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Sunday, 25 April 2010

Silly Sheep

“My sheep know my voice,” says Jesus. “My sheep know my voice”.

My brother is a shepherd, so I always love preaching on the shepherd texts in John’s Gospel. His sheep are fairly brainless, as sheep go, but they do eventually learn to recognise his car, and that of the other shepherds, and their response to those cars is quite different from their response to, say, my father’s car. They know when they see those particular cars, they’ll get fed, or looked at, or moved to a new pasture, or something nice.

However, some years ago now there was a foot-and-mouth epidemic, and you weren’t allowed to move your stock at all without permission. So the sheep were stuck in one field, from which they had eaten all the grass, and were bored and restless. Sometime around then, we drove past in my father’s car, and their reaction was as if we had been my brother – they came rushing up, bleating, hoping for something nice to happen.

This Gospel reading always reminds me of that incident. Jesus says "My sheep know my voice". My brother's sheep obviously did not know who was their shepherd, and were quick to run after any passing car or person who might have been able to move them to another field. Normally they knew, but because they were stuck and hungry and bored, they wanted anybody or anything to be their shepherd.

So I wonder, how is it that we know the Shepherd's voice, and what does it mean in practice?

How is it, then, that we know the Shepherd's voice. I think there are two reasons. The first is that He speaks to us; the second is that we listen to Him.

He speaks to us. Well, in one sense that's somewhat of a no-brainer, as the Americans so graphically put it. We are told, from our earliest days as Christians, that God speaks to us through the Bible, and through other people, and even, although we must be careful, through our own imaginations. But being told it and knowing it seem to be two different things! Of course, there are times when we hear the Shepherd's voice so clearly, times when we know we are His, held in His arms - or round his neck, the way shepherd today will still carry a young sheep. It is, my brother tells me, far and away the easiest way to carry a sheep, but it does make nasty stains down the front of your jacket!

Sorry, that was a diversion, where was I? Oh yes, we have all known times when we hear the Shepherd's voice so clearly, but, of course, we have all known those other times, too; times when God seems far away, when our prayers go no further than the ceiling, when, so far from hearing God's voice, we wonder whether, in fact, our whole faith has been based on a delusion! I'm sure we've all been there and done that, too!

Now, it's traditional to be told that when those times happen, it is our fault. We have stopped listening, we are told, we have gone our own way, we have sinned. And, of course, some of the time that is exactly what has happened, even if some preachers do make it sound like God isn't talking to us any more because we've offended him! I think, rather, it is we who cannot hear the voice of God when we are uncomfortable in God's presence. But usually when that has happened we know that is what the matter is, and sooner or later we admit this to ourselves, and to God, and things come all right again.

But some of the time, with the best will in the world, we know we have not sinned, and it really doesn't seem to be our fault. Times when everything goes pear-shaped, and you wonder where on earth God is in the middle of it all? And part of you knows that this is exactly where God is - in the middle of it all - but that part is operating on sheer faith. You can't sense God's presence, or hear the Shepherd's voice at all, no matter how hard you listen.

It happens to all of us, probably more often than we care to admit. Again, preachers have various explanations for it, and you've probably heard them as often as I have. That God is testing our faith, as though God didn't know how strong our faith actually is. Actually, of course, God does know, but we don't necessarily, and it can be a salutary shock to us!

The thing is, of course, that we don't understand, can't understand, why these things happen. God is God, not just another person like us, and it's not possible to understand. We don't know why we suddenly seem to lose the ability to hear God's voice, and why, even worse, we suddenly seem to lose all sense of God, and seem to simply be going through the motions.

The fact that it's almost universal, that almost every Christian goes through it from time to time must mean that it is normal. But I don't know why it happens, and I don't altogether accept the explanations as to why. I think it's just "part of the human condition", or, if you prefer, "part of the mystery of faith", and we must accept it as such.

There are times when we just don't understand what God is doing, and that's okay, too. My brother had a very good reason that year for not moving his sheep to a new field, no matter how much he wanted to move them, and how much they wanted to be moved. He wasn't allowed to by the Government, because of foot-and-mouth precautions. And you try explaining that to sheep! And since God is even further beyond us than we are from real sheep, how could we be expected to understand what constraints He has?

Sometimes, of course, the matter seems urgent, when we want to know what God wants us to do, and yet God simply doesn't seem to answer. The more we pray, the less we know what to do, and the quieter God seems to get. It's so frustrating! And we rage and rampage and know no peace.

Or those times when something simply dreadful has happened - when someone has died prematurely, or killed in an accident, or beaten up by thugs, or any or all of the dreadful things that can and do happen nowadays. We wonder where on earth God is, we ask how a loving God can allow such dreadful things to happen, we cannot hear God's voice.

In our reading from Acts, the believers in Joppa were despairing – Tabitha was dead. Tabitha, who had been the first to lead her community in good works – how were they going to manage without her? Where was God in this? The voice of the Shepherd seemed to have disappeared from their universe.

But they sent for Peter, who brought them God’s voice, and who brought healing to Tabitha, enabling her to carry on with God’s work.

This is rare, of course. Mostly, when people die, they stay dead! We grieve, and we know that God grieves with us, even though sometimes it feels as though all trace of Him has vanished from our universe.

Jesus says "My sheep hear My voice". It is a given. There are no ifs, buts and ands. He says "My sheep hear My voice". We do hear His voice. Even when we think we don't. Often, when seeking guidance, we know in our hearts that a given path might probably be wrong. Or wrong for us, if not intrinsically wrong. And when something dreadful happens, it is God's heart, I think, which is often the first to break.

We, of course, behave like sheep from time to time. We think we do not hear the voice of the Shepherd, so we rush after any and every passing thing that looks as though it might be the Shepherd. Just as my brother's sheep ran after my father’s car, hoping that we were coming to move them to a better field. Is this the right Shepherd, we ask ourselves, rushing to find out. And sometimes, in the process, we get ourselves badly lost. We find that the better field was no such thing.

But remember our Lord's story about the lost sheep? When we do get lost, we can trust the Good Shepherd to pull on Barbour and Wellies forthwith, and head out to find us. "No one will snatch them out of my hand," Jesus said. And earlier in the chapter, in the part we didn't read, he reminds us that not only do we know him, and hear his voice, but he knows us: "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father."
So even if we, or someone we care about, has gone off down the wrong track and got lost, we can trust the Good Shepherd to come and find us again.
Because the Good Shepherd, Jesus tells us, is come "that they may have life and have it abundantly". Abundantly.

So when we get to a time where we seem not to hear His voice, a time when we look round and He seems to have vanished, let's not panic. Let's not assume it was all our fault - it might have been, but not necessarily. Let's not abandon all idea of Christianity, of churchgoing, of being God's person. Instead, let's sit and wait, calling out to God in prayer, but accepting the silence, trusting that one day the Good Shepherd will come and find us, and say "There you are! Come on, I'll take you back to the rest!" Amen.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Thomas gives permission

Today is one of those rare Sundays when we have the same Gospel reading every year;
the story of Thomas.
Doubting Thomas, we call him in the West, which is really rather unfair of us, as if it were the only thing about him that mattered!

This story, of course, begins on the evening of the Resurrection.
According to John's account –
and yes, it does differ a little from some of the other accounts, as he puts in far more detail –
the first person to have seen the risen Jesus was Mary Magdalene.
She had gone to the tomb very early,
and found that it was empty.
And while she was weeping quietly in the garden,
Jesus had come to her and reassured her.
Peter and John had also seen the empty tomb,
but had not yet met with the risen Jesus,
and the account isn't terribly clear as to whether or not they realised what had happened.

Anyway, that evening the disciples are together,
and Jesus comes to them, as we heard read.
He reassures them,
and reminds them of some of his earlier teachings,
and then, apparently, disappears again.

But Thomas isn't there.
We aren't told whether he hadn't yet arrived
or whether he had just left the room for a few moments,
gone to the loo, or to get pizza for everyone,
or something similar.
But whatever, he misses Jesus.
And, of course,
he doesn't believe a word of it.
The others are setting him up.
Or it was a hallucination.
Or something.
But it couldn't possibly be true.
And for a whole week he goes round muttering,
while the others are rejoicing.
Goodness, he must have been cross and miserable,
and the others must have been so frustrated that they couldn't help him.

And then Jesus is there again,
with a special word of reassurance,
just for Thomas.
He gets his side out, showing the wound.
Perhaps Thomas would care to touch it?
This isn't ectoplasm,
it's proper flesh.

Thomas can take Jesus' hand again,
just as before.
And Thomas bows down in awe and worship.

So what can we learn from the story of Thomas?
I personally find the story a very liberating one.
From Thomas,
I learn that I have
permission to wait,
permission to doubt,
and permission to change my mind.

Firstly, then,
Thomas tells us we have permission to wait.
That sounds odd,
but don't forget it was a whole week until Jesus put him out of his misery.
It must have been a pretty endless time,
feeling sure that his friends had got it wrong,
wondering who was going mad,
them or him.
But Thomas put up with it.
He didn't abandon his friends,
he didn't run off and do something different.
Instead, he stayed with them and put up with the pain and confusion and bewilderment,
and ultimately Jesus put everything right.
The Lectionary celebrates this every year on this Sunday;
it is the anniversary of the day when Jesus came to Thomas and put it all right for him.

A whole week, though.
Imagine that.
It must have felt like an eternity of doubt,
of confusion,
of bafflement.
The others were all totally convinced they’d seen Jesus,
and as far as Thomas was concerned, they’d all run quite mad.

So often we want things now.
If we are unwell, or grieving,
we want instant healing –
we want the confusion to be resolved.
What was that old prayer:
"God, give me patience, and I want it now!"
An addict trying to give up cigarettes or drink or other drugs
wants the craving to go away.
Someone who is ill or injured feels terrible and longs to feel better.
We don't like to experience bad feelings, obviously,
and we want them to go away. Now.
We also don't like to watch someone else experiencing bad feelings.
We might try to deny their feelings,
telling them they don't feel like that.
Or we might try to tell them they are wrong or wicked to have those feelings.
I’ve heard people say that if we have asked for healing,
we should then proceed to deny we feel ill!
A friend of mine is grieving for the loss of a loved one,
and one of the things she is finding most difficult is those well-meaning people who tell her she should be “over it” by now.

It is hideous horribly difficult to watch someone else suffer,
and we develop these strategies of coping so that their suffering doesn't rub off on us.
Also, of course, we don't like to have negative feelings because somehow we think we are failing as Christians when we do.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s gone to Church in a bad mood but with a sweet smile pasted on, and a “Fine, thanks!” in response to anybody who asks how we are.
We don’t like to admit we aren’t feeling wonderful –
in fact, we may even have been told, as I have in my time, that it’s a sin to feel less than one hundred percent on top of the world one hundred percent of the time!

I think one of the things the story of Thomas gives us is permission to have bad feelings.
Permission to feel confused, or angry, or bereaved, or muddled, or ill, or craving, or whatever.
Permission to wait to feel better, to allow it to take its time.

Thomas also tells us we have permission to be wrong, and to doubt.
Thomas was wrong.
He thought that Jesus had not been raised.
But it wasn't the end of the world that he thought so.

All too often, I think that if I am wrong,
if I am mistaken,
if I make a nonsense of something,
it is the end of the world.
I confuse making a mistake with a deliberate sin,
and think that God and others will condemn me for it.
But no,
look what happened to Thomas.
Far from being condemned,
Jesus comes to him specially to prove he is alive.
To show Thomas that the others hadn't gone totally mad.
Jesus was extra specially kind to Thomas.

It is encouraging, isn’t it?
We’re allowed to doubt –
it’s not the end of the world if we find something difficult to believe!
So often we try to suppress our doubts,
to pretend that we believe everything we’re supposed to believe, all “our doctrines”,
feeling that if we wonder for one minute we’ll be condemned.
Or maybe our experience of Christ’s love is so very different from that of our neighbour’s that we wonder if it’s really valid at all.
Or perhaps we don’t feel comfortable with the way another church worships, finding it too liturgical and formal or too uncontrolled and informal,
and we wonder if it’s really a valid form of worship at all.

The thing is, when that sort of thing happens,
when we suddenly wonder whether our faith is all a big nothing,
or when we wonder if we’ve got it right,
then the story of Thomas tells us not to worry.
As the prophet Isaiah tells us,
“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying,
‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
“This is the way; walk in it.”

It’s okay to experiment with our faith, with our expression of our faith, and even, sometimes, with our whole lifestyle.
After all, if our faith doesn’t actually affect the way we live, it’s not much good –
but maybe we have allowed it to affect us to the point that the only people we know are Christians,
maybe even Christians who think exactly the same way we do?

The point is, if we get it wrong, Jesus will come to us, as he came to Thomas, and help us get back on track.
The Good Shepherd doesn’t hesitate to put on his Barbour and Wellies and go to find us if we get ourselves a bit lost.

So Thomas gives me permission to feel awful and
permission to make mistakes and to doubt.
But it would be wrong to leave it at that,
without looking briefly at the third permission Thomas gives us,
and that is to change our minds.
The thing is, Thomas was mistaken when he believed that Jesus had not risen from the dead.
Okay, fine.
But as soon as Jesus showed him he was wrong,
he changed his mind.
He fell down and worshipped the risen Jesus.
He felt ghastly for the whole week between Jesus' appearing to the rest of them, and Jesus appearing to him.
And that's okay.
But when Jesus did appear,
he forgot all about feeling ghastly,
he didn't get cross and go "Where were you?" or anything like that.
He just fell down and worshipped the risen Lord.

It doesn't matter if we feel awful for any reason.
It doesn’t matter if we get it wrong.
What does matter, though,
is if we are given the opportunity to correct ourselves,
or to put things right,
and we fail to take it.
Thomas didn't do that.
Thomas admitted he was wrong,
and he fell down and worshipped the risen Lord.
When we are shown, as Thomas was,
that we have made a mistake,
the thing to do is to put it right.
They do say that the person who never made a mistake never made anything, and that's very true.
But the point is, it is only by correcting our mistakes that we can make progress.
If we stay stubbornly convinced that we are right, and everybody else is wrong, we won't get anywhere.
We won't be freed to go on with Jesus.

Thomas is supposed to have gone on to found the Church in India.
He couldn't have done that if he had gone on being convinced he was right and everybody else was wrong.
He admitted he had been wrong,
and thus was free to put it behind him and go on with Jesus.

This appears horrendously unfinished - I had to ask the Holy Spirit to quickly dictate a final paragraph, which was something like:

Is there anything you need to put right and put behind you to enable you to carry on with Jesus?

I do find this story of Thomas so very encouraging. It shows us that it's okay to feel awful, and not to feel better at once; it's okay to get things wrong, and to doubt, and, above all, that when we do get it wrong, we can put it right and carry on with Jesus. Amen.