In one of my previous congregations there was a lady named Helen who I visited at the care center where she lived out her final years. Helen was never married and she had no children. Helen was an only child, so she had no brothers or sisters, and no nieces and nephews. Helen’s parents, who were long dead, were both also the only child in their families, so Helen never had any aunts and uncles, and no first cousins. Helen’s parents had moved into the area from another state, so even the extended family was far away and quite unknown to Helen. She knew of only one second cousin, but he was also in a care center and had Alzheimer’s disease, so there was no contact with him anymore. And Helen was always a very quiet, reserved person, who made few friends, and all of them were dead. So in her old age, Helen had absolutely no one left. She was the most ‘alone’ person I ever knew.
Well, that certainly is not a problem here today, is it? Eleven children, 27 grandchildren, 43 great-grandchildren, and 14 great-great-grandchildren survive Mabel. What a legacy she leaves!
I did not know Mabel, and I do not know anyone in your large family, or how it goes your family. But I also come from a large family, and I know how it goes for us. It goes like this: some of us have a close relationship, some of us are not close. Most of us get along pretty well, some of us don’t get along at all. Some of us are pretty good about keeping in touch, some of us see each other only at weddings and funerals. Most of us are pretty common, down to earth folks, some are a little out there. But still, for all of us, there is a deep connection, a common background, a whole host of shared memories, good and bad, and a sincere concern for each other’s well-being. When one hurts, we all hurt. When one has something good happen to them, we are all happy for them. It’s probably much the same for you.
As I said, we all have a deep connection and shared memories. And the main common connection, the primary memories for those of you gathered here today is Mabel– your mother, grandmother, great- or great-great grandmother, or friend. So you gather here to remember Mabel, to honor her memory, and to acknowledge the connection you all have with each other because of her. And if it wasn’t for Mabel, a lot of you would not be here, or anywhere else, at all.
Our gathering this morning is in a church, and being in church we are reminded of someone else, someone else to whom we are all connected, someone else without whom none of us would be here– and someone who wants to have a deeper connection to and a closer relationship with everyone he has created. I read some of His words just a few moments ago. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said, “he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live again.” Believe in me, says Jesus, and you will have a connection that not even death can end.
In John chapter 10 verse 11, Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” It was a bold claim Jesus was making here, especially for his first listeners who were not yet sure about him being God’s Son. His listeners were very familiar with that great Shepherd Psalm, the 23rd Psalm. That Psalm was already a favorite 2,000 years ago. In that Psalm David proclaimed his deep faith in God as his Savior and protector by saying, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” In John chapter 10, Jesus applies those words to himself, saying, “I AM the Good Shepherd.” To some of Jesus’ listeners that day, it was an outrageous claim. “He is demon-possessed,” said some in verse 20. “He is raving mad,” said others. But some believed in him, and to those Jesus gave the gift of eternal life.
“In my Father’s house are many rooms,” Jesus said to his followers in John chapter 14. “I am going there to prepare a place for you,” he went on to say, “and someday,” he said, “I will come back and I will take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be also.”
“How can we know the way?” asked Thomas.
“I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father but by me.” It was to Mary, grieving the death of her brother Lazarus, that Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life; whosoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live again.” Throughout the book of John, this Good Shepherd is offering life– life now, which is his gift, and life beyond the grave– to all who would believe in him. In those opening verses of John 14 it is DEATH that Jesus is talking about, and yet, he doesn’t even use the word death, or any other unpleasant word or image. Instead, Jesus says that He will be coming back for us, and he will take us to the home he has prepared for us. That is what is means to have such a Good Shepherd who will always take care of us– always, now and forever.
One of my earliest memories of faith is of a picture that hung in one of my very first Sunday School classrooms. It was that familiar painting of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Pictured is a peaceful green valley, with hills on either side, and a quiet stream in the background. Jesus is in the center, he is surrounded by sheep, and he is holding in his arms one little lamb. I knew way back then, even as a child, what that picture was all about. That lamb looked safe and secure in Jesus’ arms, and I knew that what that picture meant was that I too can be safe and secure in the arms of Jesus. As one gets older, faith gets more complicated, and there are many questions and problems we come up against as we try to maintain faith in such a world as this. A sudden, incurable and devastating cancer, that quickly ends the life of a loved one like Mabel can also challenge one’s faith in a loving God. But even with all that, at its center, faith is still very simple: We can be safe in the arms of Jesus, now and forever.
Just don’t jump out of those arms. I never held a lamb, but I have held squirming puppy dogs, and I did not want them to jump out of my arms because then they could get hurt. So don’t jump out, don’t run away from Jesus, and don’t ignore Jesus. Just be still, and rest in His arms. There are no other offers on the table. Believe in Jesus and you will have life, now and forever.
John 6:68b — …Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
Psalm 23:1a — The Lord is my shepherd…
John 10:11 — (Jesus said), “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
John 11:25 — Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits Thou hast given me, for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me. O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly and follow thee more nearly, day by day.
–Richard, Bishop of Chichester (1197-1253)