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Never Abandoned (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

John 10:11-18

 Sermon:

As I prepare to retire and to leave my post as pastor of this church in a little over two months, I think back over my concerns for our community of faith here—what I believed God was calling us to be, what I believed God was calling us to do. One thing people often thought and said about this church is that we are an open community of faith, that we are accepting. At our best, I think that is what we are. But I am not sure that we have always been that way. So I wanted our church to be a place where people felt accepted. I wanted our church to be a place where people felt that they are loved, and loved unconditionally.

People get into some jams sometimes. We all do. Sometimes marriages, that were intended to last until death, get into trouble and end. Sometimes our children get into trouble and head down paths that can be very hurtful to them and to those who love them. Sometimes we fail at a job or the people who are our supervisors fail us, and we find ourselves having to deal with unemployment in this community, one of the most affluent in our state. Sometimes things go haywire and our better angels seem to go on vacation while the worst ones move in to take their place, and we do things that make us hate ourselves. As I can attest, sometimes things can go wrong with our bodies or the bodies of our loved ones that we weren’t counting on. A couple of weeks ago Dudley Condron reminded me of my physical misfortunes these past two or three years—heart surgery, a stroke, cancer. “Up in heaven, God must be saying, ‘That William really pisses me off,’” Dudley said. Of course he was joking. He was being Dudley. But sometimes, when things happen, it feels like that.

It has just been my hope and my prayer, along with something for which I have worked, that when the kinds of things happen that I have just mentioned, we all know that we are still loved. We are still needed in the ministry of this church. We are still a part of the community of God’s people. So, yes, shame is a part of life. But none of us here need to be ashamed when a marriage fails or a child runs into trouble or a job ends or things go haywire or our bodies fail us. Because, as the affirmation from the apostle Paul that we use often in our worship, says, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So my hope for our church in the past and now and on into the future is that regardless of what is going on in our lives, regardless of what a mess things seem to be, each of us can know that here we need not be ashamed. Here we need not be afraid. Here we need not feel alone. For there is a God who loves us just as we are, and there is a community of people centered in the presence and call of that God who loves us just as we are as well.

One of the pictures that I remember as a child being posted in a Sunday School classroom is a shepherd (Jesus, I think he was) caring a sheep on his shoulders. There was a look of satisfaction and maybe even a smile on his face. This was the shepherd, Jesus tells about in one of his stories, who had a hundred sheep. But at some point he realizes that one is missing. One is lost.

So what is the reasonable thing for the shepherd to do? Of course it is to say to himself, “99 out of a hundred ain’t bad. Sheep are not particularly smart. They are not particularly bright. Some of them get lost. While following the shepherd they can, and often do, get distracted. Something attracts their attention that pulls them away from the flock. That’s just the way it is. Too bad. So sad.”

But that is not what this shepherd, who Jesus tells about, does. He leaves the 99, who have followed him like good sheep, in the wilderness and he goes in search of the one lost sheep. Commenting on this passage years ago, I remember preacher and teacher William Willimon saying, “This was stupid—the shepherd leaving the ninety nine good sheep in the wilderness while going in search of the one lost sheep.” But that is what this shepherd does. He has a passion for what is lost. And so he searches, and he searches, until he finds that one lost sheep.

Why did he or she get lost? You know sheep are not like cattle. You can’t drive them. They are followers. They watch the shepherd and listen for his voice that they recognize, and they follow. So this particular sheep may have just quit watching and listening for a time. He or she may have seen what appeared to be greener pastures elsewhere. And the shepherd and flock moved on. But the shepherd didn’t forget. He came looking and looking until he found the one lost sheep wandering alone, easy prey for a predator. The poor, dumb, lost sheep.

The shepherd didn’t forget about him or her. He left the other 99 sheep in the wilderness and came searching for this one lost sheep until he found him or her. And then he put this sheep on his shoulders. And, as he does, Jesus tells us that he rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

The picture of that shepherd with his found lost sheep and ready to rejoice is what was on the wall of my Sunday School class when I was a child. It helped to shape my understanding of who God is. It helped to shape my understanding of who Jesus is. As I got older I began to witness and see that people too get lost. People too wander off from the fold where they know that they are loved and safe. People too wander off from the voice that would lead them, as the psalmist says, beside still waters and in right paths.

People too wander off. But ours is a God who does not forget about what is lost. Ours is a God who goes searching after what is lost. And, when the lost are found, there is rejoicing in heaven. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”

I realize now that the picture on the wall in that Sunday School classroom was of Jesus, the good shepherd. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus is quoted as saying in John’s gospel. And we are told that one of the chief characteristics of a good shepherd is that he doesn’t run away when times get hard or threatening. A wolf comes on the scene—growling, hungry, looking for prey—and some guy who is just a hired hand, who is just trying to make a few bucks by acting as a shepherd, gets the heck out of there. He is not going to risk his life caring for a bunch of sheep!

But with the good shepherd it is different. The wolf comes—growling, hungry, looking for prey—and the good shepherd doesn’t run. The sheep are not just a pay check for him. They are his life. They are what he is about. So, he’ll stand with them no matter what. He will protect them, even if it means risking or even losing his life. This is the good shepherd. This is the one with the sheep on his shoulders and a broad smile on his face ready to throw a party for the lost one who is now been found.

I think we all have times in life when we feel abandoned, when we feel alone. We are afraid of sharing what is going on with us because we wonder if others will want nothing to do with us—with our problems, with our sickness, with our lostness, or the lostness of our loved one. But the good shepherd reminds us that we need not feel abandoned. We need not feel alone. The good shepherd is seeking us. The good shepherd wants to embrace us. The good shepherd wants us to hear his voice and know that we are known and loved in spite of everything. The good shepherd wants us to know that he is no hired hand. He is not running when danger presents itself. He is not getting the heck out of Dodge when troubles arise. He’ll lay down his life for us. He does in fact lay down his life for us.

You can tell Dudley Condron that because he was not here today, being with his injured wife, I took the opportunity to preach about him. I got an email from him yesterday saying that he regretted that he and Joyce would not be with us today. Speaking of the theme for today’s worship, Dudley said, “The Lord is our shepherd… yes he is. Our family has been plagued with locusts of late, but I take my clue about God from Jesus, not Moses. The love of God is flowing to us through good folks both in and out of the church and we are helped…greatly.”

“I lay down my life in order to take it up again,” Jesus the good shepherd says. That is what he does. He lays down his life for us. But, when he takes it up again, when he rises from the grave, he rises in us through the presence of the Holy Spirit. He rises in us to make of us reflections of the good shepherd. So, when the likes of Dudley and Joyce go through difficult times we don’t run away either, like some kind of hired hand. When our friends go through difficult times—marriage breakups, screw-ups, craziness of all sorts of varieties, sicknesses, broken bodies—we don’t run. We don’t turn away. We seek to be those Dudley is talking about when he says, “The love of God is flowing to us through good folks and we are helped… greatly.”

One of the signs that we know the good shepherd in our own lives and experience is that we are reflections of that good shepherd. People get lost. They can screw up—sometimes badly. They can wander off and get lost as a ball that is thrown and lands in the high weeds. But the good shepherd has risen and is alive. And, if we accept the good news of the gospel, he is alive in us. The one who seeks us out in our lostness invites us to seek others out in their lostness—to not be afraid, to not run away; but to listen, to love, to seek to include them in the life of the church of Jesus Christ.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, April 22, 2018

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