|Pen and Ink Reflections||
What do sheep and shepherds mean to you? They are very much part of my story but I often struggle with them theologically in my context today. This photo is from Forest-in-Teesdale, near where I was born. Indeed, the farm in the centre is one I knew years ago, working with local farmers on pressing issues of rural stress and suicide, social and economic survival, and other faith and environmental issues. For sheep and good shepherding, literally and spiritually, is crucial to the Durham Dales. High on the roof of England, though we once had the greatest silver mine in the world, even subsistence mining of many important minerals is now near impossible. The great hunting lodges of bishops and kings have gone, disappearing with the remaining tree cover swept from the fells. Only occasional rich people’s grouse shooting really accompanies sheep today, together with the ambiguous harvest of tourists sampling one of England’s last wildernesses. Shepherds, particularly on the highest ground, therefore remain heroic figures to me: extraordinarily resilient, weathering so many vicissitudes; and, above all, deeply, intimately, connected to their/my land and its communities. No wonder Cuthbert, the greatest saint of the North, began life as a shepherd. Sheep, and good shepherding, are part of the lifeblood of my native people. What however of other peoples? In these lands now called Australia colonial society was notoriously built ‘on the sheep’s back’. Whilst that was lifeblood for some, for others it meant the blood of death and dispossession. For in the pioneering work of John Macarthur and others, the sheep was arguably a weapon of mass destruction, and shepherds key players in frontier warfare. So what kind of shepherd do we value today?...
Adjectives can be misleading and sometimes destructive. The former US President Donald Trump knows this particularly well. He deliberately chooses adjectives for his opponents. So we have had ‘LIttle’ Marco Rubio, ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz, and, most notoriously, ‘Crooked’ Hillary Clinton. This both essentialises an alleged feature of a person whom Trump attacks and also contributes to a particular narrative about what matters. Trump leads in this. Yet he is not alone. Historically the Church has also done this, not least with our Gospel reading today. For if I asked most people for an adjective for Thomas, they would probably say ‘Doubting’. Indeed, throughout my life, I have generally heard today’s Gospel interpreted in only two ways. On the one hand, this story is told, typically by conservatives, as an encouragement to have true belief, and not to doubt. On the other hand, often somewhat defensively, liberals and progressives have spent much energy talking about the value of doubt. Now these approaches are really only two sides of the same, often quite distorting, coin. Instead, with recent voices from the margins, not least trauma-responsive theologians, how about we try viewing today’s Gospel text from a quite different standpoint? Instead of the framework of intellectual faith and doubt, let us take seriously the important bodily aspects of this story. Instead of obsessing about creedal truth, let us be attentive to wounds. Instead of focusing on the possibilities of the after life, we might reflect on what it means to live, together, after trauma. These, and very different aspects of Thomas, deliver us from unhealthy faith and offer pathways to healing for us all…
Easter Day sermons are hard to compose. How on earth do we speak of something as extraordinarily mysterious, and utterly transformative, as the Resurrection?! Part of me, and not just the liturgical Anglican, also wonders whether an Easter Day sermon is necessary at all – and maybe you feel the same, or will do after my particular words today?! After all, the Easter stories and symbolism are so rich, with so much food for thought and our spirits, as well as embodied proclamation of good news and the living Word of God. I can also only really remember two Easter Day sermons, and even their details are somewhat hazy. One I preached myself, in particularly lively circumstances: and that might be the starter for an Easter Reflection on another occasion. The other was on the first chapters of the book of Genesis and biblical critics’ theories of the Pentateuch. So that sermon was seemingly not even about Easter at all. Or was it?...
In many ways I hope that when you picked up your liturgy sheet tonight and saw the Renaissance picture of the Last Supper you saw nothing unusual. It’s Maundy Thursday – of course we’ll have a picture of the Last Supper. Some of the art historians among you however will I think have recognised that this is no ordinary painting. This is in fact – as far as we know - the first Last Supper by a female artist – Plautilla Nelli, a contemporary of Michelangelo, Titian and Tintoretto and influenced of course by Leonardo da Vinci who died some five years before her birth in Florence...