In recent Episcopalian tradition, (if that is not an oxymoron, and I think it probably is) and by that I mean since the advent of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the fourth Sunday after Easter has become known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And depending on whether we are in Lectionary Year A, B or C we take our Gospel reading from one of the many parts of John’s Gospel that use the image of the sheep and the shepherd to convey… What?
A pastoral lesson? Perhaps not, certainly not in the conventional sense of pastoral care.
A theological image of a sacrificial lamb? Yes. For John’s Gospel asks the reader to believe that. We recall how Jesus is first introduced to us as he walked toward John the Baptist at the River Jordan.
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
It’s pure sacrificial language, and deeply rooted in Hebrew traditional belief and practice.
The use of such imagery is difficult at times. First because we are tempted to use the various metaphors and titles literally, and then get ourselves into all sorts of convoluted difficulties when we realize that Jesus cannot be a sheep the one minute and the shepherd the next!
And secondly, and I have to approach this from a personal point of view: How many ways are there of preaching about Christ the Good Shepherd? In twenty-four years of trying to do so I believe that I have covered most, if not all angles!
Of course I could resort to the use of object lessons, but I’ve seen too many bad ones used in churches. And some cathedrals. I read last year that one cathedral in England arranged for a larger than life hologram of a sheep to be projected onto a platform near the front of the nave. The result: The young children panicked, and were so scared that many started screaming and crying and there was a complete breakdown of law and order! I wonder what was really learned in church that day.
So on this day, this Good Shepherd Sunday, may I set aside the traditional images for a year, and even set aside that most beautiful 23rd Psalm which speaks of the relationship between Israel and the Almighty – and use this day to open up one line from the Gospel reading, placed on the lips of Jesus:
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
For in those few words is the most wonderful realization, even announcement that God calls, is calling us.
Now this may come as a surprise to many, or else we dress it up in more formal language and refer to “vocations.” But vocations are for the clergy or religious orders, are they not? Well the answer is no, not only. For we are all called.
I used the word wonderful, in its literal sense, for the call of God is beyond human limitations or rationale, but for some the notion of being called by God is a scary one, because they are quite happy to stay where they are, doing what they are doing. How dare the Almighty have other plans?!
But the truth of the matter is that God does have plans for all of us, for the Church – but it is down to us to actually listen for and to that calling voice.
But in doing so we must be wary of two things: Projecting our own needs onto the will of God (and thus claiming to know the mind of God), and then pretending that responding to God’s call will be painless.
You see a tried and tested vocation demands a price, and not all can pay it. Even though responding to the divine voice may seem irresistible, its point is not contentment. C.S. Lewis once wrote that it is the nature of vocation to appear simultaneously both as desire and as duty. And he went on to say, “To follow the vocation does not mean happiness; but once it has been heard, there is no happiness for those who do not follow.”
Once again: My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
Over the next few weeks and months I hope that, as a church and parish, we can do some listening. Yes, I know that we will be moving into summer, and yes, I know that means that we will be busy – but the still, small voice of calm that is of God can still be heard above the clamor of Main Street.
We will be asking ourselves questions, personally and by member canvas. Questions about our Christian, community life. The way we do things. The way we might do things. (Someone naughtily suggested that could be worded: The things we have done and the things we ought not to have done!)
But this is no paper exercise, neither a way to keep the Rector, Wardens and Vestry busy and out of mischief. (And heaven knows that is necessary at times!) It is rather part of that listening process – listening for God’s voice.
I ask that everyone be a part of this. And to ask the question, “How am I called to serve God?”
And then to trust in the answer.