Sermon - 15th May 2011
The Good Shepherd
Scripture - John 10:1-10
Rev Andy Braunston
The pope has many titles, which I suppose isn’t too surprising given the nature of the job, the size of his congregation and the historicity of his office. The term pope comes from the Latin word “papa” meaning “daddy”. But he has many other titles which include:
- Bishop of Rome,
- Vicar of Jesus Christ,
- Successor of the Prince of the Apostles,
- Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church,
- Primate of Italy,
- Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province,
- Sovereign of the State of Vatican City,
Supreme Pontiff is interesting as it’s a left over from the pagan high priests of Rome and literally means “supreme bridge builder” which gives an interesting slant on the role. All those titles are very grand but the one that I like the best is one that was adopted by a Patriarch of Constantinople to remind the pope not to get above himself “ Servant of the Servants of God” and has been used by modern popes more than the older ones.
The title reminds the popes that they are first and foremost servants and fits with the idea of the Good Shepherd that we heard in our reading today.
Good and Bad Shepherds
Over the last twenty years or so there has been an increasing awareness of the damage that is done by bad shepherds in the church. The horrific sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy and members of religious orders has wounded people both physically and spiritually and has made many people deeply suspicious of the Church. The intolerance shown by so many church leaders to lgbt people puts many people off the church knowing they will never find good pasture. The continued bickering between different denominations (who fail to recognise that they agree on so much anyway) makes people wonder about the God of love that they say they believe in.
It’s clear that religious leaders can do much harm as well as great good. Mother Theresa inspired millions, the current Pope arouses quite different opinions in millions. But none of this is new, even if it is tragic.
I am the Good Shepherd
In today’s gospel passage Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people and he is struggling, at times, to get them to understand his metaphors. He contrasts himself with the thieves who come to steal the sheep. In a pastoral society sheep are important – they are valuable, they offer milk, wool and meat. They were looked after and the shepherd would know their sheep – and the sheep would know their shepherd.
Sheep stealers aren’t bothered with the welfare of their sheep. We saw a contemporary example of this a few weeks ago in Manchester when a lamb was found in a wheelie bin. Someone had been stealing sheep but stole a lamb who was too young for slaughter and, not caring about its welfare, simply dumped it into a bin. Happily it was found and sent to a petting zoo.
The thieves care nothing for the sheep but Jesus says he, as the good shepherd, cares for, knows and leads his sheep. Moreover, his sheep know his voice and follow him. He is comparing himself to the religious leaders of his day who he clearly felt did not care for the people, hiding behind rules and failing to offer authentic spirituality. In some ways Jesus wasn’t being very radical; Ezekiel 34 has a powerful condemnation of the shepherds who don’t care for the welfare of their charges.
The Good Shepherd leads the sheep to where they can find good pasture so they can be nourished. The Good Shepherd sees off the wolves so that the sheep can live in safety. But the sheep aren’t stupid – I don’t know why our culture sees sheep as a bit thick – in the passage Jesus says that the sheep know his voice – they can distinguish between the thief and the shepherd. There is a relationship of trust here.
Good and Bad Shepherds
Perhaps the most damaging thing about abusive clergy is the breach of trust. The behaviour, the bullying, the intolerance and the ignorance are all dreadful, infuriating and deeply wounding, but more damaging is the breach of trust. Political leaders find that if they make themselves out to be honest, law abiding family loving people that they fall a long way when they turn out to be dishonest, people having affaires and fiddling their expenses! Much is expected of clergy and when they betray the trust they have been given people are wounded deeply.
The exposure of the bad shepherds has been a remarkable process and one which, I would say, has been led by the Holy Spirit. It has shaken up the churches who now all have introduced stringent procedures but I wonder how many other types of abusive leadership still exist. We are still treated to the spectacle of churches asking to be able to discriminate against women and against lgbt people in the name of religious freedom; and they do so without a shadow of embarrassment.
Knowing His Voice
Interestingly, even those who are not religious know that Jesus wasn’t homophobic. Even those who would never set foot inside a church know that Jesus wasn’t a misogynist. Even the most avowed atheist knows that Jesus would despair over the behaviour of so many of his followers.
Our people know that the Church is often a dangerous place but that Jesus himself is trustworthy. They know that the food given by much of the Church to our people is not wholesome. They long for spirituality but are put off by the religious.
Our task in MCC is to point not to ourselves but to the Good Shepherd. Our task is not to replicate the power dynamics of the rest of the church but to show our people where Jesus leads us to pasture. We know the Good Shepherd nurtures and protects us and we need to show our people the same.