Sunday 3rd May 2020
Welcome to this week's online service. Produced by Revd Mike Shrubsole
Today's Lectionary Verses
Acts 2:42–47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19–25; John 10:1–10
Another week passes. There is still no announcement for a planned release for our social lockdown and distancing. I’m not calling for one, I trust the medical science, I am thankful for a good government and welfare system. I can continue to learn to be patient. And even if a partial release is announced, it is unlikely to include support for public gatherings, so all the things which we do together which look like the church in action: worship, prayer meetings, clubs, societies, coffee mornings etc. these are likely to be amongst the last things released from restrictions. So I don’t expect a return to ‘normal’ to come to the church soon. In two of my church buildings FoodBank becomes more important, more stock is moved, new processes are implemented, social distancing for the generous volunteers is observed. Meanwhile the rest of us continue to learn how to be the church, united in Christ, but apart from one another. Learning how to do things together whilst still observing lockdown and social distancing. Please remember to pray for one another, phone someone up, write a letter or a greeting card. And I offer you another printed Sunday Service.
We begin with a great, old hymn which celebrates the God of creation and life.
Opening Hymn: 'Praise to the Lord'
1. Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise him, for he is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, brothers and sisters, draw near,
praise him in glad adoration.
2. Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
surely his goodness and mercy here daily attend thee:
ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
who with his love doth befriend thee.
3. Praise to the Lord, who doth nourish thy life and restore thee,
fitting thee well for the tasks that are ever before thee,
then to thy need he like a mother doth speed,
spreading the wings of grace o'er thee.
4. Praise to the Lord, who, when darkness of sin is abounding,
who, when the godless do triumph, all virtue confounding,
sheddeth his light, chaseth the horrors of night,
saints with his mercy surrounding.
5. Praise to the Lord! O let all that is in me adore him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before him!
Let the amen sound from his people again:
gladly for aye we adore him.
Words: Joachim Neander (1650-1680)
Loving God, in this time of prayer, we rest in your presence, giving thanks for all that speaks to us of you: for the blossoming of Spring - a sign of creation and re-creation; for the contact of friends and family – a reminder that you desire for us to relate; for volunteers, health workers, actions of love - all clues that point to hope and light in the darkness.
Your love is steadfast and faithful. Your hope and belief in us give us strength. Your Kingdom inspires us to live the way of Jesus.
Living God, who moulds us and shapes us, we confess when we fail to serve your purposes. Remake us we pray.
Merciful God, you make us new and set us free, you use our dents and cracks and breaks to your glory. We are resurrection people and cannot remain the same, therefore we accept your forgiveness and ask that you will fill us with courage to be all that you make us in these changed and challenging times.
The words of a simple hymn remind us that God’s people will always and everywhere be the church.
Hymn: The church is wherever God's people are praising
1. The Church is wherever God's people are praising,
singing their thanks for his goodness this day.
The Church is wherever disciples of Jesus
remember his story and walk in his way.
2. The Church is wherever God's people are helping,
caring for neighbours in sickness and need.
The Church is wherever God's people are sharing
the words of the Bible in gift and in deed.
Words: Carol R. Ikeler (1920- )
Prayer for Illumination
Holy Spirit, again and again you open the Scriptures to us, allowing us to hear your voice, bless us now as we listen for the Word read and proclaimed, that through it, our lives may be forever changed. Amen
Bible Reading: John 10:1-10 (NIV)
10 “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
A few years ago we held a church weekend at Sidmouth for people from Trinity United Church. We took the ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus as our theme for the weekend. The saying ‘I am the gate.’ is the least well known of all these sayings of Jesus. Preachers and writers of prayers and hymns quickly move on to the rest of chapter 10, where Jesus next says: ‘I am the good shepherd.’ The ‘good shepherd’ is much easier to talk about and sing about than the ‘gate’! It was just the same 2,000 years ago.
“Jesus used this figure of speech with them but they did not understand what he was saying to them” (John 10:6)
At the beginning of today’s gospel reading it sounds like Jesus is suggesting that he is the shepherd who enters the gate, unlike the thieves and bandits who hop the fence. The sheep, he says, listen to and follow the voice of the shepherd but run from the voice of strangers. But then later in today’s gospel Jesus says that he is the gate. So he is the shepherd who enters the gate and he is also the gate the shepherd enters? And then he says that we can enter him as a gate to abundant life? John, today’s gospel writer, clearly states that Jesus was using a “figure of speech.” That’s why this text, like so many of Jesus’ sayings and teachings, is difficult to understand, and that’s also the key to dealing with this text. This text cannot be taken literally. The figure of speech points beyond itself, in this case to abundant life.
Let’s start with abundant life. That, Jesus says, is why he came; that we might “have life, and have it abundantly.” What does that mean for you? Where is your life abundant? And in what ways is it less than abundant? Keep in mind, however, that abundance is not something we get. It’s not a noun, not a thing, you can’t show me an abundance. It has to be an abundance of something else. It’s a way of living and being.
The abundant life is not about quantity, wealth, success, approval, popularity, security, being number one, or any of the other things we often think it is. How many times have you got exactly what you wanted, been what others said you should be, or done what was encouraged and rewarded by society only to discover your own emptiness and poverty? You had it all but you were not abundant. No, the abundant life is touching and living the divine life. It’s a quality not a quantity. It’s about meaning, integrity, purpose, creativity, relationship, and wholeness. It’s impressive, admirable, awesome, beyond expectations, and for all the good reasons. The abundant life adds to the life of others and the world. It’s life that leads to life, love that leads to love, joy that leads to joy, hope that leads to hope, kindness that leads to kindness, generosity that leads to generosity, beauty that leads to beauty, and gratitude that leads to gratitude. It does not add to the pain of the world but adds to and enhances life, our own as well as others.
Isn’t that what we really want? Isn’t that what we want for ourselves and for each other? I do? Don’t you? I want us to follow the shepherd into the pasture of abundance. How will you guard your heart against the thieves and bandits of an abundant life? The abundant life is always a matter of the heart.
We do not have to make these decisions alone or in isolation. Jesus said, “I am the gate.” He is the gate that opens and leads to the pastures of abundant life. We open or close in collaboration with Jesus. “The sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice.”
If we are feeling vulnerable, threatened and longing for security, all we see are walls, barriers, boundaries, and separation. That’s what a fence with a gate is, right? But that is not what Jesus is talking about when he says, “I am the gate.” He’s not trying to keep people out, or even allow “us” to stay safely in. Nor is he trying to make us feel like we’re not good enough to be let in, or that we should simply join the insiders inside the sheepfold.
Stop and think for a moment. What is the purpose of the gate? It is precisely to create an opening in the fence. It is precisely to allow travel through the wall. It is a means of liberation, not a means of exclusion. When Jesus says, “I am the gate,” it is his way of inviting us both in and out. He is telling us that he is our way to safety, to entering a restful place where we know we are loved and protected. But he is also telling us that we will need to go back out through that gate into the world. It is his invitation to leave safety and security and go back out into a world of challenges and stumbling blocks.
We might expect that of Jesus—that he would tell us that we are safe but that there is more to life than safety. We could understand that he does promise us sanctuary, but he also expects us to go back out and do the good work we are called to do, knowing that it may sometimes end with us feeling battered and bruised.
But where Jesus really gets subversive is when he calls himself the gate. He’s not just saying, “There is a gate in all your carefully constructed, self-isolating walls.” He’s saying, “I am the gate in all your carefully constructed, self-isolating walls.” It’s this stealthy undermining means of salvation that is utterly brilliant. And through all those careful walls we’ve placed between ourselves and others, Jesus is the gate. He’s made himself an entrance into our hardened hearts, Jesus is the gate, Jesus is the entry point into all change, depth, struggle, and love, it’s simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. As the saying goes, “God loves us exactly as we are, and God loves us far too much to leave us that way.”
Louise’s brother has owned border collie dogs for many years. He currently owns two dogs which were both rescued. One of them is a delightful brown colour, he called her Kelp because she is exactly the same colour as the big fronds of seaweed found on his local beaches. As a pup and young dog Kelp must have been confined to a small pen by her previous owner. When John first took her for a long walk in the countryside, or along a wide deserted beach, if John stopped for a moment Kelp would immediately start turning in tight circles, her imprinted confinement would reappear, even though she was surrounded by miles of open space. Gradually Kelp learnt to walk and run free and straight, but if she was ever stressed or bored for a moment, the circling would return. The wire pen may not physically exist, but the mental constraint is still there, difficult for Kelp to ever fully escape.
On a good day, when we’re feeling confident and happy in God’s love, seeing the glory of God’s people and God’s creation all around us, gray is beautiful. We set aside the comforting security of black and white thinking and dive into the shadowland between. Gray is possibility, opportunity, the treasure hidden in the field. We can handle and even appreciate nuance, subtlety, ambiguity, and the uncertainty that is the foundational characteristic of faith. But when we are hurting, weary, afraid, not only can we no longer see the shades of gray, we no longer want to. We are the dog who carries the pen with him out into the open countryside. We think we’re keeping ourselves safe, we think we’re obeying the rules, but really, we’re our own jailers. We’re refusing to see the open gate in our hearts. We’re refusing to see Jesus.
But we know Jesus is patient with our wilful blindness. He says to all of us, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Sometimes we wish there were no gate. Sometimes we wish the barriers and boundaries we’ve placed around our hearts were bulletproof and siege-resistant. But before long, God reminds us that that aching hole in our hearts, where insight and possibility and all of these people, beautiful, flawed people, keep sneaking in—that is the very presence of Jesus who brings us to rest in green pastures, beside the still waters.
Saint Julian of Norwich lived in Norwich all her life, probably from 1342-1416. She lived in a time of great plagues, she had much to fear. Her life line is like this:
1349-52 Aged 6 For three years the Black Death plague infested Norwich and the whole of Europe. Three quarters of the population of that small, compact city died.
1361 Aged 19 The plague returned. It now did so approximately every 10 years for the next 300 years, finally fading away in Europe in 1667.
1368 Aged 26 The plague returned.
1372 Aged 30 Julian was gravely ill, probably not from plague. She had a near-death experience and received detailed visions of Jesus which shaped the whole of the rest of her life.
1394 Aged 52 Julian chose to retreat into isolation as an Anchoress. She wanted to meditate fully on her visions, and write about them. People began to visit her in her Anchorage to ask for guidance and prayer.
1416 Aged 74 Last known record that she was still alive, she probably dies soon after.
So, in the life of Julian we see parallels with our own present day situation. Firstly, her experiences of death around her. Secondly, her decision to withdraw from open society, yet still find that society came to her, perhaps in ever greater numbers! And thirdly, the comfort and assurance she received, that in the face of adversity Jesus was there for her to reassure her of his love for the world he made. In her vision, Julian records that Jesus said to her: “I may take all things well; I can make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well.” This is one of Julian’s most famous teachings.
I end by combining the lectionary set psalm for this Sunday with the assurance from Julian of Norwich:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
All shall be well.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
All shall be well.
He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.
All shall be well.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
All shall be well.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
All shall be well.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Every manner of thing shall be well.
The chorus of Stuart Townend’s version of the 23rd psalm focuses our thoughts on a shepherd in whom we can trust.
Song: The Lord’s my shepherd (and I will trust in you alone)
1.The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want;
he makes me lie in pastures green,
he leads me by the still, still waters,
his goodness restores my soul.
And I will trust in you alone,
and I will trust in you alone,
for your endless mercy follows me,
your goodness will lead me home.
2. He guides my ways in righteousness,
and he anoints my head with oil;
and my cup - it overflows with joy,
I feast on his pure delights.
3. And though I walk the darkest path
I will not fear the evil one,
for you are with me, and your rod and staff
are the comfort I need to know.
Words: Stuart Townend (b. 1963)
A Prayer for the Coronavirus Pandemic in 20 Petitions
We believe there is a God who bends his ear to listen, and so we pray:
1. For the sick and infected: God, heal and help. Sustain bodies and spirits. Contain the spread of infection.
2. For our vulnerable populations: God, protect our elderly and those suffering from chronic disease. Provide for the poor, especially the uninsured and the poorest around the world.
3. For the young and the strong: God, give them the necessary caution to keep them from unwittingly spreading this disease. Inspire them to help.
4. For our local and national governments: God, help our elected officials as they allocate the necessary resources for combatting this pandemic. Help them to provide more tests.
5. For our scientific community, leading the charge to understand the disease and communicate its gravity: God, give them knowledge, wisdom, and a persuasive voice.
6. For the media, committed to providing up-to-date information: God, help them to communicate with appropriate seriousness without causing panic.
7. For consumers of media, looking to be well-informed: God, help us find the most helpful local information to equip us to be good neighbours. Keep us from anxiety and panic, and enable us to implement the recommended strategies, even at a cost to ourselves.
8. For those with mental health challenges who feel isolated, anxious, and helpless: God, provide them every necessary support.
9. For the homeless, unable to practice the protocols of social distancing in the shelter system: Protect them from disease, and provide isolation shelters in every city.
10. For international travellers stuck in foreign countries: God, help them return home safely and quickly.
11. For Christian missionaries throughout the world, especially in areas with high rates of infection: God, provide them with words of hope, and equip them to love and serve those around them.
12. For workers in a variety of industries facing layoffs, furloughs and financial hardship: God, keep them from panic, and inspire your church to generously support them.
13. For families with young children at home for the foreseeable future: God, help mothers and fathers to partner together creatively for the care and flourishing of their children. For single mothers and fathers, grow their networks of support.
14. For parents who cannot stay home from work but must find care for their children: God, present them with creative solutions.
15. For those in need of regular therapies and treatments that must now be postponed: God, help them to stay patient and positive.
16. For business leaders making difficult decisions that affect the lives of their employees: God, give these women and men wisdom, and help them to lead self-sacrificially.
17. For pastors and church leaders faced with the challenges of social distancing: God, help them to creatively imagine how to pastor their congregations and love their communities well.
18. For college and university students, whose courses of study are changing, whose placements are cancelled, whose graduation is uncertain: God, show them that while life is uncertain, their trust is in you.
19. For Christians in every neighbourhood, community, and city: May your Holy Spirit inspire us to pray, to give, to love, to serve, and to proclaim the gospel, that the name of Jesus Christ might be glorified around the world.
20. For frontline health care workers, we thank you for their vocational call to serve us. We specially pray:
God, keep them safe and healthy. Keep their families safe and healthy.
God, help them to be knowledgeable about the diagnosis and treatment of this disease, as well as the changing protocols.
God, help them to stay clear-minded in the midst of the surrounding panic.
God, deliver them from anxiety for their own loved ones (ageing parents, children, spouses, roommates).
God, give them compassion for every patient in their care.
God, provide for them financially, especially if they fall ill and are unable to work.
God, help Christians in health care to exhibit extraordinary peace, so that many would ask about the reason for their hope. Give them opportunities to proclaim the gospel.
God, we trust that you are good and do good. Teach us to be your faithful people in this time of global crisis. Help us to follow in the footsteps of our faithful shepherd, Jesus, who laid down his life for the sake of love. Glorify his name as you equip us with everything needed for doing your will. Amen.
The final song I have chosen is a new, lively one. It avoids the idea that abundant life is only beyond the ‘pearly gates’ and enthusiastically celebrates an abundant life that can be ours now.
Closing Song: New Life (SOF6 2983)
New life, in Jesus Christ,
New life, the abundant life,
New life, walking in the Spirit
Gives life, life, life. (Repeat)
1. This is the day that the Lord has made,
I will rejoice and now be glad in it.
My eyes are open, in You I hope;
In Jesus you’ve made everything brand new.
2. No condemnation to those in Christ;
The former things they now have passed away.
It's the beginning, that's why we're singing:
We're living for a brand new day.
3. We are the song that heaven sings;
A generation, born to bless the King.
His word is spoken, we are chosen,
To shine His light, bring His Kingdom here.
4. Old things have passed away,
All things have been made new today.
Old things have passed away
In You, I'm new.
5. We are the song that heaven sings;
A generation, born to bless the King.
His word is spoken, we are chosen,
To shine His light, bring His Kingdom here.
Words: Noel Robinson & Ian Green
God of love and light,
In this time of fear, give us your peace.
In this time of isolation, give us your presence.
In this time of sickness, give us your healing.
In this time of uncertainty, give us your wisdom.
In this time of darkness, shine your light upon us all.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Thank you for worshipping with us!
Revd Mike Shrubsole 03/04/2020
I acknowledge that I have cut and pasted, re-written and adapted prayers, sermon ideas, pictures and videos which were freely available on the web. I make no attempt to claim any personal copyright for any content here. Any re-writing which I have done, or original content of mine, I also now make freely available to others.