I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.
Now, I suspect most of you have little experience of Lutherans, but you may have come across the American Author Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories set in deepest Minnesota. Keillor’s Lutherans, mainly of Scandinavian origin, were a morose lot who flourished in a cold climate, believing that adversity and suffering were given as moral instruction. Their religion was primarily Christianity but made room for the ancient Nordic precept that the gods were waiting to smack you one if you were having too good a time. So they believed in the inevitability of suffering - far better to anticipate disaster: if life was not miserable now it would be eventually, so you might as well get a head start on the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the here and now.
As Keillor notes: Lutherans were not brought up to experience pleasure. It doesn't register on us. Sunlight makes us gloomy.
And on Anglicanism: The Lutherans of Lake Wobegon don't care for Anglicanism. Anglicanism is for when you take a vacation to England. It's like nightclubbing - for special occasions. You don't want to make a practice of it.
Pastor Inqvist was the Lutheran Pastor of Lake Wobgon. His congregation hoped for a sermon with a storming start and a storming finish….and as short a space as possible between the two. So here we go:
May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus identifies himself through a series of statements that start with "I am." He says:
I am the bread of Heaven
I am the light of the world
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the way, the truth and the life
I am the true vine
These "I am" statements begin to spell out to us who Jesus is and this week we have: I am the Good Shepherd.
This passage of John’s is a beautiful passage but it may suffer from what many gospel passages suffer from – overfamiliarity, or at least partial overfamiliarity. If we were to do a survey here this morning on the key message of the passage I’d be very surprised if the general consensus wasn’t some variant on “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” And we may sink into the comfort zone of expecting a familiar homily on Jesus as Saviour-shepherd and Christianity as in some broad sense the flock; Jesus loves us and cares for us and lays down his life for us in the most profound and theologically layered way. And I have no problem with that.
My problem is that, in my experience at least, the other part of the reading, perhaps the more theologically challenging part of the reading, tends to get overlooked.
Now for my first sermon here I’d have preferred, perhaps, to have gone with the theologically familiar but, as coincidence would have it, today is also Sanctuary Sunday and the less often explored part of today’s gospel lends itself to this special day.
Sanctuary Sunday. Who knew? Maybe this is new to you.
The Sanctuary Sunday website explains: “City of Sanctuary is a movement dedicated to creating a culture of hospitality for people seeking sanctuary in the U.K. Leeds City of Sanctuary launched in 2010, with the aim for Leeds to become a city of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers who come to our city looking for sanctuary.” It includes the subheading: Leeds churches supporting city of sanctuary. So this is a humanitarian response and, of course, you don’t have to be a Christian to recognise that refugees and asylum seekers, in addition to being used as political footballs by some sections of the press who have singularly failed to understand the definitions of either “refugee” or “asylum seeker”, are amongst the most disadvantaged and traumatised of people we are ever likely to encounter but who are all too often the “other” in our society. These are people who have fled persecution, war or natural disaster. These are people in fear of their lives - people who are the wrong racial group or ethnicity, who have the wrong political or religious allegiance, the wrong sexuality - in their own home context. These are people who have experienced extra-judicial imprisonment, who have experienced violence – including torture and rape - who have seen extra-judicial killings and who fear the knock at the door at three in the morning because they know of others who did open the door to such a knock and who were never seen again until their bodies were found in a shallow grave years later. And there are plenty of photographs for those but I’ve chosen not to use them.
But Christians are involved and so there needs to be a theological response. Perhaps Matthew 25: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you looked after me. I was in prison and you visited me would do nicely for starters. When we do such things for others it’s as if we do them for Jesus.
Alternatively, the parable of the Good Samaritan would be a good model, or the ethics of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you - both exhortations to compassionate Christianity, but today’s gospel gives us more because the roots of compassionate Christianity are also to be found in the less familiar portion of the passage: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
For many, of course, this takes us well out of our comfort zone: this isn’t a Jesus owned by an inward-looking church; not a parochial Jesus but an all-embracing, inclusive Jesus. I must bring them also John reports Jesus as saying – that same Jesus who was himself a refugee in Egypt as an infant escaping certain murder. And this has implications – implications for us; implications for the way we view ourselves in relation to others: particularly the challenge of people who are not like us. So here we encounter a Jesus not owned by Christians, but a Jesus who claims and cares for all of God’s children. There is no “other” in Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom. This passage is a challenge to Christian exclusivity and an affirmation of Christian inclusivity. We are to hold all people as precious precisely because we are Christian and we accept the challenge that the scripture gives us to embrace one flock of humanity.
Compassionate Christianity, impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. No, not my words there, but words from A Christian Charter of Compassion, a movement conceived by an admirer of Martin Luther-King and from the same stable as the Sanctuary Sunday movement, itself heavily influenced by our own Bishop, John Packer.
So what’s that to do with you and I? What is the practical application? Well, one of the aims of the Sanctuary Sunday movement is that people seeking sanctuary can easily build relationships with local people as neighbours, friends and colleagues. Through these relationships, local people come to understand the injustices refugees face, and become motivated to support and defend them.
Well, there’s a challenge. How do we do that then? I don’t know about you but have only met a couple of asylum seekers in passing; my experience of asylum seekers and refugees is very limited. In my everyday life I can’t see situations where I can easily meet and get to know them but then perhaps that’s the challenge: maybe it shouldn’t be easy. Maybe I have to make the effort and go out of my way to engage with people I wouldn’t normally meet and to hear their stories.
How about you?
The second part of that Sanctuary Sunday aim would be easier for me; the part that talks about understanding the injustices asylum seekers and refugees face and defending them. I’m quite combative by nature. I’m quite happy taking people on and challenging attitudes – and there are some dreadful and misinformed attitudes out there about asylum seekers and refugees – and in the context of today’s Gospel reading I am convicted that to do so would be my Christian duty – not to collude by my silence when I hear those nasty insinuations and stereotypical comments.
How about you?
I don’t come with easy answers: there aren’t any – but the challenge is there. I subscribe very much to St. Paul’s principle in Philippians chapter 2 to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Here’s the issue. Go away. Think and pray. Leave it to the Holy Spirit but come up with a strategy that you act on. I think those are the marks of a mature discipleship. After all, The Missio Dei – the Mission of God - is usually to be found where the Holy Spirit is already at work, not in some new initiative. Find where the Spirit is at work already and join in.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Posted in advance in the hope of constructive criticism.