We heard this week again of the plight of those fleeing poverty and persecution in countries like Lybia. These people place their lives and livelihoods into the hands of others who they believe and trust will shepherd them to safe pasture. During 2014 3,279 people died trying to enter Europe. Including the estimated 800 who died last week, 1,710 people have died already this year. More than 21,000 have reached the Italian coastline alive in the first few months of this year. The death rate of those who leave home to come to Europe is more than 4 in 100. These traffickers are far from good - placing their ‘flock’ into small boats in far from safe waters. These shepherds are out to fleece the sheep with no care for their flock whatsoever.
Some 4000 women and men are seeking election to the UK Parliament in a few weeks time. Personally speaking I’m finding harder than ever to know who to place my trust in for the good of our community, our nation and on the international stage. We want trustworthy leaders who will work for the good and well being of all. Jesus uses the languagee of shepherding to speak of the nature of God’s leading of us in Him.
In the chapters before this section of St John’s Gospel, Jesus has healed a man born blind, a healing which took place on the Sabbath which again brought him into head on conflict with the religious leaders of His day about the authenticity of His ministry. The healed man is convinced that the healing speaks for itself and validates Jesus’ ministry. Jesus then goes on to use the language of shepherding to describe his ministry set not in laws and structures but in the love and compassion that God has for all.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Just as a faithful shepherd will do anything to protect and keep the sheep in their care, so Jesus will go to the ultimate length, offering His life, for the safety and well being of the flock in His care.
One of the privileges of parish ministry is to be able to offer the care, support, love and compassion of Christ to people of faith and none within our parish boundary. Since last year’s APCM we have conducted 27 baptisms, 9 weddings and 33 funerals which continues the upward trend since 2011/12. Many people have received the love and care of Christ, often unseen, through the work of our Jairo our Curate, our Readers - Anne, Maggie and Helen, Lay Ministry team, and In Touch Bereavement support group in nursing and care homes, visiting the sick and housebound and taking home communions. I am very grateful for their invaluable ministry.
I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me. There is a mutuality in the relationship between Jesus the Shepherd and us the sheep, which mirrors the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son - it’s close, loving, transforming and life-giving. It’s a relationship we are beginning to see deepened in our lives, our relationship, our church communities and across the wider parish.
Since our last APCM we have sought to deepen and forge new transformative relationships - Tanzania project, letter writing project through Maple Cross school, continued close work with St Peter’s school and Maple Cross school through assemblies, church visits, and in St Peter’s case a Spirituality day launching prayer spaces in each classroom and a day on Lent and it’s vitality.
Our relationships with God have been stretched and deepened through Advent and Lent groups which were well received again, in Time to Talk - an opportunity to talk through an issue, to ask a question or to seek prayer once a week across the parish, and through a taster day on the ministry of healing and subsequent Forward in Healing course with a view to offer the ministry of healing prayer across the parish soon.
I am also excited to see groups and activities like the MU, the Food Banks and Play and Praise continue to thrive and make a difference to lives locally as we seek to reach out to others with the love of Jesus. I am v grateful indeed to all those who support and lead that sort of invaluable work.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold… they will listen to my voice. Despite his healings, despite his preaching, despite all that he had already done and planned to do, Jesus isn’t done yet. He still has more sheep to reach, sheep that are not in this fold.
Since our last APCM we’ve had Jairo arrive with us and Helen licensed and what a blessing they are. We’ve had the privilege of Terence, Kate and now Vanessa on placement discovering the nature of parish ministry. To take that experience away and bless others with it.
If Jesus isn’t done yet - if there are others who need to listen to His voice and come into His fold - where does that leave us? Two things - we need to completely renew our Mission Action Plan and listen to each other and God and discern some new priorities in terms of mission and ministry. How can we reach out and speak to others to see them part of the one flock? Jairo will be driving this work with a few others. Please help and support when asked in that work.
Secondly, if we are to take Jesus seriously we need to prayerfully plan that others will come into His fold. What this means I think is we need to stategically plan for growth in our churches and in our outreach over the next 5 years. We will see home groups launched in a matter of weeks - we are planning to launch 4 or 5 across the parish. These are the best place to form lasting friendships, to ask questions and to grow in faith. This will also mean looking again at our pattern of worship and styles of worship ensuring that we have a service in each church at the same time each week as parishes with confusing patterns, as we have, are statistically the fastest shrinking. It will mean being bold and intentional in decisions we make - for example Easter Day at St T’s - would like another service like that at St T’s later in the month; also ensuring that Messy church is launched this year. With one person now exploring a vocation - I wonder is God calling any of you to to serve as a Reader or a Priest? Also we are already in the very early stages of discussion with the Diocese about seeing whether we can see another ordained Self Supporting Minister become a member of staff joining our team. We also need to prayerfully ask and seek to answer - how can we help people learn about Jesus the Good Shepherd and experience His love for themselves? What resources need to be put in place to enable that? Who else can we partner with in our wider community to ensure that happens?
What is Jesus saying to us? If Jesus is not yet done in Mill End and Maple Cross, West Hyde and Heronsgate - are we willing to listen for his voice - not just in helping those outside the fold as He says - but to do so. Will be trust the Good Shepherd to be bold and intentional and go where he leads us?