God is Always Near

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year C)
May 12, 2019

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

southern-grits-recipeSeveral years ago, before going to seminary, Chelsea and I were members of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Dothan, Alabama. One Sunday, our priest at the time, Mother Ede, preached a sermon that’s stuck with me for a long time. In her sermon, she shared with us a story that she had once heard from another priest. The story goes like this.

“Once upon a time, in the Deep South, a hungry man was having breakfast at a diner. A waitress took his order, and he asked for bacon and eggs with coffee. She brought the coffee right away, and then, a while later, came back with a heaping plate of food. He looked down, and–to his surprise–next to the bacon and eggs he’d ordered he also noticed a strange lump of runny, white porridge. ‘What’s this?’ he thought. When he spoke up to complain, the waitress shook her head and got a funny look on her face. ‘Honey,’ she said, ‘those is grits. You don’t order grits. Grits just comes.’”

I’m sure all of us can relate to the man in the story. Whether it’s a bowl of grits from a Waffle House or a basket of piping-hot cornbread muffins and biscuits from Cracker Barrel, I’m sure all of us, at one time or another, have received something at a restaurant that we didn’t order or something that didn’t expect. It just came, and even though we were surprised when it did, we were thankful.

In Mother Ede’s sermon, she talked a lot about how grits and grace are a lot alike. Like bowls of grits, we don’t have to ask for God’s grace. It just comes. Whether we deserve it or not, God’s grace flows freely to all of us. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we’ve done or left undone. God’s grace comes in a variety of ways. Some of us have experienced it in the birth of a new child. Many of us have experienced it in the love that we share with close friends and family. We’ve all experienced it in the gift of life itself. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat- all of these are signs of God’s grace. But, there’s another type of grace that we’ve all experienced as well, even though we might not have realized it at the time, and that’s the gift of God’s presence in our lives. Wherever we may be, God is always near, taking us by the hand and leading us to where God would have us go.

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, but it’s also known by another name- Good Shepherd Sunday. Each year on this day, we hear a passage from the Gospel of John having to do with Jesus in his role as the great shepherd of the sheep. In today’s lesson, Jesus says to the crowd gathered around him in the temple, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What the Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

In his writing about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the author of John’s Gospel seeks to convey an eternal truth about God and God’s relationship with us. By God’s grace, we are his. He has claimed us as his own. God is the one who seeks us out and longs to be in relationship with us. Before we can even ask, God is already there, waiting to gather us up in the sheepfold, and there’s nothing we can do or say that will ever change that. This fundamental belief has ancient roots in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the great pastoral psalms, such as Psalm 23, which we heard earlier this morning. Listen to these grace-filled words again.

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod, and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

Has there ever been a more precious gift than the blessed assurance that God is with us wherever we go and that God will never abandon us to face the evils of this world alone? That’s the definition of grace. We never have to ask for God’s presence. God is always near, even in those moments when we feel completely alone.

Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in the life of this parish. One chapter has closed, and a new one is ready to begin, which seems especially appropriate in this season of Easter as celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. We’ve waited a long time for this day, and even though our new worship space hasn’t officially been consecrated yet, we can be assured that God is already present here with us and that our new buildings have already been covered in prayer by those who have worked so hard and paved the way for us to get to this moment. Yes, this is an exciting time, but it’s also a time when we have to say “good-bye” to what we’ve known for so long. The little white building on County Rd 39, which has served this parish so well for the past twelve years, will no longer be home to St. Catherine’s. A new chapter is now ready to begin. So, in the midst of our excitement, we also grieve for what we’ve known and loved for so long, and we offer our thanks to God for the gift of being able to serve for as long as we did in our previous home.

God’s grace will continue to wash over us in this new place, and we will continue to follow Christ wherever he may lead us. As we move from one chapter to the next, dear friends, keep the faith, and always remember that Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, is always near, ready to take us by the hand and lead us to greener pastures. Amen.

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