“Good Shepherd Sunday”
April 21, 2013
Over the last few days, we have all seen the haunting and disturbing image of a young man strolling down a busy street on a sunny afternoon, dressed casually, a satisfied smirk on his face.
But he’s not on his way to the gym or to meet his girlfriend – he and his brother are about to drop off bombs intended to kill and maim as many innocent people as possible.
St Paul’s insight that “when one suffers we all suffer” seemed to be proving itself true this past week. Our hearts go out to those most directly affected by the bombing, but also to the many who suffered indirectly in the aftermath. Even from a great distance, it was difficult not to be pulled into the anguish, the confusion, the grief, and the anger that swirled around Boston in the wake of the act of terrorism.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said – blessed are those who care enough to feel the pain; to share the pain; to feel the loss. According to the teaching of Jesus, those who allow their hearts to be open to the suffering of others, especially at times like this, are very close to God.
In the Revelation of John the Divine, heaven is described as a beautiful place where millions of people are joined together by being drawn like a magnet to a common center, which is God – “lost in wonder, love and praise” as the hymn says. It was a great image of hope at a time when Christians were being harshly persecuted for their faith. Christians (and people of many other religions) have long accepted that this world is not perfect — that there will be suffering and pain – but look to heaven as the promise of a time when we will finally be able to wash the blood off our garments, and be fresh and pure and united before the throne of God.
The reading today concludes with the promising words: “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” “The lamb will be their shepherd” – an odd turn of phrase – but as I read it this week, in the light of the tragedy in Boston, it could be interpreted as saying that it is the innocent who will guide us and show us the way.
In the midst of a culture that glorifies violence as a means to an end, we are challenged to remember that Christianity is a culture that glorifies reconciliation and peace as a means to an end. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said. The voice of Jesus is a call to a life of harmony – a life of compassion – a life of peace. The image of a shepherd calling together his sheep has been a prevailing image in Christianity, a pastoral and peaceful image characterizing life around the one we call the Prince of Peace.
What voices did those two young men hear that provoked them to behave in the way they did? It’s easy to say that they were subjected to radicalized Islamic voices, but that’s too easy an answer.
The two young men who ended up depositing bombs along a crowded street got there as a result of a lot of different influences and experiences, not merely the fact that they were Muslim. They are responsible for the way they have chosen to act, but in some ways they are victims because they are living in a world that is the source of way too much hostility and violence; a world captivated by violence on every level; a culture that tells us over and over again that those who act in such violent ways are the heroes. For us to respond to them with an urge toward anger and revenge, a desire to see them or people like them suffer, is to allow their violence to destroy us along with their other victims.
The Rev Dr Martin Luther King said: “If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos” — prophetic words from a man who chose to practice the way of peace.
When we are tempted to turn our homes and cities into fortresses, or arm ourselves in one way or another, or view everyone else with suspicion and hostility, we are allowing the terrorists to continue destroying us.
The cowardly who express themselves in the deaths of children and the suffering of the innocent are never vindicated; they already have their reward, whether they see themselves as heroes or agents of God or not. No decent or godly person will ever remember their acts as anything but grotesque distortions of human life. It is the victims who are remembered and honoured, and it is the ones who refuse to run away, who choose to show compassion and offer help in the face of fear, who become the heroes.
Where is God at times like this? As I see it, the face of God was plainly visible in the faces of those who turned toward the suffering with compassion even when they were uncertain of their own safety; in the courage of the police obliged to face directly the violence and anger of two very sick individuals; and in the resolve of the people of Boston not to allow themselves to be intimidated or governed by terror.
Christians tend to see things from a much larger perspective. As the Book of Revelation reminds us, God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, and the last word on all things belongs to God.
Maybe one of the reasons Jesus told us to love our enemies is because they inadvertently cause us to wake up and become concerned about those around us who are suffering; or perhaps because they oblige us to discover within ourselves qualities of courage and compassion that we normally hide and do not share. Maybe we are getting a wake-up call about the need to understand and connect with Muslims who are also struggling to figure out how to live in this conflicted and complicated society.
“My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me.” To be an agent of transformation for peace at times of chaos and violence requires a special kind of courage and character; this way requires an outlook on life that persists in seeing all people in the image of God (even when they don’t act that way or see it themselves) – an outlook that will not allow hatred to define us or dictate our actions toward others.
In the wake of disasters like this, there are always those who want to say, especially to Christians, See! See what a terrible world this is?! And in response, I believe that the voice of God is heard in those who persist in proclaiming that this is God’s world – that it is worth continuing to look toward the light, even when everything seems to be darkness; I hear God’s voice in those who continue to proclaim a message of hope even in the face of powerful enemies.
The Christian way is to choose to build and not destroy; to heal rather than harm; to plant rather than tear up; to bring people to life not death.
Psychopaths like the two Boston marathon murderers have no sense of conscience or consequence; they don’t care how their actions will affect the future.
Again, as Revelation suggests, Christianity is future oriented, and the promise of heaven is comforting. But Jesus also told us to pray that, if we choose, this vision can be manifested in the here and now. He urged us to pray for God’s kingdom to come to us in the present; he taught that we must realize and recognize the kingdom that is already within us, and he encouraged his followers to live in such a way that the beautiful vision is not just a hope for the future but revealed in our attitudes and actions. As St Peter discovered, as revealed in today’s reading from Acts, that energy – that spirit – is within us, and we need to learn to bring it to bear upon the world around us, as healers, grace-bearers, givers of life.
“I will fear no evil, for You [God] are with me.” The 23rd Psalm promises that if we are faithful and committed to the path that God lays out for us, we will be led through the midst of violent and terrifying places in confidence, not fear, and we will be sustained even in the face of aggression and hostility.
Christians continue to look to the future in hope, believing in the ultimate victory of God’s love. We are people with a strong sense of the future, but we also believe that the future is rooted in the present. We need to pay attention to the voices that are calling our young people toward prejudice, hostility and violence; we need to convince people that we are living for a larger purpose, that our choices and actions in the present matter, and that in everything we do we are already creating the kind of society that our children’s children will inherit as our legacy to them.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Readings appointed for “Good Shepherd” Sunday:
Acts 9:36-43 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Psalm 23 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
Revelation 7:9-17 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
John 10:22-30 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,
and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.
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 my 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.”