Desert Stockman


SERMON – ST GEORGE’S DUNSBOROUGH

 EASTER V (April 26) 2015

 John 10:11-18

 It’s tough being in the desert. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on horseback, motor-bike or quad-bike. It’s particularly tough if you have to bring in a big mob. Or a mob that’s due to calve or lamb. You have to make sure you and the stock have water and feed – just enough, and a bit more. You have to keep the animals together. You have to be able to follow the faint tracks to the waterholes, because they are the life-line. And if you get to the windmill and it’s been fouled by foxes, or if the windmill has been knocked over by a mob of feral camels, you have to be able to fix the windmill, and get the water flowing again.

It takes all this to be a good stockman. You have to be tough, and capable, and resilient. You have to care about the stock, but not be a wimp. You couldn’t do the job if you didn’t care, if you weren’t committed 120% to the animals.

You know where this is heading. The word in Latin for a stockman is ‘pastor’. A good pastor, a good shepherd, is caring, tough, intelligent and committed. The desert of Judea is similar to the outback deserts of Australia. The job of stockman essentially is like the Palestinian shepherd.

‘I am the good shepherd,’ says Jesus. He made some of his fellow-Jews angry by saying ‘I am’: it sounds simple, but ‘I am’ is very close to the name for God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3: ‘I am who I am.’ He was making a claim to be God; and he was making a claim that God was at least Father and Son. Both were blasphemous claims, both were dangerous. Maybe he could be stoned to death. Better to find another excuse to have him put to death.

‘I am God, and God is a good stockman.’ That seems to be what Jesus is claiming. God cares for his mob, God is tough, resilient, capable and 120% committed to the mob. The good stockman, Jesus says, gives his life for the mob. This weekend we are surrounded by reminders of men who gave their lives for their country. But they didn’t. They gave their deaths for the country. And we express gratitude for the freedom their sacrifice has bought us. But the good stockman gives his life. He is prepared to die for his flock, but his main attribute is that all his life, for eternity, is given in the service of his people and of all creation. That’s commitment.

It is also an invitation for us in the Church to model ourselves after Jesus. Those of us who are designated pastors are called to be good stockmen and women.

The environment is tough, so no-one would set themselves up as a pastor in the Church unless they were called. And then God graces them to be tough, resilient, capable and 120% committed to the mob. Pastors follow the tracks as they dig into Scripture and lead people to nourishment in the Spirit. In our tradition they empower with Word and Sacrament, with preaching and teaching, and Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The tracks in the desert are Word, and the waterholes are Sacrament.

The environment is tough, and most pastors in their lives have a time when those tough conditions get to them and they get hurt, or burnt out, or otherwise needing time out. When I was first ordained, priests who needed to take time off were not treated very well, and were expected back on the job as soon as possible. You know the routine: the stiff upper lip, not talk about it to anyone, just get on with it. These people often became less human and less able to pastor their people.

I was extremely lucky that after 6 months of sick leave from a parish, a friend, who was Rector of another parish, offered me a job as Associate Priest, on condition that I took my time, as much time as I needed, to get better. That generosity was great for me, and also ended up suiting the parish well, as I was able to plug some gaps over the next five years.

These days, you would hope that we can be absolutely generous with pastors, giving them as much space, time and eventually support as they need to heal so they become better human beings because of their experience, and therefore better pastors.

Not only are there individuals designated as pastors, the whole church is corporately a pastor, a good stockman, for the whole community, providing nurture and direction to the wider world. The ‘Manna and Mercy’ free dinners are a great example of this.

Just this week, a letter to ISIS came into my Inbox. It was slick communication, obviously aimed at the same young men who are attracted by the online propaganda ISIS puts out. Only this letter was a love letter from the Church, pleading with followers of ISIS to return to the ways of goodness and truth, to put aside their bloodshed and destructive ways. The letter calls the young men ‘brothers’ and acknowledges that we are all sinners before God. It wants to drench the Middle East with love, not hatred. Surely this is an example of the Church corporately being a good stockman: caring and committed in a tough environment, showing the way to true life.

As individuals, we are each called to be a good stockman or a good stockwoman, to show the way in a desert world to the oases of love that God provides to the individuals we meet.

When we look at the outback, we often choose to see only the expanses of empty unchanging desert; harsh, dry tracts of impoverished earth, dotted here and there with waterholes. Aboriginal people have learned the trick of seeing the positive image. Instead of emptiness, they see a rich network of journey-lines, song-lines, joining waterholes and leading the way through the annual cycle of hunting, gathering, and corroboree. It’s one of the reasons they can survive in the desert.

The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin)

Jesus calls us to be good stockmen and women, to see the journey-lines traced by the Bible in the desert and to be nourished by the waterholes of bread and wine. Jesus the good stockman leads us to life.

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Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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