St Francis, Terriers - Easter 4 (07.05.2017)

Tony Dickinson

The picture on the screen is a bit low-res – and the cross and candles don’t help – but I hope you can see what it is. Any offers?

It’s a mosaic of Jesus the good shepherd, sitting among his flock, in a very ancient-world landscape. Does anyone know where we could find that picture? Where is it?

It’s in Genoa. It’s the mosaic above the high altar in the Church of the Holy Ghost. It was badly damaged when the church was bombed during the Second World War, but they managed to put it back together, in the same way that Stuart Frain put together our crucifix above the pulpit. You wouldn’t know from looking at either of them that they had been smashed to pieces.

Now, I chose that picture for three reasons. The first reason is that it fits this morning’s Gospel. We’ve just heard the beginning of what Jesus says in John’s Gospel about being the good shepherd, the shepherd who calls his sheep by name and they follow him – even though he doesn’t quite get round to saying “I am the Good Shepherd”, like our banner up there. Those words come just after the end of today’s reading.

The second reason is that during the past few years the people of the Church of the Holy Ghost really have been doing the work of the good shepherd. A big part of their congregation is made up of refugees from Africa, people who have made the dangerous crossing from North Africa to the island of Lampedusa, which is part of Italy, and who have been resettled in and around Genoa by the Italian government. Fr Ed Hanson is one of the priests who take it in turns to look after the congregation in Genoa. At the beginning of Lent he came and talked to us about the work that it is doing with the refugees. He told us about the refugees’ reasons for making such a long and dangerous journey, and he described the journeys that some of them had made. He told us how, like the sheep that Jesus talked about, the refugees found themselves in the hands of thieves and bandits, who took their money and put their lives in danger, so that some of them were injured and some lost family members on the way.

And that brings us to the third reason for choosing this picture, which is that for many of those refugees their lives, their families, their hopes have been shattered as badly as the RAF bombs shattered that mosaic, as badly as the person who attacked the crucifix above the pulpit shattered the figure of Jesus. But after they finally arrived in Italy, after they were resettled in a big city where people spoke a strange language, those refugees found a place where the people speak a language they know and share the same faith. That place is the Church of the Holy Ghost.

And the people of the Church of the Holy Ghost have helped to put their lives together again. They have helped them find their way through the Italian system for dealing with refugees and asylum-seekers. They have helped them to find food and warm clothing. They are helping them toward living independently. I was hearing recently from Flora, one of the churchwardens in Genoa, how she is helping one of the refugees set up a small-scale recycling business, collecting drinks cans from bars and cafes and selling them on to scrap dealers. And they have provided safe space where the refugees can reconnect with God. People who were in this church a couple of Sundays before Easter will have shared our prayers for the nine people being confirmed in Genoa that morning by Bishop David Hamid. Eight of those nine people came from the refugee community.

In doing these things, the people of the Church of the Holy Ghost have been doing the sort of thing that the earliest Christians did, the sort of thing that St Luke described in our first reading, teaching and sharing and healing and feeding, mending shattered lives in the name of Jesus, the good shepherd, and sharing his life in the breaking of bread, so that the refugees may have life and have it abundantly. As we listen to their story of death and resurrection, we realise that we are not just talking about the distant past, but also about the present when we say:

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!