Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Easter IV - The Revd Kate Stowe

The Revd Kate Stowe, Assistant Curate of St Patrick, Salter Street and Shirley in the Diocese of Birmingham, was welcomed as a guest preacher for Easter IV.

The parish in which I’m serving my title borders a gorgeous little country parish which, of course, I’ve secretly got my eye on as a potential first incumbency. The vicar of this gorgeous little country parish, who, sadly, is not thinking of leaving in the near future, is, nonetheless, a lovely and creative chap. Last year he put up some posters around the village, advertising 5 mystery guests who would be making an appearance at the morning Mass on the 4th Sunday of Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Interests were piqued and speculation was rife amongst the people of the gorgeous little country parish, and a bumper congregation turned out for mass on the Sunday morning. They were greeted by 5 sheep, who were let loose in the church during the service. The sole job of the congregation, it was explained, was to observe these sheep during the service, in order to try and work out why Jesus might have used that image of sheep and shepherd that we hear in today’s gospel reading. Well, of course, as you can imagine, chaos ensued: there were sheep tottering precariously around the church, making short work of the Mothers’ Union flower display; there were sheep making a mess, and in one case, having a little accident in the pulpit; there were sheep ruining the reverence of the liturgy with their noisy interjections at inappropriate moments; and there were sheep drowning out the intercessions by their constant bleating.

All of this, I think, gets us so far, and certainly reveals some telling and uncomfortable truths about us as God’s beloved children. This morning I’d like us to build on that by focusing our attention on the shepherd, and by thinking about just why we tottering, messy, bleating sheep might follow him.

Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd." Perhaps the first thing to notice is the 'I am', the words which begin Christ’s statement. ‘I am’ is, of course, a significant and resonant thing for Jesus to say, particularly in John’s gospel, where we find all the other ‘I am’ sayings. The words 'I am' take us back to the third chapter of Exodus, where, if you remember, Moses is playing the truculent child, and refusing to do as he’s told unless God tells him God’s name. One can almost hear the Almighty sighing in parental exasperation as he says to Moses, "just tell the people that I AM sent you." I am. God’s name. The one who is. The existing one. Whenever we hear Christ beginning a sentence with the words 'I am', our theological antennae ought to start twitching, because we're being reminded that Christ is, to borrow Rowan Williams’ phrase, in every moment “acting out the act of God.” (Williams, R, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ (Norwich, 2003), p.70)

God’s very life is expressed in the person of Jesus Christ. Often during my ministry people ask me how they can know what God is like. The answer, of course, is simple. Look at Jesus, and there you will see God. Look at the one who says, 'I am', and there you will see God. As the liturgy puts it, in Christ we see our God made visible, and so are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see. (Extended preface for the Christmas season, from Common Worship)

I am the good shepherd, says Jesus. Images of Christ the good shepherd abound – I’m sure we’ve all seen them, perhaps in paintings or in stained glass windows, or even in children’s bibles. It’s these images that are probably at the root of a certain fluffiness and niceness that can seem part and parcel of the good shepherd package. And it’s this fluffiness that I want to challenge just a bit. For in the very next breath, Jesus says "the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep." Christ the good shepherd isn’t some nice, fluffy storybook hero, he’s the suffering servant, the crucified messiah, the one in whom is wrought the agonising, bloody, yet incredible, story of our salvation.

In his first letter John writes, "we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us." It is for love of us, his tottering, messy, bleating sheep, that Christ the good shepherd lays down his life. It is for love of us that Christ, the 'I am' of God, the very one who acts out the act of God, becomes the sacrificial lamb. That’s what the love of God looks like. That love is the reason I’m a priest. And that love, in the end, is precisely the reason we tottering, messy, bleating sheep seek to follow this good shepherd with our whole hearts. Because, in the words of Isaac Watts,

"love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all."