Saturday, 6 May 2017

Easter 4 - following the Good Shepherd

John 10: 1-10, Acts 2: 42-47

I hope that since Easter you have spent these few weeks celebrating – not just the signs of Spring around us and the chance to enjoy a few days rest, even time away and then the May Bank Holiday - but of course we have been celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from death and all the hope, joy and new life that our Easter faith brings.

But life isn’t all celebration, is it? These weeks since Easter have also brought news of tensions around North Korea, terrible suffering in East Africa, continued killings in Syria: and I’m sure we have friends and relatives who have been unwell, or struggling in some way.
I’ve had a few weeks when I seem to have had one doctor’s appointment after another to try to clear up some medical issues. Life certainly has its ups and downs: so what exactly is this “full life” that Jesus promises his disciples and promises us?

The first part of the Gospel reading seems rather complicated:
Jesus says ‘the man who does not enter the sheepfold by the door.. is nothing but a thief and a robber’ but ‘the shepherd... calls his own sheep by name’. John then goes on to say of Jesus’ disciples, ‘they did not understand’. I don’t really blame Jesus’ listeners for not immediately understanding - it does take a bit of thinking through, as we started to earlier on.

Jesus is saying something about his relationship to those who follow him: he is the good shepherd, the one who cares, the one who can be trusted. He hasn’t come to take hearts and minds by force, like a thief, but to offer a way to go which those who trust him will follow.
Jesus is telling us that he is the one who can be trusted and followed. He is also chiming in with the tradition that the King of Israel was considered to be leader only as a stand-in for God, the true shepherd.

We only have to think of the 23rd Psalm “The Lord is my shepherd” to see that the shepherd of Israel was the Lord God.
Jesus is identifying himself as leader of the emerging church and as the true shepherd of the people, the Son of God himself. He uses the parable of the shepherd to inspire his listeners with confidence that they can trust and follow him and that through him they will gain life in all its fullness.

But ‘full life’ doesn’t mean a life entirely protected from the ups and down – the dark valleys and the green pastures - that ordinary people encounter. Jesus isn’t offering a message to accept God’s care & so be wrapped up in cotton wool, untouched by the pain of the world.
Jesus says these words just before the Passover and his death on the cross. Following a crucified criminal is certainly not a guarantee of safety or security: there will be risk and rejection and what looks, to the world around, like failure. We know that Jesus lays down his life for the sake of his sheep.
I don’t believe for a moment that as Christians we should go out looking for suffering – but that we shouldn’t be surprised if it comes, and that by enduring it we can reveal the love of God, as Jesus did. Full life means a life unafraid, a life lived in the knowledge that whatever the wolves of unhappiness that seem to be circling us, we are safe in the care of the Good Shepherd, and that our lives have meaning and purpose, as his had, and that in the end we will be raised up by the love of God the Father, as Jesus was.

Here in Jesus’ phrase ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ is an invitation to all of us to follow him and become a part of the project of God - the kingdom of God. A full life is one which accepts our role as workers for God’s kingdom: those who will work for a place of love, joy and peace for all people, a place where everyone will know themselves loved and cared for by God.
So the offer of Jesus to be the Good Shepherd is not just about caring for us, his sheep, but also about calling us to follow, and to become truly His.
After Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension the disciples began to realise that they were now called to become the body of Christ, the new agent through which God’s love would work.

You might have felt a little overawed by the description from the book of Acts of the church at that time: “the believers had all things in common, signs and wonders were being done, they were adding daily to their number.”

How we would love someone to be able to describe our church like this!
Signs and wonders,  people added to our number, caring and sharing together…
This is some time after the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit. Filled with the life and power of Jesus Christ, the church is growing and living the kingdom.

So how can we do that? How can we be a church growing and living the kingdom?

The church is called to follow Jesus and to proclaim the glorious truth of God’s love, showing people a route to faith in Jesus which leads to a truly full life – a life of hope and trust and love.
We might think the odds of this counter-cultural message being heard in our world is slim, but our task is to proclaim it faithfully, to model being a people who are living God’s kingdom, and to accept the strength and protection of the Good Shepherd to lead us where we must go as we seek new words to express ourselves and new ways to display God’s love.

In the strength of Christ we can share God’s love with those around us.
One of the greatest difficulties people have in our society is loneliness – the feeling that no-one cares about you, that you don’t matter is a terrible thing. We know that Jesus is the good shepherd who knows all his sheep by name – and we need to share this sense of being known and named and cared-for with our neighbours.

We can also share with others what we know of the power of Jesus Christ in our lives – how Jesus has given us life in all its fullness – a life of love and joy. We should always be ready to tell other people what God is doing in our lives – in small ways and great ways.

And we can add to our number – we can make sure the door is always open for others to come in – that we offer a warm invitation, a real welcome, and open arms for others.

So may we, as a church and as individuals, know, proclaim and enjoy life is all its fullness.
He is risen indeed, he is living and calling us still – let’s hear his voice and follow Jesus – to the glory of God. Amen.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The road to Emmaus

Short reflection for Synod closing worship

Road to Emmaus -  ‘Faithfully following Jesus’.
I hope you enjoyed the image which accompanied the well-known story of the encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus. The painting is by a Chinese artist, He Qi, and I think it is beautiful, colourful, and striking.

And yet.. the journey those two disciples make is far from a beautiful or easy journey.
They are grief-stricken, puzzled, desperately questioning all that has happened. It is Easter Sunday, but they have not yet grasped the Easter message that Christ truly is risen.

And so far from a smooth and easy journey, they struggle and stumble along their route, and are constantly falling over their own lack of understanding.

I think we get a sense of the difficulty they have in ‘walking the way’ in the language used in telling the story  - it is so full of ‘buts’.

Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

‘Our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…’

‘Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us..”

Jesus is walking alongside them on the road – but they have so much they don’t understand, so much to ‘process’, we might say, they almost miss the revelation that the risen Christ is with them.

But.. just when all is almost lost, all of those ‘buts’ are swept away in an instant.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened.
And so we have another painting of the story from the road to Emmaus – this time by the Swansea artist, Ceri Richards. He bathes the risen Christ in a gorgeous golden glow – and shows us the astonishment and reverence of the disciples as their eyes are opened.
This is the moment that sends them scurrying back to Jerusalem to share the good news of how Christ had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

We have spent today hearing and discussing many ways of following Jesus more faithfully: Walking the Way and Holy Habits; exploring discipleship in new ways; seeking to support one another in the synod; and celebrating with faithful servants of Christ.
We may well find that the path for our local churches, and our own path, into the future feels bumpy and unsure – I would be surprised if you did not leave today with some questions, some feeling of  ‘yes…but…’. Much as we want to follow Jesus and walk his way it is no simple matter.

Yet I hope we can look for the ‘then’ moments in our lives and our churches ‘then their eyes were opened’.
It may well come when we break bread together.
It may come as we break open God’s word together.
It can come as we open our lives and our hopes to one another.

For when we recognize the presence with us of the living Christ, our eyes are opened and our way becomes more clear.

Amen – so be it.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

“Am I being unfair to you?” - workers in the vineyard

Matthew 20: 1-16  - for the Women's World Day of Prayer

Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard is one that is really hard to listen to without a visceral reaction.

Years ago when I was a school teacher it was my turn to take assembly, and the reading was this parable. I tried to explain to the school that Jesus is teaching us that God does not treat us as we deserve, but pours undeserved love on us all. Even so, at break time, as I went into the staff room for my cup of coffee I was nearly mobbed by the other teachers. Even an hour and half later they were burning with the injustice of all the workers being paid the same. ‘It’s not good enough – it’s not fair!’ they said – especially the union reps.

I wonder how the story makes you feel? And what is your reaction to the question “Am I being unfair to you?”. Perhaps you, too, want to cry out ‘yes! It is unfair!’.

Perhaps you have been told that this is a parable about God’s grace, which flows freely and fully to everyone – that God is, if you like, unfair, because he embraces the holiest saint and the wickedest sinner and all of us in between. But still, our guts say ‘it is not fair!’.

And perhaps we should listen to our guts. And perhaps that’s why the women of the Philippines chose it for us today.

I haven’t ever travelled to the Philippines, so when I knew I was going to speak today I talked to a friend who went there last summer. She explained to me that people there still live and work pretty much in the way the parable describes. A few rich people own most of the land and they hire people to work just when they need them – no contract, no sick pay, no health and safety rules. My friend went to visit some workers in a harbour in Manila, and they said ‘many charities want to build schools or hospitals for us, but what we need is fair wages, then we could afford to support our families ourselves’:
these workers were just starting to form unions to protect their interests and to encourage the workers to work together for better conditions for everyone, rather than simply being in competition with each other for the best work available.

Meanwhile there is no rush hour in Manila, because so many workers work in call centres, operating on US time: and the heath services are frustrated because no sooner have they trained nurses than they come over to the UK to work in hospitals and care homes, so that they can send a chunk of our higher wages home to their families.

This is the sort of world Jesus describes – life is uncertain, competitive, full of anxiety, and definitely loaded in favour of the rich land owner. When the moment for being paid comes, the workers turn on each other. So what is Jesus wanting us to feel and think and do in response to the story?

The boss in Jesus’ story acts in a peculiar way – paying the ‘last minute’ workers more than they might have expected. And so we assume he is saying something about the kingdom of God, where people will be treated with generosity and grace – and we assume that he means us to equate the boss with God. But perhaps Jesus also wants us to feel the burning in our guts caused by injustice, and to ask  how we should act in a world where such treatment is dealt out to others on a regular basis.

We cannot just put Jesus’ story in a ‘religious story’ pigeonhole, focus on God and forget about the people, or think holy thought and ignore the gnawing sense of unfairness. This is a story of good news about God’s love, but it is also a story about how our world should be, and how we should act in it.

In a world where such unfairness exists, we who call ourselves people of God need to feel that injustice in our guts, and ask what God would have us do with it.
I think Jesus is calling us to act to make the world more fair, to advocate unity not competition, to work so that others, who are just as deserving of God’s grace, can also receive a fair share of the world’s resources.
And so as churches I hope we think about fair trade – not just when we buy our tea and coffee and dried fruit but asking ourselves whenever we see a bargain price ‘how much has the worker or the grower been paid?’ ‘has someone been cheated so that I can get a lower price?’.

The women of the Philippines know that their land needs God’s kingdom of grace and love and justice to be honoured. But it is also true in this land. In September last year it was reported that 900,000 workers in the UK are employed on zero hours contracts – given no guarantee about how much work they might get in any week, even though the rate of pay is decided.
As people who know God’s grace we need to ask our neighbour the question the boss asks the workers “Am I being unfair to you?”. And where the answer is ‘yes’ we need to act to change things.
So God’s kingdom of grace and love, peace and justice will be built, in Jesus’ name.