WORSHIP - MAY 3, 2020

Welcome to worship at 1st Presbyterian Church in Janesville, Wisconsin!

On this the fourth Sunday of Easter our worship service today centers on the 23rd Psalm and John 10:1-10 which has the theme of sheep and shepherds as well as one of the “I am” sayings of Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep.”

Thanks again to all of you for your prayers for our ministry here along with your continued financial support.

Now in prayer we begin this time of worship.

Heavenly Father, the world tries hard to convince us that it can feed our soul, mind, and body. We fall to temptation and binge on things that neither satisfy us nor bless us. Bless us with your Holy Spirit that we may open our hearts and minds to your Son, the living Christ who feeds us at his table with abundant food from heaven that truly nourishes our soul, mind and body. As we worship today, may we hear and recognize the loving voice of our Good Shepherd. May we worship not only with our words, but in truth and in action. Let us worship God together. Amen.

HYMN                                                                         “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us”
Savior, like a shepherd lead us, much we need thy tender care;
In thy pleasant pastures feed us, for our use thy folds prepare:
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus, thou hast brought us, thine we are;
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus, thou hast bought us, thine we are.

Early let us seek thy favor, early let us do thy will;
Blessed Lord and only Savior, with thy love our bosoms fill;
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus, thou hast loved us, loved us still;
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus, thou has loved us love us still.

Friends, in as much as God is our shepherd, let us not fear, but confess our sin that God may restore our souls.

Forgive us, Lord, for feeling that we are the masters of life. Forgive us for thinking that we can control the world. Forgive us for imagining our power to be greater than Yours. Help us to realize our weakness in contrast to Your greatness. Pardon us for our sins of pride, selfishness and greed. Help us to see ourselves as stewards of all life, as co-laborers with You, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the promise of our faith is that if we entrust ourselves to the One who judges justly, we need not feel threatened, for we will be returned to righteousness. Having been brought back into the safety of God’s fold, let rejoice and share the good news with others. Amen.

THE OLD TESTAMENT READING                                                                                                                                                                                        Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

THE NEW TESTAMENT READING                                                                                                                                                                                 John 10:1-10
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.


THE SERMON                                                                              "S heep and Shepherds”

Our lectionary readings today have to do with sheep and shepherds. In the 23rd Psalm we find the words: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He leadeth me beside still waters and in the paths of righteousness. The Psalmist refers to God as a leader. In John’s gospel the writer tells us that the sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice.

We know that we need good leaders in all aspects of our lives. We need those with the wisdom and knowledge in certain areas of life to guide us safely in our life journey. We also know that leaders need good team members to accomplish goals. We need leaders and we need followers, or team members.

A high school senior was applying for admission at a university and one of the questions on the form was: Are you a leader or a follower?” The young lady knew that she really wasn’t a leader but she was an excellent team member. She knew that the university would be looking for students who had leadership characteristics and she was tempted to say that she was a leader. But after thinking about it she decided that she needed to tell the truth. About a month later she received a letter from the university accepting her for admission. In the letter she was told that about 300 students applied for admission to the university and all, except her, said that they were leaders. The letter went on to say that with so many leaders they needed to have at least one follower.

We have good leaders and not so good leaders. A new airplane was making its first flight with passengers. Because it was the first flight after testing the people on board were news reporters, flight engineers, a couple of politicians and just regular people. They had been in flight for about an hour when the pilots voice came on the sound system. He said: “Those of you on the right side of the plane may notice that the inboard engine is glowing. Actually it’s on fire but you don’t have to worry because we can make it back to the airport on three engines. And while you are looking out the right side you will notice that the other engine has a stream of oil coming from it. An oil line broke and the engine is now not functioning but don’t worry, we can still get back to the airport safely on two engines. Those of you on the left side of the plane may notice that an engine is missing. It fell off about 10 minutes ago and I’m really surprised that we can still fly with only one engine. There is somewhat of a more serious concern right now. You may notice a large crack going down the center aisle from front to back. Those of you with really good eyesight can see the ocean below you and if you have really really good eyesight you will see a yellow raft. I and the co-pilot are in it and we are keeping track of you from down here.” That isn’t exactly the kind of leadership we would expect from anybody. And Jesus gives us the kind of leadership that we want and need.

But there is one thing that bothers us a little about these passages and that is that we are sheep. Do you like being referred to as a sheep? We see pictures of Jesus holding that cute little lamb. It is a very beautiful picture. The problem is, sheep are not exactly on the top of the animal intelligence ladder. We could say that sheep are a few bricks short of a load. Or that their elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top. They are not the brightest color in the box.

When tending sheep the shepherd leads them because it is difficult to drive them. They will follow a leader, another sheep, anywhere. The lead sheep could walk off a cliff and the others would follow. Sheep when unattended tend to wander off and then can’t find their way back home. Sheep will not drink from a running stream, they will only drink from a pond or some tank where the water is calm.

The shepherd’s job was very important in the days of Jesus because sheep were important not so much for their meat as is the case today, but because of their wool. They were also used as sacrifice animals. Because there is much arid land in Israel the sheep had to be moved from place to place to graze. The shepherd took them to the green pastures and the still waters. At night the sheep were usually enclosed in a walled-in area so they would be safe from wild animals but there was no gate in the wall. The shepherd lay in the opening so that any sheep that might think of leaving would have to go over the shepherd and any wild animal would be confronted by the shepherd. During the day the shepherd took the sheep to the pastures and at night brought them back to the sheepfold.

So maybe we don’t want to be associated with the sheep but the shepherd wasn’t a lot better. Because they lived with their sheep 24/7 they couldn’t shower very often and after while they didn’t smell very good. And because they moved from place to place they were accused, rightly or wrongly, of being thieves.

One of the unique things about sheep is that they know the voice of their master and they will follow it. Some years ago a group of shepherds were taken into custody in Israel along with their flocks because they wouldn’t pay their taxes. There were about 250 sheep in the pen. Some people who didn’t know anything about sheep said how will you ever separate them? One of the shepherds started calling his sheep and when they heard his voice they raised their heads and came to him. The scripture from John’s gospel says that “They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the stranger’s voice.

To be a “sheep” is not to be complacent, or stupid, or aimless, or helpless. To be a sheep is to be inquisitive, resilient, brave, and exploratory. To be a sheep is to seek out companionship and community, to take advantage of the freedom and protection that God offers us in order to walk in new and dangerous places, to come face to face with our enemies, to romp in grassy meadows and drink freely of waters, to dare to enter into the gate that leads to life, to follow the “voice” of Jesus into wild and wooly places, because we trust Him, and we trust that love, life, and play dwell securely in the future. There is a reason that Psalm 23 is the most beloved psalm of all time. It is not just that it is comforting, not just that it is vividly beautiful. But it’s a song of daring and courage, of freedom and joy, of bravery in the face of danger, of victory in life. And the gospel in John says the same.

So let me ask the last question: What are the traits of an effective shepherd? Many traits could be listed. I like what Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In order to be a leader a man must have followers. And to have followers, a man must have their confidence. Hence the supreme quality of a leader is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, on a football field, in an army, or in an office. If a man’s associates find him guilty of phoniness, if they find that he lacks forthright integrity, he will fail. His teachings and actions must square with each other.  The first great need, therefore, is integrity and high purpose” (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bits & Pieces, September 15, 1994, p. 4).

We embrace the beauty of our humanness when we embrace God, and when we follow Jesus, because for us, God IS that open door that leads to new and exciting pathways. Jesus IS that gateway to life that affords us freedom and exploration of what it means to truly live! Followers of Jesus will dare to enter into that open portal that leads to new life, into that freed up space that allows us room become the best version of ourselves, to exuberantly explore the realms of humanness and the reaches of eternity.

And here’s the reality. We most welcome freedom and community when we are most fenced in, most threatened, most fearful, most alone. When we are fenced in, when we are inhibited or complacent, creativity seems to burst forth in order to create new hope, new joy, and new excitement, even new forms of community. The human spirit is a playful spirit, a free spirit. And God celebrates this in us above all else.

God knows, we are people who will seek new pathways when gates are opened and will discover new ways of living when old ones are stymied. Open a door, and we will dare to enter in. Give us the gift of freedom, and we will dare to grasp it by the tail and create new ways to do life.

God gives us the gift of freedom in Jesus not to inhibit us into following blindly and mindlessly, but God gives us the gift of freedom in Jesus, because he will open doors and gates for us when we feel shut in. He will lead the way to open fields and clean waters when are lives have become rancid or stagnant. He helps us discover things to eat when our food for living has run dry. He gives us courage to stand before a common foe and to face it head on. He girds us up and keeps us strong when we need to walk into dangerous situations and deal with unknown assailants. He calls us by name, so He can guide us into new pastures when the old ones become barren and stale. Jesus gives us the freedom of life. It is God’s spirit breathed through us and through our relationship with Jesus that gives us that playful, creative, resilient spirit that will always energize us and renew us in every situation.

The college faculty gathered for their weekly meeting. A professor of archeology brought with him a lamp recently unearthed in the Middle East. It was reported to contain a genie, who, when the lamp was rubbed would appear and grant one wish. A professor of philosophy was particularly intrigued. He grabbed the lamp and rubbed it vigorously. Suddenly a genie appeared and made him an offer. He could choose one of three rewards: wealth, wisdom, or beauty. Without hesitating, the philosophy professor selected wisdom. “Done!” said the genie and disappeared in a cloud of smoke. All the other faculty members turned toward the professor, who sat surrounded by a halo of light. At length, one of his colleagues whispered, “Say something. What wise insight do you now have?” The professor, much wiser now, sighs and says, “I should have taken the money.”

Our scripture lessons for today contain one of the best-known sayings of Jesus. It is exceedingly well known, but often sadly misunderstood. This saying is the second half of John 10:10 and is best known in its King James translation. Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” This is the favorite verse of scripture for many modern Christians, for they read it as an endorsement of their extravagant lifestyle. They equate the abundant life to living in the lap of luxury. They listen enthusiastically to the pitch of the TV evangelist living in his or her multi-million dollar home who declares, “God wants His people to have nice things!” Certainly the TV evangelist lives up to his creed. Many of them live a life of luxury.

I’m not going to be hypocritical. I like nice things. My guess is that you like nice things. All God’s children like nice things. But in our culture we are apt to confuse the “abundant life” that Jesus taught with what is often referred to in our culture as the “good life.” The good life consists of things. The accumulation of toys.

Sometime ago I saw a man at a toy show with a T-shirt that said, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” The following year someone was wearing a T-shirt that said, “the one with the most toys still dies.”

Did you know that there are more malls than high schools in America today? In a recent year, more people filed for bankruptcy than enrolled in college. Our credo today is, “Shop until you drop!” Americans, on the average, spend six hours shopping each week and 40 minutes playing with their children. As one commentator has put it, “We have defined ourselves by what we have and what we use, not by who we are and the kind of people we might become.” 

This is not a uniquely American quality, of course. I read about a busload of Russian shoppers heading for Poland who refused to interrupt their trip when one of them died of a heart attack. Instead of turn¬ing back to bury the corpse, they left it on the back seat of the bus and continued into Poland. They returned home after several days of bargain hunting.

We should not confuse the good life with the abundant life that Christ promised. There is nothing wrong with having nice things. But things can’t ultimately satisfy our deepest needs. Only the abundant life can do that. So often this phrase is taken out of context to justify a materialistic lifestyle. Our lessons for the day tell us how to have the abundant life.

The person who has abundant life recognizes Jesus’ voice. John writes, “The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” The key to abundant life is not the accumulation of many things. The key to abundant life is to recognize the voice of Jesus in your life. It is to know you are walking in the light of his revelation. It is to live as Christ would have you live.

Here is an example of a man who has some understanding of the difference between the good life and the abundant life.

David Robinson was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1990, Defensive Player of the Year in 1992, Most Valuable Player of the Year in 1995. In many conversations about sports, David Robinson is considered one of the greats. As a professional athlete who played for the San Antonio Spurs, David Robinson surely enjoyed the good life. But did you know that David Robinson also enjoys the abundant life? In 1991 David Robinson visited the Gates Elementary School in San Antonio and challenged the kids to go to college, promising each one who did a $2000.00 scholarship. Many of them took him up on his offer--and he ended up giving each of them $8000.00 instead of $2000.00. He and his wife then started the Carver Academy in San Antonio. They donated $9 million to get the school started. This is believed to be the largest charitable contribution ever made by a professional athlete. Carver Academy is dedicated to academic excellence--but because Robinson is a Christian he wants the kids to understand that spiritual values are as important as academics or athletics. We hear so much about athletes who are thugs or who use drugs or who live an immoral lifestyle. We need to know that there are athletes who listen to the voice of Jesus, who live their lives in accordance with his teachings. That’s where we begin, by listening to his voice.

The person who has abundant life also seeks to follow in Christ’s steps. The author of I Peter writes: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

What does it mean to follow in Christ’s steps? The writer tells us, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” That’s a pretty high standard. “He committed no sin . . .” What does that mean? So many people have such a narrow definition of sin. Listen to the words of I Peter: “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”

We think of sin as some personal transgression. However, it is clear that sin has a relational dimension as well. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.” We show love for Christ by how we treat each other. Not only by how we treat those closest to us, but by how we treat all people, those we like and those we dislike; those of whom we approve and those of whom we do not; the neighbor and the complete stranger.

One day a man stopped in a convenience store to get a newspaper. He noticed that the owner of the store had tears in his eyes and kept looking out the window. He asked what was going on. The store owner said, “Do you see that bus bench over there? There’s a woman who comes there every day around this time. She sits there for about an hour, knitting and waiting. Buses come and go, but she never gets on one and no one ever gets off for her to meet. The other day, I carried her a cup of coffee and sat with her for a while. “Her only son lives a long way away. She last saw him two years ago, when he boarded one of the buses right there. He is married now, and she has never met her daughter in law or seen their new child. She told me, ‘It helps to come here and wait. I pray for them as I knit little things for the baby, and I imagine them in their tiny apartment, saving money to come home. I can’t wait to see them.’”

The reason the owner was looking out the window at that particular moment was that the three of them--the son, his wife and their small child--were just getting off the bus. The look on the woman’s face when this small family fell into her arms was one of pure joy. And this joy only increased when she looked into the face of her grandchild for the first time. The store owner commented, “I’ll never forget that look as long as I live.” The next day the same man returned to the convenience store. The owner was again behind the counter. Before the store owner could say or do anything, the customer said, “You sent her son the money for the bus tickets, didn’t you?” The store owner looked back with eyes full of love and a smile and replied, “Yes, I sent the money.” Then he repeated his statement from the day before, “I’ll never forget that look as long as I live.” This man had discovered a measure of the abundant life.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus means living a life for others? The more selfishly we live our lives, the less satisfaction we feel about our lives. The more we are open to others, the better we feel about ourselves. The person who lives life abundantly hears Christ’s voice and walks in Christ’s footsteps, performing acts of love as Christ performed acts of love.

But there is one thing more to say about the abundant life. The person who has abundant life gratefully accepts what Christ has done for him or her. Abundant living is more than simply being a do-gooder. Abundant living is life lived out of gratitude for what Christ has done for us. Abundant living is not something we are able to do on our own. Abundant living is a gift, a gift of grace. Listen again to the words of Peter: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” Then the writer of the epistle adds these words, “For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” John Schmidt tells the story of a young boy who lives in Zimbabwe. This young man’s name is Musumdiwa, and he was rescued by a church mission called the Love More House. Listen as this young African boy describes his life: “

My life was never very good. Even my name Musumdiwa means ‘unwanted child.’ When I was two weeks old my mother dumped me in a stack of old tires. The police picked me up and took me to my grandmother and when she gave me back to my mother, she dumped me again. - This time wrapping me in rags and leaving me in a beer hall. No one ever really wanted me except my grandmother and she was too poor to buy enough food or pay for my school fees. After I ended up on the streets, some people at church told me about Love More House and they asked me to come here. I am going to finish school and become a soccer player and later maybe I will have a job in a bank. Inside my head I asked God to help me reach my goals, to help me in school and with soccer and especially to help me forgive others and not join in conflict. Some day I think that God will give me another name, Amon; it will mean someone good.”

If that young man’s testimony doesn’t touch you, you are beyond hope. (He is an example of the kind of young person our church’s mission program is trying to reach.) He is working hard to reach his goals, for he, too, would like to have the good life. But he knows there is more. Thanks to the Love More House, this young man knows there is the abundant life, and even with his limited opportunities he knows that this abundant life cannot be earned. It comes as a gift from God. He prays that God will give him a new name, Amon, “Someone Good.”

I hope God gives you and me new names--names such as “Someone Good,” “Kindhearted,” “Generous,” “Neighborly,” and even “Christ-like.” I hope we understand that there is more than just the good life. There is the abundant life - we hear Christ’s voice and we walk in Christ’s steps.

Loving God, we pray that your Holy Spirit will strengthen us to be devoted to the teachings of your Word, that through it we may hear your voice and follow it into eternal life. Shepherding God, in a dangerous world, let us hear your voice and come and go through your gate.

We pray for the whole church, that we may be devoted to your Word and to universal fellowship, being generous to all who have need. We pray that you would continue to enhance the mission and ministry of our church so that others may hear the gospel message.

We pray for the earth, for green pastures and still waters, that we may restore them to the goodness and purity that they had at the time you created them. We pray for the people of the world, their nations, and leaders that your wisdom and peace may govern all, so that no one will fear.

We pray for those in need, for those in want, those ill and those dying, that we may be the banquet that you set before them as we anoint them, feed them, and comfort them in your name. we pray for ourselves and our families and those we love. May no one live in fear; may all dwell in your presence.

We pray for all of those who are looking for a cure for COVID-19 and for the many people who are caring for those afflicted with this virus. Give them strength and endurance. Bring healing to those afflicted and may your hand of comfort, peace and assurance be with those who have lost loved ones.

As a family of faith we pray the prayer that Jesus taught us: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.

May the God who calls you by name lead you out to green pastures and lead you into the safety of Christ’s fold. Amen.