The Good Shepherd

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A long time ago, when I first began working, I had a job as a life insurance salesman. One of my policyholders was an elderly woman named Helen. She lived on Baitz Street, not far from here. During the course of nearly six years that I worked at that job, I happened to see Helen about every other month. Those were the days when insurance men would come by your house to collect monthly insurance premiums. It was something that got started during the depression, which, apparently was when Helen got her policy. During these visits, Helen would always have a story to tell about her family; how her daughter lived in Florida, how her niece was going to nursing school and how she was praying for her youngest son. It seems that her son had ended up in prison. She didn’t tell me what he had done and I didn’t ask. Helen kept saying that, “When her son came home things would be different” and “When her son came home, he would be a better person” and that all she could do was “to keep praying for him every day.”

            When Helen was eighty five I stopped seeing her. . . you see her policy was all paid up. But one day I received a call from her nurse. She was home, she had been mugged on her way down to the hospital to get her glasses changed. She had no money for food and she wanted to make a loan on her life insurance policy. At the time, Barbara and I were running the food pantry at St. Thomas’ so I put her on our select few clients where we delivered. As it turned out, it was during these visits that I found out that Helen’s son was put in prison for abusing his mother. He had stolen money from her repeatedly. He sold things that belonged to her to buy drugs and booze. And then he had finally beat her up in attempt to collect on her insurance policy. And that was why he was in prison. We continued to help Helen with food and resources until, one day, about a year later, Helen died. Barbara and I went to the funeral home to see her, where, surprisingly, there were hundreds of flowers from all her sons and daughters and nephews and nieces, – all the people who could have helped her in life, but didn’t; but now wished her a fond farewell in death.

            This is a story about a sweetheart of a woman, a mother, who had great faith and a greater expectation in the power of God in her life. She wasn’t bitter. She wasn’t resentful. She lived each day in joyful expectation that things would be better. She loved her children and was proud of their accomplishments. She especially loved her youngest son and worried about him even though he had hurt her terribly. This is the way God loves his children; with an unconditional love that borders (at least the way most of us think) on insanity.

            All of us need to be reminded, now and again, that God loves us in spite of ourselves. He loves the most wicked person among us because he can see the potential, the good, in all of us (even though at times we fail to see it ourselves). He loves us like only a mother can and is willing and able to forgive and forget all the hurts and sorrows we have inflicted on each other and on the world. But most of us do not belief this can be true. We know how we judge others and we know the grudges we hold. But God’s ways are not ways.

            Outside a church the other day, I saw a sign that read:

No Jesus – No Peace
Know Jesus – Know Peace

            This sign is at the heart of the message in the lessons today.

            In the Gospel this morning, Jesus talks about the Good Shepherd. “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 . . . “ Many times I have been reminded of the closeness and presence of the Good Shepherd through knowing people like Helen and many others, through dreams, and songs, and pictures, and flowers and all creation. This week, especially, with new life finally blossoming forth through the trees and flowers of Spring, I have been reminded of the words of the reassurance of Easter and of the resurrection. I have been reminded about the blessedness of life and the joy of freedom in this land. This week, though, I was especially reminded of the Good Shepherd in the memory of Helen who is for me the image of the way God is. It is in these types of experiences that we know that God is near. For I believe it is in this way that Jesus shares His Peace and Presence with us, but only if we are willing to give up all the other cares of life that are constantly filling our minds with worries and expectations.

            The believers today in our reading from Acts were on a spiritual high when they forsook all and sold their possessions to live in charity with each other. Many of us may feel more than a little uncomfortable with this reading. Is it God’s will that we should sell everything and live in common like the early church? Or was that a demonstration of some ‘spiritual solidarity’ that the early believers envisioned as they witnessed the very first fruits of the Spirit in the Church?

            Very often, we have a choice in life. That choice depends only upon what we believe to be most important in our lives. All of us seek the exactly same thing . . . happiness. But we all have a different idea about how to attain it. For some, happiness is the amassing of wealth, for others it is family and friends. For others it is good health or a good job. For others it may be cars, boats or hardware. For others it may be a home of one’s own. For the great majority, it is all of these things all lumped into one, and for many, this happiness that we perceive to be true and good becomes a goal, quite out of reach to the vast majority of us. For as much money as we amass, it never seems to satisfy our longing, and for as many things we have, or as much prestige we have attained, it never seems to be enough.

            The Epistle today describes the world in which all of Christ’s followers ought to belong. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” Here in this letter, Peter provides for us a vision of life without the things of the world that cause us worry and disunity. Here is Peter’s vision of the Kingdom of God and the first thing we ought to seek as followers of Jesus. Here is the thing that ought to be most important in our lives and worthy of our remembrance and practice and our time and honor. We are God’s Children, Paradise is our destination and Heaven is our home.

            One of my favorite books that I have is “How to live like a King’s Kid”, and though I haven’t read it in a long time, I am constantly reminded through the title of that book that I am a King’s Kid and that I am here only for a very short time to do as much good as I can accomplish. But how can I measure my accomplishment? Is it in what I have? My money? My Home? My Car? The Madison Avenue folks would say “YES, YES” that’s it . . . you need to buy, buy, buy! But what Jesus would say is . . . no, in the end, the true accomplishment of anyone can be measured only in what he has shared with others and what he as freely given away. For that is the only thing truly worthy of God’s praise at the end of one’s life. Jesus tells us that we can start living in the Kingdom now and that we don’t have to be a part of this world if we choose not to be. The Peace of God will be ours as long as we put the Kingdom of God first in our life. And that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will continually remind us of his presence so long as we seek his will and dwell on his Word. And if we do all these things, then true happiness will be ours and the blessing of God the Almighty will be with us.

            Grant us Lord, that we may always hear you when you call and follow where you lead us in this world and in the next. Amen.