Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter: “Sheep may safely graze”. Preached at the Eucharist Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 30 April 2023 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Acts Ch 2: v 42 – end; St. John Ch 10: v 1 – 10)
This day places us just about in the middle of the Abbey Music Festival. By chance there emerged recently a scrap book of cuttings from newspapers, posters and programmes from the early part of the 20th century which mostly detailed the restoration of Sherborne Abbey Lady Chapel and the planning and fund raising which was needed. The original Chapel was deemed to be surplus to requirements in the mid-16th century when the good townsfolk of Sherborne purchased the main Abbey building from Sir John Horsey and so the unwanted section was turned into a home for the headmaster of Sherborne school. Towards the end of the 19th century, thought was given to the restoration of the Lady Chapel and serious plans put in place after the end of WW1 so that it became a memorial to the men of Dorset who had sacrificed their lives in that war. Generous donors provided the basic funding but there was always a need for more funds. Numerous small events took place and various concerts and musical productions were devised to raise money. More ambitious fund raising involved the idea of a Music Festival taking place over two days and after the success of the first one it became for a time a triennial event. So it was that the first one took place in May 1925 and featured amongst other works, Handel’s Messiah.
Newspapers of the time had a particularly florid style. Here’s part of an abridged article from one of them covering this first concert: “Judged by the artistic standard the festival reached a high level for a first effort. There were many who regarded the festival, in the early days of its conception, as an experiment of doubtful prospects. The success which attended it was a remarkable illustration of the growing appreciation of good music.” The writer seems to begin with slightly faint praise but becomes rather more enthusiastic as the article proceeds. It was indeed a financial success. After all the bills had been paid, over £400 was raised for the Lady Chapel project which was quite a sum at the time worth over £20,000 today. Three years later they did it all again and this time went for broke in terms of the choirs. A performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah was given with no less than 200 voices!
The audience for that first concert here in the Abbey in 1925 listening to Messiah would have heard verses from the Bible which by chance fit in nicely with the gospel set for today. Starting with the nativity story “there were shepherds abiding in the field” he progresses to “He shall feed his flock” and “All we like sheep”. Handel eventually takes us to “Worthy is the Lamb”. In other words, we have a series of distinctly Sheep like themes.
We are used to hearing Jesus describe himself as the good shepherd and that image has been especially linked with Easter. One reason for this I think, concerns the conversation Jesus has with Peter when he is forgiven for his denial and is reinstated into the fellowship of the other 10 disciples. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him and then commands “Feed my sheep.” So it is that this image of care has been passed on to all followers of Christ. We are as sheep in relation to Jesus, the Good Shepherd; but we are as shepherds in imitation of him to those who need care or who need nurturing in the Christian faith.
You will have heard before of the traditions of shepherding in the land of Jesus’s time. The shepherd will lead the sheep and they respond to his voice and call. Although sheep to us seem indistinguishable, to the shepherd their different markings and behaviour made them stand out. At night his flock might be split between various folds. A gatekeeper would keep guard at night. During the day when the sun was at its hottest the sheep might be penned in a fold with low walls. Then the shepherd would take his rest lying across the entrance. He would be the gate.
But our gospel reading also has a strong contrasting theme in it. It speaks of thieves and bandits whose voice the sheep don’t recognise and who come to steal and destroy. There is a clear link with words in Ezekiel where the prophet speaks of the rulers of Israel as being like bad uncaring shepherds.
All this reminds us of the little cantata by Bach sometimes played or sung at Weddings because it is cheerful and the right length. It is entitled “Sheep may safely graze.” Although the theme may seem to chime in with parables by Jesus or ideas from other parts of the Bible it is not actually a quotation from the Psalms or indeed the Bible – not even a hymn but something devised by Bach and his librettist Salomo Frank. They were wanting to produce a short work for the birthday of Duke Christian of Sachsen-Wiessenfels which was on 23 February 1713. Bach well knew that flattering royalty was a good ploy so that is what the words do. They go like this: “Sheep may safely graze when a caring shepherd guards them. Where a regent reigns well, we may have security and peace and things that let a country prosper.” Bach was implying that Duke Christian was such a caring ruler and no doubt the Duke was flattered by such an ascription.
Although the words are not exactly biblical, they still convey truths about shepherds even if not necessarily about Dukes – or maybe about this particular Duke. Jesus brings salvation and is the true way. Those who bring destruction to the sheep are those who would mislead people, taking them away from the truth and leading them to their ruin.
Like the good shepherd Jesus looks after us and cares for us. He is even ready to lay down his life for us and from that act of self-sacrifice springs the resurrection. That glorious event at the heart of Easter speaks to us of eternal life. Jesus provides the security, as Son of God, that his words are true and faithful. So Jesus says: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”