Sunday 3 May 2020, 4th of Easter
Psalm 23, John 10.1-10
J M Roberts wrote the 1100 page Penguin History of the World. In the last paragraph he says, if you’re an historian, you have no advantage in predicting the future, but you may be less surprised by it.
At Christmas, none of us expected us to be locked down in a pandemic by Easter. But you don’t need too much knowledge of the past to realise that pestilence every now and then is normal.
This isn’t new, like an invasion of Martians or an uprising of robots would be. It may not be like anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes, but we had no reason to think the world had got beyond it.
Friday is the 75th anniversary of VE Day and arguably, what is extraordinary, is not that we are now in the throes of a crisis, but that there has been such a level of peace and safety within our borders since 1945.
What images come to mind when you think of Jesus the Good Shepherd of the sheep? Or the 23rd psalm, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’. Green pastures and still waters, if you’re anything like me. The Cheshire countryside on a warm summer’s afternoon.
We have such a scene in the creation window of St Mary’s. We all know its striking beauty and harmony. Every kind of creature living together in peace. Except for one small detail which I hadn’t noticed until Grace showed me a few weeks ago. The farmer, Albert Stanley Bourne, is walking through the verdant pastures towards the water with his dog and his sheep, but what’s he carrying under his arm? A shotgun! Why does he need that in such a tranquil place?
At first I raised an eyebrow, but I’m now rather glad to see a note of realism there. The world is a dangerous place.
And whether we look at the Gospel or the psalm, these sheep are surrounded by peril. The reason Jesus says ‘I am the gate for the sheep’ is because there are thieves who steal and kill and destroy. The reason the psalmist needs the Lord to be his shepherd is because he faces enemies and walks through the valley of the shadow of death.
Some people struggle with the 5th verse, ‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies’. It’s a picture of a feast where either the enemies are being kept at bay, or more likely, where they are captured and made to watch as you enjoy a victory celebration.
That’s not very Christian, we may think. Well, before we make that judgement too quickly, perhaps we should ask whether we’ve ever faced such danger. Or remind ourselves of when we have known people intent on harming us. Has our instinct always been to turn the other cheek? Would it even have been right to do so?
It certainly wouldn’t be the right advice to someone in an abusive relationship. There has been a surge in the number of calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline since the lockdown began. Neighbours and friends can be victims of bullying and hatred of which we know nothing. And we can all live in ignorance or denial of dangers which are present or never too far away.
The psalter is our number one hymn book. The psalms are Christian because they were the songs of Jesus. They include paeans of praise and shouts for vengeance, cries of penitence and surges of hatred. They may not always express how we’re feeling, or how we think anyone should feel, but we can be sure they express what someone, somewhere is feeling, right at the moment we say the words. And if we’ve never been there, let’s thank God and not be quick to judge those who are.
At St Mary’s we use liturgy from the 16th century and from the 20th century, and one of the stark differences is the relative absence in the modern texts of any sense of being in a battle. You can’t say Matins or Evensong without praying against ‘assaults of our enemies’ or ‘running into any kind of danger’ or ‘perils and dangers of this night’.
I wonder if, post war, there grew the illusion that broadly speaking we were in control. Steady progress in technology and wealth would insure us against the hazards of a bygone age.
We still need a shepherd, but a shepherd isn’t just a carer who leads us to pasture and water, but a defender prepared to battle with enemies and thieves.
Today Christ calls us to open our eyes to all that is against us, whether Covid 19, any illness mental or physical, other people, or our own foolish ways, and to live with courage knowing that we have a shepherd who ultimately will see us through, whose purpose for us is abundant life. Don’t be content with anything less. You were made for more. And one day we will feast together, and all Coronaviruses and every other foe will just have to sit and watch.