Sunday Worship, 8 May 2022

Service starts at 11:15am, in Riverside

Welcome Look after the flock of God whose shepherds you are. So when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive glory, a crown that never fades.

1 Peter 5: 2, 4

Choir Introit

Hymn 411 Christ the Lord is risen today

Opening Prayer

Lord

We are your people, we are your flock

 not because we have earned that position

 not because it is ours by right

 but because in your great love and mercy

 you have called us to be your children

 and sealed that call by the death

 and rising again of your Son Jesus

You are always with us and guide us through life

 whether through the equivalents of fields of green grass

 and pools of fresh water

 or our own valley of shadow

 you have given us guidance on how we should live

 we have before us the example of Jesus

 and we have your Spirit constantly with us

 helping us to know which path to take

 helping us to cope with life’s challenges

 helping us to be more Christ-like in what we think, say and do

But all too often we are like sheep that wander off

 something over there looks attractive

 this seems like a good way to go

 and too late we realise that we have left the safe place

  the right track

 in your mercy you look for us

 in your mercy you are ready to forgive us

  and give us a new start

We ask for forgiveness

 and your Spirit’s help in being the people you want us to be

through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen

All age time

We had our chance to vote on Thursday (or maybe earlier, if we had a postal vote) and across the whole of Britain councillors, mayors and members of the Stormont Assembly have been elected. We regard them as elected to represent us, and be accountable to us – not to see themselves as our ‘rulers’, or us as their ‘subjects’, who ought to do what they tell us, because they know better. And (by and large) they agree with us on that, and do work hard for us.

But that isn’t the case in every country of the world. Some in positions of power weren’t elected, some so organised elections that no one who opposed them had any chance of winning. Some syphon off national resources for their own personal benefit. Some use violence and repression against any who oppose or criticise them. Some try to control what people think and say, so that there can only be praise for what they do.

It’s not new. People have used (or abused) positions of power for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Indeed in times past some in power declared that they were gods, and could call down divine vengeance on any who opposed them.

It seems from some bits of the Old Testament that maybe the Jewish kings and their successors liked to refer to themselves as ‘the shepherds of Israel’, people whose role was to care for and protect members of the wider community. It all sounds very laudable, but the prophets made fun of the title – accusing them of the sort of cruel, self-serving behaviour that we see in many parts of our world today. They claimed to be doing one thing, but were in fact doing the opposite.

We sometimes hear congregations being referred to as ‘the flock’, and don’t think much about it. If someone said to us, whether as a congregation or an electorate, that we are like sheep, we might feel a bit offended, as we have built up a picture of sheep (which may or may not be true) being unable to think for themselves, and just following the crowd. Though maybe if we look around the wider community, we might sometimes wonder if the analogy does fit!

The prophets presented God as a shepherd for his people, and the Gospels present Jesus in that role. In Bible times the role of a shepherd was dangerous – protecting sheep from the dangers of wild animals, robbers, and getting stuck in rough and rocky terrain. Shepherds had to lead the sheep to safe pastures, and be ready to lay their own lives on the line to protect the sheep. Even though we live in a town where we do not see sheep on a daily basis, the analogy is still relevant for us. Jesus laid down his life for us, and day by day he is with us through the Spirit, watching over us, caring for us, and trying to guide us to safe places. And he would hope that all in positions of leadership – in church, at work, in public life, would follow his example.

Hymn SGP72 Jesus is Lord

Bible reading

John 10: 22-30

Reflection    

Usually at weddings and funerals people pick hymns that they think are well known, in the hope that others present will be encouraged to sing (though that doesn’t always work). Occasionally there are hiccoughs.

There was a time when there was a funeral in the West Kirk. The family, who were preparing their own Order of Service, had picked as their first hymn one from the Catholic hymn book. Sandra had a copy of the music, so all was well, until the family turned up with the Orders of Service, and there was a different first hymn, for which she didn’t have the music. Quick panic, dash to St Pat’s by the undertaker, and about two minutes before the service was due to start a photocopy of the appropriate music landed on the organ.

Then there was the time a family asked for ‘Pearl of the sea’. I thought it was maybe a Catholic one too (maybe like Our Lady, Star of the Sea) but in fact it was ‘for those in peril on the sea’ (Eternal Father Strong to save). And some years ago someone requested ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus’. I’d never met it, phoned a friend, and she sang it down the phone for me.

I was reminded of some of the words of that hymn when reading through today’s Bible reading:

Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe on His gentle breast,
There by His love o’ershaded,
Sweetly my soul doth rest.
Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe from corroding care,
Safe from the world’s temptations,
Sin cannot harm me there.
Free from the blight of sorrow,
Free from my doubts and fears;
Only a few more trials,
Only a few more tears.

It doesn’t specifically say that disciples like Peter and Andrew were around when he said that ‘no one could snatch them out of his hand’. If they were, then they would discover that he wasn’t promising them safety and freedom from harm for the rest of their lives. In the Book of Acts we hear that in the early years of the church James was ‘killed by the sword’, Peter and the others were imprisoned and flogged, and tradition says that Peter and most of the others met violent ends. Paul suffered imprisonment, flogging, beatings, being stoned and shipwrecked, and tradition says that he was beheaded.

It seems as though John’s Gospel was edited several times to address the needs of several different audiences, but one appears to have been a group of Jewish heritage who had been expelled from their community, families and synagogues for following Jesus. And down the nineteen hundred years since then many other followers of Jesus have faced hardship and suffering for being his followers – not just for calling themselves ‘Christians’, or worshipping with other Christians rather than the faith community into which they were born, but for trying to live out Jesus’ values, and working to achieve the kind of world he wants.

Some have faced physical violence, exclusion, verbal abuse, mocking, misrepresentation, false accusations, total indifference, lack of appreciation, and much more. If we encourage people to think that being a follower of Jesus is all fun and laughter, then they could be in for some nasty shocks.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to do anything more than he himself experienced. Even before Holy Week he could see people not understanding at all what he was saying, no matter how plainly he said it. He felt their hatred, prejudice and indifference to what he said and did. Then came the physical pain, mental and spiritual anguish of Holy Week. He paid a great price for doing God’s will, and sometimes for all who follow Jesus there is a cost to pay too.

He does, however, promise us his total commitment to us. His promise is unconditional and unshakeable. Whatever we go through in life – whether it is trials and traumas unconnected with being his follower (health issues, family crises, problems with work or money or whatever) or it is connected to it, trying to live out his values in our own lives, and seek to have them applied in the wider world – he will always be with us. We need never feel abandoned or alone. He isn’t just an all-seeing God who looks down on us from afar, but is one who knows from his own experience what human pain and anguish are like.

He stands with us, he gives us his Spirit to strengthen us through our times of trouble or trial, he accepts our anguished, angry questions and complaints, and he promises us that in the end he will bring us to a place where there is no pain, hatred, indifference, neglect or abuse.

His promises are for us, for all people in our world today, whether they face hostility for being his followers, are struggling to make ends meet, face devastating effects from climate change, are caught up in war and violence, are dealing with serious health issues or the breakdown of relationships. God has not forgotten or abandoned us. He cares. He stands with us, by his Spirit he seeks to bring healing and wholeness, and he calls us, his followers, to work with him in that task.

Hymn 417 Now the green blade riseth

Prayers for others

Gracious God

We give you thanks that you always stand with us

 and that nothing can separate us from your love and care

we bring to you our prayers for others

 asking that you will take and use them

 in your work of bringing healing and wholeness to your world

those who are ill, those who worry about them,

  those who care for them

 those waiting for or receiving treatment

  and those for whom there is no treatment

 those who are feeling lonely, down

  or grieving a friend or loved one

 those who don’t have enough to eat

  don’t have somewhere to call home

 those who are worried about family, friends, work, home,

   money

 those who long to live in peace and safety

we pray for the Queen, the Government

 all in positions of leadership in this and every land

we pray for your church

 the worldwide church, the wider church in Dumbarton

  our own congregation

We bring to you our prayers for people and situations of special concern to us

And we sum up our prayers in the words of the prayer Jesus gave us

Hymn 413 The day of resurrection

Blessing (3-fold Amen)

Christ was raised from the dead

 by the glorious power of the Father.

Set out, then, on a new life with Christ

And the blessing of God Almighty

Father, Son and Holy Spirit

rest and remain with you

today, and every day, and for ever

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