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Sermon for Mattins on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 19th July 2015
Ephesians 2:11-end, Mark 6:30-34, 53-end

You’ll have to excuse the Welsh flavour of my sermon today. I’ve just come back from a very happy couple of days being with my younger daughter Alice in Cardiff, as she collected her M.B/B.Ch degree and became Dr Alice.

About 200 happy young people trooped across the stage at St David’s Hall to shake the Vice Chancellor’s hand. Soon most of them will be taking up a junior doctor’s post – what used to be called a ‘junior houseman’, and is now known as an ‘F1 (Foundation Year 1) Doctor’. They all take up their new posts, and the doctors they replace move up the tree, on or about 1st August.

Someone rather unworthily has said that, if you’re going to be in a car crash, try to avoid 1st August: give the new doctors a bit of time to settle in! More seriously, I know from my older daughter Emma, who is also a hospital doctor, that when they look at their new work schedules, these new doctors will all be working quite often over the weekends, as will their supervising consultants, never mind what the Health Secretary says.

So this was the class of 2015 at Cardiff University Medical School, and we were in the Welsh capital to join in the jollifications. I have always liked going to Wales. When we were little, we had holidays in North Wales, in Rhyl and the Lleyn Peninsula, in Abersoch. Wales had the Festiniog Railway, the Talyllyn – heaven, for boys, of all ages – and sheep. Sheep are very Welsh.

I remember that we sometimes drove over the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen in Snowdonia. Dad’s Morris Minor bumped over a cattle grid at the beginning and end of the pass: in between, the animals could roam about freely, and there were no walls or fences to keep them off the road. And it was mainly sheep. You had to drive carefully, as they wandered about all over the place.

If you stopped in one of the lay-bys to admire the view, the sheep came up to inspect you – and if you seemed to be friendly, they would climb into the car! I’ve never been so close to a sheep, before or since. When you look at them close up, I think they look very weird – almost prehistoric. A sheep’s face hasn’t changed much since the time of the dinosaurs, and indeed, if you use a bit of imagination, a sheep’s head does look rather dinosaur-like.

And I remember my folks weren’t that keen on sheep coming into Dad’s car. Perfectly all right to have our friends’ dog in the car, or our own cat, if we needed to take her to the PDSA for her vaccinations. But not a strange – a very strange – sheep. The sheep were too strange, too alien. They had to be gently steered away.

This Sunday has a rather sheepy flavour to it. The people milling around and following after Jesus, in St Mark’s gospel story today, were like sheep without a shepherd. ‘Jesus … was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd’ (Mark 6:34).

Our hymns have sheep and shepherds in them: echoes of Psalm 23,

The Lord my pasture shall prepare,
and feed me with a shepherd’s care;

and

The King of love my shepherd is.

The lesson from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has the idea of bringing the sheep into the fold: ”But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh …’

Do you remember the lovely prayer after Communion which we sometimes use?

Father of all,
we give you thanks and praise,
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son and brought us home.
[Common Worship, Services and Prayers for the Church of England, (2000), London, Church House Publishing, p265]

There’s an echo in that of the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11f) too. ‘But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh …’

There’s a sense of being ‘far off’ in the strangeness of the sheep when you get close to them. St Paul – or his follower who wrote in the same style – the author of the Letter to the Ephesians – points to the way that the Gentiles – those people who were not Jewish, like the original Christians, and indeed like Christ himself – those Gentiles who were attracted to Jesus and to his followers – were used to being excluded by the Jews, kept out. They were those rather weird-looking sheep which you had to keep out of Dad’s car.

But Jesus had broken down the boundaries: He ‘hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us.’ St Paul’s mission was not to the Jews, but to the Gentiles, to people like us. In Biblical terms, we are Gentiles. If Jesus hadn’t preached reconciliation and love, and if Paul hadn’t reinforced that message in his preaching, we wouldn’t have been able to become Christians.

The point is, that it doesn’t matter how strange you might look, or how alien. Jesus is just as much for the strange ones, for those prehistoric-looking sheep, as He is for us smart, sleek ones. So the prayer goes on:

‘May we who share Christ’s body live his risen life;
we who drink his cup bring life to others;
we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world.’

So next time we’re tempted to put someone down or ignore them, because they’re too alien, too different – too much like the sheep which I thought of as weird and prehistoric-looking – let us remember how Jesus welcomed them, even though He and his disciples were tired from their missionary work. ‘He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.’

We can learn a useful lesson about the love of God from thinking about sheep, and the good shepherd. Let us pray:

‘Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us,
so we and all your children shall be free,
and the whole earth live to praise your name.’

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