Saturday, 20 April 2013

three words for when you don't speak 'sheep'

'cool shepherd'

 And here we are, after a blogging absence due to wrestling with Mr Knox and some particularly stubborn sinners from the 16th c [who are still refusing to give in, but they will, oh yes indeed...c.5-6 weeks].  I have started probation at 'seaside parish' and have been settling in over the last couple of weeks - loving the time so far.  Tomorrow is the first sermon and I feel very, very rusty!  
Following last week's story of calling disciples on the beach, I'll take up the thread by thinking about the characteristics of the One who calls, using Ps 23 and John 10: 22-30.
During the week, I had the most excellent fortune of hearing Rob Bell, who was speaking in the 'burgh.  I pinched 3 words from him to frame the sermon - for, with, ahead.... Blessings on that man - great speaker.  
Here's my small attempt to preach on what is a ridiculously familiar passage...

Last week, we heard a story about fish
and of fishermen;
about a barbie on the beach,
about a call to follow Jesus.
This week, in our readings,
we’ve heard about sheep
and of shepherds
and of the qualities and characteristics of the one who calls us to follow.

In the gospel passage we heard earlier,
Jesus identifies himself as a shepherd:
he knows his sheep,
they listen to his voice.
In the psalm,
we heard about what the shepherd does:
how he looks after his sheep. ...

Now, having grown up in a coastal fishing town,
I confess that I speak fish, better than I do sheep...
and, having spent the last 20 or so years living mostly in towns and cities
my opportunities to learn to speak ‘sheep’ have been pretty limited...

Just by way of taking a wee straw poll here:
apart from those occasional drives in the country
or even going on holidays in the countryside,
and apart from those moments when you’ve found yourself watching wee lambs sproinging all over the place
– ‘sproinging’ ...being the technical term J
A show of hands, if you’re willing:
how many of you have spent most of your life in a more urban, town environment?

Those who grew up in a farming community will ‘get’ the descriptions just that bit more than those of us who are basically townies at heart –
Sure, we see the metaphor,
our imaginations fill in the sense of the thing
and we get a glimpse of where it’s going,
but because we’re not grounded in the reality of a farming context we might have a tendency to be a little pink and fluffy in our thoughts...
or maybe that’s just me!
But I do know that sometimes it’s easy to feel a little disconnected to what both the psalmist and Jesus are talking about when it comes to sheep and shepherds. 
Which got me to thinking about how the psalm might be written if you didn’t happen to come from a farming community?
How might it be written if you spent all your life in the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle, for instance?
Or if you lived on a remote island in the South Pacific?
And then I had another thought:
what if you’re from a place and culture where there are actually *no* such things as sheep and lambs and shepherds –
if you were translating the bible into a language where the words ‘sheep’, ‘lamb’ and ‘shepherd’ didn’t actually exist?
And here’s another question [so many questions, so little time!]:
if we were to re-write the psalm in our own context - at seaside parish - how might we do it?
Those of you who like a challenge might like to give this a go during the week - and if you do let me know how you get on!

But, back on track:
what would be the essential thoughts
and ideas you’d be trying to get across regardless of whether the description concerns shepherds, butchers, bakers or even candlestick makers ...?

Three thoughts – using three words:
First word: with –
The Lord is with us:
We know this from the story of Christmas:
God all-powerful, made God all-vulnerable –
Dependent upon the hospitality of the human heart to take him in....
The one who spoke the universe into being
The one who breathed us into being
The one beyond all time and space...
Becoming human
Understanding first hand what it is to be human
What it is
To be us...
In cell, and skin and bone;
In all it’s crazy, messy, funny, sad, mundane, and sometimes scary glory.
God in Jesus,
Jesus as human;
Shepherd, teacher, friend.
With us.

In another psalm, psalm 139,
the psalmist states:
‘You are all around me on every side...’
And asks:
‘Where could I go to escape from you?
Where could I get away from your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there;
If I flew away beyond the east or lived in the farthest place in the west,
you would be there to lead me,
you would be there to help me.
When my bones were being formed,
when I was growing there in secret,
you knew that I was there - 
you saw me before I was born.’

The Lord is with us:
With us in the places of refreshing
With us in the dark reaches of the night.
But always,
With us:
Awesome thought.

Second word: for.
The Lord is for us:
On our side
For us in our times of need:
We shall not want.
For us:
Rather than watching us beg for a place at the table,
we’re invited in as honoured guests at the banquet
For us – and blessing us
For us – and setting us free:
free to live life authentically,
to the full...
full to overflowing.
For us in both the good and the bad
The joy and the pain:
For us when we feel hemmed in on all sides
When we feel there is no-one who hears us
or is on our side.
The Lord is for us with a staff, a shield,
With a hand that pulls us through the valley of shadows.
And, as Jesus states not once, but twice in our gospel text:
For us so much that he will not let us be snatched away.

Third word: ahead.
The Lord is ahead of us:
the one who knows us
and who calls us by name
walks ahead of us.
If you happened to be wandering around the countryside in the Holy Land
And, if you happened upon sheep and a shepherd,
chances are that the shepherd would be up ahead of the sheep,
not urging them on from the back
but leading from the front.
The Lord is ahead of us:
where it’s better to see the dangers and meet them head on;
to see the obstacles in the way
and make a clear path.
Ahead of us leading us on the right path
Keeping us on track
Making a way forward rather than leaving us to wander in ever-increasing, ever-dizzying spirals:
Beckoning us to move with him,
moving us from destructive patterns and ways of being,
coaxing us to leave behind
those stale and brackish
soul-sapping routines and ways of thinking...
urging us instead, to pools of fresh, life-giving water...
Ahead of us:
bidding us to be open to the unexpected,
the unimagined,
firing our hearts and souls
to say ‘yes’ to God
and ‘yes’ to others;
doing this by widening the perimeters of our thinking.
Ahead of us
Moving us beyond ‘it can’t be done’
into an exploration of limitless  possibilities as we follow in faith.
Ahead of us
teaching us what it is to be people of vision.

And so we follow:
The one who is
With us
For us
Ahead of us...

As we follow
So we do also...
What does our calling look like?
As God is with us
So we are with God...
And with friends
And family
And the friendless and forgotten.
With those who can’t quite remember their name
But whose names and stories are nevertheless remembered by God, and by us.
With those who are lonely, or alone
And who yearn for a cup of tea and a good blether,
With those who only hear harsh words and long for kind ones.
With those who are afraid, who are ill, who despair.
With those who weep and with those who rejoice.

As God is for us
So we are for others:
For those who have no-one on their side.
For those forgotten by the system
For those living in fear –
Of failure
Of not quite measuring up
Of hunger, poverty, or harm.
For those who would never dream that they, too, might have an honoured place at the table...
we are for them, passing them plates and filling their cups as welcome friends...
no longer 'them' and 'us' but brothers and sisters together.
As God is ahead of us
So we go ahead
Clearing the road of obstacles
for those behind us...
we go ahead and show the way to places of rest from the mad busyness of life –
creating space to be, away from the exhausting pressure to do, to achieve, and just be a cog in a machine.
We go ahead,
Instead of going around and around in circles of ever-spiralling arguments –
In which a brick is thrown and a brick thrown back...
And a tank is sent in
And a missile answers...
We go ahead by stepping out of the circle
And picking up a cross
Picking out a path through the junk
The mess and the carnage...
Like the one we follow
Who is both shepherd
And lamb of God.
We go ahead:
widening the path so that goodness and mercy will not just bless us but others...
Knowing that as we do
we need not fear
we shall not want
there is more than enough:
overflowing cups of goodness and mercy
all the days of our lives.
And knowing
That the one who calls us
Guards us and guides us
Leads us and loves us
And never, ever lets us go.