Story-tellers of the hope we have in Christ

IMG_0862There’s a story I heard a little while ago about a shepherd. A man was walking in the hills and came across a shepherd looking after his sheep. He had his traditional stick with the crooked end. The man asked the shepherd whether he really used his shepherd’s crook to pull stray sheep out of a brook or some pit they’d fallen into. The shepherd’s reply surprised him because he talked about how he would stick his crook in the ground and stand very still. And slowly the sheep gather round him.

It’s a lovely image of calm and stability. Of presence and being known. Of how these become a draw in a world of so many options and competing voices, of frenetic activity and lots of wandering. I’ve been reading up on my Welsh history and particularly the history of Christianity in Wales. The earliest days tell stories of particularly holy people who felt a call from God and set up their cell, their place of prayer and story-telling. They effectively behaved like the shepherd in the story, who planted his staff in the ground and established a stable presence that became attractive. Those who came heard and learned more about the life-changing story of Jesus Christ and over time they were shaped to likewise become story-tellers. Churches and chapels grew up over the place where the holy person was buried, or in our case Gwynllyw was buried in the floor of the church he established, which became a place people came to associate with faith and prayer, with the presence that they knew made a difference.

And this radically simple strategy lies at the foundation of this holy and ancient place. A man heard the call of the true shepherd, who knows his sheep. It led him to change his life and follow, to plant his staff and on that place a great church has grown up. One thought is that if we are seeking to revitalise the life of the church today, of our story-telling and presence, then this is a place to start, with a stable presence where the story is told, prayers are said and the holy is made known.

Our gospel reading spoke about a shepherd who knows his sheep, they hear his voice and respond; they follow him (John 10:22-30). That is the crucial test of whether or not we are one of the true shepherd’s sheep. If we hear the voice, we respond, we go to where the shepherd has set his staff. And surprising people come; look around, we’re an odd bunch, but a real one. No one has to pretend they are someone different to who they are, and that is one of the things that drew me here.

Today has the tag of being Vocations Sunday. It is a day to remember that being one of the true shepherd’s sheep takes on many guises. Hearing the voice and coming to him comes with a commission to use the gifts God has given us to make a difference. This is a day when the whole of life comes under the auspices of what it means to follow Christ. No area is left out, no aspect or job or role we have. And this lies at the foundation of all ministry, of all roles and everything we aim to do. It has to be rooted in hearing the voice call and going to the place where the true shepherd has planted his staff.

I was struck by some of the phrases last weekend at the Archbishop’s Enthronement service in Bangor Cathedral. As the Archbishop entered the cathedral with the other bishops, they were greeted by two school children who reminded them at the font what their vocation is rooted in. They were encouraged to remember, to not forget, “that everything starts here, in our shared calling, heard at our Baptism, to follow Christ in Faith, to be sustained along the way by Hope, and to show forth in our lives Christ’s Love for all.” Hearing it from a young voice gave it all the more power and force. 

At little later in the service, another school child greeted the Bishops as “preachers and story-tellers, as evangelists and proclaimers of the Good News.” And then they cut to the chase: “Speak to us of the things that matter; talk to us in the language of heaven and with the accents of our times; help us to become our own preachers and story-tellers…” There is so much spoken about being a secular society today. I don’t buy that and the generation Z, the latest generation, are very interested in the “things that matter, the language of heaven spoken with the accents of our times”. The sociologists call this ‘spiritual but not religious’ and in census returns they tick ‘none’ for their religion. This is often taken as proof they are completely secular and atheist, but it is not. It is very open and looking to find the staff planted with a still presence, that speaks of holiness and faith and hope and love.

Sheep are not as passive as we tend to think they are – they will be led but that leading has to be engendered through trust. And they send out messages among themselves which means they bring one another to the shepherd – they are social creatures. By calling us sheep, Christ calls us all to come to the true shepherd and be so shaped and moulded by him that we become the preachers and story-tellers. He calls us to use our social networks and set an example of faith and hope and love. Be careful of the prayer to the Lord of the Harvest asking for workers to go into the mission fields, because it is a prayer that will rebound with lightning speed. God is sending lots of workers and the truth is they are all sitting here this morning or watching online. 

Vocation Sunday gives the image of shepherd and sheep a twist. We gather around the one where we find the things that matter and then live it in so many ways. Some will be apostles, some prophets, pastors and teachers, some given other skills for the building up of the body – some ordained, some not, some accredited and some not specifically. But all are called first and foremost to be rooted in the true shepherd, gather round the Christ who plants his staff in the ground, be story-tellers of the hope we have in him wherever he leads.

Sermon for Easter 4, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 8th May 2022

About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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