Sermon preached on 22 July 2012

Here’s what I said on Sunday

A number of years ago, when I was in my curacy, I was working in another Cathedral in Scotland. I was as interested in communications then as now and became convinced that we needed a clear corporate image, the better to represent ourselves to the world around us.

Inevitably, there was some debate about what to use. We didn’t want to use the building because the church isn’t really all about buildings. We didn’t want to use a cross because that’s what so many churches have used and because it didn’t say anything particularly significant about who we were.

In the end, we decided that we were going to use something which represented the fact that we were a cathedral – the place that the bishop calls home.

(Well, I think historically, bishops tend to call their cathedrals a lot of other things, but that is another story and need not concern us for now).

And so we looked at the various symbols of Episcopal authority to see if we could find one which still said something that was useful.

So we found ourselves thinking about the following things – Episcopal purple, a pectoral cross (which we’d already ruled out), a ring, a mitre, and a crozier.

Episcopal purple came first – None of us knew what it meant, but someone suspected it had something to do with Imperial Purple – the colour of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. We decided that the bishop didn’t need any encouragement in that direction and ruled it out.

Then we considered a pectoral cross. However it was hard to think of a way of representing this without it seeming to be just like any other cross used by other churches. Without the pecs for the cross to rest on, it was a symbol that didn’t translate to paper terribly well and so, reluctantly, we ruled it out.

Then we looked at the ring. Bishops wear a ring on the third finger of their right hand. It comes perhaps from the time when bishops would have elaborate cygnet rings to put their stamp on documents and make things happen. The devout sometimes kiss the ring on greeting the bishop. A tricky symbol for our times is ring-kissing. We had to keep looking.

Then came the mitre. At the cathedral in question we had a rather elegant jewelled mitre which featured dozens of precious and semi-precious jewels given by swish ladies of the county to the first bishop of the diocese. It was said they used to slip their rings off and put them in the collection plate. (He must have had something about him but I never quite worked out what it was. And whatever he had, sadly I find I don’t possess it.) This splendid hat had a local pearl for every day of the year. It was tempting. But bejewelled headgear seemed unlikely to endear us amongst the local population. Our goal had not been realised yet.

But then we came to the final symbol – the crozier and immediately there was agreement. Without needing to talk about it much, we settled on the crozier as an immediately useful symbol which still had a resonance today.

As we think today about Jesus seeing the people and having pity on them for they seemed to be like sheep without a shepherd, it is interesting to think about why the shepherd’s crook that bishops carry still resonates as a symbol.

It infects not simply the visual symbolism of the church but its discourse too.

In our church we put a pastoral staff with a crook into the hands of our leaders. In many tradition, churches are tended by people called “pastors” – essentially the same symbol.

It would be far too tempting to get into a discussion about good shepherds and bad shepherd this morning – particularly with Jeremiah egging us on with his cry of Woe to the Shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep.

Instead, perhaps we can think about the idea of shepherding and ask whether it is an image with any resonance not simply for our leaders but now for all of God’s people.

Rather than single-handed shepherds, are we called to be a community which shepherds the world – caring, calling, feeding and nurturing and defending the vulnerable.

I think it is important to remind ourselves that the image of the shepherd that we get from stained glass windows – pictures of Jesus the flaxen haired good shepherd shouldering a neat, tidy, well-fed lamb may well only convey a very limited sense of what shepherding is all about.

I was struck some years ago when I went to the middle East that the bishops in the orthodox church that I was visiting had shepherds sticks but they didn’t have the crook on them. No curved top. Just a tapering stick that was easy to hold in the hand.

I was told it was indeed similar to the actual stick carried by a shepherd in that part of the world.

I was told that it is only the western church that has had the image of a crook in the bishop’s hand, the better to hook the wayward.

No – the Eastern version had two basic functions – firstly to beat off wild dogs, foxes and wolves. And secondly to prompt the sheep to do what you wanted by giving them a sly poke.

That’s maybe something to think about – what would church governance be if we thought it was about defending the vulnerable from harm and occasionally giving a swift poke to move us on to the fresh grass and clean water of new ideas and new spiritual insights.

But let us leave this morning’s reflections with that question – how are we to be shepherds to the world? More specifically – what can each of us do this week to represent the care of the great shepherd of us all to those whom we meet in our daily life.

To put it more specifically, just how much care, compassion and nurture can we get up to?

In the name of the Father and of the Shepherd and of the Holy Spirit.


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