Sunday, April 21, 2013

(Easter 4) Just how good IS our shepherd?

John 10:22-30; Revelation 7:9, 13-17; Psalm 23:1-6

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Once a year, on this fourth Sunday of Easter,
we celebrate the Lord as our Shepherd.
God our shepherd, as in Psalm 23, which we sang,
and Jesus the Good Shepherd, as in John 10, which we read,
are beautiful and encouraging texts for anyone who suffers,
or is afraid, or needs direction,
or needs comfort in times of grief.
And the lectionary points us to these texts every year,
on this fourth Sunday of Easter.

Just a quick refresher on how the lectionary works,
and how we use it at Park View.
A lectionary is simply a calendar,
a 3-year schedule of scripture readings,
so that over the course of three years,
most of the scripture—not all, but most—
will show up in our Sunday worship.
Churches who follow the lectionary,
from all denominations,
are looking at the same scriptures on any given Sunday.
Every week there is a Gospel reading,
and a second New Testament reading,
and an Old Testament reading, and a psalm.
We are now in the third year of the cycle, Year C.

At Park View we follow the lectionary at least half of the year,
and we select from the assigned readings.
We don’t necessarily use them all.

So, on this fourth Sunday of Easter,
each year Psalm 23 is assigned,
and a section of John 10, the Good Shepherd chapter, is assigned.
It’s a different section of John 10 each year,
and this year it’s vv. 22-30.

Here, Jesus is responding to a specific challenge.
His teachings offended some of the authorities.
They accused him of having a demon,
and being out of his mind (vv. 19-21).
So now they are demanding that Jesus come out and say,
in plain speech,
whether or not he thinks he is the Messiah.

Jesus pushes back against his challengers, saying,
“What more do you want?
You don’t believe my words,
and you don’t believe my deeds.
And the reason you don’t believe,
is that you don’t belong to my flock.
If you were my sheep, you would recognize my voice,
and you would follow me.
But since you aren’t, you don’t.”
And then he adds what I think is the core of this text:
“I give my sheep 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.”

To those who are threatening, Jesus says,
No one snatches my sheep away from me. No one.
Threaten me if you will. Threaten my sheep.
But no one takes my sheep.
They were threatening, of course.
In the very next verses, they tried to stone Jesus,
but he escaped, John tells us.

So if we see ourselves as the sheep,
and Jesus as the good shepherd,
this statement has to be tremendously comforting.
“No one will snatch us out of God’s hand.”

Jesus reassures all who would follow,
there is nothing anyone can do to you,
that will remove you from me and my care.
No one can snatch you from me.
Sheep stealers do what they do by stealth.
They sneak up and take what they want, by deceit,
by getting one over on the shepherd.
But nobody gets one over on God.
God is always on guard. Attentive. Alert.
There is nothing anyone can do,
to outwit, overpower, or outmaneuver God.
No matter what happens,
We are always within reach of God’s love and care.

What a powerful word of encouragement.
And Psalm 23, likewise,
paints this picture of God as shepherd,
who leads sheep safely through the wilderness,
through green pastures,
by still waters,
even through the valley of the shadow of death.
And always, always,
God is there to protect,
to thwart the enemy,
to embarrass and shame the enemy,
The psalmist sings that
God prepares a table in the presence of our enemies.
We sit down to a sumptuous banquet,
and our enemies can only stand there on the sidelines,
and watch us eat and drink and be filled.

Another picture of our Lord, our Good Shepherd,
who looks after the welfare of his sheep,
and never turns his back,
never loses a sheep to the clutches of a thief or wild animal,
never fails to provide what the sheep need for a secure life.

That’s the picture we are shown on this fourth Sunday of Easter.
Every year, we hear again these words of reassurance and comfort.

 . . . And every year . . . at least if we are thinking people,
if we are the least bit reflective, or observant,
we will probably hear these words of scripture,
and say, “Yes . . . but . . .”
Where was our Good Shepherd when this or that tragedy happened?

And given the events of this past week, we might be wondering,
was our Good Shepherd distracted,
and have his mind on some other sheep somewhere else,
when the bombs went off in Boston?
Did the Good Shepherd have a more urgent assignment,
so he wasn’t available to save 8-year-old Martin Richard
from having his short life ended by a bomb,
along with two others,
and hundreds of people injured and terrorized,
and two more dead in shootouts later?
And were the protective hands of the Good Shepherd
not holding tight enough
when the fertilizer plant exploded in Texas,
so that the lives of at least 14,
were in fact, snatched away in a moment.

Of course, these tragedies have a big emotional impact on us,
when they happen so close to home, on our soil,
but God’s people all over the world
face very similar senseless acts of violence,
and other catastrophes on a daily basis.
Sometimes innocent people are in the wrong place at the wrong time,
when our own remote-controlled drones
unleash their firepower on some target.
Or when we get our target wrong.
And when natural disasters happen, hundreds or thousands
have their lives taken from them,
or they lose everything except their lives.
There is no one to blame,
but we still try to understand where God was in that,
what the Good Shepherd was doing at the time.

It is simply a fact that some people
do have their lives snatched from them,
too early, too suddenly, too unjustly, too randomly.
And some of the most devoted sheep of the Good Shepherd,
struggle daily with loneliness,
mental illness,
terminal illness,
and all manner of other ills
that cause them to feel utterly abandoned.

So how are we supposed to understand Jesus’ words,
“No one can snatch one of my sheep from my hand.”
Does the Good Shepherd take a break now and then?
If so, just how good IS this shepherd?

What kind of comfort can we really take from these promises,
when the suffering and injustice of this world
seems to go on and on and on and on, unchecked?

I don’t know whether I can really provide a satisfying answer.
But let me make an observation.

I think these kinds of questions
reveal a view of God that is problematic.
In fact, these questions touch on two very popular views of God
that, in my humble opinion, get God completely wrong.

One view, that many people hold,
is that God manages and controls every happening in our world.
That God sits at a big control panel in the sky, pulling switches,
causing . . . every circumstance people face in life.
That God’s finger literally and deliberately
paints every particular sunrise,
coaxes every bud into flower,
decides where rain should fall,
causes traffic lights to turn green
and parking spaces to open up.
And, following that logic, God’s finger also must control
where the next earthquake will strike,
who will die from cancer or flood or fire,
who will be in the path of a drunk driver,
and who will be standing next to a backpack
that turns out to be a deadly bomb.
And that God is doing all this for some specific reason,
even if the reason is hidden from us, for now.

The other popular view, an opposite one,
is that God is aloof, and unknowing, and uncaring.
That if anything good happens in the world,
it is purely by our human good will and good effort.
That maybe God did create the universe,
and put it in motion,
but now is letting things take their course,
just watching from afar,
if watching at all.
That God is some ambiguous force or energy field,
but not a loving being
that is interested and active in the world today.

Today’s scriptures,
dispute both those views, powerfully.

They affirm that God, the Shepherd is with us
in the midst of the suffering,
not keeping us out of the suffering.
The psalmist freely admits that the “valley of the shadow of death”
does, in fact, exist, and that he is walking through it,
now, in this life.
It’s just that he is not walking alone.

And Jesus clearly does not suggest that as Good Shepherd,
he will make his followers immune from suffering and death.
To some would-be disciples,
who begged to follow him,
he brushed them off, warning them that they were not ready
for the suffering that would come their way,
if they chose to follow him.
And as I said, right after today’s verses in John 10,
the crowd set out to stone Jesus to death,
but he escaped.
Elsewhere he said,
“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily
and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
I believe he meant that literally, as well as figuratively.

And if John 10 and Psalm 23 weren’t enough evidence,
that God’s shepherding love, and human suffering,
could co-exist with each other,
then we can look at our reading from Revelation 7.
What we have there is “a great multitude that no one can 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,”
praising God for salvation.
Who is this crowd in white robes?
And where did they come from? the writer asks.

V. 14 – “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 God day and night within God’s temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne
will shelter them.”

These are the people who gave their lives for their faith.
These are the martyrs.
People who know what suffering is.
We ask, “Where is God in the midst of suffering?”
These people know.
They have been there.
Their robes had been stained with blood.
Now they are washed white in the blood of the Lamb . . . Jesus.

They are on the other side of the suffering now, according to v. 16:
“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . .
the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd . . .
and God will wipe away every tear.”

They did hunger and thirst,
their eyes did sting with tears.
When all that was going on,
did they every question where God was in it?
Did they ever feel like a sheep without a shepherd?

But now they see things from a larger point of view.
They know now that their great ordeal
never separated them from the love and care of their God.

So they praise God, the Savior.
Salvation is who God is.
It is fundamental to God’s nature.

That does not mean God always prevents suffering and death.
Or that God shields people from the consequences
of all the sin and brokenness in the world.
Or that we will never suffer unjustly at the hands of others.
But God will never let us out of the reach of his love and care.
We may well get blood stains on our robes.
But God will wash them.
We may well get persecuted or humiliated.
But God will spread a table before us
in the presence of our enemies.
We may well be threatened by would-be sheep-snatchers.
But our good shepherd will never let us be
taken out of his loving grasp.

That is the word of hope from the scriptures
on this fourth Sunday of Easter.

There is a song we have come to love here at Park View,
ever since we first sang it in the purple hymnal.
It’s number 121, and I invite you to turn to it now.

This song has some exquisite, comforting poetry in it.
And paired with the beautiful music,
it never fails to move us, often to tears.
It is full of short phrases
that shimmer with truth and beauty—
no feather too light,
no flower too brief,
no dust in the air,
nothing is lost . . . all is seen and known by God
no distance too great,
no child too small,
no ending too soon.

But this is not just sentimental poetry.
This is carefully crafted theology
informed, I think, by the same understanding of God
that we get from today’s texts.

This song (and today’s scriptures) articulate a view of God,
that stands apart from the other two popular views of God
I mentioned earlier—
God, the direct controller of all things that happen,
and God, the distant, uncaring observer.

God is not directing every feather and grain of dust.
God is not causing every impulse of every creature.
God is not making the distance too great, or the valley too dark.
But nothing is lost on the breath of God . . .
no suffering, large or small, goes unnoticed.
No matter what happens in life,
God’s breath is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.
Notice the end of the third verse.
Some things do begin too late.
Some lives end too soon.
God did not pull a switch to cause the events in Boston,
and West, Texas, and other places around the world.
But there is no premature or tragic death,
that isn’t gathered, by God,
and known in its goodness.
God sees with love, and that love will remain.
God’s heart is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world, holding us,
no matter what.
Nothing is lost on the God of love.

Now, holding in your heart and mind,
whatever suffering or grief or darkness, near or far,
may be troubling you this morning,
sing this song of bold hope and faith,
declaring that that suffering and grief and darkness,
is not, nor ever shall be, lost on God,
nor out of the loving grasp of Jesus Christ,
the Good and Faithful Shepherd.

—Phil Kniss, April 21, 2013

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