Good Shepherd Sunday - homily from a rural parish

 Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. While we are still in the middle of the foot and mouth epidemic, it is hard to be sentimental, much as we might have been in years gone by. Churches of a certain date often have a Good Shepherd window with a certain sugary appeal. This year for many of us, sheep knee deep in mud or on funeral pyres are the abiding images. This week the Ministry of Agriculture has decided that other disposal methods will prevail in Devon, to the relief of all who have had anything to do with the pyres. Those who miss the old days when supposedly sermons were filled with the fires of hell, might give these pyres some time for thought. There are two words in the Bible which are translated as hell. One refers to the place of waiting. The other, translating the word Gehenna, in an attempt to evoke an idea of something truly awful, draws its imagery from the burning rubbish tips outside Jerusalem, a picture as vivid as today's pyres, it describe a place of everlasting punishment. Today our thoughts are not with the pyres of the sheep but with the shepherd. He knows his sheep. And we know that he cares for them for Jesus describes himself as the 'door of the sheepfold'. The sheep were penned in for safety at night. After counting them into the fold, the shepherd would lie across the entrance so that anything trying to enter or leave the fold would wake him instantly. If we move our thoughts from the pyres and hell, to heaven and the shepherd who guards the door, we are comforted with the knowledge that our Good Shepherd is Jesus, and God in his infinite goodness, has given us this life to get to know his voice. Pray God we shall find him no stranger when we arrive at the door. In the Gospel Jesus says that his sheep listen to his voice. This is a good test of who is a Christian. The shepherd controls his sheep by calling them. Remember the Middle Eastern sheep followed the shepherd, whereas our are driven. When all the local shepherds would gather with their small flocks at the pasture, at the day's end it would be the voice of his own shepherd calling that the sheep would recognise, before separating and returning to the safety of the fold for the night. And so we have another name for this Sunday: 'Vocation , i.e. 'Calling' Sunday. The Latin word for to call is vocare - whence comes vocation. Notice that all the sheep are called. It is easy, but wrong, to think of vocation only in terms of those who are called to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life. If we focus on those today it is because the Church needs members who are prepared to offer themselves to these particular ministries. But we are all called. It is interesting to look round the average congregation to see what vocations people are called to. Statistically it is easy to see that two vocations prevail: the lay state and the married. It would be interesting to discover how many Christians ask themselves, is God calling me to be a lay Christian? To be a single or married Christian? I suspect rather more have thought about the religious life - and rejected it. Beware of rejecting a calling because it is not what you wish. It is the Good Shepherd who calls. If you feel a square peg in a round hole just now it may be because there is a mismatch between what your present life and were Jesus calls you. One thing is certain, that we shall never sleep quietly in the fold until we hear his call and follow. No two vocations are identical. There is one just for you.. It may not be welcome, but it is where God wants you - and it may change in the passage of time. A young parishioner went suddenly blind in her mid teens. It was an inoperable tumour on the optic nerve. She bore the treatment bravely and her faith never seemed to waver. I took the opportunity to discuss it with her. The only sense we could make of it was that God literally wanted Christians even in the darkest places. That seemed to be her long term vocation. For a time at the school for the blind it happened that she found herself among other young blind people who were not Christians and that proved to be a short-term vocation. Not everyone, thank God, has such a dark vocation. Most Christians are to be found in ordinary situations, in so far as anything is ordinary. The great garden designer Gertrude Jekyll used to say when looking at brightly coloured gardens: "People forget that green and brown are colours too." It may be that God wants you to be one of the greens or browns of his Creation, a special agent in an ordinary place. To change the metaphor, called to work like a deep mole in a Cold War spy thriller, but in this case bringing in the Kingdom of God.

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