14th June 2020 – Sheep without a Shepherd (Matthew 9: 35ff)

Psalm 100 is one of the Psalms set for services during the day today (14th June 2020). The first 3 verses say:

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

The gospel reading from Matthew says this of Jesus:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

As the readings for today are taken from the lectionary, used by churches around the world, as Anglicans we’ve heard these readings every three years for a number of years. Indeed, having been ordained for twenty-one years, this is the seventh time round for me, listening to these readings as part of Sunday worship and then preaching and writing about them as a member of the clergy.

The imagery of sheep and shepherd is very appropriate for churches that are members of the Parish of the Good Shepherd, here in Ashton-under-Lyne. But it is a well-loved and important analogy for the Christian life wherever it is experienced.  The use of the word ‘harrassed’, translated elsewhere as ‘confused’ to describe those who do not know Jesus could as easily be applied to our generation as it was to Jesus’ own times.

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is still at a relatively early stage in his ministry. People will have encountered or heard of John the Baptist; they might have heard the rumours of what happened at Jesus’ baptism when a voice from heaven proclaimed him to be God’s Son; they might have heard Jesus teaching in the synagogue; some will know that a few have been chosen to live alongside Jesus; most of them will have heard his challenging teaching on the mountain. There have been healings, a storm has been calmed, demons have been cast out, a girl has been raised from the dead. But still people haven’t had enough time to understand who this man, Jesus, really is.

Is he just a really good teacher? … Where does his power come from? … Why is he saying such different things to the established religious leaders? People are confused – they hear Jesus’ voice, they hear the voices of their priests. Who should they listen to? Who is really helping them to know God?

Society today has many conflicting voices speaking about what people should believe and how they should behave. Some say God exists and some say he doesn’t. Some say that we must maintain the Christian heritage of our nation, and others say that any mention of God and religion in public life is wrong. There are those who say that there is an absolute set of morals while others say that they are free to do anything they want to. Some people let their lives be governed by the voices of astrologers and clairvoyants – claiming to see into the future. Some people follow the voices of those who say that happiness comes through possessions not relationship and friendship.

And there is a perpetual stream of voices saying that if we buy this car, or that face cream, or this floor cleaner our lives will be instantly so much better.

Each of us has our own struggles, I guess, with working out how to live our lives in a complicated world. Working out which voices to listen to can be so complicated – and for some people it is simply overwhelming. The confusion is just too great. We feel harassed. …

To block out the voices, some turn to alcohol or drugs to bring respite from the need to make decisions. When voices that urge people to focus solely on their own needs become too strong, relationships can suffer and breakdown, or people can get into debt or a life of crime. Overwhelmed by voices that undermine self-confidence, mental health problems can emerge. These social problems are apparent in many areas of our cities, towns and in our neighbourhoods.

It is perhaps good, at least occasionally, for me to remind myself what priests are told as part of accepting their role. This is called the Bishop’s Charge and is read out in ordination services. This is the charge that the Bishop gave to my wife and I when we were ordained as priests:

Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.

Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent … and to guide them through the world’s confusions. ….

A daunting task! Only possible with God’s Spirit at work in us! But this is not a task for priests on their own. It is a charge that was given, as our Gospel tells us, by Jesus to his disciples.

Filled with compassion at the confusion of the people around him, Jesus empowered his disciples to minister to them – to bring wholeness and healing to damaged lives. This task was on such a large scale that Jesus chose not to limit it to significant religious leaders, but to also use ordinary people, like you and me, to fulfil it. As people who follow Jesus, you share with your priests the task of reaching out to all in our parishes, and in our local communities wherever we live and work, who are confused, who feel harassed and worried, and whose lives are damaged.

Together, we all embody the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost and places them once again in God’s company – so that they may be whole, secure, safe and free from confusion and fear.

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