Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 7, 2017; Year A
Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.19-25; John 10.1-10
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Jesus knows people by name.
This past week I read a story in the Christian Century Magazine, told by M. Craig Barnes, who now happens to be the president of Princeton Theological Seminary. It is a story about his life and he titled it: “Finding God at the bottom (p. 31).”
He begins: “My father was a preacher who believed it was important to memorize verses of the Bible (p. 31).” On Monday each week Craig’s father would have him and his older brother write a certain verse on a note card. They were expected to recite it from memory by dinner at the end of the week. His father would point to one of them and say “Romans 8.28.” If they didn’t immediately start saying: “For all things work together for good for those who love God,” they’d have to leave the table.
By the time Craig was a teenager he had memorized a lot of the Bible, not out of a love for Scripture, but because he didn’t want to be dismissed from Saturday evening dinner. He said, “I never paid attention to the words. But they were still in me (p. 31).”
When he was not quite 17, his parents’ marriage broke apart. His mom left their home on Long Island and went to live with her sister in Dallas. His father left the church he had started and just disappeared. His older brother dropped out of college, got a construction job, and helped Craig finish high school. Craig got an after-school job at a gas station and together the two brothers survived.
They never really talked about their parents leaving them and how their world had crumbled. He said, “This wasn’t just because we weren’t good at sharing our feelings. Mostly it was because we couldn’t afford emotion. We were too worried about the next meal and a place to stay (p. 31).”
The following Christmas his brother and him decided they would go to Dallas to visit their mother. They didn’t have money for a plane or bus ticket, so they decided to hitchhike the 1,600 miles from Long Island to Dallas.
By the end of the first day they were somewhere in Virginia on Interstate 81. It was snowing hard and they were on an entrance ramp with their thumbs sticking out. As the snow got heavier, there were fewer and fewer cards. After a couple hours they finally saw a pair of headlights pull over in front of them.
It was a Virginia state trooper. They were expecting a lecture about how dangerous, not to mention illegal, it was to hitchhike. Instead he told them that the highway had been closed for two hours and that after attending to an accident up the road he would come back for them and take them to a diner that was still open.
They stayed put on the side of the dark highway in the blizzard. After months of hustling their way through the immediate issues of making life work, the two brothers were forced to talk to each other. A painful reality flooded into them: They were disposable to the people who were supposed to love them. They had been abandoned.
They tried to pass the time by quizzing each other on sports statistics, but neither of them had ever been very good at that. Then his brother pointed at Craig and said, “Romans 8.28.” They spent much of that dark night in the blizzard asking each other to recite the verses of the Bible they had memorized but never truly heard.
At one point Craig found himself saying the lines of Isaiah 43: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you … Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” By the time he finished reciting those words, he was crying.
That night, when a passage about the sustaining love of God cast out fear that was too deep for me to even acknowledge, became the turning point in my life … At the bottom, I found the relentless love of God who was with me and always will be, no matter how deep the waters. When you find God at the bottom, it’s possible to enjoy life’s highs and lows without fearing you’ll fall beneath the love of a Savior (p. 31).
Craig didn’t realize it until that moment on the side of the road that the Good Shepherd had always been with him, knew him by name, and that he belonged to a God who loved him and would never let him go.
The same is true for you and me. Jesus knows you by name and is with you, most especially when you might find yourself at the bottom of life.
I know this seems untrue or even backwards because of just how alone we can feel, or depressed, or stressed because of change or transition, yet even if you don’t believe it or can’t for any reason right now in your life, I will keep telling you that Jesus knows you by name. You are important to him. He loves you and will never abandon you.
That Jesus knows each of you by name is our first important lesson of the day. Our second is this: Jesus leads people into the fold. What does this mean?
It means that no matter where we find ourselves, Jesus is always trying to lead us into life-giving community. Like sheep, we are never meant to be outside of a fold, a faith community or to go through life alone.
Sometimes we think we are. We think we can keep our faith all on our own apart from worship or brothers and sister in Christ who care about us. We think we need to put on a front and not let anyone in because that would make us vulnerable.
We think we need to bear our own burdens in silence in order to not trouble anyone. We think that we are too far at the bottom for Christ the Good Shepherd to find us, put us on his shoulders, and carry us back into a community of forgiveness and love.
Thank God we have a Shepherd who goes out and finds us no matter where we are, calling us by name and drawing us back to himself and into the body of Christ. Why would Jesus do this? At the end of our Gospel reading Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Jesus desires life, not just scraping by life, but abundant life for all. So much of this good life is experienced within a faith community. Yes, no church is perfect, far from it, yet it is the fold into which Jesus calls his sheep.
Think about our life together here at Heart River. Far from perfect, I know, but perfect is not Jesus’ purpose for us. This is the place and the people in whom we get to practice forgiveness. We get to practice what it means to really love one another despite differences or disagreements. We get to practice serving one other, and being served by Christ at the table.
This is where we welcome the newly baptized and commit to pray for them in their life with the Good Shepherd. This is where we get to see lives transformed because for the first time people begin to realize that God does know them by name and there is nothing they can ever do to make God stop loving them.
For those of you who are here because you are at YCC, you are just as much a part of our life together as anyone else who has ever walked through those doors. I hope you know it and can feel it.
Whatever is offered to any of us here is also offered to you. These abundant life things called grace, love, forgiveness, healing … these are yours to have, to experience, and make yours in this place among these people.
But, this is the not the only place where the means of grace is to be found. Jesus talks about other sheep and how he must bring them into the fold as well. Jesus has life-giving pastures all over the place, and wherever you go or wherever you find yourself, rest assured, Jesus is there to call you by name and lead you.
There are many confusing things about our Gospel reading today. Jesus is the gate and the shepherd, we are sheep, there are thieves and bandits. Let’s not get lost in the details today, but cling to what Jesus is making clear to us:
He knows you by name. You belong to him. He leads you into life-giving community. And he came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.
We have been so very fortunate to have had Jesus lead people like Shera, Tim, Hannah, Evelyn, and Roland into our life together. Good byes and transition is always painful, and yet, how blessed are we to have been able to spend these last 6 years together.
This body of Christ is a living organism. It’s always changing and moving. We as a church community looked different 6 years ago when we called Shera, and we will look different 6 years from now. Our one constant is Christ and He will hold us together.
Shera and Tim, Jesus, the Good Shepherd is leading you to Grand Forks. You are known and called by name by the One who has always been with you and always will be. We are so jealous of the new fold into which Christ will lead you, yet know you will always be a part of us here at Heart River.
The truth we hold dear today is the truth Craig realized on the side of the road: We are known by name and no matter where we find ourselves, even if it’s at the bottom, we will never fall beneath the love of our Savior Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep.