The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s027g08 Fourth Sunday of Easter 13/4/2008
'he .. leads them out' John 10.3
These words seem plain enough until you really start to look at them carefully. We assume that Jesus is the shepherd, the one who has already entered by the gate. However later Jesus says: 'I am the gate'. So the image shifts. Then we have these strange beings that enter the sheepfold by another way which seems entirely illogical when there is a perfectly good gate ready to open to all who would enter. And we would assume that this sheepfold is a safe place to be, away from thieves and bandits, but the shepherd leads the sheep OUT of this fold and away from the protection it would seem to provide.
So Jesus is not at all interested in us being safely locked away from the world. Indeed Jesus leads us out of safe refuges and into the world.
I was grateful to spend Holy Week and Easter at Taizé in France. For those who do not know about Taizé, it is an ecumenical and multi-faith community about 320 km south of Paris. It has become a place of pilgrimage for thousands over the years. On Easter Day last some 4-5000 people attended the morning worship, people from all countries (5 from Australia), all ages, and from many different denominations and faiths. For someone who has never been in falling snow, it was a blessing to have this fall on Easter morning. During Holy Week, Brother Rob was giving the adults Bible lessons, and he spoke about the story of the Tower of Babel. The inhabitants of the earth were meant to be scattered across the face of the earth, and the building of the tower was an attempt to thwart this scattering. (Gen 11.4,8,9) Brother Rob stated that the Bible is an anti-religious book for precisely this reason. The Bible is not interested in us and in our performance of our religious duties, but in us being part of the world.
So the thieves and bandits are those who want to get into the supposedly safe and secure refuge and stay there. It is they who do not want to follow Jesus out, and so they would deny themselves and others the fullness of life promised to all, that comes with scattering.
As I have gone through the Church, it has seemed that the most important thing was attendance at Church. Lay participation was all about getting lay people into albs and taking on various roles during worship. The job of the priest / minister was to get other people to come to church and admire the ceremony or appreciate the teaching certainly to contribute to its preservation - though never to change anything. And there is nothing wrong with attending church, taking an active role in worship and having a stable financial situation. Except that it denies the importance of what people do in the rest of their lives. People can, and do marginalize women and alienate gay people, yet come to church. Then the ministry of doctors, nurses, teachers, and a whole lot of other people are simply not recognised as important, as if God's work is confined to the Church building.
I often say that if you want to know where I find God at work, I would say it is in a hospital rather than in a church building, for that is where God lifts people to get back on their feet. The same can be said for schools and universities, where people are enabled to learn and become the best they can be. I have singled out the healing and teaching professions, but where would we be without farmers and the distribution chain that means we can purchase food? Where would we be without police and politicians? When one really thinks about it, everyone is already exercising a ministry of some form or other; except perhaps the very young and the very elderly who can only be the recipients of the vital ministry of others.
By focussing on the importance of worship we marginalize and alienate all these vital ministries as if they simply do not count. In fact of course, the whole fabric of society would break down without them.
My favourite saint, though perhaps he unlikely to ever be recognised as such, Pope John the 23rd became: 'the most universally beloved pontiff in history .. because of his essential faith reached across countries and creeds to win the world's heart. "I am Joseph, your brother." he call out to all (people)'. ('I will be called John' Lawrence Elliott p281)
By focussing on the supreme importance of worship, we do not just deny the importance of other ministries, but we deny the value of people's individuality and thinking. We praise unthinking compliance and imitation. Again, life in all its fullness flies out the window in this sort of atmosphere.
And the silly thing is that all this emphasis on worship flies in the face of reality. We know our dependence on the ministries of others who are not especially avowed 'christians', yet we choose to magnify the importance of our participation in worship, as if this actually makes some difference to the world.
In the past the Church has pioneered the building of schools but now we have a parallel education system to the State, often seen to be in competition against them. Jesus leads us out of the enclaves and into the real world.
Often the Church is critical of the decisions that politicians and governments make, as if the Church has the interests of all at heart, when some may justifiably wonder if the Church is not just attempting to justify its existence and to be heard to say something relevant to society. I suppose it is fair that the Church give guidelines to those who are its adherents, but it can hardly try to determine how everyone should act.
So the most important words of the service of worship are the last: 'Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.' It is as we go, go out, that we are being led by our good shepherd, into the world that Jesus loves, and the ministries that we have been given, each by name.
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