Deanery Licensed Ministers: Sermons
Called by Name
Sermon Preached at Christ Church & St Mary's, Staines, 13/04/2008
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers
One day an undertaker telephoned the vicar of the local parish and informed him that one of his parishioners had died. He gave the name. But, neither the vicar nor his assistant recognised the name, even though the deceased had attended church. Fortunately, all the parish records were on computer. So, to the computer they turned. Sure enough, his name came up on the screen, along with his address and one or two other facts about him. The clergy were happy. They knew who he was.
But did they?... We may know a number of facts about someone, but that doesn’t mean we know the person. There is a vast difference between knowing about a person and knowing the person. Of course the computer is a great help in a busy parish, but it is no substitute for the personal touch. When Jesus says, ‘I know my sheep’, he doesn’t mean that he simply has them listed on a celestial computer!
Jesus knows his sheep precisely because he is the Good Shepherd. Furthermore, he declares his pastoral concern for individuals among the flock. This is brought home forcefully in the parable of the lost sheep, in which the shepherd leaves the rest of the flock in order to search for a solitary lost sheep. The depth of the shepherd’s concern for the individual is beautifully portrayed in the descriptions of his rejoicing when he finds the sheep, his carrying it home on his shoulder, and calling together his friends and neighbours to tell them what has happened. Jesus knows the individuals of the flock in the same way that the Father knows him.
The Jewish writer, Elie Wiesel, was very attached to his father, who died in Auschwitz in 1944. Yet when he came to write his autobiography he declared:
I never really knew my father. It hurts to admit that. I knew little of the man I loved most in the world, the man whose merest glance could stir me. I wonder if other sons have the same problem. Do they know their fathers as someone other than the authoritarian figure who leaves in the morning and returns in the evening, bringing bread to the table?
I suspect that this is a common cry in today’s driven lifestyle. We do not know our nearest and dearest, those we live with day by day. We are all so busy. Life passes by so quickly. We barely know each other. To know someone takes time and effort. Not just to be aware of their names but to know their life stories, the world in which they grew up, the world in which they move today, their hopes and dreams, their fears and deepest desires. This kind of knowing demands time, patience and sacrifice. But it is well worth the effort, for it is immensely rewarding and bears a whole array of wonderful fruit.
As a priest, I find it a tremendous privilege to be able to hear the life story of someone who has lived for many decades; to hear the story of how a young couple met and grew to love one another enough to commit themselves to marriage; to hear parents talking about the new born baby they are bringing to baptism; to hear a person talk about their journey of faith and why they believe that God may be calling them to offer themselves to train for ordination in the church. There is a wealth of wonderful stories, precious memories and treasured tales to be found in any local community. Each person is unique, each one is known and called by name, each one is loved by the Good Shepherd.
There is, however, another side to this coin, for knowing has to be a two-way affair. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows his sheep intimately. But they also know him. In the parable of the Good Shepherd Jesus calls all the sheep by name and each one of the sheep knows his voice. Jesus wasn’t afraid to let himself be known. His closest disciples lived alongside him for three years: they saw him reluctantly save the day at a wedding banquet; they watched him angrily turn over tables in the temple courts; they heard him debate with the religious leaders; they saw him fraternise with a Samaritan woman and a prostitute; they saw him surrounded by crowds, feeding the hungry and healing the sick; they knew he retreated to the hills for peace and quiet; they saw him weep at the grave of his friend Lazarus; and they heard him claim to be the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, giving them eternal life, a gift which can never be removed. The closest disciples lived alongside Jesus for three years and in getting to know him they were getting to know the Father.
Sometimes we are afraid to let ourselves be known. We refuse to let others into our lives, or to get too close to us. We avoid intimacy. There may be no-one who knows what our true feelings, needs, hurts and hopes are. We may be desperately lonely, inwardly yearning for the intimacy we dread... Perhaps it is a fear of rejection that holds us back. We fear that if people really knew us, if they knew what we thought and said and did, then they would not want to know us, they would reject us. Then we build a facade and we are known only for the image we project, rather than for the person we are. And we conveniently forget that we cannot hide from the God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden, the God who knows each one of us intimately and still loves us and calls us by name.
It would be sad to live and die and never to have been really known, never to have told our story to another. For our stories are intertwined, we are all sheep of the Good Shepherd’s flock, each one loved and treasured by him, each one of value to the whole. Indeed the flock itself is an image of community. Even on a purely human level we have a deep need for community. It is in community that we find mutual support, encouragement and companionship. It is in a loving community that we can begin to relax and be ourselves, to allow ourselves to be known and loved. This formation of community is what we hear about in our reading from Acts this morning. In the earliest days of the church people who believed in Jesus gathered together regularly to learn, to study, to pray, to share food, and possessions, to care for those in need and to worship God.
As the Good Shepherd calls us each one by name, he calls us to follow him, and in doing so he calls us into his flock, to be a part of the caring community of the church, where we can both know and be known by one another.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
Elie Wiesel, Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea (Schocken Books, 1995)
As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I will gladly acknowledge any other sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.