Luke 15:1-7 and John 10:11-18

Reflection by Anne Stewart. Being shepherds …

Not long after I was assessed as being acceptable for training as a minister I noticed that people kept asking me this question, ‘What sort of minister do you think you will be?’ I was most confused by the question.  What are my options, I thought?  What sorts of ministers are there, and how could I possibly know this at this stage?  Was there a choice?  Do I get to choose?  Could I just be whatever I liked?  Did they mean, perhaps, whether I would be a good one, a bad one, a pulpit thumping one, or a send-everyone-to-sleep one?  Apparently I should have known the answer but my inability to answer the question just made me feel I had missed something crucial, something I should have known before I started.  I noticed too, that other students seemed to be able to answer the question, they seemed to have it all worked out before they even began.  I wondered whether it would be enough to say that I’m going to be a ’wait-and-see minister’.  Would that answer their question?  Then one day Martin and I took the youth group and a few parents on an outing from Dunedin to one of the beaches in the area.  We had it all planned, food organised, who was going in whose cars etc. but when we got there some of our people weren’t there and they didn’t arrive for some time.  I found myself becoming quite anxious and I may have voiced my concerns perhaps a few too many times.  Finally an exasperated Martin said, ‘Ok enough!  We have it, you are going to be a ‘mother-hen’ minister!  I was sort of glad to have finally found my ‘label’ but also a little let-down that I was to be defined as an anxious fusser.  I hadn’t heard of this kind of ministry before and it just didn’t feel quite as clever as the names that others had found.

However he wasn’t far wrong. Over the years, in many different contexts, I have noticed this need I have, to have all the chicks under the wings – it shows itself quite regularly.  A shepherd, I think, has a better ring to it than mother-hen.  But the concept is very similar.  I also recall a quite energetic argument with a fellow student at the time who maintained that using the word shepherd was silly and outdated because shepherds hadn’t existed since biblical times.  When I explained that there were still shepherds today; that it is still a job in our world he didn’t believe me.  He is such a townie, that boy!   The shepherds work in biblical times, and today, is to ensure that all of the flock are safe and looked after.  The shepherd, like the mother-hen, needs everyone in the sheepfold/under the wings – in their safe place.  The shepherd will go wherever is necessary to bring the sheep back into the fold.  This story helps me understand why I react as I do when I see someone being left behind or forgotten or excluded in any way.  Exclusive talk really winds me up and I think, as a follower of Christ, that it should.  To me this is a fundamental element of Jesus’ teaching that should undergird how we are to be as a church community.  Being inclusive is easy language, however, but it’s how we behave that reveals what our words mean.  As Villagers it doesn’t matter where we used to worship or which community we used to identify with, in The Village we are one, together.  We are working out this Village thing together.  As Christians, it doesn’t matter which denomination or worship style or theology, we might be more comfortable with, we are one in Christ. Our oneness in Christ is mentioned pretty much every week in some part of our worship services, whether it is prayed, sung, or said, yet is this a feature of our witness during the rest of the week?  Is what we cultivate on Sunday played out in how we talk and behave?  We would hope so, eh!

A friend of mine who eats only a plant-based diet, (and looks remarkably well for it!) was telling me about a church event he was going to where the caterer, who comes in and takes care of the meals, had made it clear that it would not be possible to supply vegan meals. My friend, who is no moaner, mentioned it to me – he had experienced that same thing in other places.  “I guess I will have to go and eat somewhere else”, he said.  That comment immediately activated the mother-hen in me and I thought to myself, that’s not right!

Honestly, it is just not that hard anymore to adjust food to cater for such a possibility! It’s not right to leave anyone feeling like he’s odd or unreasonable because of a health choice.  There are numerous very good recipe books and online apps that make the whole thing incredibly easy.  I am amazed that a caterer can still get away with taking a line like that!  So, I thought, what can we do here, because I am not having one of the sheep left outside the fold just because a caterer lacks imagination!  It wasn’t hard, I will find (and have found, as it turns out) someone to go to one of the many places where plant-based food is available, buy the meals and bring them to the event and my friend will eat with us and no one will be any the wiser.  And, if that caterer objects to food that is not hers being used, well she might get a little lesson from me about the church as an inclusive place!

They can seem quite small, these little things that exclude, but they really matter to those being left outside. I was talking with a friend this week and she mentioned that her mother has a new minister at her church.  There is always some excitement at the start of a new ministry.  However, the excitement my friend’s mother had felt, dimmed rather quickly when she found the sermons regularly dominated by talk of the devil.  She thought she had left that stuff behind in her earlier years.  All the work she had done to get things in perspective felt like it was being unravelled.  For her, the fold doesn’t feel such a safe place anymore.  The fold needs a wide opening and it needs to be safe because the shepherd has his arms open wide enough to accommodate us all and he is determined that everyone is welcome there. When the sheep are driven away because of some else’s fear, and not held in love, the fold is not safe.

This week I also heard an old story of a woman in her late 70’s who asked to talk to the minister about coming back to church after fifty years absence. The minister popped by and eventually asked her why she had left in the first place.  This is why, she answered holding up her left hand.  Three fingers were missing.  She had lost them in an accident in the woollen mill where she worked.  The vicar at the time had said no to marrying her because she would not be able to wear the sign of her marriage – the ring! Now I know that ministers like this were also products of their time, but oh my goodness, statements like this do some damage!  The woman said that she thought it was about time that she forgave and forgot as the Lord asks.  So she asked to come back into the fold.  I think the vicar in that story forgot what his role was.  The church, or the minister, is not the gate through which we must pass in order to get into the fold.  The church, or those in it, are not the arbiters of who Christ draws in – that is not our role.  The church, or it’s ministers, are not the shepherd either – we may try to do some shepherding but there is only one ‘good’ shepherd and we follow his lead.  The role of the church is to go out in the shepherd’s name and power, to participate in all the shepherd is wanting to do.  How many times do you think that people have been shut out by the carelessness of those in the church?  What does the Good Shepherd do about this?  He leaves no stone unturned until each lost sheep known and loved is found and brought in.  Even those we may have inadvertently left behind.  I think that Michael Jones’s role in the debate around Israel Folau’s recent comments illustrate for us the finest example of the shepherd’s lead when he said that rugby is a place where no one is left behind.  He added, “Being able to express yourself is important, but doing it respectfully, and I suppose with wisdom.  There needs to be a lot of love and a lot of grace, particularly as Christians.”

How does this parable inform us about how to do and be church? The shepherd, we hear, is good, and this good shepherd knows us and invites us to know him.  The shepherd lays down his life for the sheep – that’s how much we mean to him.  He has other sheep that do not belong to this fold and they must not be forgotten – they are to be brought into the fold too.  There will be one flock and one shepherd.  He gives his all so that others can have life in all its fullness.  Fundamentally, of course, we are free to accept or reject the invitation into the fold.  But our response does not remove the invitation.  Love is patient.  Love will wait and never give up waiting or loving.  At The Village we are trying to have doors that are as widely opened as we can get them but the reality is that not everyone will choose to come through them, or will choose to stay in the fold.  Our challenge is to work with the Good Shepherd, to make the fold a safe place and to never stop our work of being hospitable, welcoming, and helping people find their home with Jesus.