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On Learning How to be a Good Shepherd

Fourth Sunday of Easter: 29th April, 2012
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." (John 10:11)

Johnny was a sturdy, robust kid of three. He made friends with one of the sheep in the paddock next door. Each morning he would take a little lettuce from the fridge, pull up some grass and take these over as breakfast for Sally the sheep. So deep was their friendship that Johnny would spend hours in Sally's pleasant company.

One day it occurred to Johnny that a change of diet would do Sally a lot of good. So he went to visit his friend with rhubarb instead of lettuce. Sally nibbled a bit of the rhubarb, decided she didn't want it, and pushed it away. Johnny grabbed Sally by one of her ears and attempted to get her to eat the rhubarb. This time Sally gave Johnny a bit of a push, gently at first, but, as Johnny grew persistent and wouldn't let go of her ear, quite firmly. Johnny stumbled and fell with a thump on his backside.

Johnny was so offended by this that he brushed himself off, glared at Sally and walked away, never to return. Some days later when his father asked him why he never went over to chat with Sally, Johnny replied, "Because she rejected me."
          From Anthony de Mello, Prayer of the Frog

Sometimes following in Jesus' footsteps and being a good shepherd is not as easy as we might hope it to be. What I see as good for you may not be what you see as good for you; and vice versa. This deceptively simple tale of Johnny and the sheep begs the question: what is good?

This of course is one of the oldest of philosophical questions. In the Book of Job, for example, we have a reflection on goodness and righteousness that scholars think could have been written as early as the sixth century BCE. The righteous man Job has had everything stripped away from him: his possessions, his family, even his health. He is a good man but his friends can't reconcile this with his horrific circumstances. In chapter twenty-two Job's seemingly well-meaning friend Eliphaz urges him: "Agree with God, and be at peace; in this way good will come to you" (v.21). But Job insists: "My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside" (23:11). He is a good man; he does not deserve the bad that has befallen him.

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote about Good in The Republic (c. 360 BCE) that he saw as the ultimate object of knowledge. He compared it to the sun, illuminating all things and bringing meaning to virtues such as Justice. St Augustine took Plato's philosophy of the Good and turned it into theology. In De natura boni (On the Nature of Good, c. 399CE) he makes a philosophical case for God as this sun, this supreme Good. More than 800 years later St Thomas Aquinas takes Plato's understanding of the Good and systematically explains what the Good consists of in Christian terms. He expounds in great detail Plato's virtues, which he terms Cardinal Virtues: Wisdom (prudentia), Justice (iustitia), Courage (fortitudo), Temperance (temperantia); and he adds to these three Theological Virtues: Faith (fides), Hope (spes), and Love (caritas). The eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant builds on these philosophical definitions of the Good. In his Critique of Practical Reason (1788) he argues that moral virtue is the highest good.

This is all very well, but what about three-year-old Johnny? How can he learn to be a truly good shepherd for his pet sheep Sally, instead of being a do-gooder who actually does more harm than good? I'm not sure that Johnny is yet quite able to grasp the intricacies of Kant's development of the Socratic dialogues. But you may have heard me talk and write about positive psychology, and you may be aware of the work of Geelong Grammar School and a number of other schools are doing teaching "positive education" to young Johnnys and young Marys. Along-side their Maths and English they are learning about the virtues of wisdom, courage, forgiveness, gratitude, love and various other virtues and character strengths.

I am convinced that positive psychology has something to offer faith communities as well as schools. Some of you may be rather skeptical and wonder what a priest is doing preaching modern science from the pulpit. Those are important questions to ask, and I see it as my task in the present sermon series to address such questions. So please don't be shy; talk to me, e-mail me, invite me over to your place for afternoon tea; give me plenty of feedback. I am keen to engage with you and test out the validity of my hypothesis.

John's gospel was written for a community of first-century Christians who had lost all the familiar signposts of faith around them; perhaps not so dissimilar from Christians today in our increasingly secular society. Their beloved Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. They had got into an argument with the religious hierarchy and had been expelled from the synagogues. The gospel drama of John was a new thing, breathing new life into the familiar readings from the Torah and the Rabbinic teachings. For them this new thinking spoke directly into their anxiety and fear about the future. It had powerful resonances with their sacred texts, but it was framed in a way that brought a fresh vibrancy and a renewed understanding of God. It somehow brought the Risen Christ, their Saviour, into the room: "I am the good shepherd. 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 sheep" (Jn 10:14-15).

As we journey into the future that God holds for us at St Peter's, may we be open to the Risen Christ. We will not always recognise him (or her) but with a little courage and a spirit of hospitality, we may just glimpse Christ in the stranger's face and, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, finally meet him in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine. Amen.


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