"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sunday Sermon: I am the Good Shepherd

John 10:11-18

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.

Today is Vocations Sunday. Because I’m the new boy, a number of people have been asking me about myself so, a couple of pertinent points in that context: I am a returner to Anglicanism. Before that I’d spent some years worshipping with the Lutheran Church. Through them I was sponsored to go to Vicar School and, following a placement in Estonia, I graduated a couple of years ago. But the Lutheran church wasn’t for me in the end – or perhaps, more to the point, I wasn’t for them (far too Anglican I was told) and so here I am, a returner to the Church of England fold.

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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Have you heard ...? Rumour at the Knowledge College.

Open your ears; for which of you will stop the vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks? I, from the orient to the drooping west, making the wind my post-horse, still unfold the acts commenced on this ball of earth. Upon my tongues continual slanders ride, the which in every language I pronounce, stuffing the ears of men with false reports. Rumour: Act 1 scene 1, Henry V pt 11.

For those of you less cultured than me - probably most of you - that's a bit of Shakespeare what I performed when I was a member of the National Youth Theatre. (When I was a youth before teenagers were invented.)

But I digress, although 'tis relevant.

At the knowledge college passions are running deep and rumour is rife. You can't go far without coming upon small groups of staff whispering in corners. I doubt that two + two have made four less often at any time in history than at our chalk-face currently.

"I have it on good authority that ...."

"Well, I was told to keep this to myself but...."

"If word gets out that I've told you this ...."

Why the furore?

Well the Knowledge College is going to be reorganised soon as a number of schools are amalgamated. There are a million and one implications of this, most far more important than the current controversy .... which is .... "Where will my classroom be in September? Will I have to move?" And, most importantly of all, "Will I get the West Yorkshire educational equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta if I am moved?"

These things, in every conceivable combination and permutation, have occupied our minds of late.

"But you see, If Business Studies moves into the Maths area, then where do Maths go? Answer me that! You wouldn't be so sanguine if it was your classroom they were eyeing up!"

This brings me to the role played by my (soon to be ex-) friend Bill, the Head of Numbers. For some weeks he has been wandering around the building like Banquo's ghost at the feast (Shakespeare again, keep up) throwing open classroom doors at random and shouting over his shoulder,

"This'll do for me."

A number of our colleagues have had, as a consequence, an attack of what the Victorians used to call the vapours.

Of course, if you're a teacher of Resistant Materials (wood and metal work in old money) or Art or if you currently occupy a spacious Drama studio you can probably afford to let it all wash over you but those of us who teach in "normal" classrooms have been feeling a bit vulnerable.

"They have a responsibility to let you know what's happening once they've made a decision. Speculation is the biggest waster of management time you know." my beloved informs me. That may be so, but it's infinately better than marking. But then again, poking one's self repeatedly in the eye with a pencil is infinitely better than marking. (I've just had my Easter break ruined by the marking marathon which is seven sets of Yr 10 mock exams to mark and annotate. That's 7x27 (average group size) = some of the worst drivel its been my misfortune to read in ages. Yes, even worse than The Da Vinci Code: at least that had a happy ending, which is more than what most of my kid's exam results will lead to if they don't get their act together before 31st May when they take the real exam.)

"Got that off your chest?"

Thank you. Yes.

My Faculty - a loose confederation of History, Gegraphy, Sociology and R.S. - has been feeling particularly vulnerable. Mrs Singh has been close to tears on more than one occasion, precipitated by one of Bill's visits.

"I can't bear the prospect of having to move after all this time. I've got everything where I want it." she wails, distraught. "It took us years to establish ourselves here and it could all be swept away.

Ishvinder is more confrontational. "I'm not moving. I'll have a one woman sit-in."

Geography Pete tries to be the adult and keeps reminding us that nothing has been settled, only to find us whispering in corners as soon as his back is turned. Over the Easter break Carol came in to do some catching up and was working in the office - shared by four of us and the occasional, passing student teacher, when a Site-Services Operative (Caretaker to you and me) came in and started to measure up, banging the walls to see which were load-bearing. On our corporate return to school we whispered about whether to tell Mrs. Singh and decided to have some smelling salts ready for when she found out.

"Well, you know what this means?" Elise is a bit of a conspiracy theorist when she's not teaching History. "They're going to knock the office and the store room together to make a new classroom." I am sceptical but am distracted by a slumping sound from Mrs. Singh's corner. Unabashed, and in full flow, Elise continues to express her world view. "You see ...." she names a collection of rooms. " .... Judith and I think they'll all be History - we were in during the break and did a little recce - so you'll lose a Geography room, Pete but you'll keep your room and you'll have Sir's room ....

Hello? I'm still here.

" ... The computer room'll go upstairs into Ishvinder's room and the space it frees up will become your other Geography room. Mrs. Singh'll stay where she is and Sir, Poppy and Ishvinder will be in porta-cabins on the other side of the car park. It's obvious."

Alternatively they could simply be measuring up the office and store room with a view to knocking them together to make a bigger office to accommodate us and some of the new staff.

"Don't be silly. It's gonna be a classroom. Stranger things have already been decided. Music's going into a dining area. The office staff are up in arms because they won't be able to work over all that noise, (although the Music Dept feel the same about the office)."

So where will our workspace be?

"You'll have to work in the staff room."

A little later I think I spy Ishvinder carrying a sleeping bag and flask up to her classroom. Now that request of hers for barbed-wire from departmental capitation makes more sense.

"What's the matter with you? Don't you understand martyrdom? We Sikhs know all about a good fight. Man up!"

I think I'll go and poke pencils in my eyes again.

Update: Elise was right. Poppy, Ishvinder and I are moving to a "modular building". I've been to see it in its current location. We are on the first floor and have a suite of three spaceous classrooms, a staff workroom, toilets and store rooms. We are right on the edge of the empire so it should be quiet with no passing traffic. I will actually have aview and can watch the seasons change. Bill is pleased because Numbers are downstairs so we can have lunch together or I can hide in his office when Ishvinder and Poppy gang up on me!

A result, I think.