Welcome to worship for this 4th Sunday of Easter, aka Good Shepherd Sunday, landing on April 30, 2023!
The bulletin for this service can be found here. No surprises this week, the bulletin will have the usual order and words of the liturgy with your responses in bold, the page numbers for the liturgical music from the Now the Feast setting in the Hymnal Supplement (1991), the hymn numbers out of the ELW, and the full sermon manuscript. The words that you need to know will be on your screen, and the sermon can be found below the worship video.
To enhance your worship experience online, you may have a lit candle in your space for the whole service and extinguished near the end after the sending hymn along with the altar candles. And you’re welcome to participate in communion by having something small to eat and drink prepared to be consumed at the appropriate time in the service as instructed.
May God’s shepherding love be upon you this day and always!
Loving God, we pray that we be strengthened by your Spirit to be devoted to the teaching of your Word, that we might hear your voice and follow it along paths of righteousness and peace, through Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. Amen.
So I did a thing earlier this week, something that I’ve been wanting to do for I think maybe about 6 months or so, but I never had the chance to go do it. Maybe I was a bit scared to try, or nervous perhaps. And the timing was never right, because this thing takes a lot of courage, strength, and endurance. See, this thing was to attempt the “giga dragon ramen challenge” at this noodle restaurant out in Richmond.
If you haven’t heard of this challenge, I don’t blame you to be honest. It takes a special type to look out for these things. Anyway, it’s an eating challenge, of course, where you get this giant bowl full of the equivalent of 5 servings of ramen with all the soup and fixin’s, and if you finish it all in under 30 minutes you get it all for free. If you don’t finish, well, then you’ll have to pay. Like with money, not with your life or anything.
Now, I love ramen and I usually eat close to 3 bowls whenever we go, so I knew I had to try this challenge. And the stars finally lined up this past week and I was able to go try. But after a solid 27 minutes of straight eating, I had to throw in the towel. All that was left was about a litre of soup, but honestly I just couldn’t fit anything else in my stomach. You know when they say “if I eat another bite, I’ll pop”? That is literally how I felt, but instead of “pop” it’s “throw up”. I had to stop.
So I failed. I did my best but it wasn’t good enough. I was really looking forward to making it on the restaurant’s Instagram page as a winner and be included in the elite club that can eat just a stupid amount of food in one sitting. But instead, I hang my head in shame because I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t good enough. I failed.
This time, at least. But next time I’ll be more prepared…
I know, this is just some goofy challenge that just seems more wasteful than anything else, but I’m drawn to them. Maybe it’s because I like to challenge myself and push my boundaries. Maybe it’s because I like to test the limits of my capabilities. Or maybe it’s because I like the thought of free food. But really, deep down, I have a feeling it’s because I just want to feel like I belong.
Belong? What on earth kind of place would I need to eat a giant bowl of ramen to belong to? And I don’t know if I can even answer that, but I know that it felt like I needed to do something in order to prove myself, show myself that I am capable of extraordinary things, that… I don’t know… that I’m worthy of something.
You know, now that I say that I think this is probably something I should discuss with my therapist.
Either case, I think all of us have this need for belonging… somewhere… anywhere. Most of us find that belonging early in life in our families but as the teen years go we sort of grow out of that and look for belonging elsewhere. Maybe it’s in a fraternity or sorority. Maybe it’s in some club, or guild, or maybe even a labour union or something. All of these things, it feels, are set up to meet that need to belong, for good or bad.
And as proof of belonging, sometimes we’re required to get some sort of marking or identification or something that sets us apart. Maybe it’s to wear a certain colour or article of clothing, or some sort of ID or membership card, or even getting a specific haircut or tattoo. Maybe it’s learning a secret handshake, or a password of some kind, or to recite a creed. Or maybe there is some kind of initiation, hazing, entrance exam, or some other ritual that is required. And honestly, if it helps us to belong, we’d be glad to do them.
Because really, it feels good to belong, doesn’t it? It feels good to soar together with the other eagles, to pack with the other wolves, to flock with the other sheep. And so this passage that we get out of John 10 feels good to listen to, especially on this day that is often known as Good Shepherd Sunday. What’s not to like? Jesus gives us a beautiful picture of him caring for us, his flock, protecting us as the gate to our pen, and preventing robbers and thieves and other ruffians from getting into our nice little elite group of God’s favourites.
Ok, maybe we won’t admit aloud that’s how we see this passage, but isn’t that kind of how it’s been taught to us? The art that we see of Jesus as the Good Shepherd are always full of warm fuzzy feelings. This day is deeply associated with Psalm 23, which is like the most widely used and known Psalm ever. And even the whole profession of shepherd has been totally cleaned up and romanticized because of the parallels we have made with Jesus. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Jesus as shepherd isn’t peaceful and feel good, but I just don’t know if it’s because of how we see it.
Let me explain.
Often we think that Jesus as shepherd is to guard us, protect us, and separate us from the evils of the world, those who do wrong from us who do good, those sinners from us saints, those goats from us sheep. We often assume that Jesus is more like a gate keeper where he opens the door, the only door into God’s kingdom for only those who deserve to belong. You know, those that follow the rules, believe the right things, and gone through the proper rituals and have the proper credentials. We like to think that Jesus has this checklist with which he, and we, can determine who is in and who isn’t.
But if we look at this particular passage where Jesus is more the Good Gate than the Good Shepherd, where he does say that he is the way into the pen and those who climb the fence and enter a different way are wrong, we can see that he doesn’t actually say what it means to enter through him. He doesn’t say what it means to know his voice. He doesn’t really say what it means to follow him.
I think the answers to these are in the other passages we get for today. The story out of Acts telling us how the early church, a true testament to community, lived by sharing, caring, and serving. Peter’s sermon out of the second reading reminds us of how Jesus lived peaceably even when wronged and suffering injustice. So entering into the kingdom and belonging isn’t about following rules and checking off checklists and proving to others how we’re better than they are, but it’s about living like Jesus lived in a compassionate way, sharing like Jesus shared with grace and thanksgiving, and treating others like Jesus does with forgiveness and love.
The point is that our belonging to God in God’s flock isn’t about earning our place, proving ourselves, or forcing our way in, but it is something that is already given to us as we are invited to walk with Christ along still waters and green pastures. And as we do that we see how we are provided for, how we are loved, and just how much we belong regardless of how we are regarded in the world. And in it all, Jesus continues to lead and guide us along pathways of righteousness, joining us together as a community, and reminding us of how his voice can be heard and his face seen in all things that are good and true, lifting us up in blessing and strengthening us to be God’s people in the world.
And so we needn’t worry about how we can coax Jesus to open the gates for us, what rules we have to adhere to, or what rituals we should uphold. But we can trust that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has already opened the gate for us and all people, inviting and welcoming with arms of grace and love, and teaching us to recognise his hand at work in our lives, in our community, and throughout the world. Not to show us what we’re doing wrong and condemn us, but to set an example of right relationship, compassionate fellowship, and resurrection living in which we all find belonging.
So in this season of Easter and resurrection, may we find peace in our belonging in God’s fold, knowing that who we are in Christ will never change or falter, that we might joyfully serve God and neighbour for the sake of the good news of God’s love in the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.