Thursday, May 24, 2012

May 20, 2012

John 17:6-19
6 "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

To say that my father is a financial realist, well, that’s just being honest.  Raising four children on a pastor’s salary was not an easy task, after all, and so there were any number of ways that we, as a family saved money, but the one that stands out most for me was our summer swimming ritual.  Rather than paying extra for a membership to a pool, my dad would frequently take us to the local Marriot to go swimming.  For me, as one who has a relatively high level of anxiety in general, the walk through the lobby was terrifying.  I was just certain that someone from the hotel staff would stop us, ask for our room keys, and then we would be totally sunk, and in the vividness of my imagination, this somehow would be an offense worthy of police involvement. And while this never happened, those memories highlight for me the importance of belonging, of being in the right place.  Deep down, you see, I realized that, at least on the very basic level of hotel finances, I did not belong, and pretending otherwise was, as mentioned, an anxiety producing task.  Indeed, it can be utterly terrifying to recognize that you do not belong, and this experience can be traumatic in the extreme.  Whether you find yourself in a dangerous situation or in a group of people who vehemently disagree with you or even in a social situation where your values are not shared, there is little that cuts as deeply and as quickly as realizing that you are out of place, and so finding a place of comfort, a place of belonging, a place where one can feel home, certain in the knowledge that one is genuinely accepted, this is essential to who we are as humans.  We crave and need this as much as we need food and water.    
“I am not asking you to take them out of the world,” says Jesus, and, for a moment, it seems that he has either forgotten or disregarded this most fundamental and basic of human needs.  For here he sits, in prayer to his Father, knowing full well that his time on earth is drawing to a close.  And so this prayer of which we only get an excerpt reads as something of a last will and testament for his disciples. Having bluntly outlined what the disciples are in for, reminding them that they will have trouble in the world and that they should not be surprised when the world hates them for it hated him first, yes after he gives them this sort of grim forecast, he says this prayer, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world.”  And so Jesus prays that the Father will leave his disciples precisely in a place that they do not belong, right in the middle of Marriot Hotel Lobby with security circling, if you will.  To say that this is confusing, even a little troubling, well, that is just to scratch the surface.  What, exactly, is Jesus up to here?
Well, to get to the heart of that question, there are a few steps that we need to retrace.  Yes, for this notion of the world and its hatred of the disciples’ and their proclamation has a fairly specific meaning for John’s Gospel, and this meaning has frequently been ignored so that more human ambitions and desires could come to fill the meaning of this phrase. Yes, it is my sense that so often when the church sees itself in opposition to the world, it can very easily do so for the wrong reasons, which is not to say that there is no difference between the Christ and the world, but that this difference is not often what we think it to be.  For John’s Gospel, when one hears the phrase the world, one should not think merely of the created cosmos or human partisan politics or anything like that.  Instead, when John’s Gospel sets “world” in opposition to the disciples, it is intended to describe the forces of unbelief, sin and fear that will keep individuals from being relationship with Christ Jesus.  Which means that what the world cannot understand about the disciples, and about the Christ whom they proclaim comes down the grace, mercy and forgiveness that marks the God whom Jesus embodies.  Yes,  the reason that the world will come to hate the disciples is because they proclaim a God of forgiveness, a God who loves even those who despise Him, indeed, a God who would rather suffer the indignity of the cross than live without the sinners who have put him on that tortuous instrument.   And this logic of grace and mercy, make no mistake, is not something that the world understands. The tension is real, as is the rejection of God in favor of other forces.  For the world, meaning the forces of unbelief and sin,  cannot fathom a God who forgives enemies rather than destroying them, a God who would rather suffer sin, death and the devil than ever live without the cosmos that He created out of love, a God who will gather all people to himself with no regard to the way that we draw distinctions and make human judgments, yes, none of this is understood by the forces of unbelief that keep us in constant judgment of and competition with one another and keep us in distance from the God for whom we were created.
            Having spent three years, though, with this God in the flesh, I guess that the disciples cannot be all that surprised that Jesus will be leaving them in this place of hostility and competition, this place of brutality and division.  For, in a rather ironic turn of events, that is place that they actually do belong, no matter the hostility that they will endure for the mercy that they proclaim.  Yes, they will not be taken out of the world for this very simple and devastating reason: Christ loves those whom do not love him, and Christ’s mercy is for those who are hostile to it.  This is why the disciples must stay in the world, for it is through their proclamation that the world will come to know a God who loves even God’s enemies.  There is no way, then, that God can continue to be God’s loving-self and somehow take the disciples out of the world.  Indeed, because God has love for even those who do not love Him back, the world is exactly where the disciples belong.
            Not that this will be without its peril and danger, and the fact that early church underwent persecution and martyrdom, or the reality of the Egyptian Church’s on-going and current persecution all speak to the incredible cost of this love.  And that there are Christian brothers and sisters in the world who are still giving their lives for their savior should make us think long and hard before we think of ourselves as persecuted or marginalized for our faith.  Even so, though, this tension is something we experience within and without ourselves. Yes, we feel this every time we reject the God who has died for us or when we act as those this world and its values of accumulation and competition were all that mattered.   We are not free from these forces, even as we have been claimed by Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Yes, the world remains within us and outside of us, and often it is easy to feel that we are not in the right place, for we struggle to hold onto Christian mercy and kindness and very easily behave as though we ourselves belonged to unbelief.  Yes, Christ’s words ring true we do have trouble in the world and we do feel the constant battle between unbelief and faith, despair and hope, falsehood and truth.  We see these things in the way that we treat one another or in the way that our hearts grow cold  and we forget the incredible gift of faith that we have been given.   But fear not, dear people of God, for Christ has yet another word for you: “take heart, for I have overcome the world,” he says.  And yes, there is no power in heaven or on earth, no human darkness or fear that will keep him from loving and sustaining you, even as you, too, are left in the world.  Yes, Christ is with you, which means you are always exactly where you are supposed to be.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

May 13, 2012

John 15:9-17
9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

You will forgive if I am unusually straight-forward this morning, but in time, I think you will see the purpose behind all of this.  There are a few reasons, of course, for this level of frankness, but the most central of them is that I do not want you all to miss the point, so incredibly important is it.  It would be easy enough to do, because we just heard Jesus use a lot of words that we seem to hear in church and nowhere else, words like “commandment, “abide,” and this strange language about bearing fruit that will last.  And, yes, we could certainly explore these concepts by means of other stories and images, but I am afraid that this would delay the inevitable, would only push back what needs to be accomplished and in the end not really get us any nearer the truth of what is being presented.  Indeed, the whole point might actually be that what we have just heard is so very real, so very deep into our own realities that to speak in analogy would be to obscure the point.  But this is already getting complicated, so let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Yes, I guess this is what I want you all to know with such incredible urgency that there is not the time for other stories, no matter how whimsical they may be.  Yes, I want you to know this: the faith with which you have been gifted, the faith that was poured over you in your baptism, the faith that you receive from hearing these words and partaking of this meal, well, I scarcely have the words to use to explain the incredible importance of such things, but alas I will try.  For among these very churchy sounding words that we hear today is a reality of incredible importance, and it is the reality of what faith means, what form faith may take in our lives.  Yes, in today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus say this startling thing: “I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from the Father.”  Here in the small hours leading up to his arrest, to a group of disciples who will soon abandon, deny and finally betray him, Jesus says this most astounding thing, these disciples are his friends.  These ones who will continue to squabble over who is the most important and powerful, who will soon abandon the Good Shepherd who has chosen them, it is them who are called friends.  And what is more, it is not just anyone who calls these disciples friends, but the very Son of God, the whom John reveals is the Word of God made flesh.  Yes, the creative force that animates and enlivens the entire cosmos, this is the one who has now proclaimed friendship with the disciples.  That reality, in and of itself, takes a lifetime to contemplate and enjoy, but there is more to it.  What exactly is means by which this friendship is realized?  Well, it is this: that Jesus has revealed all of the Father to the disciples, and because of this, because Jesus has withheld nothing from them, nothing of what he and his Father share in the bonds of the Holy Spirit, the disciples are now to be considered his friends.  And this, then, gets to the urgency that I spoke of just a few minutes ago, because what Jesus is here describing, this friendship with God, this was not just for those first twelve.  No, this friendship is yours through the faith that you have been given and this is the urgency.  For what awaits you here is a gift too wondrous to tell.  The faith, after all, that you have been given, this faith has made you not just a child, but indeed after the language of John, a friend of God’s.  And what is more, the fullness of the Father through all eternity, the light that called light into being, the perpetual joy and love that marks the life of God, this is literally all yours.  For Christ has not withheld anything from you.  There is nothing, nothing that Christ shares with the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, that has not now been given to you through your baptismal faith.  The full glory of the Father has been revealed to you, and perhaps there is nothing more glorious than the fact that this Father, in Christ, has named you as a friend. 
And the reason, of course, why I say that there is urgency here is that this knowledge  has a profound impact on the way we live, on what the fruits of our lives may end up being.  Because you now live in Christ, live in the full glory of divine friendship, you, you yourselves, you participate in the life of God.  This is what faith means.  Faith means that you have been swept up into the vast expanses of God’s own life; everything that the Father shares with the Son, this is now yours, for the Christ has called you his friends. And far from being some abstract mind-game that has little bearing on our actual lives, this friendship is something that we can take with us from this place, for this is a reality that will impact us down to our molecules.   Yes, for this friendship does not stay here, but it goes with you when you leave this place, and it is out of this friendship that we may bear fruits that will last.  For the very things that you have been revealed to you, these are the very things that feel in such short supply in this old world of ours, things like faith and hope and love, these gifts that you have received from the Spirit.  Indeed, in a time in which there is so much fear, so much cynicism, think of how deeply you are needed in this world, no matter where your work or home-life has placed you.  For everything you now do, be it working on plumbing or teaching our youth or raising children or working in an office, all of this you do as a friend of God, you do as one who has already been chosen and secured by the Christ who goes before you.  And that means you can do this work not as one who is captive to fear, cynicism and suspicion, but as one who know that deep and abiding peace of the Father’s friendship, which means that you do not need to fall victim to the fear and cynicism that can so easily swallow us up and keep us from genuine love of all whom we meet.  Yes, because you have been called God’s friends, you may now seek out the lost and the lonely, those who are struggling to fit in or those who might need a word of hope or an act of comfort. For you are the Father’s friends, how absolutely astounding is that?
Oh, no doubt, we will do this in such a way that still bears our brokenness and our fear; this side of heaven, we will not love as perfectly as we should, nor we will trust as purely as we would like, but the reality of divine friendship remains.   And we lose sight of this reality often, and we give ourselves too easily to the dark forces that constantly swirl around us.  In this, we are shrunk by fear and sin, and our neighbors tend to disappear as we fight for our own survival.  Yes, we have a remarkable tendency to forget just exactly whose we are, which is what it means to confess that we are indeed sinners, but fear not.  For even when this happens, when the forces of fear and cynicism begin to encircle us and this divine friendship is overshadowed by human fear and guilt, we need do but one thing, and that is to come this place, to come to this table, where we are again refreshed by the eternal friendship of God and again become who we really are, in the midst of a fellowship, an abiding, that has come about not because of anything we have done, but because of the gracious gift of Christ crucified.  Perhaps, then, you will understand the urgency behind these words.  That in, with and under all the cracks of your lives, you have been named Christ’s friends, and who wouldn’t want to hear that as urgently as possible?  In Jesus’ name, amen.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

May 6, 2012

John 15:1-8
1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

When I was in my early teenage years, I sort of became obsessed with paintball guns.  There was this group of other young would-be soldiers who used to play paintball on this big plot of land in the south part of Ft. Collins, and how I wished to join them.  So when I asked my parents about it, you can image my shock and disappointment when I was told that, no, I would not be joining this testosterone-addled would be paint-militia anytime soon.  How on earth could my parents turn down something that was of such obvious importance to me?? I mean, a group of sixteen year old boys shooting one another from close range with CO2-fueled guns, what could possibly go wrong?  So, I kept pressing.  Maybe it was the fact that the necessary gun and equipment cost a lot of money.  No problem, I could get a job.  Or maybe it was the fact that these paintballs could do some serious bruising.  Well, that could be dealt with, as well, by the protective equipment.   In the end, I suppose, what was really at stake was that my parents, from that deep primal place of instinct, simply did not think that making a regular habit out of paintball gun fighting would be in my best interest.  Now, the specifics of why parents said no to this blooming hobby are, in fact, far less important than the fact that they did say “no.”  And every single one of us has had this experience, of being told by someone that we love that our plans are not in our best interest and that we must be told “no,” or in the case of you parents, having to inform your beloved children that, against all their wishes and desires, they cannot do something because it, in the long run, will not be in their best interests, even though the child might not be able to see this at the time.   What pain on both sides of this, as a temporary and momentary no is given for the sake of health and wholeness that will outlast the fleeting desires of any given moment.  Because I did outgrow my desire for a paintball gun, and I can think of very little now that sounds less enjoyable that being shot through by pain-filled pellets.  So, the old cliché actually rings entirely true: in the end, when I had a little bit more understanding, a little bit more maturity, I actually did thank my parents for saying “no” to me. 
“I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-grower . . . every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  Well, how is that for a description of the baptismal life?  If we find this to be startling, even a little troubling, I suppose that is to be expected. Our cultural life, you see, has gotten us to a place where we just do not understand spirituality in this sort of way.  Instead, we are more prone to think about spirituality, about our life with God and ourselves, as this sort of generic and perpetual affirmation.  There is no judgment, no pruning to be had.  Instead, what we are asked to unlock some latent potential that is deep within us or to connect to some gooey divine core that has been covered up by years of painful experience.  Yes, the message that we constantly receive is that spirituality is matter of finding our true selves and harnessing the power that is there present.  What we need, according to these systems, is not someone to tell us “no,” but to begin taking part in some cosmic “yes” that we have too long ignored.  Yes, we must find our own truths, whatever they may be, and live into them as deeply and fervently as possible.[1]   One must only scan the spirituality section of a local Barnes and Noble to get a sense of what I am talking about.
While this may be true for some of the spiritual projects we encounter around us, it is my hunch that this symptomatic of a deeper, more universal human concern. How deeply we desire to have everything we need within ourselves.  You can see this not only in the writings of Deepak Chopra, but also in some of the things that we value most about ourselves and our culture, virtues like expressing our individuality or our myths of self-reliance,  and while this sort of spirituality may have the best of intentions and signal a growing need for the spiritual life in our culture and while there is certainly nothing wrong with developing and cultivating our God-given gifts and talents, there is this problem.  When we seek nothing but affirmation, nothing but development without critique, absolution without confession, growth without honesty, we always end up in a dead end.  For  this sort of spirituality will finally reach its dead-end, will cul-de-sac, in the never ending maze that is the human heart.  You see, the reason that these sort of spiritualities will never actually work, the reason that they cannot render us unto the living heart of God is as simple as it is painful: there are times when the most loving and kind action that God can take is telling us “no,” which is to say that we are in constant need of being pruned into the life of God.  And if you are anything like me, you will run from this “no.”  It is very difficult to hear the truth about ourselves, to see in front of us all our fears and insecurities, all our pride and despair, all of that stuff that keeps us from genuinely loving God, loving one another, indeed even loving ourselves.  Yes, we would much rather ignore any and all of that, and attempt to re-create ourselves through any number of projects that do not ask to actually look at who and what we are. 
But here’s the catch.  God’s love in Christ is way too real to let us continue in that uneasy ignorance, and isn’t that finally the best possible news there is? That God’s love in Christ is too honest not to engage us in our actual struggles, isn’t that finally a demonstration of just how deeply God loves us, that God will not allow us to continue in paths of destruction and harm? That God in Christ loves us enough to get down in the deep muck of our lives and continually put to death all the things that keep us imprisoned to decay?  Yes, though it wounds our pride and calls to question our despair, that God sometimes says “no” to us is the best possible news that there could be, for this means that God’s love is real and genuine and not some far off reality that does not have any impact on the way we live.  For as we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we can most assuredly expect to undergo some pruning.   Do not be surprised, then, when we see some of our old habits, some of our old bondages come under the divine knife so that you may grow more fully into the baptismal name you were given.  Yes, those things that would keep you from the certain knowledge that you are a beloved child of God, those things are going to have to be pruned away, be it the belief that you do not merit Christ’s forgiveness or that you do not need it.  Yes, and while we are at it, we can pretty well expect the things that would keep us from genuinely loving our neighbors to be cut down, as well.  So we must not be surprised when the Father takes from us our fear and mistrust of those who do not share our worldviews or our tax brackets.  These too will be pruned away, for Christ’s love is for the whole of the creation. And this is the dare of the Christian Gospel, to believe that even when God critiques and prunes us, God does this so that you may live more fully into the life that you have already been given. Does God say “no,” from time to time?  Well, yes, yes God does.  But this is only done so that God’s deeper “yes” may take on fuller flesh.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

[1] See, for instance, Deepak Chopra’s website.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Good Shepherd Sunday, April 29, 2012

John 10:11-18
11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

We all know them, these images of Jesus as the good shepherd.  One search with google images yielded more pictures of Jesus with sheep than I could reasonably look through and still claim to be doing actual work.  It is my guess, in fact, that some of us have an image like this up in our homes. Yes, these images of Jesus out in some field somewhere, shepherd’s crook in hand intently gazing over a flock of sheep.  Or one that I was more familiar with, a haloed Jesus with tiny sheep either in his strong arms or with that same sheep strung across his broad shoulders.  And why not?  There is a great deal of comfort to be taken from this image of Jesus with a shepherd’s staff overlooking his flock.  There is an earthy sentimentality that we take from these images, and there is little that we love more than a little sentimentality.  So the goal this morning is not to take away this particular comfort, but the question we must ask is whether these popular images in fact tell the whole story.  So the question is not whether or not these images afford us some comfort, but do they provide the full comfort of today’s gospel text?   Have we, in fact, been robbing ourselves of the full impact of this particular way that Jesus comes to us?
Well, the answers to those questions are pretty complicated, but suffice it to say that there is more going on here than mere sentimentality.  Instead, when Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, the one whose love for the flock is true and real, it is actually the exact opposite of sentimentality, meaning that this love Jesus has for his flock is based entirely and exclusively in reality as it actually stands.  And here’s what I mean by this.  In these images that we typically associate with Jesus the Good Shepherd, there are a few really important details to the story that left out, and these are the details that help connect this saying to our actual lives.  The first of these is the presence of the hired hand, of the mercenary shepherd who is just doing the work for a quick buck and will cut and run whenever things get a little dicey.  Yes, seldom, if ever, in these pictures of Jesus as a shepherd is there someone in the corner running away from danger as a wolf approaches. That’s a detail that has so of conveniently been left out, but it is essential to what Jesus is saying, because the point here is not that Jesus is the only shepherd, but that he is the only true shepherd, the only good shepherd.  And how true it is that all the things we look to to bring us comfort or a measure of security inevitably let us down in times of trial or struggle.  Yes, the most extreme example is that there is nothing under heaven or on earth that can possibly save us from the grave, but this is a reality that we encounter on a daily basis and not just in our final days.  Yes, we open ourselves up to abandonment every time we look to someone or something other than Jesus to ultimately fulfill or sustain us.  And my oh my the various forms these mercenary shepherds can take, be it money or status or always having to be right at the expense of others or mistrust of those who look and think differently than we do, the list goes on and on, but the one element that seem to have in common is the way that they prey on our insecurities, the way that they use our fears against us until we grow cold in love towards God, towards our neighbors and finally towards our own lives.  And this is what the false shepherds do.  They use these things against us, and the instant that times get tough, that life gets a bit overwhelming, they leave us.  We sit alone in our troubles and none of what we believed to be of lasting value, not money or political affiliation or how important we are at our jobs, none of these things can actually save us in our times of trial.  For they have left the instant that blood touched the water. 
And here is the trouble, we like sheep who wander from shiny thing to shiny thing, we have a hard telling the false shepherds from the true one.  We are easily distracted by things that don’t, in the final analysis, mean all that much and we have a tragic tendency to follow any voice that will provide momentary comfort.  And so we like sheep, need a shepherd, need protection not just from dangers outside of ourselves but also from dangers within, protection from the alarming human tendency to value those things that actually keep us imprisoned.  Yes, so it is into this rather unsentimental reality that Jesus proclaims himself the good shepherd, and by this point, these words have a honey’s sweetness for our ears.  Because what Christ is saying to you is this: that he, the good shepherd, he cares for you, he loves you in the ways of the eternal God.  In fact, he loves you so entirely, so completely, that the same love he shares with the Father is the love that now names you.  Yes, and if we are need of evidence of this truth, look no further than the cross.  For where our idols will abandon us in the time of trial, he will not.  Instead,  this will be the finest enactment of his love for us.  For he will not abandon us to suffer fear and death on our own.  Rather, in these most terrifying moments, the bright light of his love will blaze all the more perfectly.  Yes, when we have long since been left alone by all the things that are valued in this old world, his love will remain and will shepherd through our graves to the greenest pastures of his love.  And this is why he is the good shepherd, because he knows you and loves with a completeness that we can scarcely understand, though no doubt we get wondrous glimpses from time to time. 
To be sure, this doesn’t take away the presences of wolves and mercenaries.  In this life, even under the protection of the good shepherd, there is still much that troubles and threatens.  There are still fears of ailing health and fears of being alone. There are still sleepless nights as we think upon an open and unsettled future.  Yes, the hungry still cry for bread and the poor still ask for their dignity.  There is no way to tell what tomorrow may bring, be it blessing or curse.  And there are still false shepherds everywhere in our midst, those dark forces that work on our weaknesses and insecurity and make us believe that we can and must protect ourselves from an ever-changing world. Yes, in this life, there are real threats and real dangers, would that any of us could make it otherwise.  But against these forces, hear against these words of Jesus the Christ: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”  Even in the midst of the tenuous things of this world, you are known, you are beloved and you are remembered.  Jesus, the good shepherd, has made you his own and promises you his love in this world and his eternal bliss in the next.  And with that being true, and with you having been brought into knowledge of your savior and lord, then, we are also given the strength to step away from ourselves a bit.  To step into the ways that others are struggling and to help those who are being devoured by sadness or poverty or even excess.  For you now belong to the good shepherd and he will lead you into the love that he shares for all creation, for the lonely and the beat down.  Fear not, though, for even in these realities, he will never abandon nor forsake you.  In Jesus’ name, amen.