The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Acts 4.5-12; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18
The flag of St George flies proudly from the Cathedral Tower. In the Market, people are getting ready for the St George’s Festival. Morris dancers are limbering up. Helmeted children get ready to stage fights against paper dragons. What could be more English, what could be more British?
Shakespeare put the words and the images into our minds and into our mouths, the mythology of England that’s played out at this time of the year. What heart can fail to be stirred by those words from ‘Richard II’
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Of course, St George was not English and never came here. He’s not exclusively ours and in fact is Patron Saint in one way or another of 24 countries, more than probably any other saint. People think that he was Palestinian but no one’s certain. And we hadn’t had anything to do with him as a nation until the Crusades when the soldiers returned wedded to this martyr warrior, this saint for conquerors who was established as our patron in 1350 usurping St Edward the Confessor who had been our Patron, the kindly, good king, confessor.
But that shouldn’t stop the celebrations, these few facts, rather than the fantasy, and we fly our flag with pride. But as we do so, we have to ask ourselves, as Christians, the question, the vital question, what kind of nation are we, what kind of England, what kind of ‘other Eden’, what kind of country do we want to be?
The image of the Good Shepherd is probably as far removed from the images of St George as we could possibly imagine. But it was that image that first captured the imaginations and the hearts of the early followers of Jesus. As they were being buried in the catacombs outside of Rome it wasn’t the cross that they drew around their tombs, but more enigmatically the symbol of the fish, ‘Ichthus’, and it wasn’t the crucified Christ who they pictured but the shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders.
It was the image of the Good Shepherd that attracted people, the images that Jesus describes in the Gospel reading for today, the shepherd and the lambs.
Lambs, for some reason, produce in us a variety of responses but mostly ones of affection.
Blake, the other creator of the mythology of England, wrote in his book ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ two parallel poems – ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’.
Blake writes so tenderly and brilliantly
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
He is the shepherd who is himself a lamb, we are the lambs and called by his name and he draws us into one fold, with one shepherd, a people who know his voice and who know, to use St Peter’s words from the First Reading, that
‘there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’.
The Lamb of God, who is the Shepherd, is the saviour. And the pastoral and the caring and the loving and the salvific image that this set of ideas creates inspired those first Christians in their believing, inspired the likes of George, a Palestinian Christian in his own fearless believing – not the dragon slayer but a lamb of the same flock as we.
St John in our Second Reading challenges the early church, challenges those early Christians
‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’
What kind of nation are we celebrating as the flags fly and the Morris Dancers dance and the dragons are slain and what kind of nation do we wish to be? What kind of England, what kind of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? What kind of ‘other Eden’ to use Shakespeare’s monumental words?
The scandal of the way in which some of those of the Windrush Generation were being treated, which became clear last week, cast a shadow over our nation as the leaders of the Commonwealth gathered here, cast a shadow over a nation already overshadowed for some of us.
What did those in government, which ever government it actually was, of whatever colour, think that they were doing, denying the rights of people who arrived here, at our invitation so long ago, people who’ve been our neighbours and our friends for so long, who’ve helped the Church of England to survive in so many places in spite of the way in which in so many of our churches Caribbean Anglicans were effectively frozen out? What kind of hard, uncaring, unjust and inhospitable people are we who seek to create what seems to be called a ‘hostile environment’ rather than a hospitable nation? Thank God that some of our bishops amongst so many others stood up and made the government think again – but the very fact that they had to think again makes my blood run cold.
We will be brexiting, I’m sure of that. I remain, unashamedly as you know, a remainer but I also know that the path we’re set on seems inevitable. Much of the passion behind leaving Europe seemed to be driven by a desire to be a different kind of country, but what kind of country will that be?
The shepherd who we celebrate today is not some soppy, romantic individual. The shepherd works hard to protect the sheep, to save the lambs, to find the lost and bring the straggler home. As Jesus says to his listeners
‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’.
But the fold is as large as the love of God and Jesus makes that clear
‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.’
We say that as a community in this place we believe in inclusion. If that is really true then I believe that we will need to witness to that even more powerfully and even more openly in the months and the years to come.
There are some who wish to change the nature of this country and have been working at that, feeding the fears and the insecurities and the prejudices of some, which needs challenging. We’re called to stand with the Windrush Generation some of whom will, in those early days, have driven us to work, mopped our brows in hospitals, delivered our babies, cleaned our offices, served our food, put up with our abuse and whose children are now some of the leaders in our society and our church. And we need to stand alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters, and our Jewish brothers and sisters, and Hindus and Buddhists, we need to stand alongside refugees, we need to stand alongside those who still suffer prejudice as a consequence of gender or sexuality. That is our calling and as we gather as a congregation at our Annual Parochial Church Meeting that is what we need to affirm, again, and again and again and again.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd and his love enfolds all, we’re all included and enfolded in the fold and that is the ‘other Eden’ where the lambs are fed at the shepherd’s hand and where love is the banner under which we sit. If this sounds like a rallying cry, it is.
Fly the flag, for it bears a cross, the Saviour’s, the shepherd’s, the sign to the world of the God who out of love, not out of hostility, came and died and rose for you and for everyone of our neighbours, the fruit of the tree of another garden, the fruit of the tree of ‘the other Eden’, the tree of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – and tasting of that fruit opens our eyes to the truth.