|Forum Home > Sermons > A sermon preached by Fr. John Fitzmaurice on the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2012|
Our world and our nation are increasingly multi-cultural. Both through the proximity of people of different cultures through immigration and emigration, and through the opportunities afforded by relatively cheap air travel, we in this generation are able to experience and learn about many cultures that our ancestors would simply not have known about. Increasingly we live in what is called the 'global village' - through travel and communication we have a new proximity to everyone else on the planet. We can watch live events from any corner of the world simply by switching on our televisions. We can eat foods that our grandparents would never have dreamed of either in the many ethnic restaurants in our towns and cities or simply off the shelves in our supermarkets. and while there are huge amounts of things to celebrate in this new embracing of diversity, one of the challenges it presents is how we communicate across cultures. I'm not just speaking about language here but also about metaphor - those images different cultures use to describe various aspects of their experience. Some of you may have seen the TV advert for HSBC bank which makes the point that a gesture that is relatively harmless or even friendly in one culture can be deeply offensive in another.
Yet cultural diversity is not limited to geographical distance - cultural differences exist across time as well. And all of this is significant when we try to clean wisdom and guidance from a text that was written in and for a very different culture and in a very difficult historical context. To engage with scripture we need to engage with issues of cross-cultural interpretation.
Today's gospel reading is a classic example of this. The image of Christ the Good Shepherd feels familiar because many of us have seen stain-glass windows depicting a very while skinned Jesus, with long flowing blond hair dressed in a white sheet carrying a lamb, or stroking a sheep or something like that. This image is deeply ingrained in the life of the church. Indeed for many the primary function of the church is pastoral, the reactive caring for people, and this is supposed to be embodied in its clergy, who are often called or at least seen primarily as pastors.
But is this an appropriate translation of the Good Shepherd image across time and culture. Could it be that a more appropriate translation, a more appropriate model of ministry for the whole Church and for its clergy has been lost in translation? Increasing there are those who say that it has.
Most recently this model of ministry was questions by a writer by a writer who wrote a book with the fantastic title - 'If you meet George Herbert on the Road - kill him!' The reference to George Herbert being because he, largely through his poetry has influenced the English understanding of the role of a priest in the community.
All of this begs the question - if we are going to question this inherited model of ministry, what do we replace it with, and indeed surely this is simply a matter of the clergy, why should we worry about it?
This is a really important question because it is really important to realise that it is not just the clergy who are priestly. Scripture is clear that the whole people of God collectively are priestly - and that includes you as well as me! What that means is that the whole Church is here to offer itself in the service of and for the well-being of the world. Clergy are simply called to model that both to the church and to the world - clergy are called to live the life that every Christian is called to live in a very public way. So when we are talking about how we live out the example of Jesus as Good Shepherd is about the way the whole Church lives, which the clergy are then called to model and be an example of.
So what does a contemporary model of the Church's ministry and that of its clergy look like? Well, we have to ask if the image of a shepherd is still helpful. Shepherds nowadays tend not to sit on a rock in a field looking after their sheep, but rather charge around on 4 x 4s and track their flocks by satellite navigation. Somewhere along the line some significant parts of the original image have been lost.
So if we are not entirely happy with the image of the Good Shepherd then what are the other options? Well in 2004 the Archbishop of Canterbury addressed this issue in a very significant lecture that people reflecting on this issue have drawn on time and time again. Archbishop Rowan suggested that there were three characteristics of the priestly ministry both of the clergy and of the wider church. These three characteristics were to be a a) witness, b) watchman and c) a weaver.
Firstly - to be a Witness. We are called to be witnesses to the faith that is in us. We are called to be witness to the faith that is in us however weak or provisional or fragile that might be. we don't need to be frightened by that fragility, indeed as we saw with the story of Thomas in the upper room, it is those very doubts that in the end lead us to a deeper more profound faith. To be a witness is simply to tell it as you see it, in the full knowledge that there may be other who see something quite different. Thankfully gone are the days then the church could claim an uncontested authority for it witness. Now we are called to bear witness in an environment where there are lots of other witnesses, and where by engaging with difference and diversity we might find ourselves discovering new things about the God, who passes all understanding. But we are nonetheless called to witness in confidence (though not arrogance) to what is true for us. one of the ways we will do this in through worship.
Second - we are called to be Watchmen (or perhaps more inclusively watch-keepers). Here we are called to read the signs of the times. Here we are called to discern what God might be doing in the world and to what God might be calling us. This requires a real involvement and engagement with society and with our community. It requires the church to be culturally literate - to understand what is going on in politics, in business, in the Arts, in education and in the health service, in science and research- and it requires the Church to be able comment on these things intelligently and to bring the insights of the Christian tradition to bear on them. One of the great tragedies of Archbishop Rowan's impending retirement is that he was able to do this like no one else. Generally the church and its clergy have become somewhat complacent about this aspect of its ministry. we have chosen to make apparently authorative doctrinal statement rather than do the hard work of engaging with difficult issues and living the questions that raise for us. One of the ways we will become watch-keepers is through committing to a process of lifelong learning.
And thirdly, we are called to be Weavers. I have to say that I love this image, because I think it is so true of ministry. Perhaps the most basic weaving we do is about weaving the story of individuals into the story of scripture. It's about discovering that our own life stories have resonances with the story of faith and enabling others to make that same discovery. This is what good pastoral care is all about - placing the situation (often a difficult one) that a person is experiencing within the context of that bigger story and enabling them to discover that there is hope, that (as I've said so often recently) the good is stronger than the bad, that life is stronger than death. When we weave our stories to the story of scripture then we begin to weave a cord with strength.
The next piece of weaving to is to weave our lives with the lives of others, to form community. Building community is a significant part of what our ministry involves. We've talked here in the past about being a loving community, about being a place where loving relationships are to be found. This doesn't just happen of its own accord it requires constant attention, constant effort; it requires us to step out of what we find comfortable, and to start consciously and deliberately weaving our lives with the lives of others. Every now and again it is good to remind ourselves of this task and to recommit to it lest we discover that we have become a little sloppy and complacent about it. But we are called not only to weave individual lives together, but also whole communities. We are called to join in God's work of the building of the Kingdom, and some of that is about reconciling and unifying communities that are divided or fragmented. This can be at a local level, but working for a greater level of community cohesion within our own community, or at a national or international by working for and lobbying for justice and peace at those levels. This is not as complicated as it sound because we don't have to do it alone or in isolation - it simply requires us to hitch ourselves to a charity or an organisation that works for a cause that we are passionate about and to support it in whatever ways we can. Weaving then requires our active involvement in the lives of others.
So where does this leave the image of Christ the Good Shepherd? Well we can't or indeed mustn't simply dismiss it, but we need to understand what it is trying to achieve. How can we achieve in our generation what it set out to do in the generation to which it was intended to speak, and to do that we may have to engage in a bit of cross-cultural translation? For me the image of our shared priestly ministry as the whole people of God, which those of us who are ordained to the sacramental priesthood are called to model and live publically to the best of our limited abilities, as that of a Witness, a Watch-keeper and a Weaver is a translation that speaks powerfully t our contemporary situation and one that invites us to a life rooted in worship, life-long learning and our active involvement in the lives of others.
Almighty and everlasting God,