May 3, 2020 – the Fourth Sunday of Easter
A message from the Rev. Bob Smith
I’m not exactly sure why, but for centuries there has been a tradition in the church to call the third Sunday after Easter Good Shepherd Sunday. To be sure, it is a wonderful image, which Jesus used to describe himself, but I’m not sure why they chose this particular Sunday. Maybe it was in response to the struggle of the church in its early days to declare the good news of the resurrection in spite of all that was working against it.
Regardless of the origin, it occurs to me that it is an a wonderfully welcome image to encourage us in these days of isolation and distancing as we all join to try to flatten the pandemic curve. How can we be the church in these scary, troubled times? We can be the church because the Good Shepherd watches over us. Not necessarily to escape all the dangers, but to give us a word of guidance; not to protect us from all harm but to hold us and reassure us; not to give us an easy road, but to be a companion along the way to help us know that we are not alone.
We may not be able to gather physically yet, but we can still be one in the Spirit, we can be renewed by remembering the one who watches over us, and we can follow in the steps of the one who guides us through the darkest valleys to the green pastures and still waters beyond. May these worship resources help to remind us of that hope.
Rev. Bob Smith
Book of Praise – 11 “The Lord’s my shepherd“
- video with on-screen lyrics, exactly as in the hymnbook
Prayers of Adoration and Confession, Lord’s Prayer
God who leads and watches over us, God who provides and protects, God whose word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, we come before you to worship you, to celebrate the love that you extend to us, and to be in fellowship with others who make up the flock which is under your care. Speak to us, we pray, so that we may hear your words of life, and give us grace to follow where you lead. All praise and glory be to you, O God, creator, redeemer and spirit.
Gracious God, while you watch over us as a shepherd tends the sheep, we confess that we are wayward followers, wandering away after our own desires, rebelling against your wise leading, resisting your loving touch. We think we know better, and forsake the guidance you offer, the protection you give, and the flock in which you place us for support and protection. Hear us as we confess those ways we have rebelled against you. Forgive us we pray for how we have wandered from your ways, and look out only for ourselves. Draw us back into your fold, open our hearts to receive the blessings you offer, and send us out into the world to serve others. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who taught us to pray in these words:
Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those
who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon and the Peace
Friends in Christ, there is good news for us all. The one who watches over us gave himself for the life that we have, and offers forgiveness for our sins. God promises us new beginnings and abundant life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
(And also with you.)
Christian Education Coordinator Laura Alary has recorded two videos on YouTube.
The first recounts the Parable of the Good Shepherd. (17 minutes)
The second has stories from two picture books on the theme of being cared for and caring for one another. (10 minutes)
Many, maybe most, of you,
may be a lot better informed than me about this,
but when I think of sheep and shepherds
I’m afraid that the first image that pops into my heads
is of children down on all fours in the Christmas pageant as sheep
with other kids in bathrobes standing with them as shepherds,
as props for the story of the birth of Jesus.
Oh, I’ve seen sheep,
I think I’ve heard the bleating sound they make,
I may even have touched one
in one of those pettings zoos we used to take the kids to,
but any real sense of what they are like,
or what is involved in taking care of them —
But it’s an important biblical image
so despite our, or at least my sheep illiteracy,
we jump into the sheepfold for a few minutes this morning
to try to figure out what these scriptures are trying to tell us
that will be helpful to urban Canadians in 2020
and particularly in our context of unreality in dealing with a pandemic.
“I am the Good Shepherd,”
Jesus says in the Gospel of John.
It is one of the great “I am” titles of that gospel.
that Jesus uses to describe himself,
and the mission that he comes to undertake.
He is drawing, of course, for starters,
on the wonderful images in the 23rd Psalm
which is a favourite for so many,
even those whose sheep experience is zero like me.
The Psalm evokes images of pleasant pastoral scenes,
and calm, still waters,
a picture of perfect peace.
And we see the sheep happily placing their trust in the shepherd
on whom they depend for nourishment
for protection, and for guidance.
If a threat of any kind arises,
it is the shepherd who will place himself
between the sheep and that danger
so that they will be safe.
The sheep live in the confidence
that the words of the psalm are true:
“You, Shepherd, you, God, are with me;
your rod and your staff —
they comfort me.”
And reading those words,
we put ourselves in the place of the sheep
knowing that the shepherd watches out for us
even through the darkest valleys that we have to walk.
No wonder we love it.
And we want to sign on the dotted line right away, saying,
“I want to be in that flock.
I want to be one of his sheep,
one who is blessed enough to live under the care
of such a loving shepherd.”
But when Jesus picks up the image later in the Gospel of John
the scene is not quite so idyllic. Yes, the Good Shepherd cares for us,
even knows us and calls us by name.
But the fine print of that document we wanted to sign,
underlines what the contract means for the Shepherd.
Our ability to live comfortably in green pastures with all our needs met
depends on a shepherd who will be abused,
who suffers intensely,
and who in the end,
will lay down his life for the sheep.
Living out with the sheep in the countryside
is really roughing it.
The shepherd faces all the same dangers as the sheep
in the hostility of that landscape.
He is just as vulnerable to the heat in the day,
the cold at night
and predators of all kinds.
And when trouble comes,
they are like the secret agents
around the important political leaders —
they are supposed to take the hits,
so the one they are protecting doesn’t have to.
So when Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd
this is the kind of life he is saying he lives
for us and with us.
He spends his time with the “least of these,”
and shares their vulnerability.
He knows what it is like to sleep in the cold.
He knows what he is saying
when he calls us to leave our villages, our homes,
even our families,
because that’s exactly what he did.
He knows what it’s like
to have people around you saying you’re crazy or irresponsible
because of the things you have left behind,
because people said the same things about him.
This is the measure of the love
that the Good Shepherd has for the sheep,
for us, for his church.
And so that we can be clear,
he reminds us that this is his mission:
“I came that they might have life
and have it abundantly.”
and that he is prepared to pay any cost
to make that happen.
Unlike the bandits and thieves
who come to take life,
his calling is to give life.
And it’s in that context,
it’s under that kind of care,
it’s when we are offered that sort of abundance in life,
that we can begin to dream today
about life in his sheepfold.
The crazy thing is that the abundant life that Jesus talks about
is exactly that life of giving and sacrifice that he lived
and it’s the same life he calls us to live.
But he knows as well
that as hard as it can be sometimes to follow his leading,
it is a whole lot better than being lunch for the predators outside
or potential victims to the thieves and bandits
who are lurking around the sheepfold.
Sure it’s costly to follow in the way of this shepherd,
but the alternatives are ultimately much more dangerous
and far less able to deliver with any lasting reward.
So there are some implications to signing up
to be in this flock
and what is involved in living in this sheepfold.
One thing we could note in our flock,
is that the position of Good Shepherd has been taken.
No others need apply.
If he is in charge of the flock
then that charge is something we need to be ready
to relinquish to him.
Bob Dylan made a good point when he sang,
“You’ve gotta serve somebody.”
And if it is not Jesus to whom you owe your allegiance,
there will be one of a long list of people or ideas around you
who would be more than happy to assume that role over you:
bosses, politicians, parents, advertisers,
things to own
ambitions to follow
causes to support.
And you know how it goes,
there is always one more thing we need to buy
that will make us happy,
one more contribution required of us,
one more promotion to get,
one more enemy to defeat,
before we feel we’ve made it,
and can rest secure.
It’s so easy to be duped into believing
that they can deliver on the wonderful images
that they dangle before us,
but their pitch is a myth.
If we’re honest, we know that those would-be masters are bad news;
that the good life that they promise
is not theirs to offer;
that what they serve up instead
is striving after a goal
that is always just out of reach
working endlessly for little rewards,
that in the end don’t really satisfy,
and leaving us in a constant state of anxiety and fear,
that without them our lives are meaningless.
We have to trust the shepherd
that he knows what is best for us
and be willing to follow wherever he leads.
I know, I know, there’s a part of this that doesn’t sit quite right
with us as modern, self-made, independent-minded sheep.
We like to treat the faith
like everything else in our consumer-oriented world —
we’ll take it or leave it as long as it suits us.
And there are lots of other brands or dogmas
that we can try out
if the cross of Jesus is getting a little heavy to bear.
We like to confess Jesus as Saviour and Lord —
maybe even say those words as a mantra,
almost without thinking.
But if we want to claim Jesus as Saviour,
the one who hauls us out of pit of our sin and struggle,
then we also need to submit to him as Lord,
the one to whom we give ultimate claim to our lives.
It is under the care of the Good Shepherd, and nowhere else,
that will find that abundant life.
and we will find the blessing of that life,
only when we learn to trust in his care,
and not out of fear but out of love.
And the other thing we could think about
is what that makes us as a community,
as the sheep collectively in the sheepfold.
Under the care of the Good Shepherd
we become a community of support and accountability.
For all our differences,
what we have in common within this sheepfold
is the love of the Shepherd for us
and ours for him.
Just a few verses after our text in John, Jesus says,
“There will be one flock, one shepherd.”
That means that the flock today — the church —
is really the same flock that Jesus is speaking of in this passage.
So, where we are divided,
in the way we speak about one another
or hold grudges about whatever;
or where we’re divided amongst congregations or denominations
about whose policies are right or wrong,
about whose theology is best,
about whose worship is correct,
or about who we will or will not let in,
it seems to me that something is out of sync in the sheepfold.
Such divisions become a denial of the shepherd
whose love formed us,
whose life was given for us,
and whose prayer for us was that we would be one.
Sometimes the flock gets a little testy and anxious,
and there’s a bit of pushing and shoving amongst the sheep
to see who can get their way,
or be first to the best grass to munch on.
But the good news is that the Shepherd is still on the job,
and that if we can remember to look to him
for our identity, for our direction,
to pull us back together when we are divided,
and to help us move together
in the direction in which he’s leading us,
then we will be okay.
Our unity, though at times strained,
can be grounded where we started in this discussion.
in getting over ourselves,
in keeping the Good Shepherd at our centre,
and in trusting him to lead us.
Ultimately it is for us a good news message.
We live and discover the best of what we can be as a church
under the watchful oversight of the Shepherd
whose voice we have come to know and trust,
whose desire for us is abundant life,
and whose vocation is to care for us.
In a time of need, when we feel isolated, cut off, maybe in danger,
He provides for us all that we need,
and placing our trust in him
frees us to enjoy the good gifts of God
as fully as God gives them.
Our anxiety about all the other sheep we have to live with here,
is replaced with the freedom to love
whomever we find ourselves with in the flock
and to enjoy the journey with them
under the care of the Good Shepherd.
I may not know much about sheep,
but we all know what it is like
to know when we are held in that kind of love.
So we need not fear any evil
any trouble or any challenge —
surely as we follow him,
goodness and mercy will follow us.
Now to the one who watches over us
and shows us the way,
we give all glory and praise,
now and forever. Amen.
We remind everyone that we must continue to pay our bills; in the absence of Sunday worship, you may sign up for pre-authorized remittance (PAR), donate online via our CanadaHelps page, or drop off your offering envelope in the mailbox at the church. Do not leave a cash donation unattended in the mailbox; instead, please call the office (416.261.4037) to ensure someone will be there to receive it. The building will be checked daily for mail and phone messages. If you are not comfortable leaving an envelope, you are welcome to contact the office (once again, 416.261.4037) and someone will pick up your offering.
Prayers of Thanksgiving and Hope
Great and loving God, we thank you that you have made us, and that when we went astray, you came to us in Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep. We praise you that the worst evil of humankind could not destroy him, but that he was raised from the dead, and is alive and with us now to be with us all our days. We thank you for his care and guidance, for how he provides for our needs, calls us to unity in the church and calls each of us by name to carry on a mission in his name. All praise be to you, O God, for your great love in Jesus Christ your son.
We remember in prayer those whom you place in our lives, to whom we can minister in your name, especially in this time of a global pandemic. We remember the sick and hospitalized, that you would bring healing and hope, and that you would support families in the wider burden that illness brings. We pray for those who grieve, that they would be encouraged and strengthened by the hope we have in Jesus that there is resurrection for those who have died, and peace for those who remain behind. We remember health care workers, and the countless people who serve us daily in so many ways, giving thanks for their devotion.
We remember the hungry and homeless, those who suffer near or far away from the ravages of poverty. Give to us a heart for those who struggle and do without, that somewhere in the circle of our influence, we may find a way not just to help, but to stand with them as Jesus did, and to do what we can to lift them up.
Almighty God, you sent Jesus, our Good Shepherd, to gather us together. May we not wander from his flock, but follow wherever he leads us, listening for his voice and staying near him, under his care, comfort and direction; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Book of Praise – 569 “O Jesus, I have promised“
- video with on-screen lyrics, small differences in the text from the hymnbook.
- recorded on November 18, 2018, at First United Methodist Church; Houston, Texas.
Commissioning and Benediction
Go now in peace to walk in the steps of the one who watches over us.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all, now and forever.