After the Gospel reading we have just heard, it may sound slightly odd – or more than slightly odd – if I start off our reflections on God’s word this evening by pointing out that nearly two decades ago there was a massive and devastating foot-and-mouth epidemic in this country, resulting in hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle having to be put down and their bodies destroyed on the spot to halt the spread of the infection.
Some of the images that were broadcast then remain with me, as does the experience of travelling by train here in the north of England through miles of empty fields. But it’s not that aspect of the epidemic that comes to mind – rather the way on which the loss of their livestock revealed in farmers a dimension of care – of what I can only call “tenderness” – towards the animals they raised. I remember vividly a radio interview in which a very matter-of-fact farmer recalled his experience, by then ten years in the past, with a real and heartfelt grief.
It’s not part of my life, the cycle of farming: while I was at school in the beautiful Lancashire countryside of the Ribble Valley, my missions as a Jesuit have sent me to London and Birmingham and Oxford and now central Manchester. But the imagery of the shepherd remains potent, and as applied to Jesus the image survives even those sickly-sweet holy pictures where Jesus’ robes had clearly never been in contact with a real sheep - either end of a real sheep.
As always, Jesus drew on the experience of those to whom he was speaking. Raising sheep was hard work – and was work that didn’t rank very highly in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. Forget the quad bikes that buzz their way round the hill farms of Wales, and the extraordinary intelligence of the Border Collie sheepdogs. Being a shepherd in Palestine in the time of Jesus was a footslogging, hands-on, mile-covering, 24 hours a day task.
Jesus gives us two images in today’s Gospel reading - and we get the second because the disciples missed the point of the first. (It's always encouraging when these people, who spent all their time with Jesus, just don’t understand what he is saying – when I’m struggling to understand, it’s encouraging for me to think of the disciples saying to Jesus “what was that about?”)
Jesus calls out from the sheepfold the sheep that are his – there’s one image – but Jesus is also the gate of the sheepfold, and there’s the other. It’s worth noting that in some settings the shepherd was literally the gate: there was a fold of some sort, an enclosure, and the shepherd would lie across the entrance so that anyone who wanted to get at the sheep needed to get at him first.
And if that still sounds a bit distant, let me link it into a real-life event from just a few years ago in the life of the photojournalist Tim Hetherington, a fellow-alumnus (many years later) of that school in the Ribble Valley. He spent most of his life in troubled countries, and on this occasion came across a friend of his who had been captured by opposing forces and was about to be shot. Tim, as it happened, knew the members of the opposing forces, and stepped forward out of the crowd, put himself between the guns and the man about to be shot, and told them “if you want to shoot him, you have to shoot me first.”
Perhaps this moves us closer to hearing what God’s word can say to us here, in Central Manchester, miles from any sheep (as far as I know). We can count on God’s word speaking to us precisely because it is God’s word: in whatever version we hear or read the Gospels (and any of the Scriptures) we encounter the active living presence of God. And because it is God’s word, that presence is one of loving care.
Jesus calls us by name, and when we hear his voice, we recognise him. And as Jesus speaks our name, we recognise ourself, too. If we are lucky, we know what it is to hear our name spoken with love and delight – by our mother or father, child or sibling, friend, lover, partner, spouse. Someone who speaks our name with truth and love doesn’t just use a label: they tell us something about ourselves; we learn something about who we truly are, and so we grow closer to being who we truly are.
So one thought we might take from this evenings’ readings is simply that: when Jesus calls me by name, what do I hear? Am I ready to let Jesus tell me who I am capable of being – who I am in the eyes of Jesus, who I am in the eyes of each person who looks at me with truth and love? (Because Jesus the shepherd guides me and leads me and speaks to me through and with and in those who hold me in love).
But the readings take us further than that. Like the crowd in the first reading, we may need to rethink who Jesus is – in our lives as well as in the broader picture (so to speak). We may need to recognise that, in our way, we have discounted and diminished him. And here I speak from my own experience if I say that one way in which we can do this is by discounting and diminishing the extent to which Jesus is there for us – there for you - there for me.
There’s a paradox here. Jesus calls us – each one – you and me – by name, to leave the comfort and safety of the sheepfold and to set out with him on a journey towards the fullness of life. Jesus doesn’t lead from behind. What we have been through, Jesus has been through. And, crucially, that includes being misunderstood and rejected by many of the pious, being misunderstood and rejected by many of the religious powers, being rejected and misunderstood by many of those who are seen as the good – (seen as such by others and often seen as such by themselves).
To be with Jesus is not to be an insider, not to be “one of us”. To be with Jesus is to be with all the other outsiders whom Jesus chose to be with. “Hanging out” is not a biblical Phrase – but Jesus chose to hang out with those seen as public sinners, those on the fringes. Let’s not forget that when Jesus chooses to portray himself as a shepherd, he chooses to portray himself as something close to what in another culture would be an “untouchable”. We may not be called to step out of the crowd like Tim Hetherington and stand between the guns and the victims, but we will be called to be with those who are vulnerable rather than with those who wield power.
So to be called by Jesus is not an easy option to respond to – if ‘easy’ means comfortable. But we have two images to hold onto: the Jesus who calls us, each one, by our name, is also the Jesus who is the gate – the guarantee of security and faithfulness. “Anyone who enters thorough me will be safe; they will go freely in an d out, and be sure of finding pasture.”
We don’t “head off into the wilderness on our own” if we respond to Jesus speaking our name: we have the security of being with Jesus. And that’s no idle promise from Jesus. As the gospels tell us, and as our first reading from the letter of Peter sums up for us, the commitment of Jesus to be with us is visible to death – and beyond. God’s commitment to us in Jesus is total: God cannot not be with us – that’s what covenant means. So Jesus remains with us – Jesus cannot not be with us: even death is not powerful enough to overcome that utter commitment.
And where does it come from, this commitment? Just as with that English farmer on the radio, stammering out his pain at watching his flock being culled in the foot-and-mouth epidemic, what we encounter is loving care, the fierce tenderness of God.
The Lord is my shepherd – there is nothing I shall want.
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