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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Easter 4, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
April 17, 2016

Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:1-30

‘Strange beauty’

I heard a story last week that truly amazed me. There is a long-finned eel that lives in a pond at Centennial Park. A species of eel. Adult eels, at about 30 years of age, prompted by heavy rain, leave the pond, slithering up the banks and across the grass, seeking a storm water drain. Their eyes grow larger and their gills adapt for an imminent salt-water journey. Once in the ocean the eels swim 2000 kilometres to the Coral Sea (the coast of New Caledonia), where the female eels lay millions of eggs before dying. I did say this was an amazing story! The eggs hatch and the infant eels (I’m not sure in what numbers or precisely at what age) make their way to the east coast of NSW, somehow traversing beaches, golf courses and grassy fields to finish up in Centennial Park, and in the pond of the parents they never knew. The God of strange beauty and wonder be with you ...

In pre-colonial days Centennial Park was a marsh and according to biologists the long-finned eel’s migratory habits predate colonisation by several million years. Whatever the scientific explanations, I share the story as one with the potential to both amaze and reconfigure/reframe what John’s Gospel presents in familiar terms of sheep hearing the voice of a good shepherd and responding to a call that leads them home.

In both cases, animals (strangers) traverse difficult terrain, guided mysteriously from one sanctuary to another, and in the context of many risks and dangers. The animals have something to teach us (for we too are animals) about home, life, death, creativity/reproduction, God.

These are parables or metaphors, riddles, puzzles. They provoke questions about the voice to which we might respond. When I say I have discerned a call – that my life is a response to a call – what am I talking about? Where do I imagine this voice calls me from? To where am I called? For what purpose? With whom am I called? How do we listen, together, for this voice? Are there other, competing voices?

Perhaps we can now lay aside the parable of the long-finned eel – long enough, at least, to consider the wisdom of John 10.

I note that the metaphor is a familiar one to writers and readers of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus would have known its use in various scriptures, including Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34, an exilic text decrying the failure of leaders depicted as crooked shepherds – corrupt or inept, weak or abusive.

Within this “image field” Jesus the poet refers to himself as the door or gate of the sheepfold. We are given a picture of leadership, of divine shepherding or guiding/tending/feeding, with a focus on the gate – the means of coming and going, gathering and resting, venturing forth and risking of life.

I appreciate the gate as a symbol of freedom. One scholar writes: “It is through constant interaction with [Christ] in prayer and other practices of the spiritual life that believers find sustenance and life in the full Johannine sense” (Brendan Byrne).

So it’s not about living in an enclosed pen or community, but attending to Christ as a gate or a way to find sustenance within the congregation and without. This Christ, we learn, is a God whose very body is the gate, who lays down in the gateway, who shares life in various movements in and out of safety, to and from places of rest. Life has to do with what happens within the fold as well as with faraway pastures and “other” sheepfolds. It would be hard to overemphasise the significance of the others in this (con)text – strangers, foreigners, all those suffering and those at risk of neglect, abuse, judgement, exclusion.

To be a member of the flock/s is to know oneself included among those for whom the shepherd (and lamb) is willing to die. Again, John’s chapter and John’s Jesus develop the imagery of the psalms and prophets, to speak of a love that not only accompanies creatures but shares the fate of the most vulnerable. I note the nail wounds on the hands of the Good Shepherd in the Orthodox icon.

In the Book of Revelation the Lion of Judah morphs into the slain Lamb of God who alone, we are told, is worthy of trust. In John, the Lamb of God is the Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd is the Lamb. Holy inversions. Poetic gates indeed.

The meaning? A trustworthy leader is a wounded healer. A trustworthy leader (or parent, partner, friend, minister) will share responsibility with you – she will wait for your response and will respond to you; he will not blame you or abandon you when difficulty and danger strike. A trustworthy leader will certainly not harass, mock, threaten or attack you (online or offline).

A trustworthy companion will want to know your hopes and desires. In approaching death, freedom and love are affirmed. “Nobody forces me to do this,” Jesus says. “I do it out of love for you and in response to the call of God who is love. No matter what happens, I commit myself to you and to love – I do this freely.”

I also imagine Jesus saying: “Do you not also hear the call?”

And I imagine the sheepfold as containing the uncontainable – a home for the play of holy events, the complex play of perhaps – unfenced life, genuine hopefulness, rest and restlessness. All of us shepherds and sheep, hosts and guests, the sheepfold – life unfolding, flourishing ... the sheepfold – memory infolded with the promise of return. Good shepherding, good mourning. I imagine the sheepfold as the present made promising.

I recognise the voice of Jesus as everything about him: his way of life, his loving, his teaching, his dying and his being raised from the dead – raised to new life with God in the world.

I apprehend a call to home, to death, to creativity, to new life.

I understand a call of conscience. I listen to the call that pulls me away from vanity and conformity, from what the philosopher Martin Heidegger calls the “hubbub”, to the silent and strange certainty of conscience.

I ponder a call to my own self, to my own true self. As Mary Magdalene responds to the One who calls her by name.

With St Augustine of Hippo, we might ponder the beauty of the world as a voice. Not prettiness, but beauty always a bit strange, that which stops us and unsettles us, makes us rearrange our perceptions, makes us see again. We do not describe this beauty so much as echo it. The poet Rilke says: “We are here just to say it, to read the world aloud.”

There’s beauty in the long-finned eel’s homeward journey. There’s beauty in a shepherd whose body is a gate, whose hands are marked by nails, whose Spirit animal is a Lamb once slain, whose dream invites many creatures, including human beings, to a wedding feast. A strange beauty.

And this kind of beauty, in opening spaces, does not securely enclose us, does not shut us in; to be invited is to be risked, too. The call of the Good Shepherd is the call of the Lamb – and this call of the vulnerable one, this call of the destitute other is not quite so distant from the call of beauty (in its strangeness, belonging to the strange and the stranger) as it might seem.

“The distress opened in us by the devastation and growing ugliness of people, places or things is another form of this harrowing experience of beauty: anyone who destroys beauty seems to us to be profaning, in some degree, that by which the world really is a world, containing things that demand that one stop and consider them (in the dual sense of looking at them and respecting them)” (Jean-Louis Chretien).

To consider, to be responsive to the beauty of the world must entail vulnerability to beauty and ugliness both. We mourn where we might have rejoiced, where the promise is lost or forestalled, destroyed or simply denied. We must listen to what we see, or see, like St Augustine, as if in our sight the world spoke and we said it again.

In attending to what calls, we hear the chance of hospitality (Jean-Luc Nancy).

The song we’ll sing together now is called “The Summons” (Iona Community). It’s a fine song, drawn from John’s Gospel, about the call of God in Christ. There’s no mention of sheep or eels (not surprisingly), but the language of mutual indwelling (“in you and you in me”) expresses something of the strange beauty in John 10 – in particular the holy inversions of shepherd and sheep, host and guest, and the play of the gate, symbol of life and freedom. ... Amen.