Ninth Anniversary of Reopening Good Shepherd
One of our nation’s best-known kings is, of course, Henry VIII: lots of wives, a couple of whom he beheaded, pictures of him looking fat, built palaces that are still around, mucked about with the Church and fell out with the Pope: what’s not to like?! A handful of people upon hearing we were naming our son Henry quipped, “Oh, Henry IX!” Well, unlikely to be king as the boy is, as we celebrate, of course, our nine years since reopening this Church, so let’s look at this number nine.
There have been no kings of England to have had the same name nine times: the next Edward would be Edward IX, the next Henry Henry IX. The only other name that comes close is George, of whom there have been six kings of England. Contrast that with the French monarchy which, in its shorter history, had ten kings called Charles and eighteen called Louis. Papal names have got more regularly to nine: we’ve had John IX, Benedict IX, Leo IX, Stephen IX, Gregory IX, Clement IX, Innocent IX. Many of whom reigned as pope for quite short periods of time, but a few months. Pius IX in the nineteenth century is perhaps the most famous of the ninths calling the first Vatican Council and the defining of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Nine in the Bible really comes up because of the time. The way the time was told was in hours after sunrise, reckoned to be around six o’clock each day because hours weren’t necessarily the same length. So the ninth hour was what we would call 3pm. The most significant event to have happened at this hour is the most important thing ever to have happened: the death of Jesus (Mark 15:34) for at this hour Jesus cried out to the Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” and then breathed His last. The only other mentions of this time of the ninth hour are little mentions in the Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the New Testament recording the growth of the Church. Here, Peter and John are mentioned as going to the Temple at the ninth house (3:1) and it is the hour at which Cornelius has his vision in which the Lord ends the restrictions known in the Old Testament on eating particular foods (10:1-16). Your bibles might say these things happened at 3pm but they are translating the phrase “the ninth hour.”
Now, all this talking of nine is, of course, because we’re celebrating our ninth birthday today. We mustn’t associate particular significance to numbers, we mustn’t be superstitious like all those people who get wound up about Friday 13th being unlucky. But it is an opportunity for our minds to mull over this number and learn afresh spiritual lessons. One thing I became aware of about the number nine is that it is easily forgotten. We could have thought to ourselves, ‘Let’s not do anything about the Good Shepherd’s ninth birthday: we’ll just do something for the tenth birthday, next year, that’s a nice round number.’ Indeed, I have already booked Bp Jonathan to come next year and if you have any ideas of how to celebrate then let me know. But, this mindset does teach us something important about out mind’s propensity to skip on to the next thing constantly without ever really inhabiting the moment.
In contrast, one of the amazing things about God is His ability to hold a million million things in His mind, in His gaze at once. This means He is able to give us proper attention all the time: there’s never a time when it’s inconvenient for God to hear us, to forgive us, to restore us, to inspire us with fresh vision. “Keep me as the apple of your eye,” the psalmist prays (17:8), a reminder that each of us is called to be intimately cared for by God. This love, this support, this Good News leaves us not deskilled hospital patients but grace-filled proclaimers in a world that needs to hear it, whether it knows it or not.
The number nine then is easily forgotten because of the inclination to appreciate more the tenth, the nice round number. Zacchaeus in our Gospel today stands for the forgotten and the ignored. He was a tax a collector and so because of his work had become associated with the hated Roman Empire, on their side, one of them. Jesus inviting Himself to Zacchaeus’ house shocks the crowd. If you would be shocked if our Lord came to your house, then He almost certainly would come and be there alongside you. If you think yours is the house He probably would come to, then you’re in danger of the sin of pride. The crowds would have expected Zacchaeus to be forgotten, passed over. Jesus does differently. We have to welcome all who come through the doors of this Church and because of the redemption won by Christ know them to be invited to the same Supper of the Lamb that we’re here to celebrate.
The tendency to skip over nine and go straight to ten also reminds us of the danger in our prayer lives of never really being still. The first words we sung this evening at Mass were, of course, “Be still for the presence of the Lord.” Be still. I was reading Henry one of his books as we’ve had a holiday this past week. It’s a simple book, of course, showing a baby doing a whole host of different things. And what do you think the first page of this book for neo-natals was? It said: “Busy baby.” Don’t be busy, my friends. By all means, know the liberty won by Christ for His children and seek to show by your deeds the faith which lives within your heart; but don’t think there’s any virtue in being busy, in the whirlwind with which people live their lives. Don’t let people fob you off with excuses for them not loving Jesus by them being busy. Don’t be late to things, don’t rush off instantly. Be still.
A good way to start praying is to consider different aspects of the Lord’s character: His mercy, His love, His strength. We can also consider images of God that we have: the Good Shepherd, Jesus dying on the Cross, the Holy Spirit coming as fire at Pentecost. We can go through the different aspects of our lives: our work, our family, our personal lives, our relationship to what we possess. To consider the different bits of our bodies: our hands, our backs, our legs, our mouths. Each part to be considered, albeit briefly, but in turn, focusing on each bit, paying due attention. It slows us right down and cuts out our sense of busyness. By ceasing busyness, we become effective. It’s a good way to start our prayers when we come to church, when we stop each day to say our prayers: to take stock of these individual elements of our lives, of who God is, of our bodies and give proper attention to the composite parts because it stops us skipping over constantly to the next thing.
So, how good it is to be taking time to celebrate our ninth anniversary of reopening our church: an opportunity to take stock, to give thanks, to be revitalised and to renew our commitment. So much has happened in our first nine years, and we pray God will continue to do lots here. Thank you for all you have done to make it so glorious. Amen.