Saturday, 25 April 2015

Shepherds old and new

The Good Shepherd by Daniel Bonnell
When I was travelling in our link dioceses in Tanzania earlier this year I had quite a frightening experience when our Jeep had to go through a very large group of angry chanting young men bearing machetes, bows and arrows and sticks. They had formed in order to go and retrieve stolen cattle. Cattle in Tanzania are more than livestock the amount of cattle you have determines not only your wealth but the status and power you yield within your tribe.

Sheep are valuable, whether they belong to a community or an individual. In Tanzania today, and in biblical times, a flock of sheep is an asset for everyday life.  The size of a flock is the visible expression of someone’s wealth.  A prize animal might be slaughtered to feed honoured guests.  Sheep might form part of a dowry for a couple getting married. 

Caring for this precious resource was a job that mattered.

In Johns Gospel (10:11-18) Jesus offers us an image of a God who cares like the person or community which owns the sheep.  God isn't indifferent, sat on the side-lines waiting to see how everything pans out.  God is involved, passionately protective, and constantly searching for any sheep that have gone astray. This is contrasted with the hireling.  The person just doing it for the money, perhaps with little sense of responsibility towards a family or a community. I find it hard to imagine the hirelings getting together to retrieve a stolen sheep. It takes a community that cares to get so motivated that people put their lives at risk. For the young men I saw in Tanzania the loss of livestock diminished the whole community.  And for that reason it required a response from the whole community.

When we wander away from our faith, or from one another, God doesn't sit idly by. In unexpected ways, in the places we least expect it, God comes looking for us. It may be in the concern a friend expresses about us, or from the lips of a stranger, but wherever it happens, God encourages us to return to her ways. People who felt that they’d walked away from their faith find the Good Shepherd seeking them out.  And this is captured quite beautifully in psalm 139 when the Psalmist says:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed
in the depths, you are there. If I take the wings of the
morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right

hand shall hold me fast. 

Saturday, 4 April 2015

God tugs us back into life - a reflection for Easter Day

Radio 4, Monday morning, the ‘Today Programme’, with its 7.18 million listeners: “Yesterday I went to a church near Huddersfield to dedicate a new font… when we put water into it, it dripped straight through the bottom onto the floor. The plug didn't fit”.  Bishop Nick made good use of his visit last week – and our hiccup with the font. 

Last Sunday began for me with a great service full of joy and people but how quickly things can change.  Last Sunday afternoon, back in church, I was with a bereaved family as they remembered someone very special to them.  From the many and the joyful, I was with the few and the mourning.  We live lives threaded through with all these different experiences – often without much time between them.

It’s hard.

Last week pulled all these themes together, moving from the joy of Palm Sunday to the desolation of the cross.  It’s hard to imagine the roller-coaster of emotions Jesus and his followers went through.  To be the object of popular approval; to be sharing a meal with your closest and dearest friends; to the public ridicule of a shameful death – with your mother watching it all.

Then there’s today.

Friday was supposed to be the end of it all.  As Newman puts it in his prayer: “the fever of life is over and our work is done”.  Despite its horror, at least Good Friday was an end.  The disciples could return to their normal lives, friends could mourn and life would once again become routine, ordinary. 

Not today.  

Today is the day that changes every day.  The appeal of Jesus had been that he was larger than life – and now we discover that he’s larger than death.  Crucifixion; a sword in the side; a stone sealing his body in the darkness of a tomb.  God seems to smile at our puny efforts to decide that his Son is dead.  None of it matters.  God calls Jesus back into life – to bring his life and new possibility to all who put their faith in him.  With God, everything is possible.

What we celebrate today isn't a ‘get out of jail free’ card.  It doesn't allow us to skip past pain or be sheltered from suffering.  But when we've had enough, and would rather stay in a tomb of our own despair, God tugs us back into life.  God asks: “Bring me whatever you have – even if it looks and feels like death: and I will call it back into life”.

We only have to look down the long centuries of Christian history to see how time and again God has taken what the world has written off in order to breathe new life into humanity.  People discarded by the world have wept and battered at the doors of the powerful and demanded justice.

Every Easter we find ourselves at a particular moment in our lives.  I hope, for many it will be a good and hopeful place.  But for others it won’t be.  For many today will simply be a grim repeat of yesterday – and a fearful taste of tomorrow.  God knows.  And God says to us: ‘bring what you have – bring who you are, and I will give it life’.  Because today God doesn't let death have the final word.

Alleluia Christ is Risen!

Maggie McLean
Vicar of CTK