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.





Starting the rest of my life (and losing some brackets)

Windblown but licensed... outside Winchester Cathedral on Saturday
Windblown but licensed... outside Winchester Cathedral on Saturday

So they’ve gone. No longer am I a ‘Reader (to be) in Writing’… but instead a ‘Reader in Writing’, authorised, admitted and licensed. One set of brackets have gone, but the others, though slightly re-worded, will remain until the last set of assignments is marked and returned! In a sense they should remain for ever.

Saturday was special – and if you were there then you were part of what made it special. But there were many people who were not able to be there who have also been part of it, and to them my particular thanks for helping me on the journey. I am now officially a Licensed Lay Minister (or Reader) in the Church of England.

My main personal reflection in the 24 hours since life returned to ‘normal’ is the sense of starting the rest of my life. For the last four years, since selection, Saturday has been a goal, something future. And now, it is something past. Now, ‘ministry’ is not something I hope to do, but something that I am, or part of who I am becoming, at least.

Taking the time to think about the readings at the service (which I admit I’ve had to look up) I continue to fail to see my self as wise (James 3:13-18) even though my certificate of admission suggests someone has told the bishop I am of

“godly life and conversation, training and knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and of the Christian Doctrine.”

More of a work, just beginning to progress?! My thoughts are far too simple and devoid of technical stuff and links to other people’s ideas for me to really stand up to scrutiny on that score. However, I hope and pray that whatever ministry unfolds through me, it may be peace-loving, considerate, submissive, merciful, impartial and fruitful (James 3:17).

And that’s the exciting bit… starting out, again. There is a lot to explore, and a huge to-do list of areas of ministry that I want or need to get my hands dirty in. Now there isn’t really a road map of what comes next (like there has been with the modules of Reader Training), but there is more of a sense of revelation to come – revelation of who God is and how he can work through me, if I remember to let him.

There is something compulsive about following Jesus. I can’t help it – I have to go where he leads me. He has always been part of my life, even if I have never known just how tough the journey was going to be in places. And Matthew 4:18-25 reminds me of this – the calling of Simon, Andrew, James and John from their nets – because the disciples didn’t know what would happen to them, through them, or because of them, they just felt compelled to follow this Jesus man (as I think the sermon reminded us).

There have been many things in my life that felt ‘right’ at the point when I have done them… going to Aberystwyth felt right from the first Sunday in St. Mike’s; becoming engaged was ‘right’ long before G purchased the ring (and marriage simply formalised it); coming to Yateley was a definitely part of God’s plan for us from the day and the circumstances in which we sold the house in Bracknell. And now this – becoming a Licensed Lay Minister is ‘right’ in God’s eyes. As Bishop Michael grasped my hand (incredibly firmly) to admit me as a Reader, proclaiming the Godhead in Trinity, I knew it was the right thing – God’s will for the rest of my life is that I am a ‘minister’ among his people and to extend his Kingdom.

As Jesus travelled through Galilee he was enabling people to gain a personal relationship with him, through his preaching and teaching (Matt 4:23). At Pentecost he enabled his followers to do the same (Acts 1:8). These things don’t come naturally to me, and I’ve always found sharing my faith with non-Christians difficult, but as I prepare for another pre-baptism visit this evening, and as I contemplate ‘the rest of my life’, my prayer is that through God’s Holy Spirit, and as he has promised, he will enable me clearly show others how Jesus can be our friend, hope, saviour, guide and comfort. Amen.

Here I am

The crucifix in the grounds at Furzey
The crucifix in the grounds at Furzey

It is now only 3 days till my licensing as a Lay Minister (Reader). I am very grateful to Father A who led our Quiet Day at Furzey House on Saturday for continuing your good work at getting my head round this ministry thing, and I’m now feeling much more positive about my walk with God and for God.
Furzey was a childhood playground of mine, in the village I grew up in, and in many ways it brought my story round in a Godly loop that just felt ‘right’. The weather was wonderful, plenty of warm sunshine in which to sit and pray as the honey bees buzzed – though in the end I discovered my favourite spot to pray was down the bottom of the gardens, leaning on a five barred gate, looking at sheep.

Father A took the theme ‘Here I am’ which started with a journey from the question “Who am I?” to which we would get many different answers from family, friends, congregation members. But essentially we are created by God. When God revealed himself in creation, he named things (birds, fish etc) and named us into being to.

To be reminded that I am part of what God wanted as the wonders of his creation because he wants me as his own, is awesome and humbling at the same time. My calling is therefore not to a specific task but to be God’s. (This had some great resonances with what Revd L said at MU Conference Eucharist last week about the fact that we are called to “be” not “do”.) Vocation is therefore a recognition of that calling by God to “be”.

For me, 2-3 weeks ago I was an Eli character – “the word of the Lord was rare” (1 Sam 3:1) – perhaps like him I had grown week, through distance from God, or just ‘overload’ of work. The recognition that I was not in the right place at least meant that I noticed the “lamp of God had not yet gone out.” In 1 Sam 3:11, God says to Samuel

I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.

That was Samuel’s original calling, and it sent me back to mine… ‘God on the phone’ was the moment when my ears definitely tingled, my heart lept with excitement that this was God calling me to a doing of something for him. There was a natural willingness to proclaim that here was my adventure with God.

I fell into Reader Training from there, but despite the lack of discernment (not an ear tingle in sight) there was a sense of rightness. However, I know I’ve not lived up to Samuel’s achievements as I have grown through training, as I’m sure I have let many “words fall to the ground” and I have a very real sense that I am only just starting the ‘real’ training!

I think it would be good to review my original thoughts from the start of Reader Training and see if my sense of calling is the same or different. I will try and go dig them out as they were pre-blog… but not tonight…

Actually I’m also looking forward to getting down to the mission essay when all the fuss is over, and perhaps sharing some more useful thoughts with you, but not this week I’m afraid.

Things have started to get busy for the weeend already, though the biggest problems seem to be with the service I’m leading on Sunday at which our Archdeacon is preaching – but that is another story. Tomorrow I am at Mothers’ Union Trustee Meeting, and they’ve had four pages by email of bright ideas that came out of last weeks Marketing Conference, though the one I really, really want them to take up is the ‘Messy Eucharist’ for the 2011 Festival. Friday I shall spend time with my spiritual director.

On the family front:

C managed 8 miles in a kayake in 2 hours 4 mins last Sunday on the Basingstoke Canal Challenge, coming 3rd out of the 6 Scouts in the county who did the distance. This meant he achieved a bronze medal. Tonight he started climbing at Craggy Island in Guildford, also with Scouts! What with all this and his sailing, he’s going to have serious arm muscles. We’re so proud of him and his willingness to try things, and he seems to love these personal challenges.

Keep seeing a Clouded Yellow Butterfly up on the heath at the back of the airport, but have I got the camera with me when I see it…? Er, no.

Turning corners

Talking about things helps, especially when there’s such an encouraging bunch of you reading this drivel I churn out.

I’m not totally sure if it was meant for me, but this felt like it, for starters. As you’ve said Andy, there is a ministry in blogging, and you’ve just exercised it!

The process of responding to your messages off-blog has actually been really helpful – considering the validity of your points against what I’m thinking, has helped start to put things in perspective a bit, a bit like turning corners on a road and revealing new views, among the same scenery.

One of my real senses I mentioned yesterday is that I don’t love enough to minister – I’ve been reading various things for the Mission Module, and two of them (Bosch and also Singlehursts ‘Sowing, Reaping, Keeping’) have talked about mission and ministry being an overflowing of love towards people. I don’t think I do, at least not enough.

Added to this is a sense that my conversation with God is very God orientated, I’ve never had a big thing about Jesus, which might sound daft, when I know what he did, and why he did it was for me, and for everyone. My conversation however is with God, through the Holy Spirit, and Jesus doesn’t necessarily feature in that though he is the supreme example of that love stuff I was just talking about. This is however making all the stuff about Mission that we’re doing, which in my mind at least is very Jesus centred, a bit tricky.

Then there’s the whole ministry thing being about ‘taking up your cross’ – very Jesus-centric. I suppose yes that’s what I’m doing, though I’m not sure exactly what that cross is at present – just the shear doing of ministry stuff I suppose, especially when with big L-plates, I don’t feel that comfortable doing any of it. If ministry is to bring me Life with God in Jesus in a new way, I know it won’t be dull. Usually I don’t want a dull life – even if it seems attractive right now, but that’s probably just the physical tiredness talking.

Lay ministry does feel right, at least in the sense I know that I’m just not ready for the other step that others have suggested to me over the years. If I can get this hung up over Licensing, perhaps God knew that was all I could cope with at this stage in my life, and even if it feels a bit tough at present it means he’s actually being quite gentle with me.

One person contacted me off-comment and suggested that
a) God had helped her through my online ramblings in the past which was quite startling (interesting since although we have a mutual real friend who isn’t a Christian, she is, but we’ve never met)
b) that this could well be the devil trying to stop God’s work: “The devil really won’t want someone like you to be put into ministry – it really won’t be good news for him. He knows that God has got a tight hold on you so the only way he can try to influence you is via doubt.”

This rings true with various things that have happened in the past – G spent a week in hospital when he shouldn’t have needed to, just after we’d agreed to start an All Age ministry here at St Ps 10 years ago, but before we actually got it going. So perhaps time to kick the devil’s work out then?

I’ve been asked for an image or quality that I would like to be prayed for… and yes, LOVE would be a big thing, love of Jesus, and love of others, real love for people especially if they’re ‘not my type’, not just the social justice sort of love that means Micah 6:8 drops off the tongue easily. From that I guess the joy and enthusiasm, as well as the insight might all come as side benefits, along with some I don’t anticipate if God acts true to his usual self!

A 36 hour days would help as well, but perhaps praying for the ability to balance life better might be more realistic – so a 12 hour day then!

Tonights baptism-prep visit went a little better I think, but then they seemed a little interested in starting a journey of faith with the little step of a child’s baptism. Please God they are authentic to their words.

Crisis of confidence

I know this is partly bred of being overtired, and partly natural (according to our Warden of Readers who dismissed my mutterings as flippancy) but I’ve been having an acute attack of “What me God? You have to be joking!”

I have been totally convinced consistently that I have a calling to the ministry of preaching and teaching all the way through Reader Training. I have got depressed by the workload and some issues with the course at various points, but have been consistently encouraged by others who have heard me preach, or with whom I have worked (like my placement vicar), as well as marks I’ve received for assignments. I know I have problems in ‘technical recall’ of theological points, but I’ve been encouraged to think it will come with time, and anyway, normal people don’t want to hear technical terms, they want to know God’s love.

So why, when the forms are signed by me and the vicar, licensing is looming, and I’m starting to be more aware of being ‘a minister’, am I suddenly so scared and think that God’s got it wrong. Twice in the last week my thoughts and emotions have brought me to a standstill of questions, doubts and fears.

Even the lectionary has been trying to encourage me over our last residential weekend of training:
Sunday –
Psalm 116 v7-9  “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you… that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
Isaiah 50 v4-5 “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue to know the word that sustains the weary…[and] opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back.”
Today –
Psalm 22 v25 “From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfil my vows.”

There’s a thought, not only will I make vows of obedience to God in ministry at my Licensing, but I will fulfil them… he will work through me for others. And yet, how much of this is me and how much is God I ask myself? When I can’t even find the right conversation to excite a couple enquiring about baptism to take a more serious interest in the faith that is so important to me, what do I think I’m playing at?!

And then, falling out my Bible a slip of paper noting the words of Timothy Radcliffe in this years Lent book –

Why are we so reluctant to be sent? Because it means dying to whom we have been. Preaching the Gospel is not a matter of turning other people into Christians just like ourselves. We are sent on mission to discover who we are in and for other people.

I’ve spent three years of training dying to who I was, and I’m totally shattered. I don’t want to turn people into boring Christians like me, but I don’t seem to have enough love of God inside me for it to overflow to them and offer them the vibrant and exciting life with God I see in others.

I won’t duck out now, I’d be too embarrassed and let too many people down (not good reasons I know), and the logical bit of my brain knows this is the bottom of the roller coaster ride we heard preached about yesterday, but please God can I have the love and enthusiasm for you that will enable to me enjoy my Licensing and delight in sharing you with others?

Don’t bother commenting on this rather selfish posting – just pray for me, and for any others entering authorised ministry who might be feeling anything like I am at present. And may God Bless you with a certainty I don’t currently have.

I may look forward…

Received a letter today from the Warden of Readers that makes it official:

“In the view of those responsible for initial Reader Training you have successfully completed the Reader Training Programme and may look forward to being Licensed on 3rd October 2009.”

So I am really to be a Reader or if you prefer the terminology, Licensed Lay Reader. I feel rather odd about it really: still not quite sure I’m really up to the role, not feeling really like I can be a minister; but in the good moments sure of a calling to do these preaching, teaching  things and try and make a difference in the world for God.

No great nerves, excitement or happiness I’m afraid, far too much to do in the next five weeks for that! Bless him, G insisted we have a take-away tonight to ‘celebrate’, but I had to go buy it because he’d had a gardening accident with a freshly sharpened pair of secetares he was mis-using – a 1.5cmlong and deep cut in his left thumb! Bless him!!

Social networking in pastoral situations

I received a prize from my vicar today! He called it this month’s “keeping an ear to the ground” prize.CakeCutting

The story goes like this. A local lad is currently training in New Zealand for his commercial pilots license. In years past he has played guitar in our worship group, and we’ve kept in touch a bit… via Facebook.

He’s engaged to a local girl who also grew up attending our church and recently updated his Facebook profile with a wedding date in November.

Now at St. Ps we have a system (not fool proof but beginning to work) that we do banns of marriage starting the first Sunday of the month, 2 months before the wedding. This allows for one of our multiplicity of lay service leaders to forget and still have the banns complete well in advance.

Whilst doing the August banns in the book I realised that I’d not got a form on file yet for this much anticipated wedding, and that logically I should be getting them set up in September. Thinking I’d missed something somewhere I left a post-it in the vicars office tray querying the absence of said forms. The prize was my reward!

And to top off the technology, he’s filled out the form on the couple’s behalf courtesy of Skype and email, as said groom-to-be is not due back in the country till mid-September.

So today, I’m thanking God for Facebook, and wondering if other people have found that use of a social networking site has helped spot a possible pastoral glitch or need?

(Cassock arrived yesterday, altered, comfortable and now paid for. Finished last assignment of the academic year tonight – nothing further to hand in until after Licensing, though a little light reading for residential in September!)

A surprise encounter

My good friend and fellow trainee Ian, has just posted the audio of my sermon from Sunday (the one with Gabriel in it) at  http://www.stpetersyateley.org.uk/
– follow the links to Services and Sermons and I’m there on the list as “A surprise encounter” (Luke 1:26-38)!

Tomorrow I’m off to the Christian Resources Exhibition at Sandown Park Racecourse where my main job is to order a cassock, probably from J&M Sewing, which brings the whole licensing thing a little closer!

I am very fortunate in that I have been given a surplice and Reader Scarf… and it’s a lovely story: Liz got me involved in Mothers’ Union several years ago – it was her that suggested to some diocesan folk I might have suitable skills to edit the ‘Archway’ newsletter, from which the rest is history!

Liz’s Mum is Thelma, a dear old lady who we think was one of the early women Readers in the Church of England… Women were first licensed as Readers exactly 40 years last Sunday (that’ll be the day I preached about Gabriel and the Holy Spirit then!) Thelma (also a staunch MU member) is now in a home, but Liz and her brother David very kindly found and with Thelma’s blessing, have given me, her surplice and Reader Scarf.

When licensing finally comes, I will be very honoured to wear them.