Hello again, and thank you for joining me on this walk through Lent, thinking about what it means to live in the light of the I am sayings, to go deeper into following the Good Shepherd.
I feel I can’t start this week, which looks at leadership, without saying something about our current political difficulties here in the UK, with Brexit. I am sure that many of you reading will be appalled and ashamed by our present national crisis. Although the time will come to examine how we ended up here, at the moment, I’m just wondering how we can progress through the real and self-inflicted danger we now face. Will a leader emerge? Will we – the people – have an opportunity to lead with our many voices and all be heard with respect?
For I am particularly appalled by the violence and threats of violence our MPs are receiving – as well as ordinary people out demonstrating or campaigning on line. I, for one, am deeply troubled by the fact that I have not heard politicians who lead the various factions speaking out to utterly condemn violence.
Why not? We, the people, are watching and listening.
Poor leadership, or bad leadership, is very destructive of our common good, our communities, and the prospects for our young people. We need good shepherds.
In contrast, and with hope, I see a new kind of leader emerging in the figure of the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Her response to the terrible events in Christchurch have been light in the darkness, a shepherd caring for her sheep, which includes taking strong action to protect them. She has led with profound compassion, and that compassion has driven her actions – from legislation banning military style weapons, to opening her parliament with an Imam’s prayers. She has sought to model the best of the loving community she represents, giving no space to the voices of hate, intolerance and violence.
I hope you will forgive my trespass out of my normal field. Our crisis of leadership is weighing on my mind as I think about the good shepherd, and I felt I needed to speak about it first.
Just about all of us have responsibilities for others in some form or other, and as citizens and members of our communities we have especial responsibilities to the young, and the vulnerable. And so, as we consider the Good Shepherd, and less good shepherds, we can hold in mind those ways our actions and our words have an impact on others, and how we can care for and nurture one another.
This saying follows on from the one before – ‘I am the light of the world’. The setting, as we saw in the previous chapter, is the Feast of Tabernacles. The atmosphere is hostile, argumentative, challenging to Jesus….
This good shepherd story is an answer to these questions and challenges that have been rolling on over several chapters of our reading. Jesus often responds to questioning with a story. Stories speak to the whole person..
Once again, Jesus has a double audience for this story – the man who has received his sight, and doubtless others outside the synagogue, and the religious leaders who threw him out. This one story, one image, of the Good Shepherd, will have been heard differently by these two groups. Just think, the man who had received his sight, and been thrown out of fellowship, was sought out by Jesus. He is like the lost sheep in the other gospels. It is so good to know that this is what the Good Shepherd does – he finds one who has been rejected. Jesus not only healed him, but later comes to restore him, care for him, include him.
Of course, all those who listened to him on both sides will have been used to hearing scriptures that talked about good and bad shepherds. They will have know the words of Ezekiel on the subject, as well as holding dear the memory of David, the shepherd king.
“You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” Ezekiel 34:4
Jesus clearly draws on a shared knowledge of this prophecy to confront those who challenged him. They know that the prophecy continues, saying that God himself will search for the sheep, as Jesus searched for the one who can now see. God will gather those who are lost and scattered, and will feed them with good pasture. God will be their shepherd, will bind up the injured, will strengthen the weak. They will be fed with justice. And Jesus claims this role, the role of the good shepherd, for himself.
When we can be cared for by God, the power and importance of human leaders – tyrants, emperors, Pharisees – is hugely diminished. And it sets a high bar for those human leaders, those who would be a shepherd of a flock. That nourishing, self-giving, gentle leading of the good shepherd is our standard.
Can we follow this shepherd, and learn to nurture in our turn?
So, we turn, briefly, to the gate.
There is a twofold task that Jesus undertakes for us. One is to keep us safe, to be the gate. The other is to lead us out. …… The shepherd would lie across the gap in the circular sheepfold at night, protecting the sheep both from wild animals and sheep-rustlers. Jesus keeps the sheep safe……..
We need safety and refuge. We need sanctuary. We need to lie down and sleep in safety. And then, as the shepherd gets to his feet and calls us out of the fold, we need to continue to find our safety in the presence of the shepherd as we step out into the new light of morning.
If God made the world, and all things hold together in Christ, we know that the shepherd knows what he is doing when he leads us out. He knows all about the dark valley, and will not abandon us there, but it is not all dark valley. It is also green pasture, flowing water and the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. Abundant life is such a marvellous promise……
Reflection and Response
Take some time to look at the picture through the doorway above, and to reflect on on Jesus being a gate, or a door. Sit quietly, and open your heart and mind in prayer.
What catches your attention?
How do you feel when you look at it?
Does it remind you of anything?
Can you imagine yourself walking through that landscape?
As you go out and about in your ordinary days, or as you feel drawn to a new adventure in life and faith, what does it mean to listen out for the voice of the shepherd, and to follow the Good Shepherd? Where may he be leading you?
How comfortable can you be with not being sure about that?
Take time to commit your days and your ways to following.
Prayer for the beginning of the day:
Good Shepherd, you know what lies before me today.
Help me to hear your voice, and remain close to you.
Guide me beside still waters, keep me at peace.
Nourish me with your presence, let me have enough to give.
Let me follow you this day, and always.
Prayer during the day:
Good Shepherd, let me see you ahead of me,
and know which way to go.
Write down ways in which you have some leadership and/or influence with others. Each of our lives touches others; we all make ripples in our ponds.
Ask God to help you learn to be a good shepherd in these situations, and to follow the good shepherd.
Write down any action or insight that comes to you. Resolve to follow it this week.
Remember a time when you felt really listened to, and a time when you did not. What was the impact of both occasions? Resolve to be a more attentive listener this week. Give your full attention to whoever is talking to you. Seek to understand them, really hear them, rather than putting your own point of view across.
A link to Malcolm Guite’s sonnet on the gate
If you’d like a copy of the book, you can ask your local bookshop, or order online.
Here are a few suggestions:
The publishers, BRF