Walking towards hope

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The Fourth Sunday of Easter, year A (Good Shepherd Sunday)

May 3, 2020

Sunday’s Readings:

Psalm 23 (NRSV):

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.

John 10:1-10: “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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He   his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a strang, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.  7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (NRSV)

Sunday’s Prayer of the Day:

Gracious God,
 guardian and shepherd of our souls,
keep us in your Word
that, hearing and following your voice,
we may know your abundant life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever

Sunday’s Message:

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The hymn at the end of our service this morning is simple, but very sweet:

Have no fear, little flock;
Have no fear, little flock,
For the Father has chosen
To give you the Kingdom;
Have no fear, little flock!

Have good cheer, little flock;
Have good cheer, little flock,
For the Father will keep you
In his love forever;
Have good cheer, little flock!

Praise the Lord high above;
Praise the Lord high above,
For he stoops down to heal you
Uplift and restore you;
Praise the Lord high above!

Thankful hearts raise to God;
Thankful hearts raise to God,
For he stays close beside you
In all things works with you;
Thankful hearts raise to God!

The hymn is full of tenderness and compassion and the living presence of God in our lives to comfort and sustain us.

Neither the hymn nor its author shows up in Wikipedia, nor in any of several reference books on hymns.  It doesn’t have the theology of sophisticated reflection or the music of great composition.  It is a simple song of faith – a faith that, in its simplicity, is, in fact, deep and profound.

Our readings this morning, and today’s theme of Christ as the Good Shepherd, take us to an odd place.  It brings us to a little oasis in a world that has become strange and fearful.  It takes us to a place where there are still waters and good pastures and a shepherd who knows our name.  It takes us to a safe place where we can lie down and sleep in peace.  It is tender and calm.  We are not locked in fear in the upper room but at home in a sheepfold with a good shepherd.

But even as it takes us there, David’s psalm speaks about sitting at table surrounded by enemies, and Jesus speaks of thieves and bandits who climb over the wall “to steal and kill and destroy.”

How we hold these two elements together is the challenge of the day.  We live in a dangerous world with corrupt leaders – but Christ is risen and in our midst, and Sin and Death lie beneath his feet.

There is a kind of sweet, innocent faith that has never been tested.  It speaks easily of God’s guidance and protection because it has never faced real danger.

There is also a kind of disillusionment when innocent faith is knocked down.  It may lead to feelings of abandonment and betrayal.  Or it may move towards cynicism and hardness of heart, even professions of unbelief and mockery of those who remain faithful.

And then there are those who have walked through the darkest valleys and crossed the wilderness into a deeper faith, a more profound trust.

I’ve heard all of these in the hospital and in funeral homes: Deep faith that knows the presence of God even in the midst of trial, naïve faith thrown down into bitterness because tragedy has come, and innocence that has not yet been challenged – or lives in a kind of determined denial.

And, of course, we see all of this in the scripture, too.  The Bible is very much a real and terribly honest book about the human spirit.

Pastors walk a tricky line.  Profound faith and naïve faith often sound the same, but they are very different creatures.

A friend and colleague in Michigan died from a medical mistake that turned an ordinary procedure into significant suffering and weeks in the hospital from which he never returned.  The text he wanted to hear from those who visited was Psalm 91:

1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
….who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2 will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
….my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
….and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
….and under his wings you will find refuge;
….his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
….or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
….or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
….ten thousand at your right hand,
….but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
….and see the punishment of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
….the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
….no scourge come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
….to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
….so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
….the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
….I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
….I will be with them in trouble,
….I will rescue them and honor them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them,
….and show them my salvation. (NRSV)

As my friend neared the end, it was hard to read without tears.

Jim’s faith was not naïve.  He knew his condition was perilous and likely fatal.  But he heard in the words of this psalm something far more than a naïve promise that he would be protected from harm.  He heard in the text the profound awareness that, no matter what sorrows come, the hands of God hold him.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” says our psalm today, “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

There is a reality greater than disease, suffering, and death.  None of us want to face any of these things.  But God will still be God.  And God’s promise abides.  Christ knows our name.  We know his voice.  He guides us toward good pasture.  He brings us to still waters.  Such faith may look naïve, but it is born in the crucible.

The language about shepherds in the scripture is about leadership and those who govern.   Jesus takes up the image of the good shepherd as he confronts the pharisees who hold positions of leadership but have showed themselves to be bad shepherds.  Jesus uses sharp and unmistakable words when he talks about thieves and bandits who come to steal, kill and destroy.  He is saying the leaders of his nation steal life rather than give it.  They bring sorrow and division rather than protection and peace.

Jesus had just healed a man who had been born blind, but the leaders turned out to be the ones who could not see.  They first denied that the man had been born blind.  Then they tried to force this man who had been healed to say Jesus was a sinner.  They said they didn’t know where he came from, implying – not so subtly – that Jesus was from the devil.  When the man responded that such an idea was amazing, since only someone from God could open they eyes of a man born blind, the leaders said he was born in utter sin and cast him out of the synagogue – which meant casting him out of the community. But Jesus found him and welcomed him.

In an exchange with these leaders, Jesus declares that they are the ones who cannot see and are bound in sin.  It leads to these words about thieves and bandits sneaking into the sheepfold – and about himself as the good shepherd who gives life rather than steals it, who lays down his life for the sheep.

As I began drafting this sermon on Friday, the number of people in the United States who have died from Covid-19 had grown by 11,000 since last Sunday.  As of Friday, the number (66,230) now exceeded the combined population of Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, and half of Cupertino.  By yesterday, 1,200 more had died, and the evidence is mounting that many more have died from this disease than have been counted.  80 more will perish while we are gathered here.  As the minutes pass, lives tick away because, when the wildfires began to burn, the fire chief said it would burn itself out and didn’t sound the alarm or call out the firefighters.

In three months, we have surpassed the total number of American dead in all 38 of the wars and military conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved since end of the Korean War.

I keep thinking about the monuments I saw in Europe constructed to petition God to deliver the people from the plague, or built in thanksgiving when the plague ended.  I keep thinking about the farmland that returned to forest and all the other consequences of the plague in the Medieval era.  I think about Luther who, when he went to join the monastery, was required to spend the first month in isolation to be sure he didn’t bring the plague into the community.  I think about the gripping account in Daniel Defoe’s novel, A journal of the Plague Year, about the London plague in 1665.  I think about Angel Island where we quarantined Chinese immigrants because of plague.  I think about my mother, as a child, who was quarantined with her family when her brother caught scarlet fever – and the church choir came and sang from the middle of the street.  And I remember lining up at school to get the sugar cube with the polio vaccine.

The human story is full of great sorrows.  And disease is only one small part of human suffering.  I have read John Hersey’s account of the suffering in his book, Hiroshima.  I have read Eli Wiesel’s narrative of the death camps in his book Night.  I have read Richard Wright and many others about the experience of being black in America.  I have stood and pondered the blood in the soil beneath my feet at Antietam, and walked through the Marietta National Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia, where lie the 10,000 Union dead from Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.  I have also walked through the other cemetery in Marietta, where Confederate flags still fly.

The human story is full of great sorrows.  And every life bears its own personal sorrows. Jesus’ death is witness to the cruelties of which human beings are capable.  He is also witness that God does not turn away from any of us in our time of shame or sorrow.

Indeed, from the grave comes life.

Jesus is the good shepherd.  He has walked every battlefield.  He has walked every death camp.  He has walked every lonely road on the fight for freedom.  He has walked with every grieving family.  He has held the hands of every patient dying alone.  And life is given in his touch.

Nothing about this is naïve faith.  It is a deeply profound one.  It has heard the agony.  It has looked upon the wounded hands.  It has seen the pierced side.  It has gazed into the empty tomb and dares to trust that Christ is risen and in our midst, and Sin and Death lie broken beneath his feet.

Such faith walks towards hope in the midst of despair.  It believes in joy even through tears.  It persists in kindness when kindness seems wasted.  It lives with open arms for it knows the open arms of the Good Shepherd.

Amen

+   +   +

© David K Bonde, 2020, All rights reserved.

Image:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PikiWiki_Israel_30576_Wildlife_and_Plants_of_Israel.jpg
lehava nazareth  Pikiwiki Israel / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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