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Sermon of the WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at the Farewell prayer meeting with the WCC staff

Sermon of the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches at the Farewell prayer meeting with the WCC staff

01 April 2020

Sermon of the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches at the Farewell prayer meeting with the WCC staff

The Good Shepherd

John 10:11-17

Dear colleagues, dear sisters and brothers,

The Good Shepherd. Among the many images of God we have from the Bible, this is one particularly dear to many. It has become more dear to me again these last weeks. God cares. Even if I might think and feel otherwise, or we feel we are left alone or lost.  Psalm 23 uses the strong and realistic words -  and therefore also comforting words: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff comfort me.” It is sometimes challenging to believe this, like in the times of the pandemic that humanity is facing today. Even more precious and costly is this image of God. Even more so it is necessary that we lift up this image of God to one another now.

What is actually a shepherd doing? On my many walks in the Jura-mountains, looking at Geneva and Bossey from a distance and from above, I have often passed a huge flock of sheep. There were always dogs protecting the flock, not attacking us, just telling us with their barks: Keep a distance. Then I have been looking for the shepherd who used to be there. But sometimes it took a while to discover him. Often he has been sitting on a distance at a strategic point in the landscape. Apparently relaxed, but observant. Observing the flock – and us hikers. He let the sheep go around in a wide area, as if they were by themselves, free to do what they were there to do: To eat, to digest, to be. They apparently knew that he was there, they knew him, and he knew them. Their relationship made them trust in his presence, even if they did not see him all the time.

Another image of a shepherd in my mind is one from Bethlehem: I see an elderly man trying to run after a small flock, guiding them in the streets to find another spot that is still green. The shepherd’s fields around Bethlehem have been reduced drastically due to the ongoing occupation of land. The shepherd still tried to find somewhere to go with them, in a hurry, protecting them from cars and other risks.

These are two examples that I have seen that helps to illuminate the image of the Good Shepherd to me. But I could mention many others, not only those who deal with animals, but the many who see, who care, who accompany, who walk or even run with those at risk. Many, many of them I know doing this, are women (the two examples I mentioned were men, but I know that for example my mother was shepherding the animals in the mountains as a girl).

In times like these so much is challenged. Our space is shrinking, in many ways. The normal way of organizing our lives and work is not there, we cannot even say good bye in a normal way. Fears and anxiety come to our minds, for our dear ones, for ourselves, for our colleagues, friends, families, congregations, for the people to whom we belong and are far away from, for the people we have got to know through our work and our travels. We know that many of them are vulnerable to the virus itself, and to the many effects of the pandemic that might result in a dysfunctional society, with less access to work, even to food, to sanitation, clean water, and to health services. We start to understand what kind of threats many are facing as individuals, as communities, as one humanity.

This is our time. We cannot choose another time. When the WCC was established, they came out of a catastrophe caused by some who wanted to be the ruler, the lord of that time. It led to a world war, to genocide, and to enormous suffering and disasters. They who got together in 1948 formulated that the basis of the WCC is our faith in Jesus Christ “as Lord and Saviour”. This is still our basis. I have often said as General Secretary: “Back to basics” – to be able to live now, and to go into the future with hope.

I believe this is the time to see that the Lord and Saviour carries the image of the Good Shepherd. This is our time to hold up the image of the God who sees us. This is the time to remember that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has experienced everything about being human, even being forsaken and abandoned by others, to the extreme of suffering and death; even thinking he was forsaken by God. The crucified God sees us. This is the time to hold up the image of God who has risen from the death. The God of life who sees us. The Good Shepherd is not only seeing us, but walking and even running on our side - when we have to do so.

How can we hold up this image of God to others and to one another? How to believe that God cares for all? I think it is as simple as it is difficult: It is by just doing it. Not by telling ourselves and everybody how strong we are in our faith, pretending we have no worries or doubt about this or that. We have, and therefore we just have to lift up this image. Just do it. Repeating it to others and to ourselves. By reminding one another who the Good Shepherd is, reading the texts of the Bible and of our traditions, singing the songs of faith, sharing our images of faith, saying our prayers, even crying, or weeping, as we pray to the Good Shepherd: Do not forsake us.

And then doing it through our work for the WCC, in our programs, in our support functions and in our leadership roles. Just trying to show that we care, we do this and that because we believe there is a Good Shepherd, who cares, particularly when the times are difficult.

The WCC  is born in crises, and established to continue to address crises; out of distance and division among the churches, out of the disasters of the World Wars of the 20th Century, to end colonialism and to combat racism, to work for the end the cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation, to prevent and end armed conflicts, to stop the abuse and destruction of God’s creation, to address the climate changes, to combat globalization when it makes a few rich and the many poor, to fight poverty, to stop violence in the name of religion, to advocate for the rights of refugees, to opposes destructive nationalism that divides and kills, to address illness and endemics, stigmatization and exclusion of HIV, to end gender based violence, to end violence against children and so forth. This is our time – just now it also the time to address the crisis we are facing.

There is a constant need for an ecumenical movement that is a movement of love and care. One of my strongest wishes and visions when I started my work as GS of the WCC, was that we could be able to be mutually accountable to one another, not talking or acting as if the others were not here with us. One of my objectives was that we could recognize and acknowledge the significance of what the others contribute. Indeed, first of all it is about seeing one another as human beings. Then about seeing one another as followers of Christ, and to receive the contributions of the other churches, and partners, in this fellowship of gift-sharing. Within the WCC as organization, it is about seeing the other streams and departments, what each one of us contribute to the whole. Mutual accountability is a principle of working together in transparency and mutual trust, affirming our common basis and purpose in practical ways. It is about making ourselves visible, seen, to one another – and to respond by seeing and recognizing – moving together in our landscape and in our time.

The images of the Good Shepherd have inspired me, but also challenged me a lot as GS of the WCC. Am I, are we, able to show this image of God in what we do? I have tried to exercise these models of leadership. To be observant, to see, to lead to the right places, take the right moves at the right time. In doing so I have tried to see and acknowledge the gifts and opportunities of each of you to find the best way to walk and to work together. And to run together when something was urgent. And quite often it was.

Today I want to remind us what we often emphasize: We are as human beings created in the image of God. This gives all of us our value and dignity. However, this means also that we are as human beings carrying an image of God to one another in this world. It means that we are called out like Cain to be the watch and the guardian of our sister and brother. We are called to be an image of the Good Shepherd ourselves, to be those who cares, to respect and protect the others for who and what they are.

Let us hold up this image of God together, of the God of life, the Good Shepherd, who is with us on our pilgrimage of justice and peace. Also in such times as these.

This is – I believe – what the ecumenical movement should be. This is why it is time for the WCC to say: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”. Not because we are perfect and successful in everything, but because we do this together, in the name of the Good Shepherd.

May the Good Shepherd be with you all.