Some years ago, when I was training for ordination at Cuddesdon, one of our tutors Joanna Collicutt (who, by the way, is preaching at May’s evensong) led a discussion on the notion of Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd, and whether it was a metaphor that was still fit for purpose. As befits a group of folk who are just about to be ordained it was an intense and serious discussion. Several members of the group felt that as a modern day metaphor the notion of the Good Shepherd as extremely limited. They argued that the good midwife and such like might be more suitable. Now, to be fair, some of them were going into urban ministry and Call the Midwife had just become a hit series. However, there was also a feeling that the Good Shepherd evoked images of a bygone age characterised by real ale, morris dancing, romantic poetry and never-ending spring sunshine. As a somewhat intense student with some understanding, albeit a second hand understanding, of shepherding I argued with some passion that the Good Shepherd remains a fitting metaphor and that my highly earnest colleagues simply failed to understand the reality of shepherding. In a spirit of true humility, I would still maintain that I was right!
My second hand understanding derived from the fact that my father-in-law was a shepherd: a good one, an award winning one. During our courtship and the early years of our marriage I was privileged to observe the art of shepherding and, it was a real eye opener. A good shepherd is of course concerned for the good of the whole flock. In fact each and every year through the lambing process they renew and refresh the flock. As a priest, a pastor, one of my concerns must be to constantly refresh and renew the church. The goal of any good shepherd must be to have a healthy and good flock. It is the quality of the flock that says most about the shepherd; it is the overall quality of the local church that says most about the church. Are we a healthy and vibrant flock? I hope so.
Being concerned about the overall quality of the flock doesn’t mean not caring about each and every person on an individual basis. The flock, congregation, church, community is made up of individuals. One of the things that absolutely amazed me about my father-in-law was that he was able to recognize each and every sheep. He knew all about their life story, their birth, any problems they might have with their feet, tails and so forth. I found this amazing for surely all sheep look the same. But, for a good shepherd, and indeed for the Good Shepherd all members of the flock are to be regarded as individuals in community. As Jesus says ‘I know my own sheep.’ But, Jesus in fact goes further, not only does he know his own sheep but he ‘cares for his sheep,’ and is prepared to ‘lay down his life for his sheep.’ Good shepherds care. They care deeply. I saw this in the lambing sheds: the effort to fight to save the life of just one lamb that my father-in-law and the rest of the family – for good shepherding is always a shared activity - would go to was extraordinary. They would deliver lambs by hand, mouth-to-mouth resuscitate them, incubate them in the Aga, bottle feed them and, then graft them back into the flock. Shouldn’t we be a bit like this in our pastoral work, or shepherding? You see we too are called on to be good shepherds. Jesus when he affirms Peter stresses that he must ‘feed my sheep.’ We, as members of the one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, must become good shepherds. Our Christian vocation – yours as well as mine – is to seek out for care, resuscitate, incubate and graft back into community the weak, lost and in need. In doing so we need to take risks, lay down our own interests, priorities and prejudice. We need to be courageous. Jean Varnier puts it like this:
‘It (good shepherding) can mean giving oneself to another in total trust and love. It can also mean risking my life by throwing myself into the raging waters to save someone who is drowning.’
Jean Varnier, in his reflection on toady’s gospel passage insists that we reflect on the qualitative difference between good shepherds and bad, or false, shepherds. He accuses, rightly I think, false shepherds as being ‘more concerned about their salary, their reputation, about structures, administration and success of the group than about people and their inner growth and freedom. They use people because of their need to have power and control over them, and to prove they are superior. They seem frightened of personal contact and hide behind rules and regulations. They prevent others from growing to freedom and from taking initiatives. They are hard on weaker people and lack compassion. They do not seek to understand people but tend to judge and condemn others. In the face of conflict they leave people lost and alone, not knowing what to do. They are closed up in their own needs.’
All of us face a choice: whether to follow the Good Shepherd which implies letting Jesus take hold of us and truly convert us, or whether to be false shepherds. Just being a member of the church doesn’t settle the issue for it is a qualitative issue. We don’t become good shepherds simply through coming to church. You don’t need me to tell you that self-interest, which is the definition of false shepherding, can be prevalent in the life of the church. My hope and prayer is that as individuals and as a community we will seek to act as good shepherds. If we do we will move a long way towards meeting one of our three aspirations: holiness.
Will you join with me in seeking to build a church community that seeks to model itself on the life of The Good Shepherd Jesus? If we do so we will grow together in both holiness and probably number, and surely this should be the hope of each and every Christian flock? Amen.