Thank you for your welcome, and greetings from St Paul’s in London.

Ten days ago the deans of the Church of England heard a talk by Lord Richard Wilson, who was head of the British Government’s Civil Service under Prime Minister Tony Blair, and worked at high level under Margaret Thatcher before him. He’s a Christian man of great intellect and integrity. And he said that in many Cabinet meetings the question kept coming back to him as he listened to politicians discussing government policy: are the sheep being fed? In other words: are the poor and the sick being cared for? Are those without jobs or hope being helped? Do these politicians care for the people they’re supposed to shepherd?

Today’s readings are on the theme of the Good Shepherd. In John chapter 10, Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus models the caring leader who will sacrifice her or his own life for the sake of the poor, the powerless, the needy. And Jesus contrasts the good shepherd with the hired hand, the person who’s leading because they’re paid to do so, but who have no love for those they lead.

When there’s danger, the hired hand runs away to save their own skin while the sheep perish. But the good shepherd will face loss and danger on behalf of the sheep.

Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Before becoming Dean of St Paul’s, I was Dean of the cathedral in Bradford, a proud but poor city in the north of England. The Church there was linked with South West Virginia not far from here, and with the church in the north of Sudan.

After many years of war and oppression, South Sudan became an independent country in 2011; but almost straight away there’s been further civil war focused on the personal rivalry between South Sudan’s President and his former Vice–president.

The politicians on each side blame one another for a conflict which has displaced millions and killed tens of thousands, in one of Africa’s poorest countries.

“I lay down my life for the sheep.”

In my former city of Bradford, there are many citizens of Pakistani heritage. Elections for local and national politics have been distorted because people vote the way family leaders tell them to. And members of the Pakistani community have criticised their leaders for working to get power and benefits for their own clan, and for regarding election to office as a badge of honour for themselves, rather than a service to offer for the whole community.

“I lay down my life for the sheep.”

In the UK we have a general election for a new parliament at the moment. Each party is trying to win the support of voters by appealing to working families and older richer people. But there’s little on offer if you’re unemployed, sick, poor or have disabilities, because you’re less likely to have a vote that matters to those who seek power.

And all parties are clamping down on immigrants, who of course have no vote. In a national tabloid newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, there was a columnist last week who said she didn’t care about drowning and desperate migrants in the Mediterranean, and compared them to “cockroaches” who should be turned back by gunboats.

“I lay down my life for the sheep.”

In ancient Israel, the king was charged by God to uphold justice for the poor against the oppression of the rich, to protect the powerless widow, orphan and stranger; to be a good shepherd to his people.

The prophet Ezekiel chapter 34 castigates the shepherds of Israel as those who, instead of feeding their sheep, eat them instead. God promises to judge those shepherds, and feed his people himself.

“I lay down my life for the sheep.”

These words of Jesus in today’s gospel come after his criticism of the Pharisees in the previous chapter, because the Pharisees condemned Jesus for healing a blind man on the Sabbath.

Being a good shepherd isn’t only about politicians. It’s also about religious leaders, like me, who are also called to feed their sheep, yet can end up exploiting them for their own ends instead. Or the leaders simply stop loving the sheep they don’t like, and throw them out of their sheepfold.

I was at a conference recently listening to a young woman called Vicky Beeching, a Christian songwriter and worship leader. She spent over 20 years of her life repressing the knowledge she was gay while working in churches hostile to gay people, and as a result ended up in hospital almost dying of an auto–immune disease.

But when she finally accepted who she is and publicly told the truth about herself last year, she was denounced, and her music was boycotted by, many evangelical churches who had previously loved her.

“I lay down my life for the sheep.”

The first letter of John says that, as Jesus lays down his life for us, so we also should lay down our lives for our sisters and brothers, and help them out of their poverty by sharing our resources with them. But we get tempted to define people as not being our brother or sister, a temptation that Jesus addresses towards the end of today’s Gospel passage, where he says: “I lay down my life for the sheep. And there are other sheep I have, not of this sheepfold, and I must lead them also.”

For Jesus, there is no “other,” no “us and them,” no group or tribe or race or orientation which we should exclude from the love of God in us. There is no “them,” no “other sheep;” there is only us all, the sheep whom Christ loves.

“I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Good shepherds in politics, good shepherds in religion—and what about you and me? Are we good shepherds to the sheep whom God has given us to care for?

It doesn’t matter how powerful or how powerless we are: God calls us to be filled with the self–giving love of Christ, calls us to lead those around us to feed on the unconditional love of God which heals and changes us.

We have a saying in Britain which you may have here too. “Charity begins at home.” It’s usually used to mean quite the opposite—that charity is only at home. I love those near to me, my little flock, my family, my good neighbours, and a few more. And of course the love of those at home is an important beginning. But it’s only the beginning.

Just one example to think about: children. God doesn’t ask us only to love our biological children, if we have them, or those in our wider family. All the children of our community, all the children of the world, are our responsibility to lead and love.

They say in Africa, it takes a village to raise a child. But for God, it takes a world to love a child. Never think of other children as “their children.” Always think of any child you see as “my child:” one of the sheep who is crying out to be fed.

“I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Let me conclude with a piece of wishful thinking, the wish that power might matter less than compassion.

We had a reading from Acts chapter 4 a few minutes ago. The apostles Peter and John have healed a man in the Temple, a man crippled at birth, a man over 40 years old, completely beyond any hope of healing.

People are amazed, Peter and John preach the gospel to them, the priests and elders are annoyed and put Peter and John in jail overnight—and that’s the point where the reading begins. This is what it should say in the reading from Acts chapter 4:

The next day the rulers, elders and teachers met in Jerusalem, including the men of the high priestly family.

They had Peter and John brought before them, and began to question them saying: By what power or by what name did you do this?

Could we do it too? We’ve got hundreds of poor and sick people in Jerusalem and Judea: can you please help them?

And Peter replied, Rulers of the people and elders, thank you for being inspired by a good deed done to someone who was sick, and for your loving concern for those of your people who are in need.

I wish.

Jesus said: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”


The Very Rev. David Ison, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London