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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Security-it's a really big deal for us. We want so much to feel secure so we talk about secure borders, secure portfolios, secure homes. The word approaches us from every direction. We hear about national security, global security, social security. Even two year olds know this word as they toddle about clinging to their security blankets. Oh yes, we like to feel secure, free from risks, and we spend lots of time and money to reach that desired end. We insure our homes, our cars, our lives, even for thousands and thousands of dollars. We invest in our mutual funds, our pension plans. We sign contracts about job and wage security. We even produce pre-nuptial agreements to protect us, to keep us secure in case of divorce. Oh yes, we want to be secure. We'd like to picture ourselves living life in a cozy family room, fireplace aglow, insulated from danger or harm.
And, yet, despite all our best efforts, there's finally no guarantee that the fire won't go out. We've seen it happen before. Though we invest, insure, and insulate our lives, there's finally no guarantee. In a matter of seconds, it can all be stripped away.

I think of my own years in parish ministry watching this happen in people's lives. A young man goes out to play tennis, an activity to foster the security of health, and before the second set, he's lying on the court with a cerebral aneurysm. A woman works long and hard in a successful career only to find out that internal politics have cost her her job. A family watches the growth of a bright and promising son, only to discover that at age 20, he's diagnosed with schizophrenia. A woman comes home one day to find her husband gone for good-and with him, the only source of income for her family.

We all know stories like these. We know people whose sense of security has suddenly been stripped away. Maybe their stories are our stories, and in living such stories, we know that life can be anything but secure. Life can be frighteningly fragile. Even living good and clean lives, doing all the right things, being fair and just and kind, not even these can protect us from harm. We're not immune to accidents or betrayal. Despite all our best efforts, we still remain vulnerable.

And, yet, Jesus speaks a different word to us on this day. Jesus speaks another word to all of us who look squarely at the insecurities of life. Throughout the 10th chapter of John, Jesus speaks of God's people as a beloved flock and himself as the shepherd protecting that flock from thieves and wolves. Oh, Jesus is aware there are lots of wolves. There are powers and principalities that threaten us as God's beloved flock. But there is one power which is greater, one security which cannot be threatened. That security, powerfully pictured in today's Gospel, is the promise that we live in the palm of God's hand. And no one, no one, can snatch us away. There is no mistaking this message. In fact, Jesus says it twice in two short verses. First, he says, "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand." And, then, in the next breath, he says, "No one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand." I suppose you could say that we are the unsnatchable ones. And that is a security for all eternity, as Jesus says, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish."

And that, dear friends, is finally the only real security that we know. You live in the palm of God's hand, and no one can take you away. Though your employer can tell you that your contract has ended, she can't tell you that God's care has ended too. Though your spouse leaves you for another, he can't walk away with your God as well. Though your doctor says there's no treatment left, they've given up on a cure, they can never say that God has given up on you.

No tragedy can bring with it the news that God has forsaken you, that God's hand has been removed. In all of life's fragileness, one thing remains strong. You are held in God's hand and no one can snatch you away.

So, what does it mean to live in that kind of security, the security of knowing you are in the palm of God's hand? Is it life lived in a cozy family room, a never-ending retreat before the fireplace? Does it mean a chance to sit back, relax, basking forever in the warmth of love? Well, yes, sometimes that's how it is. We need retreats into the quiet of God's presence. But if that's all there is, then we've missed the boat. We've not heard the whole story.

The security of God's embrace does not put us to sleep. On the contrary, it is this security which frees and even empowers us for action in the world. In Scripture, the hand of God is not only an image for safety; it's also an image for power. We are secure and empowered by God's hand. Knowing that God is caring for us and holding us, we are freed and empowered to get on with the business of caring for others, of loving our neighbor and sharing the Gospel, of striving for justice, and caring for creation. The security that you and I have in God is the very thing that frees us to lean into the very insecurities of this world and to participate in the work of God to redeem the world. The assurance that nothing can snatch us from God's hand is that security which enables us to confront the powers which strive so desperately to snatch God's kingdom from the world. With that knowledge, we can take risks, we can tread into the unknown, we can become involved in the work of God in the world.

Just a few weeks ago, a group of 20 pastors and theologians came together to explore the question:

What is good pastoral ministry and why is good ministry important?

One answer has stuck with me. A pastor said, "Good ministry is important because the church is the only place with the message of good news, specifically, the message the only death that really matters has already taken place. You see, as baptized Christians, we have already died and been raised with Jesus Christ. We live in the palm of God's hand. And it's that message of unconditional love and security which frees us to truly live creatively, abundantly. Oh, so many of our institutions want us to live by fear. They want us to shape our whole lives to protect them and insulate them, to shield and to hoard our life all because we're afraid.

But if the only death that really matters has already taken place, we don't have to live by fear. Rather we can live in hope and in freedom. I think Helmut Thielecke put it this way: If we know who holds the final hour, we don't need to be anxious about the next moment. Secure in Christ, we can live this day, this hour, this moment, in freedom and in joy, in fullness of life. We can take some risks, like:

* Standing up for justice at work, even though a stand for profits might better secure our jobs.
* Befriending that outcast at school, even if it threatens our secure spot with the in group.
* Sharing our faith with a friend, inviting them to church even if we feel a bit insecure about such an invitation.
* Tithing. Giving 10 percent or more of our income to the work of Christ even though it shakes our sense of financial security.
* Having the courage to call on those who've experienced tragedy or loss to be there right in their midst, even though we still feel insecure about what to say or how to respond.

You see, the security we know in God's embrace empowers us to take those kinds of risks, to care for others, to risk feeling just a little insecure in our daily lives in order to work for good.

As 1st John reminds us, it's the perfect love of God which casts out fear which empowers us to truly live.

In closing, there's a picture I would like to leave with you. It's a picture right out of my childhood photo album. My dad is showing off a bit with his daughter. I probably wasn't even a year old. But there I was standing straight and tall, my feet held only by my father's outstretched arm. I was there in the palm of his hand. I'm still amazed when I look back at that picture, for I look secure and strong as that one-year old.
But that security didn't put me to sleep. No, I was standing straight and tall, risking, reaching out to the world. I think it's a great portrait of our lives of faith. Secure in the tender and strong hand of God, we are freed and empowered to reach out into the insecurities of this life-to care for God's world just as God is caring for us. Amen.