FIRST LESSON – Psalm 23 SECOND LESSON - John 10:1-18
TIME FOR CHILDREN – Luke 15:3-7
On Memorial Day weekend I am remembering this:
Some time ago now, my father gave me a metal box of my grandfather’s mementos. In it was an assortment of postcards written mostly in about 1915, in Dutch, from his family in the Netherlands. There were several postcards of street scenes in Rotterdam, grandpa’s home town, maybe taken as remembrances when he left home. Grandpa was a pianist and organist and composer and my brother Bill has most of the music he has written, but there was a sheaf of music in that box. There were his birth certificate and his naturalization papers, and his induction notice into the First World War. There were documents for the purchase of the little green house on Havana Street – which he and grandma bought for $6,000 in 1954 – with the stipulation that they put in a bathroom. Which my father did for them, when he remodeled the rest of the house.
Then there was a stack of neatly rubber-banded packets of bills paid during the last couple years of Grandpa’s life – $4.53 to the gas company, $7.00 to the doctor, $10 to the church, $6.67 to Steketee’s department store for a pair of pants, $9.90 for a pair of shoes. And there were a stack of cancelled checks: one for $5.00 to my cousin on what would have been her thirteenth birthday and several for small amounts to my mother, to reimburse her for picking up their medications, and doing their grocery shopping. All tidily recorded, in the late 1960s – how much and to whom and for what.
I sat not long ago and looked at all that again, and relived the last months of my grandfather’s life as I looked at his cancelled checks. It touched me deeply to see his careful handwriting again, and to remember that little green house on Havana Street. I remembered going with my mother to get their groceries, and taking them to the doctor.
And then I started seeing things that I couldn’t explain. Checks periodically for a hundred dollars and two hundred dollars written out to the estate of a dearly loved and quite wealthy family friend named Chris. And then more checks to other people – all of them much larger than the ones for shoes and pants and groceries. All of these checks had my uncle John’s name carefully written in the left hand corner. And then there was a letter from a credit bureau to my grandfather saying that my uncle wasn’t able to pay his bills and owed many thousands of dollars. And I began to piece together a story that I had never been told as a child. I saw the evidence before me, in my own hands, in that little metal box, in the form of cancelled checks from many years ago. That grandpa and grandma had borrowed money from their generous friends to pay my uncle’s bills. And what touched me the most was the proof that they had paid it all back, even after their wealthy friend Chris had died, and grandpa had written the checks to his estate.
A kind of bottomless sadness came over me that night as I put those checks away. Sadness that alcohol could have affected my uncle’s life not only, but my grandparents’ lives as well. Sadness that two such gentle and loving people as my grandparents, who had virtually nothing themselves, should have assumed the debt of their son – paying it back, literally, until the day they died.
But there was also a sense of awe, almost, at the honor that I discovered in my family. Honor that a father would stand behind his son. Honor that a father – even a man of almost ninety – would pay back the debt his son owed. Even after the man to whom it was owed had died. That he would pay back the money to a man who had been far wealthier than he was. For honor’s sake. Because it was right. Because he was a person of integrity.
And then a sense of remembrance came over me. I sat with those cancelled checks in my lap for a very long time that day, thinking to myself that the world is very different now (most of us don’t even have cancelled checks today and that’s only the beginning of it) and how I miss that little green house on Havana street where my grandparents lived simply and with honor. Where my grandmother served us all ham buns with cheese and cherry Jello salad and where she told me beautiful stories. Where I was safe and secure and well loved. And I longed to find that place again.
I know that the 1960s were violent times in so many ways. I lived through the 1960s and I know that. But what I remembered that day was the security and serenity of the little house on Havana Street and how safe I felt there.
I long for a safe place. Maybe you long for a safe place. Where we don’t have to be afraid. Where there is no hatred or violence and where people are trustworthy and where we can all feel secure and loved and well cared for.
And in our scriptures for today we have a glimpse of that safe place. We have the picture from Psalm 125 of the strong, everlasting hills surrounding Jerusalem. They protect the city from harm as it nestles safely in the valley. Which is the way God surrounds and protects us. So hold that picture in your heart.
Now you remember how it was about sheep don’t you, and goats?
In the Old Testament days and on into the New Testament days all but the very, very poorest families kept at least one sheep or one goat. And those little animals were life-savers for the family. They provided milk, and cheese and meat, and their skins were made into warm blankets and clothing and their horns were even used as musical instruments. They were precious and valuable. And shepherds were entrusted with the care of these precious, valuable animals. Sometimes all the families in a village would hire one shepherd to care for all their lambs. They kept them safely in a pen all night long – with high walls and a sturdy gate that locked. That pen protected the sheep from the lions and wolves and bandits and thieves who roamed the hills in that wilderness area. In the morning the shepherd would lead them out into the dry dessert hills outside the village. They would wander among the sand and scrubby little trees and pricker bushes. They would climb over the rocks and into the crevices and little caves and sometimes they would stray away. The shepherd would call them back and lead them to where he knew the pools of water were and where green grass grew for them to graze.
Or sometimes the small sheep would be injured among the rocks and cracks and crevices of the path and then the shepherd would search for them and carry them back to the rest of the flock.
And at night, he would count all the sheep as they clustered and crammed back into pen and sometimes he would even lay his own body down in front of the gate at night for extra safety for the sheep.
And I am remembering the great king David. He was a rich, powerful, wise, God-loving king and under his leadership the country became well organized and wealthy and larger than ever before. He also had a lot of enemies, and you might remember that he spent a lot of time in the caves in those hills around Jerusalem. Hiding out from his enemies. And in those caves he wrote songs, maybe even the one we read this morning: Psalm 23, which Cindy also sang for us. I’m picturing that king in that cave. He’s remembering the times when he was shepherd boy in the rocky barren wilderness where there’s hardly any water and where almost nothing grows. And he remembered how he knew the places where there were pools of fresh water to drink and grass for his sheep to eat, and he led them to those sweet places. He had his heavy thick rod (like a very large baseball bat) and his strong staff and he defended his sheep from wolves and lions lurking among the hills. And maybe still in that cave, with his enemies searching through the hills for him, David had this picture in his mind: that God had set a table for him – a long table, lavishly loaded every kind of good food and delicacy and overflowing drinks. As if to show his enemies how God loves him and cares for him and provides all his needs. And in that cave David breathes deeply and in utter security. He says, “To the end of my life God’s goodness and compassion will be my constant companions and I will live in the luxury of God’s presence with me daily.”
Maybe your life is one series of challenges after another and maybe there really are people out there who want to do you harm. And maybe you are fearful and lonely and you long for a little time with God in a safe cave. Picture the ways that God feeds you lavishly and restores your soul when you are utterly depleted. Stay in that cave for a while with the God who promises and provides for you.
Maybe you go out every day among the thorns and the scrubby trees and the very dry, hot dessert and the pricker bushes. Maybe you long for cool water and green grass. Maybe you’ve fallen among the rocks and cracks and crevices. Maybe you’ve strayed away and lost your way and you can’t find your way home. Then hear Jesus calling your name in the darkness. Hear him searching for you in the bushes and finding you in the crevices. And feel him pick you up gently and carry you home safely, where you belong.
Find that safe, secure place and flourish there.