The Revd Margaret Legg
Britain is getting kinder! ‘Kind Britain’ was the report headline this week. The legacy of recession has been a greater willingness to help others, the Organisation for Economic co-operation and Development (OECD) report suggests. Just as well, as on the same page an article that was headed ‘50,000 dementia carers forced to give up work’ stated that research for Public Health England shows that 1 in 8 are looking after someone with dementia.
Our Gospel with its reference to sheep and shepherding is certainly relevant in the modern UK. If only the patient at St Mary’s I was visiting recently had been with a shepherd or other sheep when he fell. Living on his own in a high rise flat, lying on the floor of his sitting room, he could not move. He was midway between the phone and the emergency cord, he couldn’t reach them; he lay there for 3 days. We may live cheek by jowl in this densely populated city but at the same time we can be curiously isolated from one another.
Kindness is one of the natural outpourings of our Christian faith and we never know when, how or where the opportunity will come to put it into practise. Hopefully we will be ready to do so with the glad and generous hearts that marked the new Christians in our New Testament reading.
Of course there are many people without any religious beliefs who are nevertheless good and charitable - after all, we are living in ‘Kind Britain’! But to be so with a glad and generous heart is sometimes trickier, but it can certainly be infectious. In Acts, more and more were added their number – and that phrase wonderfully evokes the upbeat atmosphere of the new church. People want to be part of it, to belong to it.
How can we seek to emulate the glad and generous spirit of the new church? Baptism is the start in our readings. Many were baptised, begins the reading from Acts. The gate of the Gospel symbolises baptism. The fold symbolises the church.
In Jesus’ day the sheepfold, the fold of the sheep, was the courtyard in front of the house, where the sheep were brought for the night. The door-keeper knew the shepherd and opened the gate for him. There might be sheep from several flocks gathered there for the night; each shepherd would call his own sheep by name, and his own would recognise his voice and follow him. When a shepherd had brought out all his own sheep he led them to pasture, made sure they were fed, watered and safe.
The new believers then do 4 things - the hallmarks of the church - They have a common life, they eat together, they learn together, they pray together.
In the common life they shared what they could spare in fellowship with one another. It’s about a community with shared values and beliefs, because otherwise we can become isolated and lose heart, finding it difficult to sustain a living faith. They are learning together, without teaching to guide us Jesus can quickly become a pale memory and our minds may be shaped by persuasive social pressure or the prevalent worldview, rather than by our faith. Breaking bread, in the Eucharist we keep Jesus’ life, death and resurrection at the centre of our hearts and we do it together: where else do we all gather regardless of culture, perhaps next to a stranger, to drink from the same cup, to eat from the same dish, just as a family does. Finally, praying joins us to each other and with heaven, with our hope of life after death, this is the pasture that nourishes glad and generous hearts; we reach it by going in and out through the gate that is Jesus, the gate that leads to life.
That gate is critical, because there are so many thieves and brigands around. In Jesus’ day they included the false messiahs or holy brigands – fundamental terrorists we would call them nowadays. At their worst, they are evil. The way they live reminds me that live is evil spelt backwards. Think of the 276 schoolgirls snatched from their dormitories by armed militants and being held - as slaves, to be sold in the market place, as bargaining chips with the Nigerian government? Abubaker Shekau, the Boko Harem leader has said both.
In the end the way of evil is grim, negative, deathly; the way of Jesus brings life, the hallmarks are gladness and generosity, to both the doer and the recipient. The gate that is Jesus helps us, it feeds a spirit of gladness and generosity. When things go wrong or well, it reminds us that’s the way of the cross. Final success often comes through immediate failure.
As my colleagues are aware, I love making scones, but it took years of producing biscuit like scones when I was a keen teenage cook before I finally mastered it. When my father once praised me for finally producing something edible I had to admit it was thanks to Betty Crocker and her scone mix! Nowadays I thank Mary Berry!!
When the satisfaction and joy of guiding others is in danger of tipping over into control and love of power – well might we be held in check by the example of Jesus and his self giving, upside down love. As parents, teachers, in business, in associations and societies direction and guidance can so easily move into control. A friend was telling me of her son’s work for TFL as a traffic light controller – power can be wielded in many different ways!
When we’re so frantically busy and quite possibly anxious, tired and stressed, we might find an inner strength or resource to sustain us. Rowan Williams, speaking last week, made an oblique reference to the stress of the old job (capital O and capital J, as he said) and how the Jesus gate helped. He explained that the day always began with prayer. It wasn’t that God actually speaks directly to us, which Rowan said, rarely happens, but that afterwards things were often just a little clearer; priorities emerged. Without that early morning prayer time, he added, nothing else was possible - and the rest of the day, he commented in a slightly throw away line, was just a blur. Life was so busy.
The patient who lay on the floor in his high rise flat for 3 days said he remembered very little of the experience. When I asked how he’d got to St Mary’s hospital, he explained that apparently the window cleaner had spotted him! We never know what lies ahead in life, but by going in and out through the gate that is Jesus, we should be well prepared to meet it with glad and generous hearts even when we are cleaning windows!