when a wolf is coming. The sheep on one side will see the food and water coming and get all excited. Sheep listening to the Shepherd will listen to each other too.
So, when do you factor in your day time to listen to people? It’s something I try to do and I’ll give you one example. When I walk from here to the Good Shepherd I know if I go through the backstreets and don’t see anyone I can do it in under ten minutes. If I’ve got twenty minutes to do it in even better and I’ll walk down the High Road. The chances are I’ll bump into someone and I’ll then be able to give someone a few minutes with no pressure. I’ve factored it in. Worst case scenario is that I arrive at the Good Shepherd ten minutes early and I can either give someone my time there or spend an extra few minutes in prayer. Everyone’s a winner! But that is the blessing of factoring in time to listen. Because I bet one of the primary reasons we don’t listen to people is because we think we have something else to do do. We’ve run out of time. ‘We’re busy because we exist,’ we falsely believe.
Another barrier to listening will be fear. We probably listen quite comfortably to those we find it easy to listen to, whose problems we’re probably familiar with, whom we feel we ought to give due regard to because we’re related to them, or we work for them or because they’ve listened to us before when we’ve needed them. But deeper and better listening will mean overcoming barriers of fear and listening to those we would normally avoid. Recognising they’re still members of the one flock of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So, my friends, as we celebrate the life of Jesus the Good Shepherd, we give thanks too that we are members of His flock, a flock where we listen to each other as well as to Jesus. The Good Shepherd is often taken for granted: may this never be true of us as we hold His mercy always before us. May God bless all the conversations we have with others to draw them in to a deeper relationship with the Good Shepherd, whose voice we cherish.