Sunday, May 12, 2019 “Forever in God’s Hands”

Sunday, May 12, 2019  "Forever in God's Hands"

The message for Sunday, May 12 “Forever in God’s Hands” by Pastor Erik Goehner, heard during the 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00AM Worship service.

“Forever in God’s Hands”    John 10:22-30   4th Sunday after Easter  

If you have ever seen a church Christmas play then you probably have also seen a shepherd’s crook. A shepherd’s crook is a tool that shepherd’s use when herding sheep.  While the staff could be used as a walking stick or for protection against predators, the crook on the end of the staff is actually used for sorting sheep.  It is used for grabbing a sheep by the neck so you can pull them out of the flock in order to check on them.

This tool is still used today, however, in my experience another kind of shepherd’s crook tends to be more effective.   In this picture you see the typical shepherd crook on the top but on the bottom you see one with a more narrow hook and a longer pole.  This kind of crook is used on the feet of a sheep to grab a hold of them.   This is the kind of shepherd’s crook that I used in High School when I was helping to raise sheep.  We used the neck kind a few times, but with that hook the sheep could squirm around or back up or fall down and manage to get out of your grasp. The foot-hook was much more difficult for them to disengage.  Once you had that narrow crook around their ankle, they were not getting away.

I was thinking of this foot–hook when I read the Gospel for today where Jesus says that his sheep hear his voice and no one can snatch them out of his hand.  Then again he says, “What the Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”  It sounds like when you are in God’s flock Jesus will get a hold of you with a grasp that will not let you go.  It is not a grasp we can slide through or fall out of, but one like the foot-hook that firmly links us to the Good Shepherd.  It is a grasp so strong that nothing can separate us from it.

For me this is good news because there seems to be a lot of things that threaten to snatch pieces of our lives away from us.  There are accidents, tragedies, illnesses, and violence that can snatch away our health, our homes, our security or even our loved ones.   Try as we might to hold on, sometimes our strength, our hope, our joy, seems to slip through our grasp and we get pulled in the direction of confusion, doubt or despair.

This can especially occur when people experience a great loss in their lives.  They can wonder if they are losing their grip and may grasp at anything that might connect them to their former selves.  This is certainly true of refugees who have to flee their homes due to war or other hardships.    Nearly a quarter of refugees worldwide are from Syria. Millions of people are still living far from home after fleeing the conflict in Syria — refugee life is their new reality, filled with heartbreak and challenges. Some fled to camps, and others now live in host communities in Syria’s neighboring countries. Many had to run from their houses with only the few personal items they could carry.

These items have become bittersweet symbols of home and hope — they connect them to the life they’ve left and ache to regain one day. One relief agency called Mercy Corps wanted to see how the items refugees brought with them helped to connect them to their lost homes so they visited Syrians participating in their programs in Jordan and asked: What is the most important thing you brought with you?  Here is what some of the people they interviewed said:

(next slide)  Muhanad, 11, and his family have lived in Jordan for a while now. He’s holding a birthday gift from his grandfather. The robot toy reminds him of his grandfather, “who is now in heaven,” he says.

(next slide)  Muhammad, 33, is from Daraa, Syria where he used to teach kindergarten. His hobby was giving his friends haircuts and shaves. The barber equipment he brought with him is a reminder of the dear people he used to spend time with while he cut their hair. He’s stopped his hobby now — the last person he gave a haircut to, his best friend, was killed in the conflict.

(next slide)  Faysal, 34, and his family arrived at Azraq camp. They came from Damascus. He wears a head scarf, which he holds onto dearly. His good friend who died in the Syrian conflict gave it to him. Faysal teaches boys soccer in one of adolescent friendly spaces in the refugee camp.

(next slide)  Sumaya, 23, and her family have been living in Jordan as refugees for a number of years.  She says, “This card was part of my birthday present from my best friend. I only brought the card with me. Two days after my birthday my friend was killed. Whenever I’m sad or feeling angry I open the musical card and I feel like there is still hope.”

Each of these people had a friend or family member snatch away from them because of the war, yet each of them has something physical that they took with them to remind them of the person they lost.   Without the story behind them, the items they chose to take might seem trivial or unimportant. But each item came to have deep significance to each of the refugees because of the emotional and spiritual connection they brought to the people and the homes they had lost.  By grasping that simple physical item each person was able to feel like they were still holding onto to that connection.  Even though something and someone had been taken away from them because of the war, it was as if those simple items symbolized that at some deeper level they could never truly be taken away.

A person who is a refugee certainly knows what it is like to have something snatched away, but people do not have to go through the traumas of war to experience that same sense of loss.  We have known of many in our own country and our own community who have gone through such loss.  There were people who had homes snatched away in the fires last November. There were loved ones snatched away in the Borderline tragedy.  There were lives lost in the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh and more recently at the synagogue just north of San Diego.  There were young lives lost and innocence forever snatched away at the school shooting in Highland Park STEM school in Colorado just over a week ago.   In the midst of such unimaginable and horrific events we need something to hold on to in order to give us hope.  We need a sign that there is something greater than the hatred and violence that can hold us when everything seems to be slipping away—a sign of a deeper connection that can never truly be from us.

In  2016 Valerie Castile  had her son Philando Castile snatched away from her when he was shot during a traffic stop. (next slide)  Philando Castile was a school nutrition supervisor sometimes known as the “lunchman”.  He would often dip into his pocket and pay the bill to help kids who couldn’t afford lunch. So this last month Ms. Castile gifted enough money to clear all the debts of senior students at Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope, Minnesota so that they can graduate.

She said, “My son was doing a beautiful thing by paying for a child’s meal, and he understood that for a child to be at their best they needed a nutritious meal.” Ms. Castile continues, “Our children have one job and that is to go to school to get educated and become the future leaders of this country.  I’m on a mission from God, and the spirit of my son.”  

Ms. Castile’s mission has caught on, and in honor of his passion for helping kids, there is another charity called “Philando Feeds the Children” that has multiplied his mission by thousands. Last year the fund wiped out the lunch debt of every student at all 56 schools in Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Schools, where Castile worked.  The YouCaring fundraising page for the fund says, “Philando is STILL reaching into his pocket, and helping a kid out. One by one.”

In Gospel of John today we heard Jesus say, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”  The things that Jesus said and did testified to the presence of God on earth.  They testified to a love that could bring healing and was greater than the illness, the threats, the anger and the violence that so many people had experienced.  When Jesus died and rose again he told his followers he would still be with him—that the legacy of his love would live on inside of them and that it would live on in you and me.

When I think of people bringing small symbols of their lost loved ones with them as they flee their homes so that they might remember their connection and carry on with a spirit of hope,  I think of the presence of Christ still being alive today.  When I think of a group of people caring enough to form a fund and give of their resources so that children can have a free lunch and young man’s generous spirit can carry on, I think of the presence of Christ still being alive today.  I think of the Good Shepherd holding on to us with a grip that will not let us go. I think of the Good Shepherd who reminds us that God is greater than everything else, greater than all the violence and hate.  And knowing that we are forever in God’s hands can give us strength and courage to face each new day.