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Sunday Service, 3rd May 2020

Opening prayer

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary.

He gives power to the faint, and strength to the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40: 28–31

Come Lord Jesus, you blessed the children and dined with outcasts, spared the sinner and forgave the offender; speak to us through your word. We long for a sense of your presence especially during our absence from each other.

Come Lord Jesus, you humbled the proud and exalted the humble, proclaimed the good news to the poor and release to the captives; speak to us again of justice. We long for our world to be changed.

Come Lord Jesus, you faced the torture of oppressors and died abandoned on the cross; the suffering of many surrounds us today. We long to meet you in our pain, as you identify with us having experienced darkness and loneliness yourself.

Come Lord Jesus, you left the tomb empty and promised us the spirit; speak to us of new life, light at the end of our dark tunnel. We trust you for our future, for the dawning of a new day.

Lord, we miss each other’s company, the excitement of meeting together and sharing the peace. May your presence be just as real in the quietness of our homes, as it is in our worship together. Speak to us, encourage us, challenge us through your Word, equip us for the living of our lives in these difficult days, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Suggested Hymn – 485, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. Listen here.

Readings

Psalm 23 (NRSV)

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff –
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

John 10: 116 (NRSV)

‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.’

‘I am the good shepherd’: Sermon by Rev. Robert Gemmell

On a number of occasions during the years I was involved in Social Work we spent the Easter weekend across on the island of Colonsay, enjoying a holiday and leading the worship in the Baptist Church.

On arriving on the island and before making our way across to the manse, we would call in to visit our friends Alasdair and Eleanor McNeill. Something that will be forever etched in my mind is the two of them caring for and feeding a newborn lamb or on one occasion a newborn calf, in their kitchen. Alasdair was a shepherd/farmer, a giant of a man, and yet one of the gentlest human beings that I have ever known.

Every time I read Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, the image of Alasdair, a good and caring shepherd, comes to mind.

Tom Wright in his commentary of John’s Gospel describes the role of the shepherd in Biblical times and the background against which Jesus delivered the parable of the Good Shepherd. He says: “Those of us who don’t have much to do with the bird and animal kingdoms on a daily basis are often startled at just how much animals can distinguish between people, as well as between other members of their own species. To this day in the Middle East a shepherd will go into a crowded sheepfold and call out his own sheep one by one, naming them. They will recognise his voice and come to him. The shepherd, after all, spends most hours of most days in their company. He knows their individual characters, markings, likes and dislikes. What’s more, they know him. They know his voice. When they hear it, he won’t need a sheep dog to keep them in order. He won’t walk behind them, driving them on. He will walk ahead, calling them and they will follow him.”

As we consider the parable as recorded by John and lay it alongside the background information available to us, what does it tell us about Jesus and his relationship with us as individuals? For me, a number of factors emerge.

First of all, it reminds me of his call to us to follow him and our response to that call. Called but not coerced. Like the shepherd of old he calls us by name to follow him. He leads from the front, the choice of whether or not to follow is ours.

Secondly, the parable portrays the caring and sacrificial nature of the Good Shepherd. To satisfy the inquisitive minds and lack of understanding of his audience, Jesus describes himself as: “The gate for the sheep”. The custom of the time was for the shepherd, during the hours of darkness, to lie down in the gateway of the sheep fold, thus preventing any of the sheep from escaping or straying away, and at the same time acting as their protector against any predator. It’s a reminder that in Jesus we have a shepherd who not only protects us from ourselves but also from dangers outwith our control. Do you remember the promise recorded by the Psalmist? “The Lord will guard you; he is by your side to protect you … The Lord will protect you from all danger; he will keep you safe. He will protect you as you come and go now and forever.” (Psalm 121)

The good shepherd is there to protect his flock, there to care in every practical way possible for the well-being of that flock. I wonder if our Lord had in mind the words of the 23rd Psalm when he referred to himself as the Good Shepherd, the one who leads his sheep to rest in fields of green grass and to quiet pools of fresh water, who is there to guide them through the deepest darkness.

There is one sentence within today’s New Testament passage that I have found particularly challenging living in the midst of the present pandemic: “I have come in order that you might have life – life in all its fullness.”

Are we in any way able to live life to the full at the present time, cut off as we are from almost all social contact, cut off from our families, from our circle of friends, from our church family? Can we experience the fullness of life amidst the uncertainty that surrounds us? Can those who have lost their jobs, their businesses, be said to be living life to the full? Can those who have prematurely lost loved ones to this virus identify with this particular promise of Jesus and testify that they are indeed enjoying the fullness of life promised?

It would be so easy to reply using all kind of religious and meaningless clichés, but they would be clichés which would add to the pain and suffering, the confusion being experienced by all of us, and acutely by many.

Is there a word of hope, a word of encouragement from the Lord, from Scripture that we can reasonably cling to today?

I think the Lord would remind us of his powerful promise recorded in the final words of Matthew’s Gospel: “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”

I like to imagine our Lord adding: “Looking back to the cross, to the physical and emotional suffering, to the loneliness, the feeling of being utterly forsaken, I couldn’t and wouldn’t describe that experience as one in which I enjoyed ‘fullness of life’. But having come through that particular valley I can identify with your present lot. I understand your pain, your questioning. But never forget the bottom line – I am with you.”

Leaving my flight of imagination behind, I would add the encouraging words of the Apostle Paul from his Epistle to the Romans. They are words spoken by one who experienced the darker side of life on many an occasion: “Who can separate us from the love of God? Can trouble do, or hardship … No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us.”

Fullness of life may temporarily be beyond our reach and may continue to be so for some time to come but, in the midst of it all, cling to our Lord’s promise to be with us in all things and to the end of the age.

While this passage from John’s Gospel proclaims that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we find the same imagery used in the final chapter of the Gospel. On this occasion, however, Jesus is not referring to himself as the shepherd. Here we find him using the term in his commissioning of Peter for future ministry: “Take care of my sheep” (John 21:16).

I don’t think I am out of order in suggesting that while the words above referred to Peter’s immediate call to future ministry I think they can also be taken as a personal challenge, not only to those called to a ministry of Word and Sacrament, but to all of us.

I suggest that most of us, if not all of us, at one time or another have found ourselves caring for others, acting as “shepherd”, friend, soul-mate, in a family, church, community setting. As we exercise our various ministries and acts of kindness, we have the opportunity of caring sensitively for each other, and on occasions going that extra mile. Feed and care and when necessary protect our brothers and sisters.

As I sit at my desk I find my mind wandering back to the gentle giant of the shepherd on Colonsay. By way of contrast to Alasdair’s loving and caring nature, his gentle approach to folks and to his flock, I also recall on one occasion sitting outside the manse overlooking Loch Fada on a still and beautiful summer’s morning. Suddenly the tranquillity was shattered by the roaring voice of another shepherd shouting and cursing at the sheep he was attempting to herd together across the other side of the loch. Quite a contrast to my earlier Easter experience.

While many of us still have the image of shepherds as I have described them, the reality is that most of them can be found speeding across a field on a quad bike rather than lying down across the door of a sheep fold of an evening. Another adjustment I need to make is the fact that many of our present-day shepherds are women! That’s something that has come through to me watching one of my favourite television programmes, Countryfile. Some things never change, however. Shepherds are still, on the whole, gentle caring individuals. That’s the call to each of us from the Good Shepherd himself and he is beside us in good times and bad to help us respond to it.

Suggested Hymn – 462. The King of Love my Shepherd Is. Listen here.

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession

Lord, You are our shepherd. We thank You that You give us what we need. That You offer us rest and refreshment through Your Word. That You keep us on the straight and narrow when we are prone to stray. We thank You that those times when we are afraid, we can trust that You watch out for us.

Lord, there are many who cannot enjoy the beauty and mystery of creation. There are many who yearn for rest in lives which are restless and hard. There are many suffering from both physical and mental illness that the global pandemic has brought. There are many who struggle to find the right path because life has taken them a different, difficult route. There are many who are fearful for themselves and for others. We think of those in broken relationships, those who are afraid of the future and of being themselves. There are many who we walk alongside in their pain and suffering, their joy and hope.

Lord God, shepherd all Your people on their different journeys with their different joys and struggles. Remind them that all are honoured guests at Your table and that all may find a home in You. Lavish them with Your goodness and love so that they might know that in You they have everything they need. In Jesus’ name we pray.

Amen.

With thanks to Rev Tina Kemp, Minister of Helensburgh with Rhu and Shandon

Blessing