A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 25 April 2021 by Revd Richard Carter.
Readings of address: John 10.11-18
Walking across the fields last week in bright sunshine, I see in front of me a young lamb lying on the ground. He is lying so still, so seemingly frail, so flat out in the sun, that I think he is dead. I cannot see another sheep. And then as I approach the little lamb twitches, lifts its head, sees me and springs to its feet in fear, stretches up and lets out a loud bleat. And then from the distance I hear a returning cry and again and again the same baa echoing across the deserted landscape, it is his mother’s calling the young lamb to come: “Baaaaa!” The lamb knows the voice, and begins to scamper towards its mother while the ewe, still calling, comes to meet its off-spring, alert and tense as though trying to ward me, the intruder, off. As soon as they meet instantly the lamb is suckling from its mother. It is something beautiful to observe this relationship- a connectedness between them visibly reaching across this landscape. There is no sense of conditionality about this relationship- no sense of: “You wondered off so that’s your problem, I’ve had enough of your behaviour.” No this instinctual bond is greater. This sheep call says: “Hear me, come back to me, I will protect you from harm, I will feed you. I am here with you.” I imagine Jesus on the hills surrounding Galilee observing like me the relationship between the sheep and the flock-a relationship beyond words, beyond intellect but written into the genes, the instincts, the nature of life itself. And I think of Jesus observing the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep- this relationship that will insure their survival. The shepherd will protect from harm, lead the flock to new pasture, provide. That’s what it means to be a shepherd. If the shepherd wandered off, abandoned the sheep, left them to fend for themselves or failed to protect them from attack or danger- they would not to be a good shepherd. To be a good shepherd means to be someone who shepherds, someone who cares as much for another life as their own- not working for profit like someone hired or contracted, but someone who would risk their own lives for the life of another.
And Jesus uses this as a metaphor for our relationship with him. The good shepherd is the one who looks out for you. It’s the one who insures you are protected and fed- that you survive, who would give their life for you. Yesterday someone described to me so vividly what Easter had meant to them this year. She said she had found Lent so powerful, so all-consuming that when we got to Easter it was difficult to register what resurrection meant at all, still more difficult to live that resurrection oneself- and then one afternoon driving her car suddenly… a huge flash of revelation breaking in like words spoken by Christ directly to her: “I’ve got hold of you.” These words driving away her fear, a realisation she was not alone but held by God, unconditionally. No matter what.
I wonder in your life if you have known that good shepherd. A relationship you can depend on through thick and thin. A relationship which is so real and solid that it will go on looking out for you whatever goes wrong.
And I wonder if you yourself have ever been that shepherd. It’s a tough role as any parent or teacher or carer will tell you because you have to care and yet provide freedom: care too much and you stifle and oppress and prevent the becoming, but provide too much freedom and you risk endangering the life of the one you love most. Right from the beginning you will learn that this relationship is not based on the contractual- it’s not: “you do this for me and I will give you this.” It is based on covenant. Not I will care for you if… But I care for you. I love you. Full stop. No child is going to say thank you for telling them to eat their cabbage and not fill up on chocolate. Its only later they may know or recognise how much you cared. It’s tough being an unconditional friend too because their pain becomes your own. Love hurts. It’s tough loving because rejection and pain and grief and loss are always one of loves possibilities and ultimately the worst fear of all- separation or the death of the beloved. That’s the nature of a covenant. It’s not about what you get. Its what you become together. The good shepherd we are told lays down his life for the sheep. It’s hard to hear sacrificial love talked about in our age of assertiveness and self-preservation. But Jesus not only speaks of this self-offering and sacrifice he actually lives it and dies for it. Not success, not individual achievement, not material profit or gain but of the total gift of oneself. And yet by lying down one’s life we are told we take it up again. It is hard to understand these words and yet we glimpse them even in grief. “I will be with you to the ends of the earth.” No love offered is ever wasted or lost. That which we offer is taken up into God and returned again and again.
I wonder if there is anyone or anything you would be willing to give your life for? It’s a tough question. We have all read stories of those who risked their own lives for others and for the principles they believed in. The courage and power of Nelson Mandela words from the dock at his Rivonia Trial in 1964 are hard to ever forget in which he ended his speech by saying:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
In the last few months I have been struck by the stories of pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong. Last week a court in Hong Kong handed down a mixture of prison and suspended sentences to 10 of the territory’s most prominent pro-democracy figures, including reformers, politicians and veterans of the transition from British rule in the 1990s.
Those sentenced included Jimmy Lai, a 72-year-old billionaire and democracy activist; veteran labour leader Lee Cheuk-yan, 64; fellow defendant Martin Lee, 82, known as the father of democracy; Margaret Ng, 73, a former legislator and highly respected lawyer who in a powerful speech on Friday told the court the law was supposed to protect the people’s rights. They knew they faced harsh penalties but continued to speak out for what they believed in. In Russia we have seen those who
have been willing to risk their own lives for what they believe in, most notably at this time- imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most well-known critic, who was arrested in January after his own decision to return from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning and who in prison has spent the last 2 months on hunger strike that has nearly led to his death. Yesterday 24 April the Anglican church remembered 6 Melanesian Brothers, ordinary humble young Christians, known so well to me who were killed on this day 18 years ago searching for a seventh brother who had been taken hostage- all of them searching for peace for their nation. Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for ones friends.
Perhaps none of us will ever have to face such life-threatening decisions of conscience but all of us at times in our lives have to decide where we stand and what we believe in. Neither does age or status preclude us from the issues of justice for our time. I think of Greta Thunberg so very young and so very bravely taking a stand to protect our planet from extinction and speaking out in the face of powerful opposition and personal attack to inspire a generation.
A wise friend of mine once advised me to work out which ditch I was prepared to die in. In other words not all causes have equal substance and weight and we can’t fight for everything. But there are also times when each of us are called not simply to be bystanders but to live the Gospel in action as well as word. Its of course not an easy thing to do. Over the last year we have seen quite clearly in our society those who have been prepared, at great cost and risk their own lives, to care for the lives of others. The cost of their offering is huge and often traumatic- those who have staffed our hospitals, fought to save the life of the dying, turned bodies in hospital beds, driven ambulances, cared for the elderly in care homes in such difficult situations or served in other ways often far less recognised- like bus drivers, or supermarket assistants, or carers or volunteers at vaccine centres, or teachers in schools, or kind neighbour who has done the shopping or delivered a hot meal for an elderly person who is alone. Such service cannot be compensated it is ultimately a human gift. Yet while we may think of how costly such sacrificial service is, perhaps more costly to our humanity is doing nothing at. Or those prepared to act only in their own interest or for their own profit. Last week many reacted against the greed and shameful self interest that nearly destroyed the football league, planning to cream off vast profits for 6 elite clubs in a super league. Many have also been disturbed by those who it is alleged profited through insider contracts and dealings during the pandemic. I hope many will continue to react in the same way against the self interest and the injustices of the proposed changes to our national immigration policy which has created such a hostile environment towards some of the most vulnerable and threatens to destroy our national tradition of being a nation where those facing violence, persecution and the denial of their essential human rights, can seek safety and asylum and enrich our common home.
All this seems a long way from the simple story of a good shepherd willing to lay down his life for his sheep. But Jesus’ parable is at the heart of our search for God’s
justice. The good shepherd we are told knows his sheep and they know him. It’s a justice based not on categories or self-interest but on relationship. And this relationship begins with a deeper listening to Christ and to one another. To return to my story of the lamb at the beginning of this address- what I saw was a recognition- the lamb heard and knew. The mother heard and knew the bleat of the lamb. We may know only too well the voices of the thieves who attempt to steal, kill and destroy- but do we hear the voice of Christ who comes that we may have life in all its fulness and is prepared to lay down his life for each one of us and who calls us to do the same? Eastertide is the time to listen for that voice- to the one who never deserts us but calls us to practice resurrection and like that lamb to get up and run towards the one who brings abundant life.