The quality of salvation is compared to the idyll of pastoral contentment —
a coming in and a going out.
In Palestine, sheep belonging to villagers roamed freely during the day but were confined to a common enclosure at night, to protect them from predators — there is security in the “coming in”. And then, each morning, each shepherd called his sheep who followed him to pasture — there is freedom in the “going out”.
The trade-off between freedom and security, says commentator the late Christopher Hitchens, so often portrayed so seductively, very often lead to the loss of both.
Now I am sure we can immediately see how this might apply politically speaking, and can easily think of examples of public polemic both promoting this trade off, and warning against it.
But I wonder if we might stop for a moment this morning and consider how it applies personally.
Not only is great courage required to open national borders and resist the tendency to divide the world into “them” and “us”, but also similar, and perhaps no less courage is required to be and remain open in our personal lives; in the way we go about our personal relationships.
There is no doubt that when we dare to relate to another human being we are taking a huge risk. We open ourselves to the possibility of rejection; we become vulnerable. Real relationship, as all the stories testify, is never about power and money, and always about courage, identification and vulnerability.
W.B. Yeats famously wrote these lines:
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
The great counsellor and spiritual writer, John Powell, often spoke about the need for courage in our personal lives, and that this courage must be met with grace and acceptance.
“If I tell you who I really am” he wrote back in the 1970’s, then please don’t reject me then, for, if you reject me at that moment of truly honest self-disclosure, you will be rejecting the real me, and I’m not sure I could bear the pain of such a rejection.
And yet, this kind of rejection happens all the time, doesn’t it? Its excruciating sharpness is discernible in the pain of many people’s experience of divorce. Rejection by one before whom the true self has been so freely disclosed, is so painful, so public and final, so devastating.
We might derive some consolation from the Christian belief that God understands what such a rejection feels like from the inside. The prologue to the gospel according to John contains the words:
He was in the world,
and though the world was made through him
yet the world knew him not.
He came to his own home
and his own people received him not
Jesus came disclosing to us his own self — God’s very self — and for that gift of vulnerability and love we returned to him violence and rejection in the pain of the cross. In a sense, we have broken God’s heart.
I think that we need to allow our hearts to be broken, knowing that God is the great healer of hearts… to not be too frightened of the experience of rejection, knowing that whatever might become of us, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is faithful, and god will be with us. Henri Nouwen writes that one of the secrets of Christian maturity is allowing others to reject us. We need to open up the space in our conversation so that others can feel free to say “No” to us. And the only place that we can really open up to others like this is from security derived from somewhere beyond this world – the great security of knowing God as good shepherd of our lives.
When I was preparing to go and work in the Northern Territory on a cattle station, I worked for a summer on the West Coast for a farmer. One afternoon we received about an inch of rain in a half hour, so that the roadway had become a fast running muddy creek. Reaping had to stop so we took the opportunity to drench the sheep in the yards. After the drenching, we let them out and I hopped on the motorbike to take them back to their paddock. “Give them all a big drink.” Shouted the farmer. So I pushed them across to the running creek. “Not there!” he shouted again, “take them to the dam. Sheep prefer still water – it’ll calm them down.”
I, of course, thought immediately of the psalm we had this morning, the twenty third psalm. He leads me beside still waters, he makes me lie down in green pastures.
Now those sheep I had charge of would have settled for the running water. But the farmer, who cared for the sheep, wanted them to have what they preferred. It made me realise that God, contrary to some of the propaganda I had been raised on — and I’m sure you’re not too much different from me in this respect — was not just interested in meeting my needs, butalso in making sure I have some of my wants recognised and tended to.
I’m sure I heard more than once that God isn’t interested in giving us what we want, but only what we need. You know, that stern “Victorian” version of God, and, I suspect, of Fathers, who say, “Now, I know that this is unpleasant, but this is for your own good!”
The psalmist knew God as kind and good, as keenly interested in his deepest well-being, and, dare I say it, of his happiness. Here’s a message for you today. God wants you to be happy, and happy for eternity. Its what he lives for, its what he is prepared to go to the ends of the earth for. Your happiness, you deepest happiness… forever…Amen.