Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Whose voice?

Preached at the Commemoration of Kings College UQ.

On this night as we gather and commemorate Kings College and we hear this ancient and somewhat strange tale about a shepherd and his sheep it raises for you and I the question whose voice are we responding to?

Kings College was established by the Methodist Church and continues to this day to have a relationship with the Uniting Church in Australia.  Contained within the Constitution is the following commitment:

“To afford residence, pastoral care, fellowship and Christian understanding of life in accordance with the teachings of The Uniting Church in Australia.”

What I believe this means is that somewhere at the heart of Kings College is a desire to help students and staff to continue to listen to the shepherd’s voice, to Jesus, as we try to understand how to live a Christian life in this complex world in which we find ourselves. 

But what does that Christian life look like and how is it shared here at Kings?

As I prepared to preach this evening I read the centenary memoir of Kings College, called “Men and Masters”.   I have to confess that I found myself somewhat bemused by what may have been understood as the Christian life in years gone by.

In its early years the rules of Kings included: no alcohol on the property; no dancing on the property; and, no sport on a Sunday.

I suspect that for many Kingsmen and people generally the Christian life has been reduced to moralising about what people shouldn't do: a list of rules!  More than that as the years passed poor understandings of the faith and its relationship with this scientific world in which live alongside a growing secularism have led to even greater misunderstanding about the Christian life.

The Christian life is not simply a set of morals.  It is not a list of do’s and don’ts!  No, rather it is about a
relationship: a relationship with God based in love and grace, a relationship in which we hear a voice calling to us and we respond in thanksgiving.

This relationship is typified by the relationship between the shepherd and his sheep.  A relationship expressed in the 23rd Psalm which we sung earlier in the service and in our gospel reading. 

A few years back a congregation member told me a great story that helped have a far better me understanding of the story.

He had been sent to the Middle East during the Second World War and was sitting by an oasis away from the front line.  It was a hot day and, as he sat and watched, shepherds came over the hills with their flocks of sheep.  Each shepherd brought a small flock, no more than 20-30 sheep in any of the flocks, and they came to the oasis to let the sheep drink.

Now, as the sheep came to get their water they mingled together while the shepherds gathered and chatted off to one side.  Now my friend, who was sharing the story, was puzzled.

He was a man from the land.  He had worked with sheep and he saw no markings on the different flocks, no brand.  How was it that the shepherds would identify their sheep?  How did they not mix them up?

After a while one of the shepherds broke away from the conversation and started to move away from the oasis.  As he left the shepherd called out and as he called his flock, and only his flock, responded.  The sheep knew their shepherd’s voice; each shepherd had his own call and when the shepherd called the sheep responded.

When Jesus paints this image of himself as the shepherd his listeners in the ancient world clearly understood this relationship of sheep following their shepherd’s voice.  The Christian life is about listening for that shepherd’s voice, for Jesus voice.

In the reading Jesus also indicates that he is the gate for the sheep.  This is another strange image to our modern ears.  Yet, in the ancient Middle East it was often the practice that sheep would be herded into a pen at night which had no gate – the shepherd would take his place sleeping in the gap – literally becoming the gate to protect and care for the sheep.

The voice of Jesus is the voice of one who would lead us to stills waters and green pastures, places we can be fed and grow.  And it is also the voice of one who protects us and keeps us in his care.

I have little doubt that the founders of Kings College desired that this would be a place that people would learn to listen for Jesus voice, a voice which teaches us and transcends the clamour of other voices which compete for our attention.

It is vital for us to remember this in our commemoration of Kings College tonight because to elevate in anyway being a Kingsman above the call of the shepherd’s voice means that we have strayed from the intent of what is at the core of Kings, we have become lost sheep.

Now whilst there are many things which I could suggest about what it means to listen for Jesus voice.  Tonight I want to share just one.

Listening for Jesus voice in this context of Kings is about understanding that there is bigger picture out there and that Kings is just part of it.  At the ANZAC day service I attended here I was speaking with a member of the King’s College Council.  When he found out that I had attended Cromwell his automatic reply was to say that we are a broad church.  Being a good Kingsman from a Christian perspective is about seeing beyond being a Kingsman!

If we read a little further into the tenth chapter of John we would hear Jesus say:  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

As we develop communities, whether they are a churches or a residential college or even companies, political parties or nations, guided by the concept of the Christian life we should always do so knowing that there is a bigger vision, a vision which opens out to encompass others and that we share a common, created humanity.

Miroslav Volf the Free Church theologian in his seminal work “After our Likeness” suggests that one of the identifying marks of the true church is how it exists towards others.  This vision of the Christian life should be one that influences the development of places like this where a strong sense of community but at the same time it is a community that reaches beyond itself.

This basic principle of the Christian life, this inclusiveness and vision of our shared humanity in this shared creation, has never been more vital for our world. 

As human beings despite reminders like ANZAC Day and the similar celebrations around the world wars persist; despite our understanding of inequity corporations continue to exploit the cheap labour markets of other nations so we can have cheap clothes and electrical items and coffee and the list goes on; despite our prosperity as Australians we have reduced our international aid commitment and closed our borders to many asylum seekers who need our help; despite scientific evidence about anthropogenic climate change we have treated science as a belief system and have failed to respond adequately.  Here I am just beginning to scratch the surface of the global issues we face.

Political solutions to these complex problems may be in the hands of many us here and spiritually the starting point to living the Christian life in response to these issues is to listen for Jesus voice, our shepherd, who reminds us that the pastures of the world are his and we share them in common with all other people. 

Whilst there are many other things to be said about the Christian life on this night as we commemorate Kings College, and reflect on what it might mean to be a good Kingsman, I would encourage you to consider whose voice you will listen to.

As strange as the ancient story may be for some of you, as odd as it might seem to enter into a relationship with God, to honour the founders of Kings College and to be true to their commitment means seeing beyond this community and into that great community of humanity whom our shepherd Jesus call us to serve.

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