Sunday, 28 May 2017

Good enough

Sunday Gospel  - Matthew 28:16-20 

The eleven disciples set out for Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had arranged to meet them. When they saw him they fell down before him, though some hesitated. Jesus came up and spoke to them. He said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.’

It's Matthew so it must be the (now) Eleven. It doesn't mean that only they were there, any more than only they were there at the Last Supper. But imagery is important; the infant church will begin by following in the footsteps of Jacob's sons. 

And like Jacob's sons, they remain a motley crew of eager yet nervous, unsure yet faithful followers. And if there is no other reason for reading scripture it is this one; to realise that God's people have always been a doubting, meddling, anxious, cowardly, hesitant, wrangling lot. Which is why they are God's people - knowing they wouldn't get very far on their own.

And that God wouldn't have it any other way.

It's Matthew, so there must be a mountain - a ancient meeting place of the Divine and humanity. This time there is no bright lights, no unearthly voice, no ancestral fathers, no time to make a tent. There is - only Jesus. 

And Jesus tells the disciples that that he is enough. That they can keep all their faults, their feelings and their failings because he is enough.

How subversive is that? That you are good enough to do God's work - just as you are? 

You can barely scroll through a few internet pages without getting '7 steps to success' or '5 ways of winning'  or 'Tips to the top' - all intended to create a desire for a life, lifestyle, relationships or career that is all about the better us.  

And it is a sad truth that we have churches filled -or rather not filled -  with exclusions and exceptions. That we judge others and continue to judge ourselves. And that now churches are developing marketing strategies and training people to be the 'new' face of evangelism. 

Surely, it's more important to be the 'true' face of evangelism? That it's only our hearts that matter. That it is our flaws, our vulnerability and our compassion that deny us the opportunity to look the other way. It is our love for others that offers others hope. It is only by our example of who we are that we can bring others to where they want to be. 

The actions of the Manchester heroes show the true face of discipleship. The people who lifted themselves out of the everyday, who tore down their usual safety nets to reach out and do the 'work'. Whether they were of any faith or no faith, the teaching of Jesus - to love as we love our ourselves - has embedded itself into the psyche of the world and continues to be expressed by people who only ever describe themselves as ordinary. 

I am often confused by people who anticipate the  second coming when we are already blessed with 'now here'. This Gospel reminds us that Jesus is 'present tense'. We turn to him and he is already here.  


Sunday, 7 May 2017

Don't be a stranger

Gospel John 10:1-10 
Jesus said: ‘I tell you most solemnly, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate, but gets in some other way is a thief and a brigand. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the flock; the gatekeeper lets him in, the sheep hear his voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. When he has brought out his flock, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice. They never follow a stranger but run away from him: they do not recognise the voice of strangers.’

Jesus told them this parable but they failed to understand what he meant by telling it to them.
So Jesus spoke to them again:
‘I tell you most solemnly,
I am the gate of the sheepfold.
All others who have come
are thieves and brigands;
but the sheep took no notice of them.
I am the gate.
Anyone who enters through me will be safe:
he will go freely in and out and be sure of finding pasture.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.’

Christianity is about discipleship; which strangely translates as being a sheep...and whilst I'm not very keen on being compared to a sheep  maybe that's my lesson in humility. 

Jesus used the culture of his time to teach about discipleship. We laugh at the thought of being sheep but we all know that the devotion of animals to their masters can't be overstated. And, at the time, it was sheep that portrayed this. Sheep are devoted to their shepherd and to each other; they know each others fears and sees the flock, the community, as the most important thing in the world. The shepherd knows that keeping them close - from birth, through first steps and brave leaps; by words and whistle and songs and midnight stories under starry skies - that those sheep become his; bleating hearts and shaggy souls. When they are lost - it is the end of the world - the bleating of a lost sheep would drive you mad. 

After the weeks of fearful discipleship, the Church takes us back in time with a reminder of why we are not meant to be fearful. When I was little this week was called Good Shepherd Sunday and we would pray for vocations for the Missions fearing for the souls of those who had not heard the Good News. These days we simply pray for vocations. 

At a recent Chrism Mass, Pope Francis made this statement;

“The priest who seldom goes out of himself … misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. … This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, lose heart and become in a sense collectors of antiquities or novelties — instead of being shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep.’ This is what I am asking you — be shepherds with the smell of sheep.”

 In Francis' book, 'The Church of Mercy', he directs this same idea with more fervour to those who are our 'teachers, priests and shepherds'.
So it isn't just vocation - it is the dedication and stamina to see the vocation through. Francis talks about the need to 'stay put' with the flock, to walk with it, before and behind it. 

Those who have taken on the promises of Peter may have every reason to avoid the long road. Jesus knew what he was doing when he chose the shepherd for a symbol - there is very little to be envious of. 

As the seasons pass, liturgical and natural, there is a real sense of the eternal, circling, renewal - tasks of shearing, birthing, feeding and watering, healing, letting go of the sick, seeking the lost - there is no 'once and for all'.  

It's not one parish family, but many, that will pass through from cradle to grave. And among the many undoubted joys; all those issues that get dealt with only to arise elsewhere; conflicts brought to reconciliation in one place and bubbling beneath the surface somewhere else; having to decide whose priority is the priority. 

Going to bed with other people's problems doesn't allow for a quiet night. 

And it's not only the ordained priests, surely any one of us, involved in the slightest of ministries, could imagine the role of shepherd with a 'flock' of our own? And sometime, get weary of what the role asks of us.

The strange thing is, we may think we are shepherds, but we are, at best, responsible sheep. 

There is only one Good Shepherd, Jesus, and we are all listening out for his  voice and watching out for his footprints. 

Within the flock, we may have better ears or eyes, a better gift for sensing danger, a nose for the best pasture, a head for heights, a natural maternal instinct, an enthusiastic gang leader. 

Nevertheless, we are all sheep. 

And sheep are healthy, happy and secure when they not alone.

This way, Francis' advice makes far more sense. 

To be satisfied with what you do - be part of who you are.