Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
I have been struggling with a question lately: does God really take care of us? Is God in Christ the Good Shepherd of our lives? It is easy to doubt that amidst multiple school shootings (another in CO last week), nasty politics that get us nowhere, an opioid crisis, broken relationships and shattered lives; premature death, starvation and disease. Scripture tells us that God is good. Psalm 23 highlights the ever-present nature of God, even in the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus says that His sheep know the sound of his voice. “I know them, and they follow me,” He tells us. Jay Sidebotham, executive director of RenewalWorks, which we engaged in last winter, says this:
It (the image of the Good Shepherd, Psalm 23) suggests that in the journey of faith, we may not really know what we're doing or where we are headed, but it is a call to trust. The Lord says to the faithful: Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it."
The reality is that no matter where we go or what we go through, the Good shepherd leads from the front, the side, and the rear; talking to us and moving us forward.
I had a student when I was at the University of South Carolina. Let’s call her Sharon. She was an incredibly talented actress, whether doing Shakespeare, Noel Coward, or comedy. She was not always as motivated a student as she might have been, but she had plenty of spunk and intuition. She did theatre for a while after graduation but like many of us who loved theatre, ended up doing something else. She came from a close-knit family in a small town in upstate SC which is what really shapes her story. On September 14th, Holy Cross Day in our tradition, Sharon’s father was murdered. A mean-spirited man who lived in the neighborhood had a grievance with her father’s best friend. One day, the man shot the best friend of Sharon’s father in his yard. When Sharon’s dad hurried over to assist his friend, he was shot, too.
I watched Sharon live out her grief over the last 3.5 years on Facebook. Articulate, but profound in her anger, the horror and grief of losing her beloved father this way was has been a struggle! The man who killed her father went to prison, but soon died of an illness. Sharon, I have learned, is a woman of strong faith. She married right after undergrad and has three young children. Her husband is of the Greek Orthodox tradition. Why am I telling you all this? Well, many of you know I gave up Facebook for Lent (except for St. James post) and have not been on as much since. But the other day I came across a post Sharon placed on her Facebook page. She gave me permission to use this. Here is what she said.
I know many people who have recently lost loved ones and are grieving. I've wanted so badly to find something comforting to say to them. But every time I think I've got it I go back and read what I've written and it seems like garbage. It's well intended but it feels like a load of garbage all the same.
I lost my father three and half years ago on September 14, 2015. In the Orthodox Church that's the Exaltation of the Cross. There's a Divine Liturgy that is given at our church every year on that day and I go to it every year. And our priest has reminded me often that as I continue to grieve the loss of my father, everyone there and all those who love me and loved him grieve with me. I've always appreciated hearing that but I'm not sure I've ever truly understood until now.
I see you, my friends. And I know you're heartbroken. And I wish I could say something or do something to heal your hearts. But know that I love you. Every day I pray for you all and your loved ones who have passed away. I cry for you and for them and you are in my heart.
I am the Good Shepherd. Our Lord Jesus Christ knows the sound of His wounded sheep, His children. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow – even into death itself – ours, the death of our beloved, the deaths of a different hundred kinds. He sits with us even when we are outnumbered or feel desperately alone. He, Jesus, the Son of Almighty God, became human that He might carry our burdens, even unto death – and he leaves our burdens there that we might know hope, faith, grace, and love again: now and in the time to come. God, in Christ the Good shepherd, has given us the way out of grief and pain but not an exemption from it. We get no free passes because God created and loved us. But we do carry the promise that He will grieve with us and endlessly love us and, in time, God in Christ will heal us. The voice of the Good Shepherd speaks to a world of hurts and calls us to follow Him who shows us the way. Jesus, in short, is savior which also means healer.
Healing – the pathway of Jesus – is actually God’s sole and only purpose among us. From the moment that humans became broken, even from the beginning, God was seeking to heal us. God creates and God heals. The world breaks, the world injures, the world takes away – our Lord heals and gives back, returns us to hope and promise, if we are able to let Him. There is much sadness in the world but there is also hope as the Lord of all creation, through the promise of Resurrection, brings healing. Resurrection was and is God healing death and pain, even if at the last. Crucifixion was and is a pathway to healing, too. And Jesus healed the lepers, the blind, the lame, the bleeding and the dead … Healing is Christ’s great gift of love. Sometimes healing is physical but Christ’s healing always overwhelms the shattered spirit. In time. The Good shepherd finds us; the shepherd Jesus heals us.
I was moved beyond all measures by the words of Rowan Williams this week, retired Archbishop of Canterbury. He recently spoke at General Seminary in NYC, the oldest Episcopal seminary in America. He was offering his spiritual autobiography to a rapt and full house on the General Campus in Chelsea. Here is what he said; I will leave you with this, but while you listen, think Good Shepherd:
I believe that I have at least learned that a good theology is oriented toward human wounds. And that witness to a new creation able to look with honesty at the human failure, the guilt, and the pain of the world we’re in, and yet to say that we are all still called. We are still in the hands of a creator. We have a future.
The Most Rev. Rowan Williams,
Paddock Lectures at General Seminary, 2019