Category Archives: Articles

Sermon: The Good Shepherd

Owing to the difficulties experienced with the sound system on two consecutive Sundays, Tim and Paul have asked for my sermon of April 22nd to be put here on the website. The PA system is currently being investigated so we hope for better things in future!  Lois Smith

John 10: 11-18

This is probably a fanciful thought but the name ‘Windrush’ makes me think of the Holy Spirit – that rushing, mighty wind that came down at Pentecost and fell on people from many nations, enabling them to speak in their own languages but be understood by all.

Those who came over on the Windrush came to a post-war Britain, victorious in one way but also feeing impoverished and defeated by the mammoth task they faced to rebuild our shattered country. I remember as a child of about 6 seeing pictures of large parts of our cities that looked like Syria looks today.

As we know, the people on the Windrush were invited to come and help save the Mother Country. No doubt they came with mixed motives – wanting to help but also wanting better lives for themselves and their families. They came, they worked hard, they rebuilt: they contributed in many different ways and they settled. Why at this late stage have they and their now adult children been threatened with being thrown out of the nation’s sheepfold? It is as if the Government, and, in particular, the Home Office, have been more concerned with money and their new and over-harsh immigration policy than with the fate of individual sheep. It is encouraging that the wrongs are now being slowly righted, but it comes way too late for some who have lost their jobs, been denied health care and suffered huge emotional trauma through being given a taste of the ‘hostile environment’. The stories are heart breaking and they keep coming.

What a contrast with Muslim Turkey who have built a vast refugee camp near the border with Syria, where Syrians in their thousands are living safely with basic amenities and money provided weekly for their subsistence – some of this provided by Europe but certainly not all. As David Lammy, a black M.P. , thundered in the House of Commons: “ We are shamed as a nation by our treatment of the Windrush Generation”.

So what has this to do with sheep and shepherds? Perhaps the parable that we heard in our Gospel does not immediately register with those who live in 21st century cities; but the message it contains is as relevant and vibrant as ever. I think it contains three questions: what are the characteristics of the Shepherd? What is the nature of the sheepfold? And who can and cannot be included?

Jesus’ metaphor is not a new one. The whole of chapter 34 in the Book of the prophet Ezekiel is about the rulers of the Israel of his day, who are behaving like the hirelings in Jesus’ parable, and the Sovereign Lord who takes over as the shepherd of his people. “I will look for those that are lost, bring back those who wander off, bandage those who are hurt, and heal those who are sick”. It is well worth reading that chapter.

In the parable Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. In translating from the Aramaic the Greek word ‘agathos’ could have been used for ’good’ – meaning morally upright; but instead the word ‘kalos’ was chosen – meaning not only moral but beautiful: someone who is not just ordered and efficient but also winsome and attractive, whose kindness and graciousness draws people to him. In the passage before our Gospel reading Jesus refers to Himself not as the shepherd but as the door or gate of the sheepfold. This is a reference to the Palestinian shepherd’s practice of lying at night across the open entrance to the sheepfold so that their bodies offered protection to the sheep from lions, bears, wolves and robbers. Many were badly injured and some fell to their deaths among the sheep – in contrast to the hired hands who ran away.

So what is Jesus showing us of the qualities of the good shepherd? Faithfulness for one; then strength: they fought hard with only clubs as weapons; then compassion and knowledge of each one of their sheep as individuals. Palestinian shepherds didn’t have sheepdogs – they called each sheep by name and the sheep followed them.

A group in the parish have been reading a little book by Rowan Williams called ‘Being Disciples’. He makes a great deal of the importance of our names to God. Rowan Williams says this: “I know that I exist, I live, I flourish simply because of God’s speaking”. ‘I have called you by name, says God, you are mine’ (a quote from Isaiah). And on that divine speaking of our name rests our whole being.”

And so to the second question: “What is the nature of the sheepfold – be it Church or Nation?” Here the metaphor in the parable to some extent breaks down. Being a Christian within the Christian Church is not, or should not be, a safe haven with the shepherd offering us physical protection. Two days ago we had a phone call from someone who used to be one of Robin’s curates during our days in Chesham. He said that he had taken early retirement in order to care for his wifewho has apparently had MS for the past 4 years and is now in a wheelchair. We remembered her as a very active primary school teacher and mother of 3. He sounded lost and grieving and I gained the impression of a life as a huge struggle where endurance was the quality they both most needed.

Jesus never suggested that life for his followers would be pleasant and straightforward. We are asked if we can drink the cup that He will drink, and also told that He came’ not to bring peace but a sword’. The safety and security of the sheepfold refers not to physical protection from the trials of life which beset us as human beings and as Christians, but to the security of a life lived in relationship with Him. “I know my own and my sheep know me, just as the father knows me and I know the Father”. What we are offered is not an easy and comfortable life in the sheepfold but a life which is likely to include pain and risk as we seek to negotiate our way through a secular society where values and attitudes are increasingly widely different from the way of Jesus. Salvation lies not in the security of the sheepfold but often more through our own personal version of life on the Cross.

Recently we have been watching Andrew Marr’s ‘History of the World’. A story in one of the episodes was of two of the earliest Christian martyrs – Perpetua and Felicity. Perpetua was a young married noblewoman of 22 who became a Christian along with her slave girl, Felicity, in their home city of Carthage. Perpetua was brought before the Roman Authorities and told that if she did not renounce her Christian faith she would be executed. This she refused to do and she and Felicity were thrown into a filthy and overcrowded prison where she gave birth to her baby son. Her father begged her to renounce her faith and save herself, but she handed the baby to her mother and brother when they visited and then went to her death with Felicity in the arena at Carthage. There is an eyewitness account of their deaths along with two or three other Christians. They were beaten by gladiators and mauled by wild beasts but the huge baying crowd fell totally silent when the young women were put to the sword. Apparently Perpetua guided the sword of the young and inexperienced gladiator to her throat – to make sure of her death. Today Perpetua and Felicity are both saints in the Roman Catholic calendar. They were killed a few years before the martyrdom of St. Alban.

On the whole we are not called to go through suffering and death on that scale, but most of us, at some point in our lives, have our share – whether it be physical pain, bereavement or emotional distress.

The qualities of the shepherd, the nature of the sheepfold and finally the question of who is to be included in the nation and the Church, and who is to be excluded? Jesus says ‘’I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.’ And so who are these other sheep? In Jesus’ day it was the hated Gentiles but also those who were sick or disabled in any way. None of them were allowed into the inner part of the Temple – they were considered unclean. In our day the ‘other sheep’ seem to include Muslims, those on benefits or in need of Social Care, asylum seekers and, until a few days ago, the Windrush Generation.

It is not always easy to be inclusive as we all well know. To include those who have many needs or are perhaps very different from ourselves can make demands on us and on the nation that we are not always ready to meet.

The last two weeks have been weeks of shame for the government but perhaps also for some of us when we recognise our own reluctance to give up our time and our comfort to offer inclusion to those who need it and perhaps especially to those who feel they are left on the hillside to the mercy of the wolves.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit did come with the Windrush to teach us lessons in inclusion?

Lois Smith

 

Introducing Rachel Snow

I’ve been asked to write a piece, by way of introducing myself to you all, to describe my journey into ordination training, which I am undergoing at St Mary’s, Redbourn. I was raised by Christian parents, who had a strong faith, and were actively involved in their local Baptist church. So it was natural for me to grow up believing in God. Until the age of 11 I lived in Stanmore, but my family became part of a free church that was opening a Christian school in Hemel Hempstead, so we moved to the town to be involved with the project, called The King’s School, now based in Harpenden.

In my teenage years I began to take my own steps of faith, I helped lead the Christian Union at my sixth form, Longdean School, and knew that I wanted to serve God all my life. I had been raised on stories of missionaries, and I took a gap year to attend a Bible College, thinking that God may call me to a mission field overseas. However, no such sense of call came, so on the advice of my minister I went to university, and studied Biology at Southampton.

Towards the end of my degree, I began to pray again about going overseas on mission, but had no clear sense of direction from God, then I met my husband to be, and all thoughts of overseas missions evaporated! We were soon engaged, and married the following year. I had considered being a teacher, but a research post at the hospital opened up, along with the opportunity to study for a PhD, so I spent 10 very fulfilling years in medical research, during which time I had my two sons, Joshua and David. Raising two boys has been a lot of fun, we enjoy going to the movies together; Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Marvel and spy movies being favourites, as well as many hours spent discussing football….. (Chelsea and Southampton!)

We moved back to Hemel Hempstead, to be nearer to our extended family, and began to attend Soul Survivor, Watford. It is part of the Church of England, but meets in a converted warehouse, and has a contemporary style of worship and an informal atmosphere. I re-trained as a science teacher, and have been teaching at John F Kennedy Catholic School for 8 years now. I thought that was the last of my career changes, but God had other ideas! I was in a Sunday morning service when I had a strong impression that God was calling me to explore ordination training. It was completely out of the blue, and not something I had ever considered, and not the tradition I am from, so I took some time to read books about the Church of England, and argue with God, but after a few months the idea would not go away, so I began to discuss it with my minister, and then with the Church of England’s vocation officer, and finally the Diocesan Discernment Officer. I visited a variety of Anglican churches and completed placements at St Benedict’s in Bennetts End, and St Lawrence, Bovingdon, to learn more about the life of a parish church and priest. Finally, I was recommended for training by a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, after a 3-day conference, where I had to undertake various tasks including group presentations, discussions and in-depth interviews.

I am now in my first of three years of training, I attend St Mellitus College in London as a part-time student. This involves weekly evening lectures, nine residential weekends and one residential week per year for three years. I have regular assignments, mainly essays, to complete throughout the year. I am continuing to teach part-time, as I have two sons at university to support! After the college course is finished I will then continue training as a curate in a different setting for another three years. I am grateful that the diocese recommended St Mary’s as an ideal place to train, with its strong leadership team, rich traditions, and loving, friendly and outward looking community, not to mention the beautiful church and grounds. I am enjoying learning to worship in more traditional ways, in particular singing as part of the choir, as well as helping with the Gospellers youth group. I will also have to do some preaching as part of my training, the most scary part! I greatly appreciate the opportunities and support I’ve been given at St Mary’s. I look forward to getting to know many more of you in the time I have here.

Rachel Snow

Sermon: Be Still

Will’s sermon from Choral Evensong on Sunday 4th February has been reproduced below by popular request:

I think it’s interesting that in the passage from Luke we’ve heard tonight we get two seemingly unrelated stories – the calming of the storm and then the story about the demoniac and the Gadarene swine. Why does one follow the other? I think it’s because often in the Gospels context is everything.
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Let’s begin by picturing the scene.  Jesus and his disciples cross what we call the Sea of Galilee but which is in fact a large inland lake. And storms there can blow up very fast, without warning. And so it happens. But Jesus, tired out from dealing with the crowds, is fast asleep in the boat, and the terrified disciples shake him awake. And he rebukes the wind and the raging of the water, and they fall back and there is a great calm. Luke doesn’t quote the actual words used, but St Mark does: ‘Peace! Be still’ and the wind and the sea obey him.
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And so they arrive safely on the other side, only to meet a ‘madman’. He must have cut a wild figure, wearing no clothes and living in the tombs outside the nearest village. And all that is evil in him recognises the Son of God for who he is, for evil cannot bear to be in the presence of good. And that evil – personified in the story as a whole tribe of demons – hastens off to find security in animals who will presumably be oblivious to the gaze of the Son of God. But even the pigs know evil when they smell it, and in a panic they charge off over the cliff and into the sea. The locals hear about it, and find it quite outrageous. They prefer the security of property – represented by the pigs which, as Jews, they shouldn’t have been keeping in the first place – to the riskiness of the Son of God, and so they puff up the hill to persuade this joker who has caused all the trouble to clear off, and stop disturbing respectable folks. And of course the message is not hard to find: the world has gone on preferring pigs and property to the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, ever since: that is, preferring the illusion of security now to the sure gift of eternal life.

So the joker who has caused such a fine sense of moral outrage in Gadara goes on his way. But if we have the eyes to see and the hearts to understand, we will discern how, once again, he has turned the accepted order of things upside down, and poked sheer ludicrous fun at our solemn, blinkered, pompous selves. As one commentator reminds us – the Pharisees (who would have won prizes for solemnity and pomposity) – decided they simply had to have Jesus put down. He couldn’t be allowed to go on standing everything on its head, and making them look ridiculous. What rubbish he kept coming out with: camels going through the eyes of needles; or being swallowed easily by people who would choke on a gnat; people with logs in their eyes; prodigal sons being given the all-star treatment when they returned home penniless; churchmen sounding trumpets before they put a pound in the collection plate; idlers who had done only an hour’s work being given a full day’s pay. What had all this nonsense to do with religion? It was flippant, and it was irreverent, and it would undermine morals – and that would never do.

So, as that writer puts it, the Jester had to be crucified: crucified ‘before the contagion of eternal love showed up the whole solemn system of moralism and religiosity as a complete knock-about farce.’ But what the great and the good of the time didn’t anticipate was that the Jester would pop up again like a Jack- in-the-box, and start dancing about more vigorously than before, and even more compellingly. People here, there and everywhere fell under his spell, and they still do. And we can laugh with joy because the Kingdom of God has drawn near, and we know that the laughter will continue in heaven, for heaven, as Julian of Norwich said, is ‘right merry’.

It’s good to reflect on the laughter of the Kingdom of Heaven. At the moment there is little reason for laughter in the world, and there seems to be little laughter in the Church too. We bring to the Church all the habits of our life at work or in the home: busyness, anxious activity, full diaries, endless rushing around. Churches on Sundays reproduce the tensions and the stresses of the week, and so often fail to send their members out with a lightness in their step. Why do we find it so hard to get rid of everything that is weighing us down?

As I go to various church meetings, locally and nationally, I sit and listen to the great and the good describing their strategies: financial awareness campaigns and the deployment of clergy; new plans for mission and the latest legislative requirements – and the picture painted is for all the world like that circus act where a man tries to get more and more plates spinning on poles, and rushes round and round in ever decreasing circles to add one plate here and stop another falling there.

The Lord of our hearts, says to us all tonight ‘Stop. Don’t imagine that you will bring the Kingdom of Heaven any nearer by all this storm of activity. Don’t reproduce in the Church the frantic pattern of your daily life. That way madness lies. Peace. Be still. Be still and know that I am God. Progress into dependency. Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ The gospel writers saw clearly the parallels between the stilling of the storm on the lake and the stilling of the storm in the troubled man’s heart and mind. And Christ’s touch still has its ancient power.

So perhaps we in our churches can be bold enough to make the first priority in our strategy a desire for God, and a longing to be with him, and to know his love pouring into our hearts. And the second priority will be to pray before we act, and to pray as we act, and to sanctify all our doing with prayer, so that it won’t be anxious human rushing around like the circus performer with plates and poles, but it will be the Lord’s work and he will be in charge.

And the third priority must be this. When we pray, we must not rush into it as if it’s yet another job to be done, but to be still before God, and to listen to him, and be glad because we are meeting a friend, and be happy because he is so pleased we have come. God wants the simplicity of our surrender, our dependence, and if we surrender ourselves to him then the dialogue of prayer will take care of itself. Remember the old Frenchman who spent hours in church, and when asked what he was doing replied ‘I look at God, and God looks at me.’

Sometimes we do so much talking in prayer because we do so much talking all the time, and we cannot break the habit, not even for God. But the Lord who turns all of life upside down says ‘Peace. Be still’, and he stills the storm of activity and stress and worry in our hearts.

Please remember this: we are most fully ourselves, we are most fully a human being, when we sit in silence with God. As the great Catholic writer von Hügel, put it, ‘Man is what he does with his silence.’ In the silence we are never alone, for praying with us is the whole company of heaven. If we listen, we will hear the laughter of that ‘right merry company’. And if we watch, we will catch a glimpse of our heavenly Father himself, and there will be, and there is nothing better than that.

Amen.