A sermon preached online at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 25 April 2021.
The beautiful game has been in the news this week but for all the wrong reasons.
The big story was the failed attempt to form a European Super League. This idea had been talked about for years, had been months in the planning, and lasted all of 48 hours. The owners of the twelve clubs who’d hatched the plan, were accused of only being interested in the money not the future of the sport itself and certainly not the fans.
And that sounds very much like the hired hands referred to in today’s gospel, interested in the money but not in caring for the sheep.
During the current pandemic, the quality of leadership has been critical in whatever walk of life and on however small or large a scale. As the pandemic hit, and perhaps even more so as it has endured, we’ve needed leaders who cared for their club, their staff, their students, their residents, their customers, their country.
There’s all the difference in the world between a good shepherd and a hired hand. And in a crisis such as we’re living through, it becomes apparent.
‘I am the good shepherd’ we heard. ‘I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’
The intimacy of this bond between Christ our good shepherd and us as his sheep, is as intimate as the bond between Christ and the one he calls ‘Abba, Father’.
So it’s right up there with the bond between a parent and their child. So much so that in the same way as a parent would sacrifice their life for the sake of their child, Christ is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep.
This intimacy lies at the heart of our spiritual lives: ‘I know my own and my own know me.’
Last week at Evensong I mentioned a recent book by Sarah Sands called ‘The Interior Silence’.
Sarah Sands was the editor of the Today programme on Radio 4 from 2017 to the autumn of 2020; so that was during much of the Brexit era and the beginning of the pandemic. Perhaps not surprisingly she ended up with information overload and suffering from insomnia.
But inspired by the ruins of an ancient Cistercian abbey at the bottom of her garden in Norfolk, she decided to research the monks’ lives who once lived there; and so began her spiritual journey in which she decided to visit 10 monasteries around the world, from a Coptic desert community in Egypt to a retreat in the Japanese mountains.
Her book ‘The Interior Silence: 10 lessons from monastic life’ tells of both her outer and her inner journey.
The last paragraph of the book sums up what she learnt:
‘Silent is an anagram of listen. It is how I shall try to live my life, as the monks have taught me. Attentive to the interior silence.’
To know the intimacy that lies at the heart of our spiritual lives as Christians, we too have to set out on our own spiritual journey and learn to be silent, in order to listen to the voice of our good shepherd.
The other football story that hit the news this week was that Mourinho’s days as the Tottenham manager, are now over.
A few years ago in 2014, when he moved for the second time to be the Chelsea manager, there was a press conference in which he famously said:
‘We have top players and, sorry if I’m arrogant, we have a top manager’, before adding: ‘Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.’
This resulted in the media dubbing him ‘The Special One’.
How does that sit alongside today’s gospel?
William Temple, a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a classic book in 1938 ‘Readings in St John’s Gospel’. It’s still worth looking at today.
His translation of the opening words of today’s gospel is striking:
‘I am the shepherd, the beautiful one. The shepherd, the beautiful one, lays down his life for the sheep.’
William Temple acknowledged that his translation exaggerated, but he defended it by arguing that the word for ‘good’ used in today’s passage, ‘is one that represents, not the moral rectitude of goodness, nor its austerity, but its attractiveness’.
Christ is good in such a way as to draw you and me to himself; and this beauty of goodness is supremely seen in the way that he laid down his life for the sheep.
So these words are surely ones for us to take to heart:
‘I am the shepherd, the beautiful one. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.’