The current pandemic and the recent killings in Nova Scotia have reminded us that we are vulnerable beings in need of care and protection. As a caring shepherd provides for beloved sheep, so God cares for us. We are not left alone to our own devices in our time of need.
Call to Worship
By Karla Stoltzfus Detweiler, CommonWord
Come, let us worship!
The Lord is our Shepherd,
we have all we need.
Come, the gate is open
Let us enter and find nourishment and rest.
Our Shepherd invites us
to lie down in green pastures,
to drink deeply from still waters.
Come! Follow the One who offers life to the full.
Let us listen and follow the voice
of the One who loves us.
Let us share God’s abundance
with glad and generous hearts!
Gentle Shepherd, in these days of “sheltering in place,” we long for your green pastures and still water. In these days of “social distancing,” we fear walking our dark valleys alone. Our “new normal” has introduced unwelcome enemies into our routines. Gather us, even virtually, to your common table. Feed us with your daily provision. Anoint us with grace. Encourage us with goodness and mercy, all our days. We give thanks for your shepherding presence, even now. And for your promise that we will be together, with you, forever. Amen.
Image © from Home book by Judith Rempel Smucker, used by permission.
Song Gentle Shepherd, come and lead us Blue 352
Affirmation of Faith
Adapted from a statement by Bruce D. Prewer
We believe we need a shepherd.
Because we are sometimes timid and other times overconfident,
Because we don’t know the best path yet pretend we do,
Because we rush into dead ends or lead others into hazardous places,
Because the things we crave may not be what is good for us.
We need a shepherd.
We believe in Jesus, the best possible shepherd.
His wisdom leads us to life-giving opportunities,
His word comforts us
when we’re anxious or afraid,
His arm steadies us when we feel
weary and heavy-laden,
His wounded body displays
his deep costly love for us.
We believe in Jesus,
the best possible shepherd.
Who by grace, finds us,
And treasures us by name.
That we might rest,
and be released to love
and live more fully.
We trust Jesus,
the good Shepherd.
Image © from Home book by Judith Rempel Smucker, used by permission.
Singing Psalm 23 The Lord’s my Shepherd Blue 578
Reading John 10:1-15
This is God’s word to the people.
Thanks be to God.
By Mary Petrina Boyd, Ministry Matters
you abide with us;
you provide for all our needs
and guide us in your ways.
Out of gratitude for your care,
we bring our gifts before you.
Use them for your work of caring,
that all may feast at the table of abundance,
walk without fear,
and drink deeply
from the cup of compassion. Amen.
Message: “A Good Shepherd In A Vulnerable Time”
I don’t know how many of you have ever spent time with sheep – I mean, more than a petting farm. Maybe some of you have raised sheep, but most of us haven’t had that experience.
Because we don’t know sheep well, most of us are stuck with our stereotypes. We might think little lambs are cute and cuddly, but for the most part we think sheep are dumb and easily frightened, they blindly follow their leaders, and with blank looks on their faces they all say “baa, baa.”
My brother and his family spent some time in New Zealand, where there are more sheep than people, and he told me about one of their experiences. They were driving on a road through the countryside and when they came over a hill there were sheep on the road in front of them, because the shepherd was trying to move them from one field to another. Seeing the car, the sheep all ran toward the field they had come from. But the gate to that field had already been closed, and one after another the sheep ran headlong into the gate, bounced off, rolled over, and the next one did the same. That’s what sheep are like.
Because those are our impressions of sheep, most of us would be insulted if somebody called us a sheep. And it would probably be intended as an insult.
In today’s gospel reading, from John 10, Jesus talks about sheep-rearing and shepherds. He talks about the fold or pen that sheep stay in at night to keep them safe from predators and thieves. He points out that a rustler or thief might try to climb over the wall of the pen to steal a sheep. And he says that a hired hand, who is looking after someone else’s sheep just as a job, they will abandon the sheep to save their own skin if any predator comes along.
John Michael Talbot wrote a song about this passage, and he included this very evocative line: “some of the shepherds have pastured themselves on their sheep.” [Click to listen.]
You know, of course, that he was talking about religious leaders who fail to care properly for those entrusted to them. The title “pastor” is the Latin word for “shepherd.” And, sad to say, some of those have “pastured themselves on their sheep.” Or, as others have said, they fleece their sheep in every sense.
And it’s not only religious leaders who sometimes do that. In the Bible, civic leaders, even kings, were also called shepherds. And while some of them cared well for their sheep, others, whom the Bible sometimes calls “false shepherds,” caused great harm. And that’s still the case.
That’s what Jesus was warning about – those, he says, who “have come to steal and kill and destroy.” In contrast he said of himself, “I am the good shepherd.” The good shepherd loves the sheep and wants them to have the best possible life and is willing even to die for them. Jesus says of himself, “I came that [my sheep] may have life, and have it abundantly,” and “I lay down my life for my sheep.”
Jesus was talking from the perspective of a shepherd. And when we turn to today’s psalm we hear about the same relationship from the experience of the sheep. That is, from our perspective. What stands out for me in reading Psalm 23 is the way it uses sheep metaphors to express vulnerability and trust – the vulnerability of a sheep, and its trust in the shepherd
Maybe you don’t like thinking about vulnerability. Most people don’t.
But frankly, we have been hit over the head with awareness of our vulnerability these past few months. This pandemic has reminded us that our life and health and finances are all susceptible to viruses, to the dictates of governments, and to the panic of global markets. A couple of weeks ago, the killing of twenty-two people in Nova Scotia reminded us that we cannot fully protect ourselves against people driven by evil intentions or untreated mental illness or terrorist passions. This year we have been largely spared from flooding in Manitoba, but the images from Fort McMurray remind us of past floods here and our vulnerability to the forces of nature. And besides those global issues many of us have things going on in our personal lives that we can’t control. We are, whether we like it or not, vulnerable.
When I think of vulnerability, I think of Brené Brown. You may have seen her TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” [click to view]. I highly recommend it – as well as several other talks that you can find on YouTube and elsewhere by Brené Brown talking about vulnerability and shame.
Brown talks about the value of recognizing and owning our vulnerability. She says that “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection” with other people and with our own life. She says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives,” she says, “vulnerability is the path.”
So do you think we could own the fact of our vulnerability and acknowledge that we need to be looked after and cared for? Do you think we could accept that we need a guide, a protector, in short, a shepherd to get us through our vulnerabilities? And especially that we need a good shepherd?
Listen to what Psalm 23 says: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Or as the New Living Translation says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need.”
And then it goes on to list many ways that the Lord, the good shepherd, provides all that we need. It talks about food in good pastures and refreshing water from peaceful streams. It talks about security and trust that makes it possible to lie down and rest. It talks about
being led in the right paths when we’re confused about what to do, and it says that even in the darkest of valleys – perhaps even the dark valley of death – we are not alone.
Again, I’m reminded of some things that Brené Brown says about those dark valleys. She says, “I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort,’ but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.’” And, “faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.”
The psalm says we don’t need to be afraid in the dark valleys, because our good shepherd is with us. We take comfort from the shepherd’s protection.
There’s one word of encouragement in verse 3 that especially catches my attention. It’s the line that says, in familiar translations, “he restores my soul,” but is perhaps better translated as “he restores my life,” or maybe as “he renews my strength.”
Phillip Keller was a sheep farmer and pastor who wrote a book called “A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm” [click for free download]. He says this refers to a sheep that is at risk of death because it has fallen onto its back. The word for this is a “cast” sheep, or “cast down.”
A "cast down" sheep cannot get back onto its feet and will die unless rescued by the shepherd
I’ve seen this myself. Yvonne and I were walking one day on a path through farming country, and we came upon a flock of sheep. One of the sheep was lying on her back, kicking in the air, looking very uncomfortable. We don’t know anything about caring for sheep, so we went to the farm, found the farmer and reported the situation.
Phillip Keller says that this is a thing that happens commonly. A sheep, particularly a heavy one, lies down for a rest, maybe in a small depression in the pasture, and somehow rolls too far. She can’t get a foothold to get back on her feet. She kicks helplessly, and the effort causes a build-up of gasses that eventually will kill her. The only way she can be saved is if the shepherd rolls her over, helps her get onto her feet, and maybe supports her for a while until she is able to walk on her own.
The image of that cast down sheep seems to me to represent how many people are feeling these days. We’ve fallen and we can’t get up. We need someone to help us. Just a nudge to get our feet on the ground may be enough, or maybe we need some support to stand a while before we can go on.
I’ve been moved and encouraged by the many ways that people have been looking after each other in this time of crisis. That’s great.
But honestly, there’s a limit to how much one sheep can help another. At some point we need a shepherd to come to our side and restore our life, renew our strength. A good shepherd. One who cares deeply for us and knows our needs, who wants us to live abundant life. One who is willing even to die for us.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.…
“My cup overflows with blessings.
“Surely [God’s] goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”
Song Go in Peace
Camps with Meaning
May goodness and mercy
overflow to the world around us
by the grace of Christ, our Shepherd.
Image © from Home book by Judith Rempel Smucker used by permission.
Speaker: Dan Nighswander
Worship leader: Arlyn Friesen Epp
Sheep Visuals: Judith Rempel Smucker