Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil
The image we ponder today is that of the shepherd. One of the consolations of lockdown has been the joy of walking the pathways of Cheshire. We are blessed with a beautiful land, as the Psalmist says, “My share has fallen in a fair land.” Over the past months I have worn out two pairs of walking shoes, and one pair of wellies.
We do not take this beauty for granted. On every walk my heart has dwelt on those living in high rise blocks, or families with children with no garden, surrounded by bricks and concrete.
I remember taking a group of children from a Liverpool outer estate into North Wales. As the minibus climbed the hills chaos erupted in the back seats. Some exotic creature had been spotted and there was great excitement. The children clamoured to know what it was.
It was a sheep.
For us the image of the shepherd might seem well known. For many in our society it is utterly alien. The first thing to note is that when we speak of Christ the Good Shepherd many in our society won’t have a clue what we are on about.
But then do we? There is a huge difference between your 21st Century Cheshire farmer and your 1st Century Palestinian shepherd. Jesus was speaking from what he knew, and what he saw day by day. He was using language people understood.
The shepherds of Jesus’ day lived a precarious existence. It was a job at the bottom of the social ladder, difficult, dangerous and disliked. When Jesus says, ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking of Amos, chapter 3, verse 12. Of course you are.
“Thus says the Lord, ‘As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel be rescued…’”
A Palestinian shepherd had to account for sheep that were taken, attacks by wild animal or robbers were frequent. If the shepherd could not save the sheep he was at least charged with bringing evidence of the attack.
William Barclay quotes one who had spent time with shepherds; “I have listened with intense interest to their graphic descriptions of downright and desperate fights with these savage beasts. And when the thief and the robber come (and come they do), the faithful shepherd has often to put his life in his hand to defend the flock. I have known more than one case where he had literally to lay it down in the contest. A poor faithful fellow last spring, between Tiberias and Tabor, instead of fleeing, actually fought three Bedawin robbers until he was hacked to pieces with their khanjars, and died among the sheep he was defending.”
Which is not to say that our modern shepherds have an easy life by any means. The Lakeland shepherd, James Rebanks, in his book ‘The Shepherd’s life’ offers some advice to would-be shepherds.
First thing – it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep.
Second thing – you won’t always win.
Third thing – so stop whining and get on with it.
There’s some good advice for churches in those words.
Jesus draws a distinction between the good shepherd and the hired hand. The clue is in the word ‘good’. As you well know, in Greek there are two words for good. There is agathos which describes the moral quality of a thing. And there is kalos which means something good because it is lovely.
When Jesus speaks of the good shepherd he used kalos. We sometimes refer to someone as good because we see in them something wonderful. A good teacher may be skilful, effective, able to control a class and deliver good results. But then there are those people whose passion for their pupils goes beyond skill and efficiency and results. A good teacher inspires and encourages, is gracious, generous and kind. There is a difference between effective and good.
When Jesus speaks of ‘good’ he means people who inspire and encourage, those whose passion for what they do makes it an act of love rather than just a job.
Covid has been, as Charles Dickens put it, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We have, quite literally, walked through the valley of the shadow of death. We have seen great suffering and much grief. We know a difficult road lies ahead. Yet we have also seen, as Kate Adie put it, ‘the kindness of strangers’. Medical staff and those working in care homes have trodden the path of the good shepherd, too many have lost their life in doing so.
Neighbours have shown kindness in countless acts done for others. Teachers have gone door to door delivering lessons to children. People have volunteered in their thousands. We have seen goodness, kalos, in our communities. So yes, we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death – and we have seen goodness and seen it in abundance.
We face tough times ahead, our world has changed, we have changed, our jobs, our communities, our churches, have changed. In a few moments we shall hold our annual meeting a key part of which is to grasp some difficult nettles and elect people to represent our church as we move into that difficult future.
On our shared behalf may I offer our thanks to those who have served our church over the past year, in some cases for several years, but particularly over a year that has been unprecedented and extraordinarily challenging.
The past year has been the most challenging we have faced in many of our lifetimes. But let us acknowledge, here and now, that the year ahead will present us with even greater challenges.
I hope we are building a community that is good, people who do what they do not just out of a sense of duty but because with a genuine love for what it means to be a parish church. We need people who are kalos. Such lives make a difference.
I want to finish with a comment made to me by a local funeral director a few days ago. He said, we see funerals in many settings, churches, crematoria, civic celebrants, clergy, people of all faiths or none. In this past year your church has stood out as a place where people are treated with courtesy, kindness and respect. It is still difficult. We are still under Covid restrictions. But in your church it just seems better, it is kinder.
In what comes next let us tread as the good shepherd, that what we do we do kindly, with grace and in love.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/XRfUCy79t28