May my words be in the name of the Holy & undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
So here we are … the first sermon in the parish … and that's the real test of the the 'new man' isn't it? It's kind of expected that someone who is in Holy Orders will be able to make a decent fist of taking a service … whether he is good at administration, well anyway, there's a enough in the parish who are good at admin to! And his abilities towards pastoral care is something that will only emerge over the months to follow … But in the short term, the first big test of what the new chap is like is his preaching … is the sermon too long or too short … does it hold your attention … does it give you something to take away and chew over … at least on the journey from the church door to your car, if not for the next few days!
For my own part, I'd like to preach a good first sermon in the parish … not least because I'd like to make a good first impression … I'm almost tempted to use the phrase 'I'd like to preach a killer sermon' … but after what my former rector said last week about my former military background and proficiency with weapons and explosives that expression might make one or two of you a bit nervous!
As it happens, our Gospel reading today (John 10. 11-18) presents a picture that might make a new rector. or any rector, a bit nervous: it shows what might be seen as three models of the shepherd or pastor (& a nod to St Augustine for this reading of the passage); models that are something of a challenge for anyone in pastoral ministry, as they force them to ask themselves the question: which one am I? Or which one will I prove myself to be over time?
The first is that of the wolf, which ties in with the idea of thieves and robbers in the verses which precede our reading … the wolf or robber has no care for the flock … no interest in their well-being … they exist solely for the benefit of the wolf … he will feed on them … he will not feed them or care for them … in terms of ministry, he will not worry about building them up in the faith or ensuring that the faith is passed on strong and true from one generation to the next …
the second image is that of the 'hireling' or hired hand … he will look after the flock … as long as it is at no real cost to himself … as long as life is easy, he will be there … but don't ask him to go the extra mile … he's in there for the comfortable life … he will preach and teach and administer the sacraments … and what he does will be good … but when the going gets tough, he will be gone …
And then there is the good Shepherd … Christ himself, who lays down his life for the sheep … the extra mile indeed! No human being can be that Good Shepherd of course … but they can try to live a Christ-like life … to do all that is humanly possible to stand in the person of Christ … as the person of Christ to their flock … they are human … weak, fallible sinners like all others … like the members of the flock that they try to care for … but they will at least try … they won't back away when things are hard … they won't run from the occasional grumpy parishioner … they will be there through thick and thin … they won't feed on the flock like a wolf … they won't run from wolves like the hired hand … they'll see their role as to be to stand between their flock and the wolf … even if it means being chewed up themselves … and even if it means that their flock, who thinks that the wolf has some very interesting things to say, thinks that they are an idiot for trying to keep the wolf away!
Which will I prove to be? I know what I would like to be … but what will I show myself to be over the years in this parish? I know what it is that you want and need me to be to you … what you have every right to expect me to be … but what will I end up being to you?
We shall see … only time will tell … actions speak louder than words … and a sermon is only, at the end of the day, words … it is the actions over the coming months and years that will show whether I am a wolf, a hireling, or a true shepherd … whether you will ultimately be able to say 'he was there for us when we needed him' or merely 'he was there.'
but there is something that we can do to ensure that we all get what we hope for out of this relationship … we are not helpless or hopeless as we wait to see what it is that the world will throw at us ... we can pray … we can pray that you will have the shepherd that you deserve … a shepherd who will feed you in word and sacrament … a shepherd who will help the young people of parish grow into mature and faithful Christians … one who will help those mature Christians hear and understand the call that God has on each and every life … and answer that call joyfully and willingly … a pastor who will be there to provide comfort and spiritual support at times of illness or bereavement … and especially help those who are coming to the end of their days to face that time with courage and dignity and hope … and we can pray that I will be that shepherd to you … and if we can prayerfully work on this becoming a reality, then this sermon will become more than words … and it will have achieved all I could ever hope for from any sermon in this parish, whether first or last … Amen.
sermon notes 29 April 2012 (4th of Easter – The Good Shepherd)