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Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 21, 2013

In the name of the one who created, knows and loves us.

I’ve been thinking about the children’s game, “Follow the Leader.” In some ways, I feel like it’s been years since I played it; in other ways I think I play it all the time.

About ten years ago, my youngest daughter, Hannah, joined a mountain bike team at her school. She was the only girl and her bike was not state-of-the-art, but the team practiced at a 4-star recreation area close by and she loved the sport.

She and I were the only two living at home then – her sisters were away at college and I often felt like we should take advantage of our time together – knowing full well that time flies by and I’d have an empty nest before long.

So, on a lovely Saturday morning in early October, we threw our bikes in the back of the old pick-up we shared and headed to the mountain bike trails.

I rode a lot at that time – back and forth to work, in fact – but I had never even seen trails like these, let alone tried to negotiate them. We hoisted the bikes out, strapped on our helmets, checked the posted maps and chose our course – not the easiest of the trails, but I put my foot down when Hannah suggested the black-diamond trail.

We weren’t the only ones in the park that morning and I couldn’t help but notice the fancy gear everyone else seemed to have. Sleek, bright-colored jackets, special shoes, water bottles and fancy padded pants!

I looked down. My jeans were a little too long; my sweatshirt was baggy. We forgot water and had no granola bars.

I looked at my bike. The tires weren’t as fat nor the treads as deep as anyone else’s. My handlebars weren’t straight across and I realized for the first time that my second-hand bike looked more like the Wicked Witch of the West’s bike. Oh well, maybe it’ll fly, I thought.

Off we went – climbing through a mixture of brush land and mature hardwood forest. Going up was tough – a good hard cardio workout. But when we reached the top, the trail took a sharp turn and we could see for miles, it seemed. The view was unbelievable, as autumn had painted the forest it’s brightest and most vivid colors.

Unfortunately, the grand view was possible because the earth before us seemed to simply drop off. We could only see a few yards of the trail before it went – who knew where.

I can do this, I said to myself. Be brave. Hannah knows this stuff. Follow the leader!

We started down. I quickly realized that there’s a good reason for slick jackets and fancy pants. The briars caught my legs, the branches held tight to my sweatshirt. My handle bars were too wide to fit through some of the tight twisting trees and after 30 minutes, I realized I was in over my head.

Follow Hannah, I told myself. I can do this. I’m strong. I made it up; certainly I ought to be able to make it down. She’s counting on me.

Reminding myself to breath, I lost sight of Hannah when the trail turned sharply. My bike caught air and landed on slippery rocks. I grabbed the brakes. Hard. And I went flying. My hands were bleeding, my face was scraped up, and I sat with my bike on my limp legs.

I felt defeated – totally defeated – and didn’t know how to get myself back on trail, let alone even up on my feet. And then I heard it – a loud bang – and remembered that the “no hunting” signs in the parking lot only stipulated “April 1 through September 14.” This was October. Terrified might be too strong a word for what I felt – but it is close.

A few minutes passed and then I heard Hannah’s voice: “Mama, are you okay?”

She knelt beside me, wiped the tears from my checks, lifted the bike off my legs and with a gentle smile said, “Let’s walk the rest of the way.”

There have been many times in my life that felt an awful lot like this particular mountain bike mother/daughter date. Perhaps you have experienced it too. I felt it again this week.

One starts out with a modicum of confidence – confident in one’s strength, in one’s ability to muscle through; confident that time is on our side, that we’ve got what it takes.

And we make it up the hill, only to find that going down is much more difficult than we expected: it is certainly harder than the flat lands, and it is surprisingly harder than the climb.

We find ourselves alone, unprepared, wearing the wrong shoes for the terrain, without water.

We’re bloodied and sore – beat down by the barrage of too much information, so much bad news. We fly through brambles of broken dreams that catch on our sleeves and pant legs; we whiz past trees of cynicism – branches scratching our faces, we can’t see where we’re going and hear only loud blasts of danger and destruction. We are spent. Exhausted. Hungry for good news. Thirsty for peace. Fearful. So deeply sad.

For as long as I’ve had any say in what we teach children in the church – and it’s been decades – the story of the Good Shepherd is the story I want them to hear first.

When 3 and 4 year olds enter the sacred space of prayer, community and story for the first time, this is what I tell them:

There was once someone who was so special – someone who did amazing things and said such wonderful things that people began to follow him. They didn’t really know who he was, so they simply had to ask him.

He said, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

I know each of my sheep. I know their names and they know the sound of my voice.

When my sheep are hungry, I bring them to pastures of good green grass.

When they are thirsty, I lead them to pools of clear fresh water.

When there are dark and scary places, I go ahead of them, showing them the way.

And I lead them back to the fold where they are safe from any harm.

If one of my sheep gets lost, I do whatever it takes to find that sheep. I go back to the grass and to the water; I go back through the dark and scary places and then, when I have found the sheep, I put it on my shoulders and carry it home. Even if it is very late and even if I am very tired.

And when we get back to the sheepfold and all the sheep are there, we have a feast. I invite all who want to come to share in this celebration. I am so happy to have all my sheep safely folded into the place where they belong.

Yes, this is the message I want all children to hear – over and over and over again.

This is what I need to hear – over and over and over again.

We have a shepherd.

Our shepherd knows our names, leads us to food that is good for us, water that will quench our deepest thirst.

This is a shepherd who goes ahead of us through the dark and scary places and leads us home. And when we get lost, this shepherd will look for us – risking safety and comfort to find us and carry us home.

As we gather around God’s table together in a few minutes, scarred and perhaps scared, may we taste the goodness of God’s grace – the feast of forgiveness and peace, a meal offered and served by the Good Shepherd who knows our names and knows when we need to let go and walk the rest of the way home – with the One who knows the way.

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