Abundant Life- is all about walking with God’s beloved- a sermon for Easter 4A/Good Shepherd Sunday- for The Lutheran Center at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln

Outside The Lutheran Center on a beautiful (albeit a bit windy, even for Nebraska) Sunday morning.

I had the privilege of being with God’s people gathered as The Lutheran Center at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln on Sunday April 30, 2023. Thank you to Pastor Liz Kocher and Deacon Coco Lyons for the invitation and to the whole congregation and community for the warm welcome. I was invited to bring greetings from the synod, preach on the appointed lessons (primarily Psalm 23, Acts 2:42-47, and John 10:1-10), lead a Children’s sermon, and be present for conversation over lunch after worship. It was also Bluegrass Sunday, so a special thank you to Matt Schur and all the musicians who made it happen. It was a fun Sunday and a complete joy. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from.

Grace and peace from God in Christ, our Good Shepherd, who walks with us, is for us, and loves us. Amen.

Jesus says to the disciples and all who might hear, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[1] That might be a strange place to start. But I have often wondered. What does Jesus mean, really, about abundance? What is this abundant life all about? Let’s hold those questions for a moment and we’ll come back to them.

Transitions, Transitions, Transitions
I want you to travel back in time with me. It was the spring of 2009. And yes, I realize that probably makes me sound old. By my math, most of you were probably under the age of 8, and probably some of you were barely 4. Some of you were younger than my oldest daughter now who just turned five earlier this month. So yes, I realize I may sound a little old. But please bear with me. I was in my final semester of undergrad, at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. I was dating the love of my life. I had just been accepted into grad school at the Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.

My view from the front of some of the faithful gathered for worship. Today’s congregation included some members of Grace Lutheran in Lincoln who graciously served lunch for the community after worship. Thank you all for your grace, hospitality, and good food!

The world was my oyster, if you will. But I was worried. Student loans were and are real. Going to school then, wasn’t cheap, especially in Southern California. And I wasn’t sure at all about all of the transitions I was about to walk through. Would I be okay, going so far from home to grad school? Could I really go to Claremont without a car? Was it smart to be taking out such a large loan to get a couple masters degrees? How would my partner and I do a long-distance relationship? Is this really, what God was imagining for me, and inviting me into?

Don’t worry. This sermon won’t be all about me. But I start there in the hopes that something among those questions might resonate with you. College is a wonderful chapter. But transitions, at no matter the age or chapter in life, are hard. Looking out at all of you, I suspect you’re carrying some weight of these kinds of transitions. The Lutheran Center is going through a pastoral transition here, and you all are carrying along and leading through this with hope, excitement, and deep faith alongside Pastor Liz and Deacon Coco.

More personally, many of you may be preparing for commencement in about three weeks, and all the questions, excitement and perhaps worries about what might be next. Others of you may be about to embark on summer internships and moves. You are likely all preparing to leave friends and partners and loved ones, at least for a period of time in the weeks ahead. And oh yeah, no doubt, you’re all studious leaders, and I suspect if you are like I was, the stress of the end of the semester- the finals, final papers and presentations and the time involved, it may be getting to you.

If somehow, none of this applies to you, than I stand here in awe of you. But if any of this resonates, there is Good News. God our Good Shepherd walks with us and meets us just where we are at. No matter the highs or lows. The joys or lowest valleys. The greatest achievements or the most spectacular of challenges or even failures. No matter where you might find yourself today, Jesus meets you right where you are. God in Christ sees you. Is for you. Loves you. And is with you.

God’s Promises for God’s Beloved
We hear this promise again and again today. From the psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”[2] This Shepherd knows each of the sheep by name. This Shepherd knows the number of hairs on our heads. This Shepherd very well knows us even better than we know ourselves. And this Shepherd knows when things are going well, and not so well. And God the Shepherd provides, and does so abundantly. We are reminded that the Lord is with us.[3] As we walk through the challenges of transitions. The difficulties of big questions and uncertainty of them all. The stress of a final class, or the weight of a hard goodbye. The hopes for what might be coming just into view on the horizon ahead, and the excitement to wonder about what God might be up to and inviting next.

The awesome musicians who made up the Bluegrass Band in worship- including Pastor Liz Kocher, Matt Schur, and Matt Price (who was part of the group of voting members from the Nebraska Synod at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2022). Some of the songs and hymns we sang in worship included: “Down to the River,” “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” and “All God’s Critters.”

Good things are promised. Not without hard things. Not without challenges. But amid all of the ups and downs, good, bad, and ugly of life we are reminded that our cup does indeed overflow because it is God who provides. It is God who makes it possible for us to cling to the promises that we know in Psalm 23 that, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”[4] But these good things that God provides, are not to be hoarded. For when they are hoarded, we miss the point of what abundance in God looks like. We all know that there are people who do not have enough in this world. People who have fallen victim to broken systems, structures, injustice, corruption, and sin. These things are not of God. And these things often come about because someone, intentionally or unintentionally, has hoarded what God has provided and not shared with those in need.

If we follow as the Good Shepherd intends, there would be more than enough. The cup would overflow, and no one would be in want. And we know this and come to understand this, as we see and come to believe that abundant life in and with our Good Shepherd is first off, all about relationships. With God. With our neighbors. With our communities. Loved ones. And those whom we might have the privilege of meeting in life and being in community with.

God’s Beloved in Community
There’s something about the community we hear about in the lesson from Acts today that always just catches my imagination. In Acts 2, we hear about what God’s people are doing and what God is also doing with, through, and for them. The people in community together, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.”[5]

As they did this, “Awe came upon everyone.”[6] Here in real time, we see disciples growing in faith, and living out their responses to their baptisms. In the churchy world, we might call this living out one’s baptismal promises. And others are seeing and taking notice. God is up to something here. Awe and wonder are the feelings of the day. Kind of like the awe and excitement one might have at what is to come amid transition times such as this. Kind of like the awe and excitement one’s loved ones and family might have for those off at college, doing well, learning, and perhaps even preparing to graduate soon.

Some of those gathered for lunch after worship. Perhaps my lunch highlight, was meeting another Lute family member (a soon to be graduate from UNL, whose mom and other family attended and graduated from Pacific Lutheran University like me, and whose grandpa was a pastor who served in the Pacific Northwest, just like me too).

But that’s not all that catches my imagination about this community. The people in this story are living out their faith too by holding, “all things in common”[7] and providing for all with need, with the resources that they have been entrusted with. Doing so with joy, as we hear they had “glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”[8] Not to pat you all on your backs too much, but when I hear this, I wonder, if that’s not also what happens here, among God’s people who make up the community of The Lutheran Center. Whether that’s true or not for you, this community in Acts is one I want to be a part of. It’s a church that practices what it preaches. There is life and vitality here. These are people who it sounds like have their priorities straight. And clearly God is at work in, with, and through them.

The Good News for God’s People
That brings us to the Gospel lesson for today. Jesus begins rather strangely, even for the Gospel of John. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”[9] The context for this comes right after Jesus has been having somewhat confrontational conversation with Pharisees.[10] Jesus is speaking to people, who arguably don’t have their priorities straight. Jesus has just helped one who had been born blind, be able to see by making mud and rubbing it in his eyes, and healing on the sabbath. The religious authorities didn’t take too kindly to this. And perhaps that is shaping Jesus’ saltiness as he talks to the disciples, the Pharisees, and all those who might listen.

Jesus is making the case here though about who he is. John is famous as a gospel for including many of Jesus’ declarative “I am” statements. Like “I am the truth, the way, the life.” Here we don’t hear that. We hear, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.”[11] All things considered, Jesus is being straight forward here, or at least as straight forward as Jesus ever gets, as he continues, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”[12] Jesus, the Good Shepherd is the one who opens the way. Who opens the door to new possibilities. To community. To belonging. To being seen and being in relationship with God, neighbor, and each other. Jesus, the Good Shepherd also opens the gate to new life, bringing life out of death. And the hope and the promise of the resurrection, which we especially continue to celebrate this Easter season. Ultimately, God in Christ here lays bare what God is up to and about, declaring why God does what God does. Jesus concludes this passage declaring, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[13] This is Good News for you, for me, and for all of God’s beloved.

Abundant Life for you, and for Me
Which brings us back to where we started, the questions we began with. What does Jesus mean, really, about abundance? What is this abundant life all about? Abundance is a promise and a gift of God. It’s a promise about relationships. That God in Christ is with God’s people, and for God’s people, and wants to be in relationship with God’s own, all the sheep of God’s fold. It is Jesus who is the Gate and the Good Shepherd, who meets God’s beloved and invites each one of us and saves. This is God’s work, and God’s alone. We could never do this work or earn it. And that’s pure gift and grace which God provides abundantly, daily, over and over out of God’s deep love.

Inside the beautiful worship space of The Lutheran Center. Abundant life with the Good Shepherd flows from these baptismal waters.

So where does that leave us? Amid the transitions of life that we each might be facing. Amid the questions, emotions, hopes, dreams, and worries of this time late in the semester? With a reminder that God in Christ is with you, for you, and loves you. That God the Good Shepherd calls and invites you to come and find pasture and find rest for your whole self. For this and for all that God provides, we also have an invitation and an opportunity to lean in and respond. To meet God’s people where they are, and to share with those in need by providing for their needs as God intends. And we do this through our lives as Children of God. As disciples of Jesus. And as stewards of God’s love here and now.

What we do as stewards and disciples, like those we hear about in Acts chapter 2, is our response to God, and for all that God has done, will do, and promises to do for us. Which means the next question is for each of us. Will we, like those early disciples, give thanks and praise and share God’s abundance generously? Even amid the transitions and emotions and worries that these days might bring? I hope and pray that we will, and that through us, the truth that God provides and does so abundantly, will continue to be seen, known, and believed.

Abundant life is really all about living and walking with God’s beloved. Pondering big questions. Engaging in life’s challenges. Meeting people where they are at. And leaning in through all that makes us each the unique and beloved Child of God that we are. It’s not all that different really, than being a student, and living life fully.

People of God, rest easy in God’s pasture. Breathe deeply in God’s presence. And live fully, as your cup overflows. For the Good Shepherd is with you. You are seen. You are known. And You are loved. Just as you are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Citations and References:

[1] John 10:10, NRSV.
[2] Psalm 23:1, NRSV.
[3] Psalm 23:4, NRSV.
[4] Psalm 23:5-6, NRSV.
[5] Acts 2:42, NRSV.
[6] Acts 2:43, NRSV.
[7] Acts 2:44, NRSV.
[8] Acts 2:46-47, NRSV.
[9] John 10:1, NRSV.
[10] As found in John 9:1-41.
[11] John 10:7, NRSV.
[12] John 10:9, NRSV.
[13] John 10:10, NRSV.

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