Call to worship
Though the way seems long and the road rough
Yet will we trust the One who leads us.
Though the direction is unknown and we don’t know the outcome
Yet will we place our lives in Christ’s loving care.
It is Christ who brings us out to green pastures and restores our souls.
It is Christ who gives us hope and peace. Praise be to Christ our Lord. AMEN.
All for Jesus – all for Jesus (Singing the Faith 341) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqvprlKZKhQ
A 5 year old’s prayer of thanks:
Thank you for our world
Thank you for all our beautiful trees
Thank you for all our flowers
Thank you for making us and everybody
Thank you for our streets and neighbours
Thank you for the people that collect our bins
Thank you for all our posties in our world
Thank you for our people who make us food and sell us some
Thank you for all our doctors and nurses helping people when they’re sick
Thank you for loving everybody. Amen
You can listen to this prayer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IN2M5E5h2FY&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3mAq3n_kyWAZT6XwHjVWaJ-4nJ94ZY3pjJ4mWzTCycNG8Xab1cjMkq08Y
A late edition. This is my son, Gabriel, reading Psalm 23
Acts 2:42-47 Read by Caroline Sparrow
The observant amongst us will have noticed that the 23rd Psalm was our lectionary reading a few weeks ago. Today we have it again. When we come to our gospel reading, we will find the theme of shepherds, so rather than focusing on the Psalm, instead I’m firstly going to take a look at the reading from Acts and share some of my thoughts.
This passage describes the reaction to Peter’s amazing sermon that inspires the conversion of many people. Three thousand we are told in verse 41. That’s pretty impressive. For those of us who are preachers, this is the reaction we dream about. Peter’s words have built up that small community and suddenly we find them eating together, spending time in each other’s company and even going as far as to sell possessions and give the money to those in need. Let’s just take a moment to imagine such a church. Being with other Christians continually praising God, praying together, baptising newcomers and everyone happy about this newfound way of living. Especially at a time when we are forced to be apart, this is what many of us are desperate for.
But hang on – does all this ‘goodwill of all people’ sound too good to be true? Well, you’d not be wrong. Because the reality was, this happy commune was soon to be fraught with difficulties, arguments and some major fallouts. The euphoria didn’t last long and we shortly face a community at risk of fracture. Ananias sells some of his property (but by no means all) and then fails to put the whole amount into the communal pot (5:1-11). Peter gets cross with him; they have an argument and Ananias falls down dead. Peter then confronts the widow, who also promptly dies. And we are told, ‘great fear seized the whole church,’ which given this story doesn’t sound terribly surprising. This is a very long way from a group of Christians spending time in each other company ‘with glad and generous hearts’ (2:46).
Disagreements continued about ritualistic food, circumcision, inclusion of gentiles and all manner of other aspects of establishing a Christian way of living. Does that sound familiar? Christians today continue to argue about who has the right interpretation of the Bible, or the right way of conducting worship, going as far as to deny that some people are proper Christians. Although they fall under the umbrella of ‘Christian’, Quakers and those attending Westboro Baptist Church would probably fail to find much common ground, being on opposite ends of the theological spectrum. From an outsiders point of view the enormous variations of church would appear to lack agreement on anything.
The church was established on a set of ideals and a desire to come together in community. Reading ahead, it would be easy to think it quickly became a failed project with infighting and some pretty unchristian behaviour. Last week I mentioned that the Bible weaves together the story of God with the story of humanity. What I didn’t say was that the Bible records the history of God’s people mostly getting it wrong, going the wrong way and doing the wrong thing. But God doesn’t give up on them and the Bible is also about people changing their behaviour. By weaving our story in with these Bible stories, we are continuing this story of God and God’s people. Still getting it wrong a fair amount of the time, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. And God isn’t done with us yet. God isn’t done with the church, even today when we cannot meet together in our buildings.
St Teresa of Avila is quoted as saying, “The Lord walks among the pots and pans.” I like that domestic image of ordinary life. Pots and pans are made to be used to the benefit of others. They get dirty from being used, but in the sharing, God is with us. Giving us a clean slate everyday. In these uncertain times the church isn’t finished just because the buildings are closed; it’s being renewed.
One Thing Remains (Not in Singing the Faith) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNUNexJlwGk
Another late edition. This is my husband, David, reading 1 Peter 2:19-25
This next video shows a herd of sheep coming at the call of their shepherd: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Coq_grSFlNs
So this morning, we’re thinking a lot about sheep. In our liturgical calendar it’s sometimes described as Good Shepherd Sunday. I grew up in North Devon and spent a considerable amount of my childhood on the local farm. I helped feed orphaned lambs and would go and try and befriend the feral cats. My husband, by contrast, grew up in inner-city Birmingham. His childhood was a world away from my own, playing on busy urban streets. For him, the pastoral images of the gospels is simply not part of his experience. And I guess, increasingly, it is less relevant to many of us. I know there are still some professional shepherds working the hills and fields, living a remote, isolated life, but it’s a career path few teenagers consider. The question is, what can this story offer to us today? For those of us living in towns, how are the warm, fuzzy images of a shepherd and their sheep relevant when we really only come across them in church nativities? Well, it seems that we are not alone in struggling with this metaphor – in verse 6 we are told the Pharisees didn’t grasp it either. Not everyone in 1st century Palestine understood the life of a shepherd and the challenges of looking after sheep.
For those of us with a little bit of experience, we know sheep are pretty dirty creatures, prone to getting stuck, prone to their coat getting mangled and certainly having a herd mentality. Lambs are cute – our Easter pictures of new life are full of these energetic, clean, delightful creatures. But sheep are none of those things. Lambs tend to grow into ugly, stupid animals, unable to make decisions for themselves and needing a leader to follow. Because they have poor depth-perception, they struggle to find an open gate and need someone to encourage them through. They would struggle to find their way without help.
Suddenly, this metaphor of Jesus shows itself to be less than flattering. He’s talking about us, right? We’re the sheep in this story, right? Wait a minute, that means Jesus thinks we’re filthy, dim-witted creatures incapable of good decision-making – is that what’s he’s saying here? Is that what we want to hear? Many preachers have interpreted this reading as us covered in the filth of sin, unable to find our way in life and requiring the benevolent shepherd to rescue us. I’m not sure this pastoral image is quite as comforting as I’d once supposed.
The problem with this reading is that I don’t think of myself as a sheep. I’m very uncomfortable with any herd mentality – it’s one of the reasons I’m not altogether keen on being in very large Christian congregations. Perhaps you have, and have fabulous memories of those emotions that you were swept along with – I’ve never been terribly happy in these environments and worry about my emotions being manipulated with the crowd. I’m someone who is confident to stick out from the crowd. I’m certainly not happy with being described as either dirty (even if that does mean sinful) or dim. That’s not how I see myself. That’s not how I describe my relationship with Jesus as a relationship between one who is dominant and one who is submissive. That makes me feel very uncomfortable.
Sheep, whether 2000 years ago, or today in Britain, are an economic commodity. They are rarely kept as pets. They are used for wool and breeding and of course for food. There are all manner of dangers sheep are exposed to, whether through the thieves Jesus spoke of, or weather conditions or predators. Jesus here is offering more than just protection. In 21st century Britain we have all become used to living in a society that places economic value on people. One of the interesting aspects of this lockdown is how this economic value is being rewritten. Refuse collectors are being thanked for turning up and doing their job because we are all painfully aware of the chaos it would cause if they didn’t. And we are all grateful to them and all of the other key workers, very few of whom would be ranked among the highest paid in this country.
Jesus refused to place a monetary value on things or on people – it didn’t interest him. The economic value of the sheep isn’t why he seeks their protection. When we are exposed to pain and suffering, Jesus doesn’t walk out. He steps up, not because he wants any reward from us, but because he loves us. The shepherd doesn’t expect anything from the sheep, except to listen. To be attentive to the voice of the one who cares. There are many voices which can distract us – possibly the most destructive voice is the one inside our heads that tells us we are not good enough. That whisper which puts negative thoughts at the forefront of our minds, suppressing our self-esteem, telling us our bodies are not beautiful creations, ensuring embarrassing moments are not forgotten and that we risk new ridicule in our activities. That voice is powerful and when we give that voice oxygen it becomes the dominant narrative to our lives. Jesus offers us a different voice. He is saying, I know you better than you know yourselves, better than that voice inside you.
Jesus talks about the sheep not following the voice of a stranger. They only follow the voice of the one who knows them, the one who has taken time to get to know them. I am comforted by the idea that God has spent time paying attention to us, getting to know each of us by name and that this will last our whole lives. God doesn’t just dip in and out, rescuing us from harm and then disappearing.
And then of course, there’s the last verse in this reading: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. Fear was a way of life for many people living in the Roman-occupied land of Jesus. It was frequently violent, insecure and was especially difficult for anyone who didn’t fit in. In this discussion, Jesus is offering protection to the most vulnerable. But he isn’t just talking about the basic necessities. He’s speaking about abundance. He’s not just talking about existing – he’s talking about living and loving being alive. This is not survival. This is flourishing. And suddenly this passage is no longer about us filthy sinners requiring salvation because we are incapable of doing the right thing – this is about Jesus offering us salvation which is about pure joy. It has much less to do with Jesus thinking we are miserable sinners, and much more about Jesus thinking we are deserving of a wonderful life and he is the one who can show us how to live it.
One of the things I hadn’t noticed before about this passage is how Jesus doesn’t define abundant life. Just moments before, Jesus has healed a man born blind. For that man, abundant life is about release from dependency and poverty into freedom. Abundant life for the Samaritan woman at the well was about having her voice heard and an end to her shame. Abundant life for you might look different from abundant life for me. Because Jesus knows us each individually and calls us by our name. Our reading in Acts spoke of the important of community and Jesus talks from within the context of company, but that doesn’t mean we are all the same.
Abundant life is about stripping all that stops us from living the life God intends for us. Silencing the voice inside our heads that tells us we don’t deserve happiness. There is an invitation here, not just to listen to this word of God, but to live it. To embed it deeply within it so those words don’t remain words, but give our lives the meaning God desires. Because God desires us each to be living our best lives.
That’s all very well Rachel, you might be saying, but how on earth can we be living our best lives right now, when we are locked away prevented from seeing each other. Surely at best we are just waiting to live our lives full of abundance. How can we have lives full of abundance when we can’t even have abundant kitchen cupboards?
My challenge to you, which is the same for me, is to try and expand your vision of what abundant life looks like. So that means we’re not simply waiting to live until these lockdown restrictions are lifted, but to immerse ourselves into the joy of the salvation Jesus brings. Salvation and happiness and abundant life are not things in themselves to seek, but they are by-products of a life dedicated to following the Good Shepherd. The shepherd who knows us by name, who seeks good things for us, who doesn’t dip in and out, but is constant throughout our whole life journey. The shepherd who seeks out those who don’t fit in and tells them they belong, that in him they can find a home. Now that’s a voice I need to listen to today. Amen
Jesus, be the centre (Singing the Faith 447) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EG-l1kK-BpU
Following on from last week’s reflection on the Lord’s Prayer, here is Nadia Bolz-Weber’s reworking:
Our Father who art in heaven….. Our Father who art in everything…who art in orphanages and neonatal units, jail cells and luxury high-rises.
Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. We beg you to bring more than just a small measure of heaven to earth because this place is a mess. Lord, your people are killing each other and the vulnerable are even more vulnerable and the wealthy are even more wealthy and it’s hard to see a way out, Lord. So, we need your Kingdom to speed up.
Give us this day our daily bread. Give us this day our daily touch, our daily laughter, our daily kindness, our daily humility, our daily freedom.
Give your children their daily bread, their daily naan, their daily tortillas, their daily rice.
Forgive us when we hate what you love. Forgive us for the pride we exhibit in our political life together. Forgive us for how much we resent in others the same things we hate in ourselves.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Deliver us from the inclination that we too do not have evil in our hearts. Deliver us from addiction and depression. Deliver us from complacency. Deliver us from complicity.
As Jesus taught us, we are throwing this bag of prayers at your door.
Use these prayers to hammer us all into vessels that can accept the answer when it comes.
For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.
When we are living, we are in the Lord (Singing the Faith 485) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBb-xZEem9g
May the voice of the one who calls you by name
Be the voice you hear today and every day.
May the love of the one who calls you by name
Be the love that surrounds you today and every day.
May the peace of the one who calls you by name
Be the peace that frees you today and every day.
And may the blessing of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, be with you and with those you love. Amen.