Grace and peace to you from Creator, Jesus our Good Shepherd and Sustaining Spirit. Amen
After almost thirty six years of ministry of Word and Sacrament it continues to be very amazing and humbling to me as I visit with people and I hear the witness of those people as they approach difficult experiences in their lives – experiences of struggle, pain, hard decisions, medical options and end of life decisions – and they will often state with faith and strength: “I know whose I am and I am part of the family of God. Jesus is my Good Shepherd, He has been with me throughout my life and I know that He is with me now.” Over the last few months I have heard this sentiment expressed often in my visitations. Many of the people I have visited know that they have been claimed by God in baptism and they have this Good Shepherd who has been with them throughout their lives and who continues to be with them and gives them the strength to face the elements of life, and death, knowing that the abundance of life has been given and will come in the life to come. Jesus comes to us as the Good Shepherd, one who loves us and cares for us, one whose only concern is that we may have life and have it abundantly. The Good Shepherd, who is willing to die so that we may have life in abundance. One who warns us about the thieves and bandits who would rob us of life, those who would replace abundance with drudgery and slavery. When we, the sheep, follow the Good Shepherd we know this life in abundance no matter the realities of life. When we follow the Good Shepherd we know the awe of which the writer of Acts speaks.“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the breaking of bread and prayers. Awe came upon everyone...” When we follow a thief or a bandit, we chase after other priorities and we miss out on the awe, the abundant life, and our time together can become drudgery. We read about the church in the book of Actsand we think, “Now there is a church, the kind of which we would all like to be a part. They had a singleness of purpose, working together with a clear vision and energy -- gathering, learning, praying and sharing.” The world as we know it, the church as we know it, seems far from their reality. We struggle with having enough people to run programs, finding ways to include new people and identifying people who are withdrawing from our faith community. So often, we do not experience the ‘awe’ and if we looked, we would see a thief or bandit who has led us astray. A thief or bandit has put other priorities in the place of God. We read of the experience of the people in Acts and we say, “Oh, to be part of that church!” We are part of that church, but like sheep we are so often led astray. We live in the light of Easter, just as they did. We celebrate the risen Christ, who is the Good Shepherd, the one who gives us victory over death. The one who gives purpose and meaning to life. We celebrate that this church has survived for centuries when there are far more reasons why it should have collapsed. The body of Christ continues to gather because Jesus rose from the dead. The body of Christ continues to grow in faith because of the apostles’ teaching, because we gather for fellowship, we break bread and we pray together. We gather to praise God. We do not always do all of these well, yet the Church of Christ continues because of us and sometimes in spite of us. One Sunday a young pastor who thought she had preached a particularly good sermon was fishing for comments at the door. A senior member of the congregation, when he came through the door and was thrown the bait said, “Put it this way, some of us come because of the pastor and her preaching and some of us come in spite of the pastor and her preaching. You figure it out.” Something far greater than any one of us is happening when we gather. God is at work and we find that barriers are removed, love is given and received. That the church continues to gather is testimony that someone far greater than anyone of us is at work. We sometimes get a vision of what is possible, and we stand in awe at the power of God at work in the mundane events of our life. We gather some Sundays and the singing is less than inspiring, the preaching short of the mark and still God is at work. People experience the love of God, experience the presence of God in the sacraments and in each other. Awe fills the place. We know whose we are and who we are as part of Good Shepherd’s flock. The passage from the book of Acts helps us to follow the Good Shepherd. When we devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, when we break the bread and pray, we are following the Good Shepherd and not a bandit. When we sing the words of the liturgy and really read them and hear them, the awe can leave us speechless. When we merely repeat them without hearing the power of the words, we know a bandit has taken over. There are many versions of theGospel Acclamationand the one that we are using right now at Christ Lutheran, Chilliwack is from setting 10 in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal: “Alleluia! Lord and Saviour: open now your saving word. Let it burn like fire within us; speak until our hearts are stirred. Alleluia! Lord, we sing for the good news that you bring.” When we look to no other we have the abundant life, and we know the awe of being in the presence of the Good Shepherd who gives us strength and peace to carry on the message of love and peace and acceptance. On days like today we read of the early church in Acts and we wish that for ourselves. In our wishing we discover that we ARE part of that church, what happened there can also happen here. The kingdom of God is truly near, it is breaking out around us. To be the church that Jesus wants us to be means that we need to listen to the Good Shepherd rather than the thieves and bandits. We need to sing the words of the liturgy each week until they become a part of our very being. Hear the words today as if for the first time, sing them with the passion they deserve. Sing the hymns in praise of the Good Shepherd. Then we will know the awe of people gathered together by God to be the people of God in this time and place. Then we will know the abundant life that comes with following the Good Shepherd. Let it be so. Amen.