By The Rev. Justine Guernsey
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When my oldest son went away to college, I worried about him. We would communicate through the internet. The instant messages would go back and forth between us on an almost daily basis. Not huge discussions but more like brief check-ins with one another. One Saturday evening when we were typing back and forth, I decided to ask about his faith and so I asked James if he was planning to go to church the next day. Mind you, I didn’t expect a “yes”. I realized that he was now an adult and he needed to find God on his own. He needed to discover his own relationship with God. So as his mother, I thought it might help to prompt him, nudge him. His response startled me.
“Mom,” he typed, “you know I don’t go to church anymore. But I’ve been reading a lot and I read in the Gospel of Thomas that you can find God under a rock or in a tree.” I couldn’t resist and quickly typed back, “So are you going to a rock or a tree tomorrow?”
I’m certain many of us have searched for God and have found Him at different points and different places in our lives. If we were to reflect on the question “Where have you found God?” the answers would be as unique and diverse as each one of us. Some would say it was in a sunset; they saw God there as they gazed up at the fiery colors streaking the sky. Others might say they felt God’s presence when they held their newborn child, when tiny fingers wrapped tightly around their own fingers. Or perhaps some would say God was found in the gentle touch of a friend’s hand on their shoulder in a time of uncertainty or pain. Certainly some would say they have found God here, in this sacred space, in this beloved Cathedral.
Our God is a good God. We search and we find. We ask and we receive. And we are blessed with moments of pure joy, moments of amazing grace, moments of profound depth and sacredness. But unfortunately, as much as we want to stay, to savor those times, to hold on to those moments, the world we live in inevitably draws us back and pulls us away from the God we so desperately seek.
John’s gospel for today reminds us of this. It was winter; the festival of the Dedication in Jerusalem. We know this as Hanukah today; the festival of lights, which commemorates the rededication of the temple in 164 BC after its destruction. We watch as a lone figure approaches and walks in the temple. Jesus is walking in the portico of Solomon, not out in the open; perhaps sheltered from the cold.And we hear the words again, “it was winter” and wonder if it doesn’t also describe the bleakness, the spiritual chill of the time and place.
The Jews surround Jesus, encircle Him and begin to attack Him with their questions. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Another translation reads “How long do you intend to annoy us?” They are not truly seeking; they do not ask so that they can believe. Jesus responds by pointing to His works “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” He points to His words, reminding them, “I have told you and you do not believe.” But it is not what they want to hear or know. Their purpose is to trap Him…to back Jesus into a corner, to gather evidence to use against Him, to eventually rid themselves of this so called “king”, this Good Shepherd. They do not recognize Him for who He is. They are not His sheep.
But His sheep do know Him. They hear His voice and follow Him, see Him for who He is!
Against the backdrop of the temple, they gaze upon Jesus…and what they see is the true temple…the living, breathing temple, the dwelling place of God.
During the festival of Dedication, the festival of lights, they look up and see Jesus …and what they see is the light of the world.
They know their Shepherd.
But where is He in our world? And how do we find Him?
We all need to find God, to discover His Presence in our lives. John’s gospel talks about that relationship today. Listen to the words again. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” “I know them.” Not “they know me and follow me” but “I know them”. Our Savior knows us. Inside and out. With all our quirks, all our imperfections, Our Savior loves us, comes for us. As human beings, we crave this intimacy; we so desperately want to be connected, to be accepted, to be included, to be known and loved for who we are. Jesus does this and then He promises that no one will snatch us away.
And His love runs deeper, because even when we’ve stopped, even when we’ve given up looking and searching, Our Lord does not. He knows us, He looks for us, He comes for us, He dies for us. While we may forget that we are His sheep, Jesus never forgets He is our Shepherd.
“It was winter.” I have felt the chill in the air over the past two weeks. All of us have seen the pain, the heartache, the tragedy caused when someone is so dis-connected, so alienated, so alone. Some of us are already tired of hearing about the Virginia Tech tragedy. We don’t want to read about it or see it anymore. We want to tuck it away, put it behind us; but honestly, it’s too soon to do that. As Christians we are called to bear one another’s pain and this tragedy calls us to stop in our tracks and assess where we are and who we are. To look at the society in which we live, to call us to action, to be accountable to one another and to God for how we live our own lives.
In describing the day of the shootings, Marilyn Lerch, a pastor and campus minister at Virginia Tech stated, “We in Blacksburg awoke Monday morning with fierce winds blowing snow across our community, an unusual weather condition for these mountains in mid April. Little did we know where the winds would blow us that day.”
Personally, I’ve asked myself over and over if the tragedy at Virginia Tech was preventable; there were certainly warning signs. But pointing fingers and casting blame won’t help us, and it certainly won’t heal us. What I do know is that thirty-three lives ended suddenly and tragically, that thousands upon thousands were affected by it, that our world became a little darker, a little colder, shattered by the scope and magnitude of anger and hurt and loneliness of one man. It was winter.
And as the event unfolded and was played out in the media, we found ourselves on our knees, crying out and praying. And I hope we recognized the Truth that stood before us…that in our own searching and looking for an answer, we found a Good Shepherd searching and looking for us.
I found comfort knowing He was there. Knowing that when I couldn’t find Him, He found me. And as my Shepherd bent down to pick me up, I heard Him say,
“I know them and they will follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
No one will snatch them out of my hand.
What my Father has given me is greater than all else,
and no one, no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”
We are His sheep.
Thanks be to God.
Copyright 2008, Justine Guernsey. Used by permission.