The Small and the Big Pictures – a sermon for Vocations Sunday (Easter 4), April 17th 2016
Canon Gary Phlbrick, at St Mary’s Fordingbridge, 9.30a.m.
Acts 9:36-43 & John 10:22-30
After taking my nearly two-year old grand-daughter swimming on Monday morning, we went into a Café in Ringwood for a drink. As I sat her at a table, she started pointing at the salt and pepper pots and saying something that sounded like ‘An, An, An’. I moved the salt and pepper further away and said, ‘No, you can’t play with them’, but she carried on pointing and saying, ‘An, An, An’. By now people on the next-door tables were looking to see what was happening. To my astonishment, I suddenly noticed that there was indeed an ant wandering around inside the glass salt pot. Those around were suitably amazed, and so was I. It turns out I’d been looking at the big picture – was it safe for her to play with the salt and pepper?, and so on – whilst she had been looking at the small picture – she has a fascination with tiny little things.
I think that most of us have a preference for either the broad sweep, or the detailed picture. There are those here today whom I know are really good at the details – those who notice things, who spot when something is out of place, who are really good at detailed reading of documents. In Myers-Briggs psychological terms, they are known as ‘Sensors’, and they are very good at receiving information from the outside world; and there are those, myself included, who are more broad sweep people, who have, for example, difficulty in remembering where all the chairs should be when they’ve been moved in Church, those known as ‘Intuiters’ in Myers Briggs terms, those more interested in the bigger picture than the individual details – they are less good at receiving information from the outside world, and have a more internal, reflective bias. All of us do both of these things, of course, but most of us have a preference for one or the other.
And, fortunately, the Gospels cater for both of those types – the detailed and the broad sweep, the small picture and the big picture, the ‘Sensors’ and the ‘Intuiters’. Sometimes Jesus says, ‘Look at the mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds’, and urges us to focus on the tiny details of a particular story, or a particular person – ‘See that widow who has just put two tiny coins in the offertory box…’ And sometimes he is encouraging us to look at the big picture: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek’, and so on.
Today’s Gospel reading from John 10 seems to be a ‘bigger picture Gospel’. The people want to know who Jesus is, they want to know clearly, they want to know now: ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly’ [Jn 10:24]. Jesus says that he has already told them, and they do not believe. The things that he has been doing show who he is. He is in effect putting to the test his own words in Matthew 7 , when he’s talking about the good and the bad trees: ‘By their fruits you shall know them’.
But although today’s Gospel is a bigger picture one, some of the details can be helpful. And it may answer the slightly puzzling question as to why the Lectionary setters have chosen it for this 4th Sunday of Easter in Year C of the Lectionary.
For a start, it’s useful to know that this Sunday, in each of the three years of the Lectionary, is a sort of ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’. The passage we heard today is the least obvious of the three years, but most of chapter 10, up to the point where our Gospel today begins, has been about shepherds and sheep.
The chapter opens with Jesus saying that anyone who does not come in to the sheepfold by the gate is a thief or a bandit [Jn 10:1-6]. Then he goes on to say, ‘I am the gate for the sheep…whoever enters by me will be saved’ [vv. 7-10]. And then, ‘I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep… I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me’ [vv. 11-18].
So, when in today’s passage, in response to the question from those around him, Jesus says, ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me’ [v. 27], he is referring to the earlier part of the chapter, and all the teaching about the shepherd and the sheep to which he has already been giving – and that’s why this passage has been chosen for today. In understanding the Gospels, it’s useful to have both the bigger picture, and to look at the smaller details – the ‘Sensors’ and the ‘Intuiters’ need each other.
The response of Jesus’ first hearers to these words is a violent one. ‘The Jews took up stones again to stone him’ [v. 31], we read immediately after our passage. They were so challenged by his words about following him, listening to his voice, that he was working in his Father’s name, and that he was offering eternal life – they were so challenged by all of this that they wanted to kill him.
And his words are certainly challenging ones. Whether talking about the bigger picture, or about the details, Jesus is always urging us to make a decision about the truth of what he is saying. Do we believe that he is the Good Shepherd, the Messiah? And, if we do, what are we going to do about it? Will our works match his work? Will we become his hands and his feet in the world, as the 16th C. St Teresa of Avila prays in a famous prayer which was used at the Annual Meetings this week? What will our response be to the Good News which we read about in the Gospels, and which we hear Sunday by Sunday?
As well as being a sort of Good Shepherd Sunday, and, indeed, because that is the theme of the today’s readings, this is also Vocations Sunday, ‘the day for churches to encourage everyone to reflect, discover and recognise God’s call to them’ [See resources at: https://www.churchofengland.org/education/adult-education-lay-discipleship-and-shared-ministry/call-and-vocations-for-all.aspx].
Across the Diocese of Winchester, and, indeed, across the Church of England, people are being encouraged to reflect about the call of God on their lives. My conviction is that ‘All are Called’, that each of us has a vocation, a calling, to fulfil the role which God has given us in the Church and in the world. The poem which Rachel has put on the front of Partners this morning, and which she used at Mothers’ Union on Wednesday, expresses something of that desire to be in the right place, to be the part of the jigsaw, or the quilt, or the group photo, or the body, which God wants us to be.
As the Church of England says on its website:
‘The young are called; the elderly are called.
There is no retirement from the Christian pilgrimage. ……
Women are called and men are called…..
God ‘has no favourites’ ….
We are all called no matter what our occupations may be.
There is no special status in the Kingdom for those in ‘top jobs’ or ‘important responsibilities’’ [Ibid.]
Across the Diocese many people are considering ordination – indeed, I met with two young men yesterday, one of whom has been selected for ordination training, and the other has a selection conference next month. And there may be people here who are called to that particular ministry, either full-time or part-time.
But many more will be fulfilling their calling in lots of other ways; either by ministry in the Church – Licensed Lay Ministry, ministry with children and young people, ministry with the elderly, a ministry of prayer, serving , leading prayers, caring for our Church buildings – all sorts of different things; and many will fulfil their calling either in their homes, caring for children, or elderly relatives, or in their workplaces, sometimes simply be being a Christian presence in whatever sort of job they may have.
Roger Walton puts it like this:
[We can] say that our calling as the people of God may grow into a personal vocation, as our serving of God is taken up willingly and it also engages our gifts and experiences, our commitments and passions and for which our life is deliberately oriented and shaped. Those who know that they are sent are on the way to discovering their personal vocation within the vocation of all God’s people.
Jesus said, ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life’ [Jn 10:27f.].
Each of us is made by God, loved by God and called by God. As we listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, so we will discover our calling, and become more and more the people God wants each of us to be. The big picture and the small picture combine as we find ourselves in the individual place which God has dreamed for each of us.