Good Shepherd Sunday Meets Marathon Monday

Sermon for Sunday, April 21st, 2013
Easter 4C
Acts 9: 36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7: 9-17; John 10: 22-30
The Rev. Margot D Critchfield

With the angels in the reading from John’s Revelation, and in response to the events of this past week, let us proclaim: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving, and honor and power and might, be to our God– forever and ever! Amen.

(Please be seated)

Good Shepherd Sunday: still waters, green pastures, and the familiar voice of the One who knows us all by name—on the heels of such a staggering week of grief and grace, fear and faith, hatred and love…a concrete manifestation of the malignancy of evil and of the triumph of good.

There were very few shades of gray in the events of this week, and I dare say fewer still in the feelings we had about those events.  Against the mystery of the “why” stood the certainty of the “what”:  Murderous evil, darkness, and death.  Inspirational kindness, compassion, and love.

Like many, if not most of us, I am still processing the images, words, events and emotions of this past week.  Processing is not something I do with ease under the best of circumstances.  And this past week my heart and mind often seemed at odds with one another, out of sync— and confused, I think, as each struggled to take in to the best of its ability the ever-changing reality of what was unfolding.  I imagine some of you have found it similarly challenging to process the brutal reality of what has at times felt so utterly unreal or surreal…while knowing full well that it was only too real for so many others. And then the sudden sense of victory, the relief, the gratitude, the collective return to so-called normalcy….

This week will not go gently into that goodnight.  Nor should it.

So what I’d like to do this morning is offer a few reflections…a few of my own thoughts and observations, works very much in progress and by no means fully formed—in the hope that my processing will be of some help in your processing.  And that together, in the days and weeks ahead we will learn and grow and become better followers of Christ–not in spite of what happened in our city this week, but because of it.  Because if we can do that—if we can become better followers of Christ because of what happened in our city this past week—then we can be a part of what will give redemptive, life-giving value and meaning to these otherwise pointless deaths and meaningless acts of violence.

So, a couple of thoughts to share:

First, we are by God’s design a people created for community, connectedness, and generosity.  We may claim to be stiff-upper-lipped New Englanders, but in the metaphor of today’s scripture we are creatures as communal and interdependent as sheep.  We need each other, and we need the shepherd.

We didn’t get through this last week by “picking ourselves up by our bootstraps.”  We got through last week by picking each other up. It was nothing short of awe-inspiring after the bombings to watch the generosity of people who –with no thought of their own safety—ran towards the danger  to help total strangers; to hear of doctors who not only ran the marathon but then kept on running—either all the way to the ERs of the hospitals at which they worked, or over barricades to help the victims at first one and then the other bomb site, repeatedly running back and forth between the two; to read of one Bostonian after another who so generously offered comfort, a warm blanket, hot tea, or the shelter of their own homes to runners, their friends, and their families.  All week long we traded stories of what the reading from Acts calls “good works and acts of charity.”

Forget all that hubris about New Englanders being self-reliant, independent, and reticent.  No one will ever believe it again!  This entire town came together as one–the public, the police, the politicians, and the media; the temples, the mosques, and the churches.  Right now, Trinity Copley Square is still closed because of the crime scene investigation so their congregation is celebrating Eucharist at Temple Israel–now how cool is that? Even the myriad law enforcement agencies we saw everywhere last week worked together cooperatively on the investigation, with generosity of spirit—and law enforcement agencies are matched only by sports organizations for their rivalry!  And did you see the crowds of people lining the streets in Watertown Friday night, clapping and cheering and shouting, “Thank you! Thank you!” to the police as they drove by?  All of those people, united as one, so generously expressing their gratitude.

The late missionary doctor Paul Brand once pointed out that every cell in the human body—except the cancer cell–is interdependent with every other cell.  Think about that: The only cells in the entire human body that insist on being independent and autonomous are cancer cells.

We are by God’s design a people created for community, connectedness, and generosity. And last week we banded together in an incredible display of the way we are created to be every week.

Thought number two:  We are a people created to trust God and the power of God’s goodness and mercy.  We know that despite the presence of brokenness and outright evil in our world, evil will never have the final word.  We know that because Jesus took in all the sin, and darkness, and death the world would ever in all of its history contain– and Jesus outdid it, rose above it, loved it to death and back into new and better life, God is trustworthy!  And what this means is that those innocent victims who were snatched away from their families and friends last week were not snatched away from God. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus assures us in today’s gospel.  “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.”  We are a people created to trust God and the power of God’s goodness and mercy.  We know that our God is a God who understands suffering, who suffers with us and for us…who enters into our suffering and transforms it from the inside out… into means of grace and sacraments of blessing. We are a people created to trust God and the power of God’s goodness and mercy.  And last week we banded together in houses of worship and in offices, in social media and op-ed columns, in restaurants and in pubs, and we said “no” to fear, “no” to hatred, “no” to the darkness.  We walked through the valley of the shadow of death and we trusted God and the power of God’s goodness and mercy.  This is a profound blessing for which we can give thanks!

Thought number three:  We are a people created to seek healing and reconciliation.  In the days and weeks ahead, there will be calls for the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  And our hearts may well be sympathetic  to such calls.  But the Good Shepherd doesn’t kill the lost sheep, he goes after them.  He lays down his life for them!  As followers of Jesus Christ, like it or not– and as difficult as it may be –we are commanded (not invited) to love our enemies.  We are commanded (not invited) to be merciful.  And we are taught that as long as a person can draw a breath there is hope that even the most grievous of sinners may one day repent and be saved.  This is who we are as Christians—a people created to seek healing and reconciliation.  So whether we want to or not, we need to pray for Dzhokhar as well as for the victims of his crimes.  And in the months ahead, amidst the clamor of calls to fight darkness with more darkness, we need to be witnesses to the Light and followers of the Good Shepherd.

And finally, at least for now:  We are a people created to seek peace and to work for the coming of God’s kingdom.  In many ways, last week brought out the best in us.  But what if we were as dedicated to working proactively to end violence, as we were last week when working reactively in response to it?  What if we were always as “devoted to good works and acts of charity” as those in the midst of last week’s tragic violence were? What if we found ways to band together as a community like we did last week to focus on the work of healing and reconciliation and to witness to the power of love over hate, hope over despair, and good over evil?

Like I said, I am still processing the images, words, events and emotions of this past week.  I’m still processing the implications of it all for how God is calling us to be God’s people and what we can do to reduce the likelihood of it happening again.  And I don’t have any grand answers any of these questions.

But I do know we are, by God’s design, a people created for community, connectedness, and generosity. And it’s time we own that, live into it, greatly expand our vision of what it means, and then share it with a very broken world.

Let us pray:  O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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