s128g00 Somerton Park 23/7/00 Sunday 16
"They were like sheep without a shepherd" Mark 6.34
One of the pictures of God we are most familiar with and with which we are most comfortable is the one of a shepherd. In the beloved 23rd Psalm, God is described as the shepherd of his people, preparing the table from which we are to eat, even to anointing our heads with oil - the ancient way of honouring a distinguished guest at a celebration. The prospect of lying down in green pastures, leading us beside still waters and refreshing our souls - just as Jesus sought to care for his disciples by taking them apart to rest a while - are most precious to us. These words of comfort are most appropriate at the time of a death and a funeral, though I rather wonder at their significance at a marriage, where it is as frequently used.
But there is another aspect of shepherding which is perhaps less familiar and comfortable. This is the aspect of ruling over the sheep. This comes out consistently in the Biblical witness too.
In the Old Testament lesson "the shepherds in charge of my people" were the kings and rulers of Israel. In the 23rd Psalm, the words "and guide me in right pathways" are included. Clearly it is not our pathways that God guides us in, but in the right pathways - God's. And in the reading for the gospel, Jesus' reaction to the expectant crowds was not to feed them, but to teach them "at some length".
Our normal and natural human nature bulks at this idea that we should be ruled over by someone else, even if it is God our Father. We naturally want to be our own bosses, we want to be in control of our own lives. We want God to listen to and answer our prayers, yet we, I as much as anyone else, are less willing to listen to God's directions and to answer God's prayers. We want God's comfort, peace and love in our lives, all the "good" things, yet we still want to live our lives in our own way.
But in an important sense, the good we would want from God is precisely dependent on the way we accept to be led and ruled by God. It is when we realise that God is a better ruler over us than we are ever likely to be ourselves, that we are enabled to put our lives into his hands. For who else can we trust?
Surely we can trust ourselves? But can we? I rather doubt it.
The difficulty is that "trusting ourselves" inevitably leads to self centredness. Even Psalm 23 says . "You spread a table before me in the face of those who trouble me" (23.5). It is the ultimate retribution on "those who trouble" us - to have God wait on us while these other recalcitrants have to witness this, remaining hungry and "on the outer" themselves.
Everyone finds themselves, not in isolation, but in community. Most often it will initially be in our families. Later it will be in friends and perhaps marriage partners. For some, children will be the cause of much maturing.
Who are God's sheep? It is the same question as: Who are God's children? Everyone is - not just "Christians". Indeed of course it is, in some ways the unique witness of Jesus, and hence of the Church, that all people are God's.
So I baptise people, not into membership of the Anglican Church or the Church universal, but into the human community, all of whom Jesus loved and loves.
Our confidence as Christians then comes precisely because we put our trust in God. We are encouraged to do this because we know that he has our interests at heart, and not God's. But it is OUR interests and not just MY interests. It is not just OUR interests as the Anglican Church or the Church universal, but the whole of humanities interests.
God has sent his son Jesus to live and to die for us and for all. No longer do we, or anyone else, have to die for God. Any dying that needs to be done, has been already done, and by God. We don't need to die, and we don't need to kill others for God's kingdom to be advanced.
During this week, Philip bought some CD's by "Moby" (apparently whose real name is Richard Melville Hall, whose great, great grand uncle was Herman Melville (1819-1891), the author of "Moby Dick". It seems rather appropriate just after the meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Adelaide recently and the return of the whales to our southern shores. Indeed Melville's life had a connection with us "down under" as he escaped the cannibals of the Marquesas Islands aboard an Australian trader, leaving it in Tahiti.) Anyway Philip showed me the CD cover which had an essay by Moby. (Everything is Wrong Essay 2). I trust Moby will forgive me quoting him:
"The Christian right is neither. God is angry I think. Here in the US vast numbers of politicians and religious leaders (the line between the two being blurry) are masquerading hate, racism, sexism, and ignorance under the banner of conservative Christian values.
"Conservative Christian values are these - humility, mercy, compassion, love, honesty, etc. Nowhere in the Bible does Christ encourage his followers to be intolerant, greedy bigots. Nowhere in the Bible does Christ encourage his followers to lie, slander, steal, or be divisive along economic or cultural lines. Preserving the "American Way" has nothing to do with Christ. In fact the "American Way" of greed, cruelty, environmental destruction, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, would seem to have nothing to do with Christ. Christ is wonderful, loving, compassionate and honest. Today's right wing evangelical Christians seem to be insecure, hate-filled creatures and although I should probably pity them, right now I'm angry.
"We sit back and watch as the Christian right tries to legislate their petty morality at the city, state and federal level. They successfully ousted the best chairman the New York City school system ever had because he encouraged condom distribution and an open minded curriculum. Here's a question - how are teen pregnancy, hiv/aids, and a redundant ineffectual curriculum Christian? Instead of spreading hate, ignorance and a narrow minded social agenda why doesn't the Christian right go out and spread mercy, compassion and selflessness?
"Two thousand years ago Christ called the religious and political leaders of his day "white-washed tombs, clean on the outside but inside full of evil." God sent prophets, the religious and political leaders killed and tortured them. God sent Christ, the religious and political leaders killed and tortured him. The religious and political leaders of 2000 years ago were "white-washed tombs, full of evil," and the religious and political leaders of today seem to be just as bad."
I think I would want to say SOME religious and political leaders and obviously Moby is talking about the situation in the US. Clearly I consider there are elements in Australian society who would attract similar justified criticism. So I rejoice with our Archbishop that our South Australian Parliament has recently moved to decriminalise prostitution.
But it is the source of considerable personal pride that Philip has got this message, and it should also encourage us all that there are young people "out there" who have also grasped the real message of "mercy, compassion and selflessness" and are doing what they can to spread that message. Even if no one else in the congregation, the "real" one here, or the rather larger "virtual" one on the Internet, gets this message, I am content that those who are most important to me and for whom I have a special love have "twigged". But of course there are many many people here and throughout the world, who will have nothing to do with bigotry dressed up in Christian clothes.
The shepherd of the sheep leads us in right pathways, back to the flock. The shepherd rules over us only to lead us from merely following our own individual pursuits and aspirations to seeking the wellbeing of the community into which we have been placed. The whole world is God's flock and the shepherd always leads us to it, never away from it. We are led to the world to witness that the world is already God's, people for whom Christ has died and has risen.
So today we rejoice at the loving kindness of our heavenly Father for us and for all people. And, precisely because of this, we are also encouraged to put our lives more and more into God's loving rule; to trust God more and more.
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