Reflection Sunday 18th July

Readings for proper 11: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Reflection 

“Woe to the shepherds”. What is the role of the shepherd, what do they do?

They look after the sheep, providing them with food, water and health care. Hopefully there is empathetic care such that shepherds see them not as any old sheep, but as their sheep. Shepherd as provide security, protection from danger: wild animals, thieves, bad weather. Shepherds hopefully plan ahead, ensuring that when they move their flock they will be moving them to new pasture with plenty of grass, or in the winter plenty of shelter and in the summer plenty of shade. Shepherds need to pre-empt situations requiring extra input: lambing time, shearing, the rut. Shepherds need to keep their flocks together, not letting the sheep stray apart,  becoming lost or isolated. 

Good shepherds do all this with love and  willing self-sacrifice (because it is their raison d’etre). Bad shepherds on the other hand are uncommitted to their flock, distracted by self-interest and easily loose the plot. The message that Jeremiah preaches is that God sees the short-comings, the wickedness of the bad shepherds and their treatment of God’s flocks. And in response God will raise up new, good shepherds and God’s flocks will be revived and will flourish. 

In the next paragraph, Jeremiah’s words speak of the coming messiah, the one we know as Jesus who is the ultimate good shepherd. This image of good shepherding is reprieved in today’s psalm.

But what does good shepherding look like today? Who are our shepherds? What if our shepherds were our political leaders? 

Do our political leaders ensure that everyone has enough food and healthy food? Or do they let some people go hungry and malnourished? Why are there so many food banks? What standards of nutrition are provided in schools, hospitals, prisons etc?

Do they ensure we all have access to clean water and do they ensure safe disposal of sewage (even if they have contracted this out to the private sector)?

Do they ensure everyone who is ill, whether physically or mentally, receives prompt treatment? Do they provide preventative treatments and programmes to promote well being?

Do they ensure the security of their ‘flock’? Do they have resources in place to prevent race and hate crime, to prevent traffic accidents, house fires – and fires in tower blocks? Do they maintain a properly funded system of law and order that offers everyone the right to justice?

Do they plan for the future? For the knowns such as climate change, and the unknowns such as pandemics?

Are they motivated by self interest or by a desire to care for their flock? What is the source of their motivation, their vocation?

Maybe it is not just politicians that are our shepherds, what about our business leaders, our civil servants, diplomats? The police and emergency services, the armed forces, medics and Carers, GPs?  What if they are our farmers,  environmentalists, teachers, researchers and scientists? What if they are our neighbours – and if so are we their ‘shepherds?

I rather suspect that God must look on us with dismay. If in Jeremiah’s day, God called out prophets to speak the truth, to expose the shortcomings of those in power, I am sure that God is today calling out to those willing to become prophets. Those prophets maybe you and me, for even if onl9y in small ways, we can call out the short comings of those in leadership roles, we can sign petitions, join marches, we can create prophetic actions in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and in the tradition of the actions of Jesus – who fed the hungry, healed the sick, questioned the authorities and challenged unjust interpretations of the law.

If in Jeremiah’s day, God was promising to raise up new, good shepherds, ones who would be in due time be followers of the Son of David, then I am even more sure that today God is still seeking out and raising up new leaders who will follow the example of Jesus, who are willing to commit body and soul to the well being of their fellow beings – both humans and creatures, flora and fauna. And it may well be that you and I are being called to be such leaders or shepherds, even if only in small ways. A Shepherd is perhaps the better image as it links us back to the calling that God gave Adam in Genesis 2, to tend and care for the earth and all that it contains. 

The passage to the Ephesians reminds us of the importance of inclusivity. Jeremiah talks of God bringing together disparate, scattered flocks to create one unified whole. When we look around us, we see the damage caused by separating people into them and us groups, of pushing people into haves and and have-not groups, of working against each other rather than cooperating, of seeking self interest rather than the common good. So it is good to be reminded that it is by working together that we create God’s dwelling place on earth. 

The passage from Mark’s gospel records how the disciples returned, having completed their mission to preach and bring healing to the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns and villages – of which we heard a couple of weeks ago, when they went out in pairs with neither purse nor spare clothes. It would seem that they return tired but perhaps also with lots of stories and questions that they want to share with Jesus. So Jesus takes them away to a quiet place – admittedly they don’t get long there before their rest is interrupted – as however much we want to be good shepherds, good missioners, good disciples, we are not superhuman, we need time to rest and recharge, to unload our burdens and to be refreshed.

Take time to unburden yourself with God – as in today’s psalm, God wishes to let you rest in green places and walk by quiet waters.   

Reflection Sunday 11th July

Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

The wonderful image of a plumb line: a standard of the upright, a measure of vertical rectitude, a gauge of righteousness! I have long admired this sculpture “The Plumb Line and the City” by Clark Fitzgerald, which is to be found in Coventry Cathedral. 

A plumb line is a length of string weighed at one end with a plumb bob. The latter could simply be anything that is heavy enough to pull the string taught, but can be a beautifully created shape such as in this sculpture with a sharp point that allows the viewer to see with greater accuracy how true the plumb line is hanging. Plumb lines were first used as a practical tool to ensure that walls were vertically straight. Walls that are not vertically straight are likely to collapse and/or fall over. Amos is shown a plumb line in a vision by God with the warning that God has held the plumb line up against the people of Israel and found them well short of true. Much of the Book of Amos is taken up with records of how different peoples and nations have sinned – abused the poor, greedily taken more than their due, killed and murdered, despised the righteous – and have carried on sinning, continuing to live immoral lives, even though they have suffered the consequences of their wrong doing. The people, to whom Amos must prophesy, seem ‘hell-bent’ on ignoring their plight, complacently living as if their actions will never be judged. But they have been judged by God and have been found to be astray of what is true. They are like a badly built wall that is listing and is about to come crashing down. It is a message that even the priest at Bethel doesn’t want to hear. 

This second half of Psalm 85 tells us of all the benefits that come from aligning our lives with God: peace, salvation, righteousness and faithfulness, mercy, and a plentiful harvest of good things. The focus of this Psalm that these benefits pertain to a people, to a community, rather than just an individual. Often we think of wrong doing and judgement in terms of the individual rather than the community. Maybe it is a western focus or a modern focus; it is certainly one that is made manifest in the question ‘Have you been saved?’ and in the ideal of the ‘self-made man’. But as we know, ‘no man is an island’ and (as Covid has so clearly taught us) no one is free from the repercussions of the actions of their fellow compatriots. 

The passage from the letter to the Ephesians is also about ‘we and us’, rather than ‘I and me’. The letter goes on to talk about Christ being the head of the church which is his body. If in the Old Testament to be an Israelite is to be part of the House of Israel, then so it is in the New Testament that to be a Christian is to be part of the body of Christ. 

The plumb line is not measuring the trueness or uprightness of an individual, but the trueness of a whole community, be that a local community, a city or a nation. It is certainly possible that one can have an individual who is entirely true and honest but whose goodness is overwhelmed by the falseness, the criminality, the carelessness  and/ or deceitfulness of the social structures within which they live. That one person’s goodness does not stop the overall character of the community, city or nation being less than true. I think that is where we find ourselves today. We cannot hold up a plumb line against our nation and say that what is measured is true and right. We have only to look at the number of people reliant on food banks, the quality of treatment being dished out to the homeless, prisoners, and migrants, the growing differential between the incomes of those at the top and the bottom of the jobs market, the difference between the amount spent on fossil fuel subsidies and that spent on government support for green infrastructure – to see how far short we fall. 

We have therefore a responsibility to be prophetic like Amos and to call out when we see that our government, our institutions, our businesses, our society, our churches, are not in line, are not true to God’s ways.

Sunday Reflections for Proper 9, 4th July 2021

Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13

Reflection

Today’s readings describe different ways in which people encounter God. Ezekiel is filled with God’s spirit with a view to his becoming God’s prophet. The track record of prophets in the Old Testament suggests that this will not be an easy role, especially when God tells him that he is to prophesy to those who are rebellious. That introduces another type of relationship between people and God: those who ignore or are ignorant of God and/ or who chose to rebel, ie to live not according to the ways of God. 

The Psalmist likens the relationship between God and his faithful people as being like that of a servant, of one who is alert and dedicated to the desires of the one they serve. These are contrasted with others who deride God and pour contempt on God’s people. These sound familiar, similar to the characters in the Wisdom of Solomon (one of last week’s readings) who only focused on themselves and saw nothing at the end of life other than death. 

In the reading from Corinthians we hear of someone who is caught up in the spirit, someone who has an ecstatic experience of God. Although he is diffident, it is likely that Paul is talking about himself. His is a deeply emotional and spiritual relationship in which Paul lives at the extreme opposites of life: absolutely against Christ then absolutely for Christ; energetically travelling from town to town then staying put for several years; toughing it out in the front line, winning converts and enemies in equal numbers. It is likely that his spiritual highs were counterbalanced by lows, perhaps associated with Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’.

So to Mark’s Gospel where the home crowd in Nazareth have a very clear idea of what someone who is anointed by God – ie a messiah – should look like and it doesn’t look like Jesus. They cannot believe how someone like them – artisans from a small hill town – could be a conduit for the healing power and wisdom that comes from God. Jesus was too ordinary to be such a person! Yet they are the ones who loose out. Their view of Jesus prevents them from relating to God, they are not able to be open and receptive to the power of God,  and their hurts and sufferings go unhealed.

Jesus, disappointed with the response of the people in Nazareth, commissions his disciples – another  group of everyday people: small scale fishermen, tax officials, fellow artisans – and sends them out to be conduits of healing power and preachers of God’s message. Again the ability of those they encounter to recognise God’s presence determines whether they receive God’s blessing.

What then is it to be a child of God, a believer, a seeker of God?

It is to be open minded, to curious, to be alert, to be trusting, to be ready to risk ridicule. It is to set aside both self reliance  and self doubt. It is to be ordinary and it is to be faithful. You don’t need special clothes, or special training or even special equipment – not even  bread, bag, or money! But there is no guarantee that it will be an easy or effortless existence – but God will be with you all the way!