Sermon by The Very Revd Dr Frances E F Ward at St John, Holland Park on 22 April 2018
Sermon by The Very Revd Dr Frances E F Ward at St John, Holland Park on 22 April 2018
I’m here this evening, sharing in your worship, because of this wonderful choir.
This group of young people, because they love singing, has turned themselves into a choir. They bring their talent and enjoyment to enhance our worship of God. Disparate individuals now greater than the sum of its parts, a choir to create a beautiful sound to God’s glory.
I reckon, if Jesus were alive today and teaching in London, telling his stories and parables as he walked our streets, he wouldn’t talk about sheep and shepherds. Sheep and goats, wheat and birds – so many of his stories come from the rural environment in which he lived and moved.
Not so relevant in Shepherd’s Bush today.
I reckon he might come here this evening and use the choir to illustrate his message.
I am the good choir director. The good choir director lays down his life for the choir. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the choir. I have other singers that do not belong to this choir. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one choir, one choir director. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
We’re at the heart of the purpose of Jesus’ life here, as he talks about leading, following and belonging.
My son Jonty is a member of the choir. He will not be sorry to hear the parable of Jesus retold like this. Choirs are altogether more his thing than sheep. Sheep are not always the docile, gentle, safe creatures we can take them for. Ask him afterwards.
I am the good choir director. It’s a skilled business, conducting a choir. It’s an ongoing creation. The good choir director will give of themself to hold the choir together and challenge it into ever better performance. You need to earn and keep respect. You need to lead with sensitivity and authority. You need to be able to pull people into line, to curtail the dominant members whose egos run away with them. At times, you encourage this singer, that one, you tone down. So no one member sings too loud or holds that note too long, or turns prima donna. You bring it all together, for the sake of the sound of the choir. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One voice, not many.
I’ve come down, this morning, from Mirfield in West Yorkshire. For the last six months I’ve been living alongside a religious community that sings the psalms morning, evening and night. They are following an ancient tradition that goes back to St Benedict’s Rule – written in the 6C and the basis of the monastic life. The Rule of St Benedict begins ‘listen, my child!’ At the beginning of a life of obedience in a religious community is the word ‘listen’. As the monks sing, they listen to each other. It’s crucial in a choir. Each needs to listen to others, to the choir director, to the congregation, to the organ or musical accompaniment. Listening – as crucial as singing – to be in tune, to be obedient to the whole.
When we listen, we grow in knowledge and understanding of others. Jesus tells his followers how intimately he knows his own, and how they know him. Anyone who has sung in a choir knows that particular intimacy that comes of listening and responding, watching the choir director’s every move, aware and attuned to voices around. There’s a particular and very special intimacy to this that brings you alive as you are surrounded by sound, a living choir all around you. That knowledge is held, particularly, by the good choir director who knows each member – each particular voice, each personality and character, each contribution as they are part of the whole. That intimacy of knowledge is at the heart of how Jesus knows his flock.
In another story about sheep, he says that the good shepherd goes looking for the lost sheep: and so will a good choir director. They will not want choir members to drift away. She or he will buy them a drink, want to know what’s wrong. And so that knowledge extends to the pastoral – another interesting word from a rural history where sheep and pasture were more central to life than today. A choir will care for each other.
Jesus the good choir director brings in other singers, too, new talent. New members stir things up and change the sound. Again, it’s the choir and its corporate personality that’s more important than any individual. New members come, old members retire. The choir continues.
Now, most choir directors aren’t Jesus. Some think they are, I know. And many who don’t think they are will feel, at the end of a rehearsal, that they have laid down their lives. We know the feeling.
At the heart of Jesus’ teaching about the good shepherd is a life of self-giving. More than that. Self-sacrifice for the sake of the people; for their life and wellbeing he lays down his life.
The tweet that went around to spread the news I was preaching tonight said I’d written a book Why Rousseau was Wrong. I’ve just finished the next book, entitled Full of Character. Out in the autumn. Plug over.
In it I explore the difference between autonomy and heteronomy. Autonomy is when we live for ourselves. We trust our own judgement and seek our own individual self-realisation. Heteronomy is when we don’t put our selves in the centre of our lives, but rather allow ourselves to be shaped by what is other to us. Hetero – in classical Greek – means ‘other’.
So someone who chooses to be heteronomous rather than autonomous will not be self-centred, but will listen to others, to the Other. They will let themselves be part of something other to them – like a choir, or a sports team. You can’t make a choir of a load of autonomous individuals. It just doesn’t work. They don’t listen to each other. They all want to be the loudest. They all think they know best and everyone should sing like me. To join a choir you have to be heteronomous – able to listen and accept the authority of the Other. It’s not easy today, as we’re all brought up to be autonomous, not to be obedient.
The great thing about Jesus as the good shepherd is that when he leads the flock he isn’t autonomous either. He knows that he is there to serve the choir, the flock, the people of God, the disciples, the world. His own self is shaped not by himself, but by God.
I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. The Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.
It’s key to understanding what Jesus was all about. That his life wasn’t for himself. It was for others. So others might have life and live it to in all abundance. That’s why he laid down his life, went to the cross and died. The life of the Resurrection – life in all its fullness – was theirs because Jesus laid down his life.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 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?
This is how the first Christians told it, as John did here, in his first letter. That’s what Christians sought to do since the earliest days – they modelled their lives on Jesus, living self-sacrificially for the sake of other people. Not putting themselves in the centre of things but always creating something other, for a greater purpose. Life in its fullness for other people. And so, if you’re a member of a choir, your performance is a gift for others, to enhance their fullness of life.
It’s particularly special if you sing to lead worship. Because then the worship of the congregation is paramount. Worship makes the people of God out of individual members of the Body of Christ. We all serve each other as we join together to worship.
In doing so, we fulfil our purpose as human beings – to worship the God who is the ultimate Other to each of us. God, who shapes our being, individually and corporately, just as God shaped Jesus to be the perfect human being.
That shaping is called love. We are shaped in love, by love and for love – a love that is other to us, but makes us truly human.
As members of the congregation, as members of a choir, we come alive as we obey each other, listening to others around us, and listening, ultimately to the greatest Other there is, the God of love. The God of love who brings us to life, filled with the Spirit, as we sing and as we worship, responding to God’s love with all the love we bring, ready to love one another as Christ loves us.