April 25, 2021

Sunday worship, Easter 4, April 25, 2021

Posted by FirstPresbyterian Regina on Sunday, April 25, 2021

Psalm 23
John 10:11-18

“Known and Loved”

Did you know that some people are calling us “sheeple”? You know, people who are like sheep – docile, compliant, or easily influenced; following the crowd rather than making their own decisions.

Some people who don’t believe that the Covid-19 Pandemic is real or that it’s serious are calling us “sheeple” for wearing masks, staying home, getting vaccinated, and obediently following the public health orders.

Well, if that’s what it means to be sheeple, I’m happy to be part of the flock who are trusting the science and the fact that our public health authorities are doing their utmost to guide us in the right directions.

Certainly, politics comes into it also. Just the other day, we saw the Leader of the Opposition in Saskatchewan accusing the Premier of making poor decisions that are killing people in our province – trying to keep a “balance” between business and health has been leading to more deaths, he argued, and to a more severe and protracted third wave in our province.

No matter who you agree with, what is clear is that the decisions are complex and difficult to make. We’re fortunate to have leaders who are doing their best to protect and care for the people, and our collective cooperation is definitely required to get us through this.

So, I’m okay if a few anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers want to call the rest of us sheeple. After all, I’m a Christian, and I’m quite used to thinking about myself as a sheep of the good shepherd. Not a stupid, blind, thoughtless animal who is led astray by anything and everything, but a listening and trusting one who recognizes and follows the shepherd’s voice, and finds safety, nourishment, and peace.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and we’ve already heard quite a bit in Scripture and music about the gift of being the precious and beloved sheep of the good shepherd who is Jesus, our Lord.

Technically, the Greek word used there has more of the sense of “true” shepherd or “real, authentic” shepherd.  Whereas we might be inclined to question the motives or the competence of some of our human leaders, Jesus claims to be the real, true shepherd.

He’s not doing the job like a hired hand who is mostly there for the sake of the pay cheque. And unlike the hired hand, he’s fully committed. These sheep belong to him and he loves each and every one of them. When danger strikes, he doesn’t run to save his own life. He’s there to protect and help them through, no matter the risk to himself.

This morning we are thankful for Adria and Bill sharing that beautiful rendition of “He shall feed his flock” from Handel’s Messiah. As we listened, I expect that it brought to mind lovely images of pastoral landscapes with rolling hills and happily wandering sheep, with a kindly shepherd lovingly watching over them.

Those were the kinds of pictures that came up when I searched for an appropriate image for my “Good Shepherd Sunday” email the other day. The flock is secure, well-fed, and well guarded. Any wandering ones have been located, hoisted onto the shoulders of a strong shepherd, and a sense of peace and contentedness pervades the scene.

I doubt that any real shepherds would describe their daily labour in such a gentle and idyllic way, but it is a compelling picture for us to see ourselves as part of that happy flock, enjoying the care and protection of our Lord, and the regular routines of life together.

Unfortunately, we haven’t experienced much “life together” in over a year. My mind keeps going back to the memory of our congregation gathered together at the front of the church for a group picture on our 95th Anniversary – a flock gathered to celebrate and rejoice, giving thanks for the shepherd’s faithfulness to us over nearly a century.

But the pandemic has scattered us, as it has scattered almost every community of faith, every family, and every circle of support around the globe.

Just think of that parable that Jesus told about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in the fold to go out searching for the one that is lost. That always made sense to me when I thought of a congregation gathered together, and how God’s care (and my care as a pastor) should go especially to the one who is not in the building.

Following Jesus’ example as the good shepherd means being fully committed, not just to the flock as a whole, but to each and every individual sheep. Knowing each one, loving each one, and going the extra mile to search out the one who is lost.

I came across this little video on social media recently. Maybe you saw it also – a determined shepherd doing everything necessary to get that one wandering sheep who keeps getting himself into tight spots. (show the video)

You know that the shepherd is not going to give up, right? He’ll follow after that sheep and pull him out of the ditch again and again, as many times as it may take.

The good news of the Gospel today is that if you are a sheep of the good shepherd, Jesus knows you and cares about you as deeply and firmly as that. If you’re feeling lost or alone during these difficult times, or if you keep running off and falling into ditches, the Lord is coming after you to pull you out.

As the author of Psalm 23 – the first one to imagine the Lord as our shepherd – wrote, “goodness and mercy will follow after you,” maybe even “chase” after you, “all the days of you life, so that you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

But, of course, the question arises… How is Jesus going to go and get that lost sheep today? How is Jesus going to give guidance to someone who is looking for nourishment and meaning in all the wrong places? How is Jesus going to help someone who is sick, or injured, or in physical need? How is Jesus going to comfort and encourage someone who is lonely, grieving, or despairing?

Certainly, by faith we do sometimes experience God’s comforting presence by the gift of the Holy Spirit. And yes, Christ speaks to us through the Scriptures to guide us to right paths as we make decisions throughout our lives.

But it is Christ’s body on earth today – it is the church – that is called and equipped to search out the lost, bind up the wounded, feed the hungry, and comfort the despairing. I am reminded of the famous quote from St. Teresa of Avila. She wrote:

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
Yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes,
You are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Pre-pandemic, ministers and elders and many others in the church knew that we had the job of looking out for the lost sheep of our particular fold. When the congregation gathered, we tried to notice who wasn’t there. We asked, “What has led to their absence?” A crisis of faith? A conflict in the community? An illness or struggle in the family? We certainly weren’t perfect at searching out the lost ones, but it was something that we knew was important.

But now, who even knows who is with us for worship or who is struggling with faith or life in these days? It is hard to know if some of the sheep are lost or alone. It is difficult to identify whether some are struggling to find nourishment, or whether one desperately needs help to get unstuck from a ditch.

If you are watching this or reading this, and you’re thinking, “That sounds like me right now,” please do reach out to me, or to your elder, or to another member of our congregation. Know that you are precious to us, and we want to be faithful to our mission to embody Jesus’ love and care and shepherding goodness in the world today. We may be more scattered and dispersed than ever, but we are still the flock, and our particular fold would not be the same without you.

One of the things that I noticed this week about the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is that they know each other really well. The shepherd knows each one of the sheep, and loves them deeply. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and trust him enough to follow.

I think that especially in this time of pandemic and dispersed community, we need to keep working on that knowing one another. So, I want to really encourage you to get to know others in our church community, and let them get to know you.

If you haven’t yet, consider joining in some of our online gatherings for fellowship or Bible study. If you’re watching worship online, let us know you’re here by adding a comment, a greeting, or a reflection on what we are sharing in our worship. If you have some time to call someone else in the church community, reach out and connect just to express care for another sheep of the shepherd.

Today, when we get together for “Coffee Hour” on Zoom, I’m going to invite people to share (as they are comfortable) something that others may not already know about them. I hope you’ll be able to join in so that we can get to know each other more.

There’s one last thing that I want to point out about today’s passage that I think is so important. After talking about the intimate relationship of knowledge and love between the shepherd and the sheep of his fold, Jesus mentions that there are “other sheep” too, ones that do not belong to this fold. And Jesus says that he is committed to gathering them also, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd.

Often, when I read that part, I think of the other congregations and other churches of Christianity, or even of other faith groups that are just as precious to God as we are. But this week I thought of all the individual wandering sheep. Not the people who used to come to our church when we were gathering here in-person for worship, fellowship, formation, and service. Not even the people who grew up here and then moved away, or came here a few times and then wandered off.

I’m thinking of all the disconnected ones, people with no community of faith and care, with no people to embody the love of the good shepherd for them, with no fellow-sheep or assistant shepherds who want to know them and love them, who will notice when they are struggling and will go searching for them.

If you are one of those hearing this now, please know that you are welcome here, and we are looking forward to meeting you and knowing you also. Even during this time of pandemic when we can’t worship together in-person, we have learned that we can still care for one another, get to know each other, and build relationships of care and community.

Friends, let’s give thanks for our good shepherd, Jesus, today. Let’s embrace our identity as the sheep who are known and loved. And together, let’s be the body of Christ in the world – gathering the flock for the good of all.