SERMON for EASTER 4 – Good Shepherd Sunday

“I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn.10:10)
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INTRODUCTION
You can’t miss it, can you!  Well you could, but you’d need to have your head in the sand.  The Election!  And not just in this country: the people of France are voting today for a new President: will it be Le Pen or Macron (I know who I’d vote for!)?  And Germany, too, is gearing up for their Federal Elections in September.  It’s not just Spring that’s in the air – but election fever!

Of course, we don’t vote for our Head of State.  Living in a monarchy we are spared the somewhat nauseating goings on that brought Trump to the White House.  But, nonetheless, we’re getting into the thick of it – will we be drawn by ‘Stable and Secure’; ‘For the Many not the Few’, or ‘Change Britain’s Future’?  Whatever soundbite attracts us let’s just remember that today is Good Shepherd Sunday and Jesus has His own slogan that He shares with us: not at first sight very political but in His day quite radical – “I am the Gate.”  So, what on earth did He mean by that?

I AM THE GATE
Well, to start with, this ‘I Am’ affirmation is one of seven (or, possibly, eight) in John’s gospel and, next week, will be followed by another: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ (John 14: 1-14)   Now that  prefix, ‘I Am’, should alert us to the way in which these words were understood in Judaism.  They refer back to the moment when Moses stood before the burning bush on Mount Horeb and asked God, who addressed him out of the flames, to identify Himself.  Speak His Name.  And God declared: “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex.3:14).  Enigmatic to say the least!  Or, perhaps, it prevents  us from giving a name to the One who has no name; for once you can name someone you have a certain power over them.  So Jesus gives us ‘hints and guesses’ as to His identity.  “I am the Gate.”  I am the one through whom the sheep will enter the sheepfold.  I am in process and cannot be contained.

And a few verses later Jesus will bring all this to a climax when he says: “I am the good shepherd … And I lay down my life for the sheep” (10:14/15) thereby connecting Himself with the practice at that time, and still is in some places today, for a shepherd at the end of a day to lead their sheep from pastures to the walled-in sheepfold.  And then to lie down across the entrance to protect the sheep from scavengers.

WHO IS THE GOOD SHEPHERD?
In all these statements Jesus is using metaphors to shed new light; reveal things from a different angle; open up new meaning.  One of the connections the Israelites would have made was with the powerful understanding of the king, the ruler, as the human manifestation of the Divine Shepherd of Israel.  The Good Shepherd.  So when they did not live up to their duty to protect the people, especially the weakest and most vulnerable, the Prophets were not slow to criticise them: “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!” declares the LORD” said Jeremiah to King Zedekiah (Jer. 23:1).

And those who listened to Jesus would have sensed He was alluding to Himself as the One who, if the people listened, would lead the people to good grazing.  He knows His flock and cares for them and His purpose is fullness of life for those who follow Him: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10:10)  They might promise much and seem very appealing but they needed to be listened to with caution.  And whilst Jesus directs this allegory about the sheep and the shepherd toward the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders of his time, it’s one that is timeless.

GOOD SHEPHERD AND ELECTIONS
Now with a General Election looming there are plenty of promises being made by politicians about making life better for people.  And, of course, we all want a better, more abundant life; one where we can feel secure and of value.  And many people believe this will come, for example, once we have left the EU.  But there’s a danger when expectations have been raised, especially if these are predicated upon forces beyond our total control.

And then there are those ‘false prophets’ of whom Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. … Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matt.7)   Such an important and timeless metaphor.

MONTH OF THE SACRED HEART
Now it so happens that the General Election falls in the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Unfortunately the image of the Sacred Heart, and the devotions associated with it, are unfamiliar to many non-Catholics, although the first Franciscan community for men in the Church of England was dedicated to the Divine Compassion.  And that’s just another way of speaking of the Sacred Heart, of which the Jesuit priest and writer, Jim Martin, said: ‘(It) is nothing less than an image of the way that Jesus loves us: fully, lavishly, radically, completely, sacrificially.  It invites us to meditate on some of the most important questions in the spiritual life: In what ways did Jesus love his disciples and friends?  How did he love strangers and outcasts?  How was he able to love his enemies?  How did he show his love for humanity?  What would it mean to love like Jesus did?  What would it mean for me to have a heart like his?  How can my heart become more “sacred”?  For in the end, the Sacred Heart is about understanding Jesus’s love for us and inviting us to love others as Jesus did.’

And it’s rooted in Divine Compassion.  For our Faith tells us that it was out of God’s deep and powerful compassion for us, His lost sheep, that He came in human form to search us out and lead us home.  To His Kingdom.  In a world where hatred and resentment, hostility and fear of the other are ever present and seem to be growing, compassion is a virtue to be cultivated.  “Divine Compassion” wrote Br. Damian when he was Provincial of the Anglican Franciscans in the UK “… strikes at the very heart of the Good News.  … what Jesus has shown of the Divine nature is true of the numinous Being of the Father: He is above all compassionate, deeply caring, gentle as a Mother, and ready to heal, restore, forgive.”

COMPANIONS OF THE COMPASSIONATE HEARTS
And it is for all those reasons that a new international, ecumenical Spiritual Association, the Companions of the Compassionate Hearts of Jesus and Mary, is being developed.  Its aim is to help nurture in our hearts and spread in the world this most basic of all Christian virtues.  It welcomes any Christian who, recognising they often fail to live with compassion, wants to nurture that virtue in their own heart.

COMPASSION AND LIFE ABUNDANT
One of the reasons why it came in to being was to counter the belief that an abundant life is about possessing more things.  Just recall what that early Christian community in Jerusalem did as a consequence of God’s gift of abundant life: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.’  (Acts 2: 44)

There was a generosity about those early Christians.  They discovered a joy, deep within them, because of this gift of life in all its fullness.  Listen to the rest of the description of the early Church: ‘Day by day, as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts. … And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.’ (Acts 2:46f)

COMPASSION AS A MARK OF HUMANITY
Now I’m not suggesting that every Christian should sell all they have and give the proceeds to the poor, although there will be some who hear this invitation and seek to do just that and, like S. Francis of Assisi, it might motivate them to enter Religious Life.  But if that is not our calling, how are we to be formed as Christians?  What are our distinguishing marks?  To what do we need to attend, for example, in seeking to make a discerned choice in the Elections to Parliament?  We aren’t choosing a leader for our country but each of us has a responsibility to make that discerned choice.  And what needs to underpin that discernment?

Well, firstly, to desire the best for our fellow human-beings, especially the most vulnerable, and to become aware of any prejudices we may have that may interfere with that good desire and seek to set those aside.  Then to read the different political Manifesto’s and notice what they promise, and what they don’t!  Finally, as Christians, we ought to ask God to help us make the best choice we can that will accord with what He desires for us.   As our Archbishop’s have said in their Pastoral Letter concerning the Election: ’The United Kingdom, when at its best, has been represented by a sense not only of living for ourselves, but by a deeper concern for the weak, poor and marginalised, and for the common good.’  So beneath all our considerations we need to ask what most accord’s with the call of Christ – what reflects most fully God’s compassion for His creation. 

The Archbishop’s Letter goes on to note that: ‘Our Christian heritage, our current choices and our obligations to future generations and to God’s world will all play a shaping role’ and comments on how ‘Stability, an ancient and Benedictine virtue, is about living well with change. Stable communities will be skilled in reconciliation, resilient in setbacks and diligent in sustainability.’   And I would have added, if they had asked me (which I can’t for the life of me think why they didn’t!), not just ‘concern’ but compassion towards the foreigner and refugee in our midst.

CONCLUSION
The Bon Pasteur, the Good Shepherd, longs in the depths of His Sacred Heart to bring all into His sheepfold, His Kingdom.  He reaches out and asks that we, His disciples, do the same: ‘Be compassionate as your (heavenly) Father is compassionate’  (Lk.6:36)   And it is His compassion which must always inform and mould our hearts, not least in our dealings with each other and the world in which we live.  As Henri Nouwen, the great Catholic writer and pastor said: “Action with and for those who suffer is the concrete expression of the compassionate life and the final criterion of being a Christian.”

May the Good Shepherd move in our hearts as we seek to live out of His Will.

Amen.

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Preached at Church of S. John the Baptist, Eltham on May 6th, 2017
Readings: Acts 2: 42-47; 1 Pet.2: 19-25 and John 10: 1-10

REFLECTION on S. TERESA BENEDICTA of the CROSS and the HEARTS of JESUS and MARY

To stand with you by the cross

Today I stood with you beneath the cross
and felt more keenly than I ever did before
that you, beneath the cross, became our mother.

Even an earthly mother’s faithful love
desires to carry out her son’s last wish.
Yet, you are the handmaid of the Lord,
and surrendered in your entire being and life
to the Being and Life of God made man.
You have taken us into your heart,
and with the heart’s blood of your bitter pains
have purchased life that’s new for every soul.
You know us all: our weakness and our wounds.
You also know the spark of heaven’s flame:
your Son’s love longs to take it
and pour it on us – an eternal blaze.
You guide our steps with care,
no price for you too high
to lead us to the goal.
But those whom you have chosen as companions here,
surrounding you one day at the eternal throne,
we now must stand, with you, beneath the cross
and purchase, with our heart’s blood’s bitter pains,
this spark of heaven for those priceless souls
whom God’s own Son bequeaths to us, his heirs.
Prayer poem of St Teresa Benedicta

Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta: 1891-1942) wrote this prayer-poem on Good Friday 1938 during a retreat before taking her life vows as a Carmelite.  She had always felt an affinity with Mary at the foot of the cross and prior to entering religious life had spent many hours each Holy Week, praying before a statue of the Pietà at the Abbey of Beuron.

When Hitler came to power early in 1933 Edith soon recognised what that might mean for the Jewish people and wrote, ‘I talked with the Saviour and told Him that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people… I would [help carry it]. He should only show me how… I was certain I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know.’ She entered the Carmel at Cologne later that year, taking the name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a sign of her deep sense of call to share in Christ’s Passion.  Her understanding of the vocation of enclosed contemplative life in relation to heart-deep compassion for the world deriving from the Divine Compassion, comes out clearly in these words: ‘You can be at all fronts, wherever there is grief, in the power of the cross. Your compassionate love takes you everywhere, this love from the divine heart…’ and ‘Whoever enters Carmel is not lost to his own but is theirs fully for the first time; it is our vocation to stand before God for all.’

She had long seen her life as a holocaust of intercession and atonement (by which she meant the at-one-ment of reconciliation and profound intercession) and on Passion Sunday 1939, she asked the Reverend Mother of the Dutch Carmel at Echt (where she had been offered asylum) for leave ‘to offer myself to the heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement.’  Two months later when making her will she wrote, ‘I joyfully accept the death which God has destined for me in complete submission to his most holy will…in atonement…’  She had a sense of carrying in her heart, and offering herself for, not only the Jewish people, but also their Nazi persecutors, the Church, the concerns of Jesus and Mary, her family and ‘the salvation of Germany and world peace’.  Echoing Jesus’ High Priestly prayer, she concluded her self-offering by praying ‘for all whom God has given me: that not one of them may be lost’.  The vastness of her prayer and her love could be seen as a reflection of the love, self-giving, and complete surrender to God’s will exemplified by Jesus and Mary, her guiding inspirations and Companions.  Just as Jesus carries us in his Heart to the Heart of the Father, so Edith sought to join her life and heart to His and Mary’s.  She had written of Mary, ‘The Virgin, who kept every word sent from God in her heart, is the model for…attentive souls in whom Jesus’ high priestly prayer comes to life again and again.’

Edith had once said to a priest, ‘You don’t know what it means to me when I come into chapel in the morning and, looking at the tabernacle and the picture of Mary, say to myself, they were of our blood.’  And as the above poem shows, she so clearly felt a sense of tender affinity with Mary at the foot of the cross. Like Mary, however full of grief and pain, she remained totally focused on Jesus, and did not flinch when the Nazis came for her in 1942.  An inmate of the transit camp at Westerbork wrote afterwards of Edith’s brief sojourn there, en route to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, that as she sat and prayed she looked like ‘a Pietà without the Christ’.  That was the outward appearance; within her Christ was living his Passion – and like him, she reached out in compassion to those with her, calming and quieting children and combing their hair, and, as an official at the camp was later to testify, ‘walking, talking, and praying…like a saint.

Just as Jesus ‘gave’ Mary to John so, Edith suggests, Mary takes us into her heart and we can offer her a ‘home’ in ours, as together we journey ever deeper into the burning heart of love that is the Trinity – a heart that longs to reach out in love to a broken world.

Nicola Mason (Companion CHJM)
Lent 2017