Just over thirteen and a half years ago I was in a hospital in Salerno, Italy having just given birth to Chiara. It was practice there to put all newborns in a nursery , a nido, safe away from all visitors with potential germs. Perhaps we are all a bit like that at the moment! Anyway, the difficulty was getting up every 3-4 hours to feed and waddling down a long corridor to eventually get to the nursery from the ward. Not an easy feat after a caesarean. Halfway down the corridor you could hear babies crying, but I could always tell Chiara’s cry from the rest and no one could calm her until she was put in my arms and then she stopped. I knew her voice and she knew mine.
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus talking about those who follow him recognising his voice. Whatever other voices there may be, or distractions ,those who listen carefully have the ear to discern his voice amidst all the others. Jesus uses the imagery of a shepherd and the sheep to illustrate this. The most familiar figure in the high ground of Judaea at that time would have been the shepherd, and scripture is full of this imagery. Unlike what we see in the countryside of Wales, Ireland, Yorkshire and so on, there were no sheepdogs in Palestine so the sheep knew only the voice of the shepherd. Most were kept for wool and milk rather than meat so they were often with the shepherd for years. A relationship built up. The shepherd would put his life on the line for the sheep and at night they would be herded into a fold, the shepherd lying across the opening to prevent wolves or thieves entering. This close relationship meant the sheep trusted and followed the shepherd.
In this parable, Jesus describes himself as the Good shepherd who protects, leads, nurtures and cares. Yet there is more… the good shepherd is also the gate to green pasture and life in all abundance. Jesus the Good Shepherd is also the way through to God, the gate keeper . The “good” shepherd as opposed to the false shepherds who appeared throughout Israel’s past and indeed the present.This parable isn’t only about love, care and guidance, it is also a warning of the perils of being swayed by other influences.
And today, amidst all the voices we hear around us…we need more than ever to listen for the voice of Jesus. Voices echo from the Television and social media, from our past and from our own expectations. They are heard in our self critical voice or the negativity of others. We need to allow the time, space and stillness to recognise where the Good shepherd is and where he might be leading us, to discern what call God is making on our lives and to be guided in our decisions. To listen…
Jesus talks of the thieves and bandits who try to sneak their way into the sheepfold, he refers again to those who have tried to lead Israel astray in the past and points to those who continue to steal and destroy life. Maybe we haven’t all had experience of physical robbery, but thieves and bandits exist in many different ways. Thieves creep up when no one is noticing. It might be underlying stress or busyness, maybe we get into patterns of negative behaviour, it might be taking things for granted, maybe it’s focussing on money and material things and distraction from what is really important, maybe it’s subconcious anger or bitterness that eats away at us. Whatever it is it steals the life in abundance Jesus talks about, it diminishes life rather than enhances it.
The abundant life that Jesus speaks of isn’t based on wealth or possessions, it’s not based on success or climbing the ladder, it’s not about how much we have but rather how we connect our lives to God. It’s about the flow of that love in ourselves and how that overspills and adds to the life of the world around us. Abundant life is about living with love, meaning and wholeness in our lives and it’s abundant because it keeps overflowing, love adds to more love, generosity to more generosity, life into more life.
In the reading from Acts we hear how the apostles would sell their possessions and goods to share with those in need, they broke bread with each other and lived in abundance of goodwill to everyone…and more and more joined them. Love adding to love, generosity to generosity and life adding to life in abundance.
In this time of pandemic we have seen reflections of this ; the foodbanks which keep on refilling, the kindnesses and gestures towards neighbour and stranger, folk making protective visors and sewing masks, the steps of a 100 year old man which raised 31 million, hotels that have opened to those with no home. …. Life in abundance in stark contrast with the powers that diminish and devalue life or just do nothing.
This is Good shepherd Sunday and it is also Vocation Sunday, so as we acknowledge Christ as the one who leads us to green pastures, who is the gateway to God and that life in abundance, let us wonder too where we may be shepherds and gateways today. Where might we be called to nurture someone’s faith? Where might we be called to care for and feed another, to offer a listening ear? Can we open the gate of our hearts to hear the voice of Christ in our world, our communities, our neighbours and ourselves? Where could we be a gateway for others? How do we live that life in abundance to overflow to those around us?
No matter what our age, our ability or our situation God calls us all in different ways …we just need to listen, listen for that voice of love and hope, the voice of peace and compassion, the voice different from all other voices… the voice of the Good Shepherd….so where might that voice lead you today and will you follow?
“The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out….and the sheep follow him because they know his voice”