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Newaygo United Methodist Church
Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors

The Hired Hand

The Hired Hand

I remember the childhood Christmas we got our new bikes.  In the early light of dawn, I crept down the stairs and as my eyes adjusted to the semi-dark I saw standing there near the tree five new bicycles, three girls bikes and two boys bikes.  The girls bikes looked exactly the same and I crept back upstairs until everyone else woke up knowing that one of those bikes was for me.  After everyone had awakened and discovered what was in the living room, each claimed their bike, and one was left for me.  Knowing the character of my sisters, I immediately proceeded to make it my own by scratching a small “k” in the paint next to the brand name on the bike.  Once I mastered the art of riding the bike I found new freedom.  I loved to ride around the neighborhood pretending I was off on an adventure to some far away land.  When things didn’t go well at home, my bike was ready to take me away to imaginary lands and adventures.  I valued that bike above all else.

But there came a day when one of my sisters wrecked her bike, bending the wheel and knocking out several spokes.  Unbeknownst to me, she simply traded the bike for mine.  When I want to go for a ride, I went to where we kept the bikes and saw the broken bike standing alone.  The others had already gone where ever they intended to go.  Fearing that someone had taken my bike and wrecked it, I looked it over and found no “k” etched in it.  When my sister arrived with the bike she had taken I protested that she had my bike, but she claimed otherwise.  So I waited for an opportunity to reclaim my bike.  What made it difficult to do that was that she had told our parents that I had wrecked my bike and was going to steal one of theirs.  Our parents had no reason to disbelieve her so I was told to leave the bikes alone.  I did not protest or defend my innocence.  A few days passed and I watched my sister ride out on my bike each day.  But there comes a point when injustice can no longer be tolerated.  Every fiber of my being cried out a call to action to fight the injustice that had been done.  Courageously, I approached my mother and told her what I had done to my bike when I first got it and begged her to look at the bikes carefully.  Much to my surprise she examined the damaged bike and did not find the “k” etched where I had claimed it to be.  When my sister arrived back home, my mother went to examine the bike and found the “k” exactly where I said it would be.  And to verify what I claimed, my brother, bless his heart, said he had seen me scratch the ‘k’ in the bike that Christmas morning and had done his initial to his bike as well.  I was able to reclaim my bike and once again had the freedom to ride in the wind and travel on those imaginary adventures.

From the time we are baptized and from the time we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we are marked as Christians.  Whether it is on behalf of our parents when we are infants or when we claim for ourselves the name Christian, Jesus knows us as his own.  In our passage from John we see this very clearly:  The good shepherd “knows” his own and they know him.  He is not like the hired hand, who does not truly care for the flock he tends.  If the situation gets dangerous the hired hand might just throw up his hands and say, “enough, I’m out of here!” leaving the sheep unprotected and abandoned.  A good shepherd knows each and every one of his sheep and they know and respond to him.  A good shepherd finds one missing and will go looking for that lost sheep until he finds him. 

Jesus is the good shepherd who comes looking for us when we are lost, guiding us back into the fold.  As we continue to grow in a life of faith, we are faced with many choices.  When we are living in a life of faith, when we are focused on God, we are enabled to make better choices about our life situations.  If we are not focused on God, we are more likely to make choices focused on ourselves only.  That means that decisions we make will be centered around how good we are at our chosen tasks, how good we look to others, getting ahead of others, having the latest gadgets and a whole host of other things.  And most of the time we are satisfied with that and might even be reasonably happy.  But there come times when we know getting ahead is not enough.  There are times, when we are focused on ourselves, that we feel uncertain about who we are and what we believe and how we live life in general.  Those are the times we try life on our own and pay little attention to the promptings and proddings God is giving us.  Those are the times when we are likely to feel lost and alone, directionless, unfulfilled.  Those are the times when we are likely to set our faith aside and continue seeking the happiness that alludes us.  But no matter how far we go down that path of self-centeredness, we are still indelibly marked as Christ’s own.  The Shepherd who laid down his life, now comes seeking his own, drawing us back, until we are “found” and refocused on the more important things in life. 

Being known as Christ’s own carries responsibilities with it.  God created each of us with gifts, skills and talents that God wants us to use to bring creation to its intended purposes.  God doesn’t want us to wallow in this often chaotic, troublesome world forever.  We have been given a part in restoring creation.  Jesus knows us by name and claims our gifts and our talents for use in his kingdom.  We each have a calling to claim and fulfill and will not be content in life until we answer that calling.  Basic happiness in life comes when we are answering the shepherd’s call and going where he wants us to go, most often into greener, more fertile pastures where the true treasures in life are discovered and where we thrive.  If we feel we are not thriving in life, if we feel that we are cornered or battered about, if we feel we are missing the boat somehow, if we feel that we are dissatisfied and life is generally blah, then we could be not using the gifts God has given us to work and play in this world.  Some of us have gifts of giving, some have gifts of compassion, some have gifts of faith, of teaching faith, of serving, of helping, of humor, of peacemaking and there is a whole list of spiritual gifts in the new testament.  If those gifts we have go unused, then we may find ourselves struggling in our inner life.  There is nothing more energizing than discovering our gifts and using them the way God wants us to.

Jesus used his gifts and had a choice in life.  He could have followed his instinct for survival, could have followed the crowd’s desire for him to be the healer they sought, could have escaped the pain of the cross.  But he chose to do his father’s will, and that meant the long trek to the cross, the pain and suffering involved to show the world just how great God’s love for his creation was.  We too have a choice.  We could take the safer, maybe easier road of self-centeredness, grabbing all we can to satisfy ourselves.  We could set God aside and live our lives as if God didn’t matter, doing things only our way.  But God does matter!  When we are in tune with God  we find our greatest happiness and sense of fulfillment, no matter how hard the path is, no matter how hard the choices we are asked to make in that journey. 

One of the hardest things for an ordained pastor to go through is the process of ordination itself.  Often it happens that after three years of expensive seminary, after countless hours of writing the answers to theological and biblical questions, after recording a worship service, after meeting yearly with district boards on ordained ministry, a candidate can be turned down for ordination.  A committee determines that the candidate is not yet ready for ordination and serving as an elder in the United Methodist Church.  The experience can be devastating for someone that has put in so much time and money over the course of years it takes to get to the point of ordination.  Several of my colleagues have been through that experience.  They came to a time of decision.  Do they pursue ordination, having been put on hold for another year, or do they quit and take the seeming rejection to heart and pursue another course in life.  Those who stick with their convictions and take the time to grow in the year following being turned down most often find that the year was worth it.  They do grow and have become quite capable ordained clergy.  Those who choose not to follow the course of ordained ministry find themselves on other paths of faith.  But each one, no matter what their decision, is still marked and claimed by the Good Shepherd. 

The question for us is, “whose are we?”  Do we belong to the hired hands, those people who tug and pull at our self-centeredness, only to abandon us at some point.  Or do we belong to the Good Shepherd, the one who will never abandon us, the one who calls us back when we have been sidetracked from our purposes in life, the one who offers assurance and forgiveness and love throughout our lives.  Sometimes it’s easier to follow the crowd, to follow a charismatic leader, to follow a cause, to follow an organization, even to follow a church and these seem to give us a sense of purpose in life, but that sense of purpose can so quickly fade when the crowd gets into mob mentality, when a leader fails to meet our expectation or standards, when a cause gets sidetracked, when an organization loses its good leadership, or when a church becomes self-focused and wrapped in discord.  At times all of these are the hired hand that fails when controversy or disruption comes its way.  But The Good Shepherd remains true, because he knows who we are.  We are etched with an initial that says “beloved”.  And that we will always be. 


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