Wednesday the 14th April was a good day. It was the day when I packed my lunch and headed to the Lakeland fells. They were somewhat steeper than I remembered. But I was glad to rest awhile on the top of Wetherlam drink my tea and eat my biscuit.
There I took in the view and looked to where I was going next. I saw the valley below and small white dots – sheep.
And what I noticed this time, maybe because I’d not been up there for a while was the absence of walls. The sheep could wander where they liked, so I wondered how the farmer knew where to find them.
And then I remembered that sermon my Dad preached here recalling how he went from being an urban vicar in Southend on Sea to a country parson in Cumbria and learning about hefting.
Hefting is the means by which sheep don’t wander off. It described how they learn to belong. Doing a bit more research I discovered that it’s something learned long ago, when sheep on a patch of land were heavily shepherded and learned where their home was.
Once they had learned it, it became part of the sheep’s memory and so was passed on from ewe to lamb.
Consequently, all these years on it appears they are left to roam free. It looks like they can go wherever they want, except they don’t they know where their home is.
And hefting it seems to me has something to teach us as we ponder this Gospel in which Jesus describes himself as ‘the good shepherd’ and plays with that imagery to help his followers understand who he was.
It helps teach us because if we bring this imagery to bear on the readings, mindful of how both the Gospel and in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles we could easily read them too narrowly, as it seems to me we Christians have sometimes done.
‘So there will be one flock, one shepherd’ says Jesus, and Peter ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ says ‘”There is salvation in no one else”’.
These words written within the context of a faith trying to establish itself in a hostile culture. And so, the language is clear and unequivocal. Whereas for us today whilst these words matter to us – we might interpret them differently.
Perhaps they were written, to return to the imagery of hefting for when the flock needed much shepherding to learn where home was. Whereas two thousand years on we have through the generations learned of our home in Christ, passed down from one generation to another.
Except that’s not quite true, that cultural Christianity that defined our national life is no more. And though the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral reflected a deep faith and refined Anglicanism that is not the norm – if only it were.
Much of the language of faith has been lost, sometimes we wonder what to do and there is a sadness that some things in life have changed. Sometimes it’s tempting to want to return to the safety of a sheepfold with nice big walls to protect us from within and without.
The other day I listened to an interview with Rod Dreher, a conservative now Orthodox theologian who argues in his book ‘The Benedict Option’ that Christians need to pay more attention to building and nurturing distinctively Christian communities.
It’s interesting and worth considering but I’m unconvinced. For though it might be tempting to pay more attention to those within the fold, especially in a time of uncertainty and even hostility for and to the church that would be sad too.
For though as a community of faith we need to support and nurture one another through life if our gaze is just within the fold the our view of how God might be at work in the world will be partial.
Looking down at the valley from the top of Wetherlam, I saw the sheep, sheep who know where home was but saw no barriers to them being elsewhere they have just learned that patch of ground is their home.
And there is something here about who we are as Christian people here.
For we have found our home with one another, as we gather around the table here in this place that we love. Where we learn and are nurtured in our faith but there is more. The walls, stone though they are – are porous to the world.
We do not belong to a club for those who like this sort of thing, or to a sect who feel anxious and defensive, who are afraid of getting things wrong or admitting when we do and asking forgiveness.
To me at least we must not retreat but be open, welcoming, eager to learn and take in the wider vista of God’s presence and life in the world.
In the same way as I did on that beautiful day on the fells as I looked beyond the valley before me to Pike O’Blisco, Bowfell, and of course Scafell and Scafell Pike.
So, in a way we have been hefted here and thank God for that. And we are not bound by walls but because we belong, because we are in some sense home, because God has found us in Christ.
Today we are thankful that Jesus is ‘the good shepherd’ who has laid down his life for us. Who through his risen life is at work amongst us, continues his work of restoring and making all things new.
We strive to live into that belief every day. And with humility try to learn and grow as his disciples and pass on the treasure of our faith lived in this place to our children and Grandchildren, friends and neighbours because, sisters and brothers we have good news to share.
May we not be afraid to do so.
And may we never be defensive but open and welcoming curious about where the God of resurrection might just turn up next.