Easter 4

Sermon preached by Angela Rayner, ordinand at Westcott House

One of the ways in which the children of the nineties learned to inhabit the society they’d inherit was through the computer game “Lemmings”.  Lemmings were small pink creatures with blue coats and green hair whom, once released, would follow each other in the same direction until they met their death through an unfortunate means such as falling from a cliff-face.  The player was tasked with keeping the Lemmings alive by having them climb, build or dig their way to safety.  Resources were limited.  You’d be given four parachutes to somehow save fifty Lemmings…  It was an early lesson in leadership, being taught to control the means of distribution; do this or you won’t make it.  Yet Jesus’ words here are to a group of Pharisees who were assuming themselves to be the game players, attempting to dictate that a once-blind man could not inherit eternal life, and in-so-doing, they usurped the role of God.   Jesus accused them of theft and banditry.  In his words, they’d have heard reference to the prophet Ezekiel who denounced the kings of Israel as bad shepherds, accusing them harshly:


“you do not feed the sheep.  You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them…”


Ezekiel warned that the sheep of Israel had become scattered, and Jesus implied the situation was repeating itself.  He recognised, perhaps, that it’s easy for those who seek or find themselves in “leadership” to usurp the position of God.  And, since all humans are imitative and tend to follow the “devices and desires” of their hearts, behaving in Lemming-like, (or, rather sheep-like) ways, he taught us that there is no question of whether we will imitate, but what we will imitate and whom.  Look for the shepherd, the real shepherd, the one who knows the names of the sheep, he tells them.


And so today’s readings remind us that we’re not in control, that we are the sheep.  It is not a comfortable place to be; we’re given little guidance on how to be sheep. Societal training to “make something of oneself”, and the university’s desire to shape the next generation of leaders rejects this pastoral foundation.  I am not deriding universities.  The monks named our town’s colleges St Michael’s House, St Peter’s House, Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary because they were seeking “the transformation of the whole”[1] under God, but in today’s market-driven university, we can neglect the Good Shepherd in favour of listening to the forces that tell us that our institution’s survival is more important than truth.  Or we become subject to an economy which places us at the whim of advertisers, with budgets designed to persuade us that without the latest handbag or holiday, we are nobody.  You are what you consume, and that’s all you are.  It can be easy to forget that our primary vocation is to be sheep.


I’ve placed today’s gospel alongside “The Shepherd’s Life”, an autobiography by James Rebanks.  Rebanks is  the Herdwick Shepherd, a man whose raising lead to roots that ran so deep that he was gifted a life with a singular purpose.  Upon completing a university degree, his love for the land meant he had no choice but to return to being a shepherd.  I think he has something to teach those of us slow to recognise our sheepiness how to be good sheep, and thus follow five lessons:


Firstly, “the gatekeeper opens the gate for the Shepherd, and the sheep hear his voice”.  Lesson one in how to be a sheep is that of obedience.   Obedience means “paying attention” or “giving ear”.  Often we speak only of obedience when something has gone wrong, rather than assuming it the ordinary task of a well-practiced listener.  Obedience is not unthinking conformity.  To listen deeply, to occupy a tradition, means being able to question it, critique it and subject it to a ruthless battering even whilst learning to inhabit it.  The good shepherd has no desire to control the sheep, but knows their propensity for heading straight for the face of the cliff.  The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice.  They listen over the din.  Obedience to God, through the prophets and alongside a good spiritual director is a schooling in how to live subversively.  James Rebanks might describe it as being “hefted”, being “accustomed and attached to pasture”.[2]


Secondly, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out”.  Being lead out means going outside and away from the cover of the pen into the weather to learn about the seasons.  Rebanks suggests “our sense of belonging relates to how much weather we have endured – we belong here because the wind, rain, hail, snow, mud and storms couldn’t shift us”[3].  Sheep must learn to tell the time, to detect whether it’s Advent or Lent, Whitsun or Michaelmas; to know when to seek food and when to seek shelter.  God calls us out by name, giving us confidence, but Rebanks reminds us “Everything and everyone is at times covered in shit or snot…”[4].  Lesson two in learning to be a good sheep involves learning to tell the time, being outside in all weathers and thus inevitably having perpetually dirty hands.


Thirdly, “the sheep follow him because they know his voice”.  Sheep flock together.  In following the shepherd, we walk alongside the saints; the hobos and the hooligans, the nutters and the drop-outs proceed as one.  We see the philosophy of John’s gospel worked out in the reading from Acts where praying with others leads to a society in which goods are shared equitably.  The early Christians were part of a body that operated beyond charity, it was a system wrought not through democracy, but by fellowship.  In Roman territory, Christians had no control about who was in power, so they “re-organised their own framework… creating a community in which people had a primary obligation to share with one another”[5].  At Mass, in prayer, we learn whose needs must take priority.  Rebanks says his “farming system is not about maximizing productivity” but “putting the walls back up, draining the fields and keeping the sheep well-tended and bred”, warning that “many of these things sometimes defy rational economics”[6][7]


Fourthly, “the sheep will run from [the stranger] because they do not know his voice”.  When the Herdwick shepherd goes up up to Oxford, he realises that since the terms are only eight weeks long, he can be back on the farm for “more than half the year”[8].  He knew he’d not make many new friends, and would remain distant from the other students, but he was more concerned about being home to shear the sheep and birth the lambs.  Modern life offers many distractions, from smartphones to frequent travel, so lesson four is a warning to resist the voice that offers greener pastures, that whispers seductively that moving frequently is more valuable than being rooted in one place.


Finally, I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.  We learn abundance in taking time to waste it in the worship of God.  We are thus given time to embrace summer, walk with friends, read novels, tell stories and raise children[9].  The knowledge that we are sheep saves us from the tyranny of needing to be original, to constantly re-invent ourselves.  It leaves us free to enjoy the gifts that God has given in an eternity that starts now.    James Rebanks is able to find such joy in shepherding that he can proclaim, “This is my life.  I want no other.”[10]


Obedience to God, being prepared to get our hands dirty, acting together as one herd, fleeing temptation and embracing abundance; all of these are what it means to be good sheep.  The university wants intellectual thought-leaders, people capable of world-class teaching, voluminous ground-breaking research and the ability to never need sleep.  Jesus wants sheep.  The church over-values survival and capitulates to market forces that undermine her search for truth.  Jesus wants sheep.  The economy desires unquestioning, insatiable, demanding consumers who never take Sabbath rest.  But Jesus, Jesus… just wants sheep.

[1] University from “universe”:  http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=universe&allowed_in_frame=0

[2] pix.  Rebanks, James. Shepherd’s Life, The: A Tale of the Lake District. London: Penguin Ltd, 2016. Print.

[3] p204.  ibid

[4] p239. ibid

[5] Montero, Roman. “The Early Christian Communists” retrieved from https://libcom.org/history/early-christian-communists

[6] p200.  Rebanks, James. Shepherd’s Life, The: A Tale of the Lake District. London: Penguin Ltd, 2016. Print.

[7] p228.  Ibid

[8] p146.  Ibid

[9] Line amended from Hauerwas, Stanley. Christian Existence Today. 1st ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2001. Print.

[10] p287.  Ibid

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