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A prayer for Good Shepherd Sunday, after singing “Fairest Lord Jesus“.
Scriptures: Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9 -17; John 10: 22-30

We sing our praise to you, fairest Lord Jesus,
Ruler of all,
living among us,
moving in our neighbourhoods,
bringing your salvation and blessing
your beauty and grace.

We sing our praise to you, fairest Lord Jesus,
for You shepherd us like a good shepherd:
you lay down your life for us;
you protect us from the powers that would
take us from you;
you come looking for us when we get lost.

We sing our praise to you, fairest Lord Jesus
for you lead us to living waters,
immersing us in love
that is deeper than our fears,
inviting us to drink deeply
at the fountain of your mercy;
filling our hearts with your courage and strength.

We sing our praise to you
even as we bring to you those times
when we were stumbling through
the valley of the shadow of death
and could not feel you near us;
we bring to you those times
when we were in the presence of enemies
and not at all sure that
you knew what danger we were in;
we bring to you those times
when our prayers seemed only to echo
in a vast emptiness.

It is mystery to us
that you are present
even there.
It is mystery to us
that you care
even for us.
It is mystery to us
that even now
you are seeking us out,
calling us by name,
yearning for us to
hear
and answer
and come to you.

It is mystery to us
but we lean into that mystery
and sing our praise to you.

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Hymn: Sing Your Praise to God Eternal

Prayers of Adoration and Confession

Eternal God,
strong and loving,
victor over the powers of death,
we sing your praise.

We sing your praise because
you bless us with days of gladness
and your goodness and steadfast love
summon our songs.

We sing your praise because
you meet us in our times of sadness
and your comfort and your peace
enfold our hurting souls.

And, now, we set ourselves
under your Word,
waiting,
listening,
yearning
for the words that will
draw us deeper into your love,
into your grace.

Come among us
with your words of peace.
Show us your hands and side,
your broken body,
the mystery of our salvation.
Breathe your Holy Spirit
into us
and send us out again
to speak your words of
love and mercy
grace and forgiveness.
Then we shall sing your praise
with lives made new in your grace.

Assurance of God’s Grace

The mystery of our faith is this:
Christ meets us in the broken places of our lives and says, ‘Peace be with you’. We belong to him and, whatever happens, we are held in God’s powerful care. The Holy Spirit is working within you and among us, pulling us deeper and deeper into God’s heart. Receive God’s gift and share the peace he gives.

A prayer for Easter

You are risen, Jesus!
You are alive and loose in the world.
You are speaking “Resurrection!” into our lives.
So we bring to you our hymns of praise:
we join with angels and archangels
with your people past and present
to sing of your powerful love
that is stronger than hate,
stronger than grief,
stronger than death.

We bring to you hymns of praise
but we also bring to you
those places where your good news has not yet reached us:
the places in our lives
where we are still held by fear and anxiety
over what the future might bring;
the places in our lives
where we are still held by grudges and resentments
and wounds that do not heal;
the places in our lives where we are weary
and do not have the strength or courage we need.

We bring them to you and wait:
come, Lord Jesus,
with words that open up new possibilities,
with your life that surprises and stuns us.
We would have our whole lives
be a song of praise to you.

A prayer for worship after “This is the Day” was sung.

This is the day that you have made, God.
permeated through and through with your beauty,
full of your faithfulness
full of your holiness.

We give you thanks.
We open our hearts and our minds and our spirits
to your transforming presence.

It is not easy to open ourselves to your presence, God:
our hearts are restless,
finding it hard to settle into your love;
our minds wander,
caught up in urgent cares and worries;
our spirits are uneasy before the mystery of your holiness.

It is not easy
and we are grateful that you don’t give up on us.
Even as we turn away from you,
you keep turning toward us.

So, here, now, for this time together,
we ask you to move among us,
awakening us to your Spirit reaching out to us,
calling to us,
showing us your new creation in our midst.

This is the day that you have made, God.
We are open
to your grace
your love
your summons to join your holy work,
in Jesus’ name. Amen.

We wait for you, God of truth and freedom.
We wait for you, Holy Spirit.
We wait for you, Lord Jesus, full of the glory of God.

God of goodness and grace,
you summon us into a world
made large by your expansive, creative salvation.
Open our eyes and ears and hearts
to your unexpected presence in our lives.

You know the ways we wander from your love and your truth:
the fears that drive us to make our world small and manageable;
the selfishness that shuts down our hearts;
the arrogance that limits our reach towards the ones you love.

Immerse us again and again
in your lavish grace.
Bathe us once more in the
cleansing stream of your truth.
Send your Spirit flowing through the
dried-up, worn out places.
Bring life — your life,
your wondrous, abundant life,
for we pray in the name of Jesus,
the Way, the Truth, the Life,
your Word made flesh,
your love that transfigures our world.
Amen.

Assurance

St. Augustine said, “The glory of God is men and women who are fully alive, but all have sinned and fall short of the divine splendour.” We are not what God created us to be; but God is lavish with mercy, overflowing with grace. In Christ, God makes us a new creation. Live this week rooted deeper and deeper into the powerful, redeeming love of God.

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett on December 16, 2019, with gratitude for the reflections of Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas and Craig Barnes that informed this message.

Scriptures:
Micah 5: 2-5a
Luke 1: 26 – 55

What is your favourite Bible story?
I have been asking people that questions for a number of years now. What I have noticed is that people are having a harder and harder time answering it. It used to be that people would quickly say, ‘Noah’s Ark” or “David and Goliath” or Jonah and the Whale”. Then, there came a time when people struggled to name any story from the Bible at all. 

I remember distinctly one baptism class, the parents did not know any Bible stories. Finally, one woman blurted out, “the Christmas story”. When I asked her, “Tell me about that story.” She said, “It’s about a baby?”

I hesitated to tell you that story because I did not want us simply to say, “Isn’t it terrible that people don’t know the Bible stories anymore?” I tell you that story because that is the context in which we are the Church now. 

Most of us grew up in a world where the stories in the Bible played some role in shaping how we saw the world and how we lived our lives. How many of you know what I mean when I say, “The Good Samaritan”? How many of you have some sense that, when you see someone in need, the right thing to do is to stop and help them? At the very least, it occurs to you that that is what you should do. The story of the Good Samaritan — at least the way the church has told that story, shapes the way we see the world, the way we act in it. 

The stories of the Bible no longer function that way for most people.

We all live by some script. That script shapes us: who we are, our identity; what we do, our mission or purpose in life. The script tells us what will make us happy and what will keep us safe. At least, that’s the promise that the script makes. 

As I have been hosting this week’s gospel story in study and in prayer, I have been thinking about a script we often tell young people in our culture. It goes something like this: “You can be anything you want to be. Just reach for your own star; pursue your own dreams; set your own goals and don’t let anything stop you.”

Have you heard that script? It is meant to inspire young people. It is meant to encourage them to work hard to accomplish something wonderful; to become all that they can be. It intends to send them out into the world with the hope and passion they need to shape their lives the way they choose to shape them. “You choose your life.”  That’s the promise the script makes.

Maybe it works for some people. I don’t know any of them. I do know people who are hustling really hard as they try to live into that script. For most people, that script just sets them adrift in a broken world that has lost its way. They keep making choices; they keep following their dreams . . . but their choices don’t work out the way they thought they would. Still believing the script, they choose something else: another career, another partner, another place to live, another group of friends. They keep hoping that the next choice will give them the life, the identity, that they want. 

The problem is that all that choosing and chasing dreams and reaching for the stars is hard on the human soul. The script doesn’t make us happy or safe. It doesn’t give us what we need to become who we are created to be. It wears away at our sense of self. When we try to self-construct our lives by making choices, we don’t find our lives. We lose them. We lose our selves.

The Church offers an alternate script:

Not, “You can be anything you choose to be” but, “God has chosen you. God has a holy purpose for your life.”

Not, “Go out and work hard; pursue your dream; make your own life” but, “God gives you the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives you the strength and courage you will need to live into God’s good and holy purpose for you.”

The Church offers that script in the story of a young peasant girl in a small village in Galilee. Her name was Mary but the angel Gabriel tells her she is not just Mary. She is “Favoured One”. She is “Beautiful with God’s beauty”. She is a person in whose life the Lord God is present and at work. She is “the mother of Jesus, Holy Son of God.”

Mary did not choose to be Mary, the mother of Jesus. She received that life, that identity, as a gift from God. She received it, not by making choices but by being chosen; not by choosing her own destiny but by being given a good and holy destiny.

We tell this story year after year because what God has done for Mary anticipates and models what God does for you and for me. Whenever the Church baptizes someone, the Church proclaims, “You are God child. You are not alone in the universe. You are beautiful with God’s beaut. You are chosen and cared for and held in love and grace. You don’t have to try hard to make your life count for something. God has already made something of your life. You have a place in a great and wonderful story that began long before you got here and that will continue on long after you are gone.”

The best part of the story happens when God, ruler of the cosmos, commander of angel armies, creator of all that is, chose to become flesh. This God chose to ‘move into our neighbourhood and dwell among us, full of grace and truth’. Jesus lived his life healing the sick, feeding the hungry, drawing us toward God. The story ends wonderfully with God winning the victory over all the forces of evil so that wars come to an end and peace and justice cover the earth.

That’s the story that Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah and John all get caught up in. That’s the story you and I are in. That’s the story in which you and I have been given a significant, holy part to play. There is a mission to your life.

It all comes as a gift, as grace. The only choice you have to make is whether or not you will receive the gift. Will you receive God’s sacred, good work in your life?

Did you hear what Mary said when Gabriel gave her this message? She said, “How can this be?” “How can this be since I am a virgin?” There is always something that makes it hard for people to trust the story. Moses said, “You can’t mean me, God. I stutter too much.” Jeremiah said, “You can’t mean me, God. I am too young.” Isaiah said, “You can’t mean me. I am not good enough.”

What is your, “How can this be?”
What is your, “You can’t mean me, God.”

Whatever it is, it is not a big enough problem to keep God from pulling you into the story and giving your life within it. Your sense of inadequacy? it is just a call to prayer. It is a call to move deeper into your relationship with Jesus. It is a call back to the heart of God.

You say, “Yes” to that call as you take yourself God and you remain close to that place where you can hear the voice that call you, “My child, my beloved, beautiful with God’s beauty.” That’s the true script of your life. 

People would tell me it was my best sermon. It was the sermon they remembered the most. Except I never preached it as a sermon. I only mentioned it in the introduction to an appeal for help with a church function.

Once a month or so, the church would place red folders (like the kind some churches use to record attendance and visitors) at the end of each pew. Inside each folder was a sheet of paper listing some “opportunities to serve.” People are encouraged to read through the list, see if something interested or excited them, and then sign with their name and telephone number.

The tasks that were listed were usually short-term and very concrete. For example, we asked for people who were willing to bake a cake for some event, to help out in vacation Bible school, to help drive a new refugee family around, to help plan Advent worship services. You could sign up, help out, and then be done with it.

One Sunday, I introduced the red folders by saying that I had heard recently about a minister who said to his congregation, “Sometimes when we are asked to do something, we say `Yes’ even though we want to say `No.’ We say `Yes’ because we’re afraid that, if we say ‘No’ we’ll feel guilty. Instead, we say `Yes’ and feel angry because we’re too busy, we’re not really interested in doing the task, we’re feeling pressed into doing it. If the choice you’re facing is between saying `yes’ and feeling angry or saying ‘no’ and feeling guilty, I want to encourage you to go with the guilt. Say ‘no.’ ”

After sharing this story, I encouraged our congregation to take this same attitude toward the appeals for help in the red folders. “You should not sign up unless it is something you want to do,” I said. “Go with the guilt!”

The phrase caught on. Many of our most dedicated, faithful and over-worked folk received it with a tremendous sense of freedom and relief. Some worried that the important but less glamorous work of the church wouldn’t get done. They were afraid that everybody would take it as permission to be lazy, to avoid their responsibilities.

There was a possibility that people might react that way. But two factors worked against it. Firstly, the hardest workers in any church don’t usually work out of duty or obligation. They love their Lord and they love God’s Church. They believe in what their church is trying to do. Out of love, they give their time and money and energy with great generosity. They might wish that others would contribute more of their fair share. They may use words like “responsibility” and “duty” to describe it; however, they would probably admit that the work they do for the church isn’t mostly a matter of duty or obligation. It’s a matter of love.

The challenge is not to get people to work harder out of a sense of obligation. The challenge is to get people to love God more and to believe more passionately in the mission the Church is accomplishing.

Secondly, the “go with the guilt” message was part of a bigger shift in our congregation’s way of being the Church together. It developed out of a belief that the Holy Spirit is actively at work in the Body of Christ. The Spirit gives gifts to the church’s members. These gifts fit together for the well-being of the Body. Not everybody will enjoy doing the same things. Some people love crunching numbers; some people love pushing brooms. Some people love the time they spend in the kitchen, some people love the time they spend serving at the local mission.

The challenge is to trust that God knows the work that needs to be done to keep His Body functioning well, and that God is supplying the gifts among Christ’s people to do it.

We must believe that the Spirit is at work in people’s lives pushing, prodding, and pulling them to serve their Lord. The challenge for us is to create an atmosphere where people feel free to respond to that pushing, prodding and pulling in creative and daring ways. Because we’re all learning and growing together, it is all right to try something, even if it doesn’t work out the way we had expected or hoped. It is more important to have tried it.

I love telling the story about Daniel Brown who was pastor of a very large and busy church in California. When people ask him how the church got to be so successful, he tells them that they just kept trying so many things that, by the law of averages, some of them had to work! We all need to work on that “law of averages,” trusting in the Holy Spirit’s presence throughout.

Sometimes God leads people in directions they’re uncertain that they want to go. When people say that they aren’t sure of themselves, we need to encourage them not to let that stop them from moving ahead. If they are venturing into new territory, they can expect to feel uncomfortable. They can take things slowly, one step at a time, as God gives them the courage to move ahead.

One of the advantages of the red folders idea is that they allow people to try out new tasks in small chunks. Newcomers don’t have to jump in by volunteering to be the Chair of a committee. They can help set up tables and still feel they are contributing.

People who are exploring new directions in their lives can sign up for short-term experiences. They can be part of the worship planning team for six weeks and then be done with it. Those who are busy elsewhere and who cannot commit a large chunk of time can help out in short-term activities and still know that they are contributing.

Believing that the Holy Spirit has placed more than enough gifts among us, the congregation was always looking for ways to allow people to contribute their gifts in ways that take account of the realities of their lives and that will help them grow. Our energy was spent less and less on trying to convince people to do the very important work we thought needed doing. Over time, the congregational focus changed from “getting the programs done” to “growing the people.’

New questions became important: How can we help people discern the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives? How can we help them become conscious of the gifts they have and don’t have? How can we help them take down the blockages that keep them from responding to the Spirit’s work? How can we help them overcome their fears? How can we provide new opportunities for them to experience the wonder and privilege of being used by God in His work of healing the world?

The church can still get caught in worrying where it will find the people to meet the agenda which is already planned. But the direction it is moving in, is one where growing joyful servants of Jesus Christ is the focus.

0f course, there are some risks in moving in this new direction. What if the Holy Spirit doesn’t bring forward anyone to run a program that the leaders consider vitally important for the Church? What if nobody wants to teach Sunday school? What if nobody wants to be in charge of keeping the building in shape? The self-images of the minister and of the congregation are at stake. As clergy, we’re very used to trying to meet the expectations of the congregation. As congregations, we strive to offer the kinds of programmes that we think people want. What if the Holy Spirit doesn’t come through for us?

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing our church is learning to trust God instead of ourselves. If the Holy Spirit has not provided persons or gifts to run a particular programme, perhaps that programme doesn’t need to be run—at least not by us. If we don’t run it and people miss it enough, somebody will consider it important enough to commit time and energy to it—eventually. If we don’t run it and nobody misses it, then it wasn’t needed after all. Sometimes we can forget that we are not the only congregation that God is working in. Some work God will give to us to do. Some work God will give to another congregation to do. We don’t have to “do it all.” God asks us to be faithful to the call God places among us. That will keep us more than busy!

All of this means that we must, first and foremost, be a people of prayer. We have to stay close to God to hear what God is saying to us. If there is nobody to do something that we think needs doing, is it a sign that we aren’t hearing God’s call to us? Or are we trying to do it the wrong way? Or is there somebody who needs some growth and encouragement before being ready to take up the work? Or is this work given to another congregation to do? Prayer will help us find the answers. And even when we are sure that it is something we are called to do, we will still have to stay close to God. God is the One who will give us the courage and energy and joy to do what God asks us to do.

“Go with the guilt.” I didn’t know it when I said it, but it was a first step towards growing and serving our Lord with delight and joy.

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