April 25, 2021 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
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Message from the Rev. Bob Smith
Friends in Christ, welcome to this service of worship. There is a tradition in the lectionary — I have no idea where it comes from — that the third Sunday after Easter each year is Good Shepherd Sunday, and it is the theme I explore in the service today. As I have reflected on it this week, at a time when Covid infections are rising dramatically and the restrictions on our lives more severe, it has struck me what a compelling and comforting image it is that the Good Shepherd is watching over us. We may feel vulnerable, fearful, and at the mercy of things far beyond our control, but the enduring message of the One who loves and cares for us can continue to give us hope. May that be so for all of us.
Rev. Bob Smith
Call to Worship
Day by day, God leads us:
to the deep pools of peace,
to the green, lush lawns of grace.
Day by day, Jesus calls us:
to pour out ourselves in service,
to anoint the stranger with hope.
Day by day, the Holy Spirit shows us:
the community we could be,
the family we are called to become.
Let us worship God.
Book of Praise – 11 “The Lord’s my shepherd”
- Video with on-screen words with a few minor differences from those in the hymnbook.
- Words by English Puritan Francis Rous (circa 1581 to 1659), first published in 1650 in “Scots Metrical Psalter”; based on Psalm 23. Music (1871; tune: “Crimond”) attributed to Jessie Seymour Irvine (1836–1887). Words and music in the public domain.
- Audio used in the video recorded at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, England.
Prayers of Adoration, Confession, Lord’s Prayer
O Shepherd God, you have blessed us with peace as tranquil as a flowing stream; peace that nourishes as food and sleep; peace that is stronger than death. You call us to rest in your care, so that we may learn to live with courage. Sometimes we’re afraid, but we know that your love will comfort us, and that you will never leave us. We thank you, O God, for your love that fills us to overflowing, this day and forever.
Forgive us O God, when we fail to pass on to others the love we have received from you, or when we forget to extend the hand of mercy and help as you have done for us, when we lose courage and leave the sorrowing without comfort, the fearful without hope, victims of any trouble without aid. Forgive us, we pray. Empower and restore us to a love that is compelling and ready, and passionately concerned for all people and the creation.
Loving God, keep us true to our calling and our promise to love each other and to love you. It is so easy to love merely in our words, and even in the inner speech of our prayers. Help us to love in deeds that are as visible as Jesus’ acts of compassion. Keep us faithful and obedient, for the sake of Jesus, our saviour and our friend. Hear us now as we pray together in the words that he taught us:
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.
Declaration of Pardon
Friends in Christ, hear the good news. Paul writes, anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. Praise God for the new life that is ours in Christ. Thanks be to God.
The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
(And also with you.)
Ah, the Good Shepherd — what a wonderful image, and what an appropriate title for Jesus — one who cares for us that deeply, who is watching over us, and who gives himself for us.
Most of us have a soft spot in our hearts for the 23rd Psalm, the promise of the Shepherd who loves us that much, and the comfort assured us in One who makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. All is quiet and safe and we find ourselves resting comfortably in the assurance of needing nothing, of fearing nothing, and that we will dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long.
And when Jesus claims that shepherd image for himself in John’s gospel, and offers to us that kind of care, there is great comfort for us in it.
We may not be quite as ready as Jesus to talk about laying down our lives for other sheep. We might put ourselves more in the “hired hand” category that Jesus describes, who do our job — make sure the dumb old sheep are fed and watered, and keep our eyes open for predators, but only if it’s not too risky for good old “yours truly.” Frankly, when it’s time to punch out and go home, I’m done, I’m out of here. They’re someone else’s sheep, and I’m looking out first for me.
I’m not sure I’m ready to sign on for the whole Shepherd package myself — I’d have to read the fine print — I even think that being the hired hand sounds like a lot of work. But I wouldn’t mind being a sheep, especially if having someone look out for me in that way is part of the package.
So, here we are, all safe and sound in our little sheepfold with the Good Shepherd watching out for us. Isn’t life grand?
But wait. What’s that? It seems that there are other sheep out there, ones who aren’t even in our little flock, sheep that are wandering around, unprotected, outside our sheepfold. Sheep that we don’t even know. Sheep that are different from us. Who knew?
But then again, so what? Who cares about them? — we’re okay. Let them find their own shepherd.
Well, it seems that our Shepherd cares about them too, those other sheep, those sheep who are different. And what’s this? He’s even talking about how he loves them all, about how he lays down his life for them as well.
It’s like he’s talking about creating some kind of megaflock of sheep from all over, inside and outside our sheepfold. It’s like he’s going to mix it all up, and bundle us all up together — one flock, and one Shepherd who’s watching over all of us. Sounds crazy. It would take some Shepherd to pull that off.
To us sheep inside our sheepfold, who aren’t even tall enough to see over the stone walls, to whoever, or whatever, is beyond us, that’s a little overwhelming, maybe even threatening, something like discovering life on another planet.
We never even thought about those other sheep, much less cared at all about them. And to think that our shepherd is watching over them too — does Jesus mean to say that it isn’t all about us? One flock, one shepherd… indeed.
So who are these other sheep? Let’s start back in Jesus’ day. Is it other Jewish Christian communities, perhaps at some distance from where we are? Is it Gentiles, those who are completely outside the Jewish faith but who have come to faith in Jesus? Is it those who might someday come to believe? Jesus isn’t clear, and maybe he has left his meaning a little fuzzy, to help us keep a bit of an open mind about it.
You know, the thought of bringing in a lot of Gentile sheep might make the sheepfold seem a lot fuller, and help balance the budget for the Shepherd. But things will no longer be the same. If it’s the original Jewish sheep who are voting, they are probably not going to be very happy about what this flock is becoming, and are not likely to give him the “Shepherd of the Year” award.
In fact, in the very next verse following our text, we read that, “The Jews were divided because of these words.” No surprise there. And no surprise now, that it is a difficult and potentially divisive discussion when we enter into the conversation about just how big the flock is that our Good Shepherd cares for, and what it looks like.
The Bible reminds us that: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and whose who live in it,” (Psalm 24:1) And the well-known verse in John’s Gospel tells us that “For God so love the world (not just Israel) that God sent his only Son…” (John 3:16)
Jesus, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, approves of and welcomes those who have shown mercy to others, whether or not following him was their motivation. (Matthew 25: 31–40) And the figure of the older son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, is a good example of one who is clearly part of the flock, but can’t accept it, believe it, or really understand it. (Luke 15: 11–31)
And even though we have examples of Jesus sounding more exclusive, like, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6), we also have him saying in our text, “I have sheep who are not of this flock. I must bring them as well.” (John 10:16)
Does the flock extend to other Christian denominations? Absolutely. No question there. We are all part of one great universal Church. Does the flock include people of other faiths? I think we could argue that it does, and the Living Faith statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church in Canada — now an official Subordinate Standard of our church — has this to say about “Our Mission and Other Faiths”:
Some whom we encounter belong to other religions
and already have a faith.
Their lives often give evidence of devotion and reverence for life.
We recognize that truth and goodness in them
are the work of God’s Spirit, the author of all life.” (section 9.2.1)
Does the flock include absolutely everyone, whatever their faith or lack of it? That is a kind of universalism that’s hard to square with lots of Biblical passages, but there are other texts that tend to support it. What we can say is that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, loves and cares for the world, and every living soul in it. And we can also say that whatever judgment places sheep within the fold or not, is God’s business and not our own.
It is not that the Shepherd claims all the other sheep, as if he is stealing sheep right and left from those other sheepfolds — something that faithful Jews or Muslims might find quite offensive. What Jesus says here is that he lays his life down for them all.
The point is that in an act of generous self-offering Jesus laid his life down for anyone who will find meaning and life in it. Membership in this flock is not closed, but is open-ended for any who hear the Shepherd’s voice. And what the Good Shepherd brings to this eclectic flock is that he makes us all one.
So where does that leave us as 21st century sheep, in a great, mixed-up, global sheepfold that is more diverse, perhaps, than we could ever have imagined?
I think this is one of the challenges of our day where the world’s populations are constantly moving, where instant communication is possible with just about anyone anywhere in the world, where cultures are being mixed and the races are being blended, and where members of the world’s religions are now living as neighbours with one another — and the city that we live in is as good an example of that as we will ever find.
There is a block on Bayview Avenue just north of Steeles, not far from where Helen and I served in Thornhill, where in a stretch of less than a kilometer, you will find two Christian churches, Missionary Alliance and Roman Catholic, as well as a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim mosque, and a Buddhist temple.
This is not just our city, it is our world today, and it seems that the Good Shepherd, the one who spoke of one flock, one Shepherd, would have us all bring a spirit of generosity to our interactions with all other people. With respect for their beliefs or lack of belief there is nothing stopping us from giving our account of the hope that we have in us, of the Shepherd that gave himself for us all, and of the life we have found in him. That is our story to tell.
Maybe we’ll find that, apart from some of the details, what we believe is remarkably similar and that we have no trouble picturing ourselves as kindred sheep in one sheepfold.
At the very least we will have contributed to an understanding of one another that might help to lower the temperature of a lot of the world’s biggest tensions right now. And at the most, we may find that our conversation may lead our neighbour to see the light of Christ in us and come to follow the Good Shepherd whose love embraces us all.
In the end, it is the Shepherd, and not the sheep, who decides who is part of the flock. It is the Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep whether they understand it, or like it, or accept it, or not.
And as part of the flock, it’s not for us to keep the Shepherd just to ourselves. Maybe the best thing for us, even if it makes us squirm a bit is to get used to the idea that Jesus’ idea of the flock might be a lot bigger than ours.
Certainly, he calls us to tell our story to share the good news of his love far and wide in order to build up our flock, and that’s something we might all take on as our own personal mission.
But maybe he’s also inviting, calling, us to keep an open mind about others who are outside our sheepfold, and who don’t even recognize our shepherd, because there is something of his truth and love in them as well.
Maybe he’s inviting us to learn to enjoy being part of a flock that is becoming larger, more eclectic, more diverse, more dynamic, and more like the kingdom of God that the Shepherd came to build.
Now to the one who laid down his life for us all, we give all glory and praise, now and forever. Amen.
- “Softly and Tenderly”. Words and music (1880) by American composer Will Lamartine Thompson (1847–1909). This arranged by American pianist and composer Larry Dalton (1946–2009). Words and music in the public domain. Arrangement copyright © 2004 Word Music, LLC, part of the Lorenz Corporation; used by permission of One License, license number 722141-A.
- Performed on the keyboard by GCPC Music Director Rachelle Risling.
- Audio recording copyright © 2021 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church.
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Prayer of Dedication, Thanksgiving and Hope
As our lips praise you and our spirits seek your power, so our hands and gifts provide support for your church at work today. Thank you for giving us this privilege. Receive our gifts, we pray, and use them and us to your glory.
Loving God, your care for us is greater than we can imagine, your love for us deeper than anything we have ever experienced before. Even when we wander away, even when we deliberately avoid your watchful care, like a shepherd you pursue us, seek us out, and bear us up in your strong and loving arms, wanting for us only that which will bless us and give us life. That you love us without measure, that you guard and protect us because we are your own, that you know and hold us more intimately than we even know ourselves, and that you have given yourself for us in Christ, we give you thanks.
We pray for those who lack a sense of your love and presence in their lives, and for those who suffer under the weight of great burdens or terrible hurts. We pray for the sick and hospitalized, that they would find restoration and healing; for the grieving and sorrowful, that they would be given hope know your presence; for the anxious and worried, that your peace would comfort them; for those with troubles or tension in their marriage or family, that your love would conquer their hurt, and your forgiveness heal their divisions; for those who live in poverty and constantly face its challenges and discouragements, that you would provide for them both the basics of life, and the dignity that they often lack.
We pray for those who are outside our sheepfold, acknowledging that your love is big enough for them, and that the good shepherd cares for them as well. Give us the confidence and courage to share the hope we have found in you, and to respect the expressions of faith of those of other religions, always looking for those things that we hold in common and where we might even be able to work together.
As the restrictions due to the Covid pandemic continue, we offer up our prayers for those who lead us, that you would guide them in seeking those paths that will help us put it behind us. Give us all the grace to follow their guidance. We pray for those who have been infected and those who care for them, for essential workers who help to provide our needs, and those who work to administer the vaccines. And we long for the day when we can embrace our loved ones, and to gather together in worship.
In a week when we have been confronted once again with the suffering of those who are targets of racism, we pray that the verdict in Minneapolis may be a turning point for us all as we work for respect and reconciliation. We know that you have the power to change and redirect the lives of your people, to restore and heal, to comfort and bring hope, and we pray that you would enter powerfully into the lives of those who need you. We place ourselves, our loved ones, and all who are in need of help, protection, hope or healing, in the protective and loving arms of the Good Shepherd, even Jesus our saviour and our friend. It is in his holy name that we pray. Amen.
Book of Praise – 730 “O for a world where everyone”
- Video with on-screen words; the words are identical to those in the hymnbook.
- Words (1987) by American nun and educator Miriam Therese Winter (1938–). Music (tune: “Azmon”) adapted in 1839 by American church music composer Lowell Mason (1792–1872) from a tune originally composed in 1828 by German composer Carl Gotthilf Gläser (1874–1829). Words © copyright 1990 Medical Mission Sisters; music public domain, with the arrangement in the video © copyright James Biery.
- This recording made by the choir of Grosse Pointe Memorial Church (Presbyterian), Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, under the direction of organist James Biery (1956–), on October 10, 2020.
Commissioning and Benediction
Go out into the world
to tell the story of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ,
and to continue his ministry of compassion
toward all people.
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. Amen.
- “Go Now in Peace”. Words by American educator, lyricist and composer Don Besig (1936–) and American lyricist Nancy Price (1958–). Music by Don Besig. Words and music copyright © 1988 Harold Flammer Music, a division of Shawnee Press; used by permission of One License, license number 722141-A.
- Performed by Rachelle Risling (keyboard) and the GCPC Senior Choir. Audio and video production by Rachelle Risling.
- Audio and video recording copyright © 2021 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church.
Copyright © 2021 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church
Last updated on 2021-05-07 at 16:22 – Minor correction to audio caption for the Prayer of Dedication, Thanksgiving and Hope.