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We are a United Church of Christ located in Nutley, New Jersey. 

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10 St. Paul's Place
Nutley, NJ 07110


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St. Paul’s Congregational Church

May 12, 2019 (Easter 4 - C)

John 21:1-19; Acts 9:1-20; “Follow Me”

The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds

Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

The highlight of the spring back in the Middlebury Congregational Church was the annual Auction and Flea Market: it took hours of effort and participation by so many people – most everyone in the congregation contributed in some way to the success of the event – the basement of the parsonage I lived in was actually one of the storage centers for Flea Market and Auction merchandise – people worked all year to gather stuff for this event – and it found a home in my basement until the big weekend. And on Sunday in spite of the fact that it was a very short night for us, the congregation gathered in force that morning.

Certainly this was an important project for our church community and not just because of the financial impact. It was a time for all of us to pull together – to get to know each other a little better – to meet those people who sat above you in the balcony or those who sat in the choir loft. It was a time to work and play together, to share the gifts we all have – to join together in an effort that just couldn’t happen if we didn’t work together. And in spite of the fatigue and sore muscles there was always quite a sense of accomplishment – and relief that it was over for another year.

The Auction and Flea Market was an important part in the doing of our faith – all of the publicity was very clear that all of the proceeds were used for the mission of the church – not to pay for oil or the electric bill, but to be distributed to national and local agencies to feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for those who needed help. It wasn’t just the financial gains – the event would raise over $20,000 every year – but it was our time together working to make this happen that was every bit as important for the mission of the church, to sustain the mission of the church.

Sometimes, though, we can get so caught up in the “doing” of our faith that we lose sight of the “being” of our faith, individually and as church. That happens here in Nutley too – doesn’t it – as we deal with an aging building, concerns about our future ministry with fewer people to help: deep frustrations along with a sense of mourning the loss of “the way it used to be.”

Back to Middlebury: the week of the Auction was always crazy – but one year in the midst of preparation, I remember meeting with someone going through a very difficult and painful time. As we talked, this person wondered out loud, almost pleading, “What is God trying to tell me? What does God want from me? There was a silence, and then, I know God is with me. I have no doubt of that. I know I’m not alone. But I don’t know what’s happening here.

Someone else got a phone call – it’s not an emergency but her mother had fallen. She was ok – her foot was a little sore but she just went down, her legs went out from under her. This daughter said, “She looks so frail – I’m worried about her.” Facing the debilitation, the death of a loved one is never, ever easy – and the questions, the feelings that all this raises are too deep for human words.

And right here, in the midst of our life together, one foot in the past, the other looking ahead to the future, there are phone calls and visits with people struggling with health issues, relationship issues, worry about their families and friends: could you pray with and for me. I know there’s nothing you can do except listen – but prayers are so helpful and welcome.

All of these situations have everything to do with the being of our faith. We’ve all faced them at one time or another – those times when we just can’t keep on doing but are left solely to our being – digging deep for answers, for meaning, for comfort, for restoration.

The people who gathered around Jesus there at the temple asked the question that burned inside of them – are you the Messiah? Are you the one we’ve been waiting for? The one who will bring meaning to our lives, the one who will provide answers for our most profound questions? The one we can trust with our very lives?

We ask those same questions, don’t we. There’s a time when we all stop and wonder – there’s a time when we can no longer ignore those feelings of emptiness. And I think it takes a great deal of courage to let those feelings just BE, to sit with them, and to be open to the possibilities they hold for us. Because it’s when we’re most empty that I believe God is closest to us.

Maybe it’s then that we can really begin to know that most intimate, most lasting relationship of all – our relationship with God. And we realize once again, that you never know that God is all you need until God is all you have.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday – every year on the 4th Sunday of Easter our lectionary readings focus on that familiar image that runs through the Bible – God as shepherd.

Frederick Buechner writes, “Like sheep we get hungry, and hungry for more than just food. We get thirsty for more than just drink. Our souls get hungry and thirsty. But then once in a while that inner emptiness is filled – maybe this is what it means that God is like a shepherd – God feeds that part of us which is hungriest and most in need of feeding.”

God leadeth me beside still waters – an image of the peace that passes all understanding. It’s not just quiet, though – it’s a quiet that your soul needs to strip away all the noise so that you can hear the still small voice of God speaking to you. That quiet is a gift. Still waters is an image for solitude, an aloneness that is full, rich, satisfying, safe – because it is an aloneness that allows for awareness of God.

I ask the confirmands to define what the church is – often I’ve been especially struck by how many of them describe it as a safe place – church as a sacred place where all can come to feel safe and welcome; a place where people can go to feel safe and to be with people they can trust and confide in – a place where you can go to feel happy or sad; it’s a sanctuary; it’s a safe haven. And most of them describe church as a place where they can be in God’s presence more easily – to talk to God and listen to God. That’s what still waters are, isn’t it – I’ve been impressed by their wisdom to recognize that they need some quiet, some rest – and to find that in church – a time to nurture the being of their faith, a time to find some lasting peace. That’s a powerful testimony.

Where do you find the space to nurture your own soul – where does God lead you? Where is the place where the shepherd leads you to restore your soul? For me it’s at the water – for some it’s the woods, the mountains, your own backyard - it doesn’t matter where it is – it matters that we go there, led by God, for healing and peace. We escape the routine, the crowds, the chaos to listen to that steady rhythm of waves lapping the shore. That sound of water meeting rock and sand has a soothing, almost healing effect on many. Still waters invite reflection – the shepherd leads me beside still waters – and that’s how my soul is revived. The shepherd has taken me to where I need to be to find wholeness and peace again.

We’ve been looking at Jesus’ earliest followers who are models, mentors, for our own discipleship journey. There’s been much emphasis on what they did – the doing of their faith. Maybe it’s time for us to take a breath and take some time to focus on the being of our faith. Those early disciples have modeled that for us as well – each of them spent time with Jesus – listening, learning, praying; filling themselves so they could go forth and help fill others. Like those early disciples, we too need to ground ourselves in prayer and worship, learning, listening to what the Good Shepherd is saying to us.

Now, we may not like comparing ourselves to sheep – they have a reputation of being rather dumb, lacking in initiative, maybe even falling off a cliff or getting entangled in brush or getting stuck in impossible situations. And although there’s some variation in their color, they all look pretty much alike. But here’s the thing – even though we can’t tell one sheep from another, the good shepherd can – each one is an individual, worthy of his care and attention.

Maybe this is all more true than we’d like to accept – we too get entangled in the brush of our daily living – our worries, our cares – and we too fall off cliffs on occasion. But the good shepherd calls each of us back to the fold – if we hear the voice. Jesus tells us in the gospel reading: my sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them abundant life.” So we hear and we follow. And Christ gives us abundant life. We can depend on that.

Maybe Jesus is trying to remind us of God’s intimate love for each and every individual.

The 23rd psalm is incredibly personal, isn’t it. It doesn’t say, the Lord is A shepherd – people shall not want. It says, the Lord is MY shepherd – I shall not want. He leads ME beside the still waters – he restores MY soul. Maybe that’s what touches us so deeply – it’s about God’s relationship with each one of us – individually and personally. Slow down and savor that.

Have you seen those signs while driving through mountains or steep hills, that alert drivers to the runaway truck ramp? One mile ahead – one half mile ahead – one quarter mile ahead – and then, there’s the ramp itself. It’s a dirt track heading off the highway and it’s graded steeply upward so a runaway rig with no brakes can go barreling into it and be slowed by the incline to a gradual stop.

Maybe our worship is directed toward those of us whose brakes have failed and are on a runaway path. Maybe that’s a purpose of the 23rd psalm. Maybe a few minutes of hearing the shepherd’s voice in scripture and prayer and music will bring us to a stop and introduce us to the stillness. And we’ll meet the Good Shepherd who eagerly waits for the opportunity to take our hand and guide us safely out of the fast lane. We are fortunate indeed to be taken onto the safety ramp so our out-of-control life can be slowed and stopped – because it’s there beside the still waters that Christ speaks words of life to our soul.

It’s one thing to visit the still waters but it’s another thing to live there – I suspect that not many of us will escape to a nearby monastery or convent to live. That’s a calling for only a few – the rest of us will continue to live as we do. But I also know that the stillness we find in this time of worship, the power of forgiveness that is announced to us each week, the encouragement we find in our community as we seek to see Christ in each other and offer each other the sign of peace as we greet one another each week – maybe that stillness we seek is right here – right now in this time of worship – and then throughout the week we can recall it and be stilled for a few moments where we live and work. We come here to a safe place and find that that safe place goes with us in our daily living.

There’s a balance between the doing of our faith and the being of our faith – we really can’t have one without the other. So as we look ahead to our next 125 years in ministry, trying to discern where and how God is calling us, let’s go, led by the good shepherd, to the still waters that will restore us and empower us to do ministry all of the days of our lives. So may it be for each of us.

Let us pray: God of tenderness, God of compassion, I thank you for seeking me out as a shepherd seeks for his sheep. I thank you for keeping me safe – for standing with me in adversity and for blessing me with all that I have. Help me to listen more to you than I do right now – and give me the faith to follow you more perfectly. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.

April 25, 2010

CALL TO WORSHIP:

God is with us, this day and every day. And because God is with us, we can face each day with courage. God’s goodness sometimes seems to be a trickle, sometimes pulsing spurts, sometimes a mighty flood – but God is always with us. Let us praise God with our songs; let us seek God in our prayers; let us offer ourselves to God as we gather in worship.

I don’t know much about sheep except for their reputation of being rather stupid, lacking in initiative, and likely to run away from the flock and either fall off a cliff or get entangled in brush or be stuck in an impossible situation. Although there may be some variation in their color, they all look pretty much alike. And there’s no such thing as an independent, self-made sheep, is there – I’m not sure any of us are glad to be compared to sheep.

But – even though we might not be able to tell one sheep from another, the Good Shepherd can. Each one is an individual, worthy of his care and attention. Isn’t Jesus trying to tell us of God’s love for everyone, including and especially the “other?”

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them abundant life.” Do we listen? Do we hear? Do we follow? Do we experience the abundant life Christ offers?

The promise of abundant life doesn’t include a promise of a rosy, no pain, easy life – that’s no guarantee, is it. But the promise is this: the very presence of God, right now in the midst of our joys and our sorrows – that presence persists forever. We can depend on that.

We all want to know we matter, don’t we. We all want to be known. This is the foundation of our relationship with God, of our relationship with Christ. To be fully known is both painful and profoundly comforting.

Can we accept the humble status of sheep, let our masks and defenses drop away, and allow the shepherd to carry us on his shoulder and occasionally poke us with his staff? Can we acknowledge our emptiness – can, will, we let our emptiness BE, and then know that we are known, that we are cared for, that we are loved – each one of individually.

Imagine the psalm:

The Lord is A shepherd. People shall not want.

There’s a huge difference between that and

The Lord is MY shepherd. I shall not want.