Whose voice are we listening to? John 10:11-18

My sermon this week, reflects the nature of our calling as Christians to listen to Jesus, and those who live, love and speak truth in his name, even, perhaps especially, when it’s counter to what is peddled by political leaders and news-mongers. 

This afternoon at the St. George’s Day Parade service, I’m going to (and did) briefly touch on the fact that St. George – the real one, no dragons here – had a Greek father, and a mother who was a Christian from the large Roman province of Syria Palestine. He lived out his soldiering career as a Christian, possibly protecting and releasing those who were falsely imprisoned, neither of which would have made him popular. He was martyred for his unwillingness to denounce his Christian faith. The thought-provoking irony of having a Christian Syrian Palestinian soldier as our Patron Saint should not be lost on us in the next few days.

There is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, called Ghassan Ward.

“[His] bishop was kidnapped in April 2013, [his] church was destroyed, and [his] house was bombed. [His] two sons left the country, [his] wife died of cancer and [he] lost two… close family members because of the bombings.” But despite all this, Ghassan chose to stay in Syria, and care for his hurting community. “Many of my parish were rich before, now they are poor. They have no work, no income and all the savings are spent during the years of war,” he says. “The role of the church is not only having the services – we welcome the people and we try to help solve their problems. God gave us the love. It’s not easy to do this… The needs of the people are very big; we’re trying to meet their needs… We also help non-Christians. They are our neighbours, we live with them, and we cannot neglect a person who is hungry. When we give them a loaf of bread, the love of Christ is written on it.”

This story was told this week by the Open Doors charity, that serves and supports persecuted Christians. I have had it verified directly via one of the clergy and peers travelling in Syria this week, as typical of the work churches in the region are undertaking.

So what have these two people, St. George and a contemporary Syrian clergyman, got to do with this morning’s very famous, and deceptively simple parable?

Jesus is making some important points about who he is, but also about us. They are based round a claim that he fulfills the Old Testament prophesy of Ezekiel 34, where the Lord says he will rescue sheep “from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness” (Ezek 34:12) and that he will “place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.”

Why it is that Jesus is in the position to be both the Lord God and King David, and thus the Good Shepherd of all God’s sheep, is one of those things that this parable seeks to explain, and leads up to at the end of John 10. There Jesus declares “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Everything Jesus says and does, is based on, and returns to, his relationship with his Father; that is the means by which he has the willingness, love and authority to both lay down his life, and take it up again.

Jesus is also reminding his listeners, Jews like himself, children of God’s covenant with Moses, that God has always been interested in bringing more than just them into a relationship with him. This is being fulfilled in him, because it is through his death and resurrection that God reaches beyond the old covenant to the rest of the sheep in the world, a world that 3-4 centuries later would boast a Christian martyred soldier of Greek and Syrian heritage, and today includes a beleaguered Syrian priest with nothing left but his faith, funding from Open Doors, a team of like-minded survivors, and his desire to love all those in his community. Jesus came to create one single universal flock of people who know and love God, and have the freedom to do so.

The bond between the sheep and the shepherd, as well as the Father and the Son, is one of trust and love. When he styles himself as the “Good” Shepherd, there’s a lot more depth to the meaning than the bland little English word “good” suggests. It is more emphasising that the trust and love that Jesus offers people is attractive – it is what motivates people like Ghassan to be risking their lives in places like Aleppo. We, and more importantly those who’ve not encountered Jesus before, should see something beautiful, inspiring and ultimately counter-cultural in who he is revealed to be, and through what he calls us to do. When Jesus says, ‘My own know me… [and] listen to my voice’ (John 10:14 and 16), he is demanding our willingness to trust and love him, as he did his Father, and at the very least, to be willing to be obedient to the example that he sets us, through the inspiration of his voice, in this parable as among many others he told.

This was completely revolutionary and counter cultural to Jesus’ world, filled as it was with hatred and suspicion, violence and counter-violence… a world that perhaps sounds all too similar to our own?! In the context of his conversation with and in front of the Pharisees, Jesus is saying, stop listening only to your traditions, your senior religious figures, whether what they are saying sounds good or not. Instead, Jesus is saying, start listening direct to God, to a vision of a world that is different, where people share what they have with their neighbour without worrying about where they fit in any particular religious or political picture or ideal.

Do we want to be ‘good’? Do we want to be beautiful? Do we want to be shepherds, shepherds who welcome all-comers to the fold? Do we want to listen to the voice of Jesus, the voice of truth, the voice of love?

There are two levels, two areas of the world stage, on which we are invited today to respond to those questions; there’s the macro level, and rather closer to home, the micro.

On the macro-level, where is the beautiful love of Jesus for all God’s people, most visible? One place it would seem, is Aleppo where Ghassan Ward works bravely and painstakingly with other churches of many denominations to feed Jesus’ sheep. That, I hope you agree, is beautiful. The same could be said for the work of the Open Doors organization which supports him, supports vulnerable Christians in Egypt, India, Iran, and nearly 50 other countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian. If that work and those places are where the love of God for his people, and the love of his people for Jesus is most visible, perhaps theirs are the voices we need to take most care to listen to.

Still on a macro-level, perhaps we need to start questioning more carefully what we’re told by our political and dare I say it, our religious leaders, and certainly by today’s mainstream press. Where are we reading the counter-cultural voices, the stories of love, the hidden truths – even if they’re unpalatable or unpopular and don’t fit the current zeitgeist? Jesus says false shepherds flee the sheep in their care, and so we see those with authority playing fast and loose with the security and welfare of our neighbours, because their paperwork isn’t complete or they can’t contribute financially to society because of their disabilities. Sometimes even not knowing who to believe about the reality of whether a chemical attack happened or not, is better than believing the stories of either side without question. What would Jesus have us listen to and believe?

Which brings things rather closer to home, closer to the micro-level of our own parish and benefice, perhaps pertinently on this the day of our Annual Parochial Church Meeting, with St. Barnabas’s to follow on Wednesday. I’m sure you will want to listen later to Rev’d Lerys, as our Priest-in-Charge, but collectively we need to listen to how Jesus wants us to care for his flock, to look at the neighbouring ‘folds’ or parishes, to see where they need help to do the same, or where they might be able to help us.

And what about the other sheep, those that walk past the church in the sunshine, ride down the lane into the forest, stand at the school gate, sit at home and knit, sew or garden, and use the village shop and pubs? They need to know that Jesus is attractive, beautiful and good too, and that can only be done through what we say, and do.

Jesus had a two-fold vocation: to save the sheep currently in his care, and to enlarge the flock considerably by bringing in a whole lot of very different sheep (John10:16). That vocation is ours, because we already know Jesus. Our responsibility now, is to listen to his voice, so that we know where and how to seek the other sheep that he wants brought into his fold.

 

 

 

 

Christ is risen; share the news – Mark 16:1-8

HAPPY EASTER! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

This morning was a great chance to consider the Resurrection through the eyes of St. Mark with the children of our congregation taking part. So the following is something like what I said… with some of the props!

Who has already had some Easter Egg this morning?! Anyone willing to ‘fess up?!

So, I’ve 3 eggs, decorated or foil wrapped eggs, 3 Easter Eggs here for us to explore… and I’m sorry if those further away can’t see the action here, but eggs is eggs and don’t come (much) bigger! You are welcome to come closer if you wish.

We’ve got 3 eggs, all looking very pretty here, and we’re going to see if we can crack them into a glass bowl.

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Putting the Russian icon egg covers on the eggs on Holy Saturday.


Egg 1:
Russian icon egg, pretty, Jesus on it, HARD BOILED.

Egg 2: Foil wrapped, chocolate coated, (crack it…. dribble….) RAW.

Egg 3: Creme egg wrapped, wooden egg, open it…. nothing.

How do those eggs make you feel? Confused, disappointed, shocked… (hungry?!)
What day is it today? Easter Day!
What do you think should be in those eggs? Chocolate!
What’s the date today? April 1st, April Fool’s Day…. Check my watch; still before noon.
Do you think all this is just a joke?

Yes?
No?!
Good.
Why not? …..     Hopefully get an answer that involves the empty tomb.

Why don’t the children sit down here at the front (or with parents) for a few minutes…

There are four different accounts of the Easter story, Matthew’s, Luke’s, John’s and the one we heard this morning is…? Mark’s.

In Mark’s Gospel, that we heard just now, what surprises us?   No-one meets Jesus… there’s only one angel… there’s three women… the story is quite short… it ends without the women having done what the angel asked of them.

Mark’s story focuses on the confusion, shock and disappointment that three women experience at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.

The Friday night that Jesus died, two ladies called Mary, friends of Jesus, had watched as a man called Joseph of Arimathea, who secretly wondered if Jesus heralded a new part of God’s relationship with the Jews, had buried Jesus in a stone tomb. He’d rolled a big stone over the opening to stop people stealing the body.

36 hours later, and they’ve brought their friend Salome to help them anoint Jesus’ body with precious oils. They’re expecting to encounter the problem of moving the huge stone from the tomb entrance, but instead they’re confused by the fact it’s been rolled away.

Were the eggs that I brought with me this morning anything like you might have expected? No!
Were they confusing? Yes.

We all know that when we discover that things aren’t quite what we’re expecting, we become uncomfortable. We cast about for something that’s what we think of as normal, or expected. If we don’t find what we’re looking for, we’re suddenly hyper-sensitive to what’s different, or new. This is a good thing – it makes us curious. It’s how we gain new experiences and is how we learn.

So, the women are shocked and uncomfortable, but they are also curious, so they go inside the tomb. What are they looking for inside the tomb? Jesus’ body.

What do they find? Angel… man dressed in white.
Where’s Jesus? Risen… (going to meet the disciples in Galilee).

The Angel says “Jesus isn’t here. He’s been raised from the dead. The women are to go and tell his other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.”

That’s the important bit… like the nice yellow, yolk in hard-boiled egg. It’s the important bit at the centre of the story. This isn’t a completely empty place, like my little wooden egg. Yes, they’re horribly disappointed, confused and shocked, but they’ve just been given a really important piece of information; they’ve learnt something so knew it’s never happened before in the history of the world. Someone has died, their friend Jesus has died, and risen to life again… resurrection!

So, what’s that important news again? Jesus is risen.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia.

What’s the other bit of news the angel gave them?… Get the adults to help… they were to go and tell the other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.

It’s easy to get distracted isn’t it? We get all excited about one particular bit of a new discovery, and something else about it gets forgotten until later. That’s like the chocolate covered egg I brought, isn’t it. We got all excited and distracted by the chocolate coating, that what might have been important about it, that message in the middle, all dribbled out and felt disappointing when we tried to crack it!

In a similar way, it’s very easy to remember the very exciting bit of Easter, that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, and then get distracted by the chocolate so we forget the other bit about the angel’s Easter message. What were the women meant to do? Go and tell other people about Jesus being risen, and where they can meet him.

The women in Mark’s Gospel do run off, amazed, but also afraid. They’ve found everything that’s happened in the last few minutes, confusing, shocking and disappointing. They are just so overwhelmed by everything, that they are actually silent, they don’t tell anyone anything!

Is that what was meant to happen? No!

Did they never tell anyone anything about what they’d seen and heard? Hmmmmm….. Yes? Well, the resurrection story in Mark’s Gospel certainly stops there!

If yes…. So how do we know? How come it’s written down in Mark’s Gospel if they don’t tell anyone?

Here’s something that might surprise you: in the very earliest manuscripts (papers) that have been found of Mark’s Gospel, his whole Gospel stops there. Some people think that was all he wrote. Some people think that the last bit of his resurrection story, got lost… like the contents of that uncooked egg. Other people have actually tried to tell another last bit of the resurrection story for Mark, because they’ve added to the end of his Gospel.

The way that Mark’s Easter story ends, as we hear it this morning, is with the women running off and saying nothing to anyone. That’s really important because it makes us think. It makes us think about what’s important at the heart of the Jesus’ resurrection, and what we’re meant to do with that news. What are we meant to do with the news of Jesus’ resurrection? Share it!

The women must have shared the news eventually, because if they hadn’t, their story couldn’t have been told to Mark and written into his Gospel. We know the disciples did meet the risen Jesus, in Jerusalem and Galilee, because we are told that through the other Gospels. So this Easter, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we are reminded that we need to share that news. We need to tell people who don’t know, and remind people who do know, but have perhaps forgotten that’s important. And we need to tell them where they can meet Jesus; here in church, perhaps when we pray, even when we’re confused, scared and disappointed.

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Our Easter Garden, set into the altar.

So, from my three eggs, have we got anything to share? Not a lot!
The wooden egg isn’t edible by anyone.
The chocolate was wrapped around a raw egg, and that’s now all a bit messy and yukky, so we can’t share that either.
The pretty hard-boiled egg is edible…. but it’s not going to go very far is it.

Have you all seen the beautiful Easter Garden at the front? Take the children to the altar…

There are the crosses on the hill, where Jesus was crucified on Good Friday.
Can you see the tomb?
Did you notice that at the very beginning of the service after we lit the candles and I put the big Easter candle in it’s stand, I went and rolled the stone away on the tomb?
Take a close look. What’s nearby?

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What was left of the contents of the golden egg after it had been shared.

They will find a large golden egg.
Get them to bring it to the front very carefully, and open it into a fresh glass bowl.
They will probably be excited, but ask them…

What they are meant to do with what’s inside, before we get too distracted?

SHARE IT! With the whole congregation….

Thanks to the ever-present strength and camera of Graham who keeps this clergy going. The pics are his.

As I was reminded at the end of the service, this was the last sermon of my curacy. On 9th April I will be Licensed as Associate Priest to the parishes of St. Mary’s Eversley and St. Barnabas Darby Green. My thanks to all those who have contributed to the journey thus far, and here’s to the next adventure…