Last Sunday, April 21 — the Sunday following the bombings at the Boston Marathon — I filled in for our pastor at North Buffalo Lutheran Church, leading worship and preaching, because it turns out he actually knew one of the three people who died at the scene. He had gotten to know Krystle Campbell through his son and daughter-in-law, who have been very close friends with her for years. So he went out to the Boston area to be with them in their grief and to attend Krystle’s funeral… and this is the sermon I shared with our congregation, because many of us, too, were feeling the effects of the tragedy, and because all of us at some point feel overwhelmed and need to be reminded that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is with us:
Easter 4 (Good Shepherd Sunday) – Series C
It’s been a horrific week. Most shocking of all were the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday. Even as far removed geographically as we are, still, something like that shakes us and horrifies us, and in some way we feel ourselves connected to our fellow Americans, our fellow human beings, who experienced it first-hand.
Then – incredibly – we learned it had hit closer to home than we at first knew… that the second person identified as having died in the attacks, Krystle Campbell, was close friends with Pastor Mark and Emily’s daughter-in-law Erin and their son Elliott, and that the whole Nerland family had come to know and love Krystle over the years… So our hearts are touched in a bit deeper way, because of our relationship with Pastor Mark and Emily and their family.
Then, too, there was the calamity of the fertilizer plant explosion in the small town of West, TX – a town somewhere between the sizes of Glyndon and Dilworth, so we can imagine it – resulting, actually, in more deaths and injuries than in Boston… and yesterday, the earthquake in China, killing dozens and injuring hundreds….
And that’s only the public part of the week! Because even as national and global scares and sorrows are at play, our personal ones happen too, don’t they… Maybe an illness or a death in the family, a relationship crumbling or a child being bullied, a job layoff or tension with a neighbor, of course the annual anxiety about spring flooding… and the list goes on and on.
Sometimes, such traumas and worries lead us to daunting questions – questions like some people around Jesus were asking him one winter day as he walked along Solomon’s Porch on the Temple grounds in Jerusalem: “Are you really the Messiah? Why do you keep us wondering? How can we know for sure? What are we supposed to believe? If you’re the anointed Son of God, why don’t you just tell us plainly?”
Maybe our questions are worded a bit differently – something like: Where is God? Is there really a God? How can a good God let such bad things happen? How are we supposed to keep on believing in the midst of things like these? What difference does belief in Jesus make anyway?
Those could be our questions. They could be the focus of our thoughts in response to the ordinary and extraordinary struggles of life. But, says Rabbi Harold Kushner in his bestselling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “If the death and suffering of someone we love, or tragic events, make us bitter …, [turn us] against all religion, and [make us] incapable of happiness, we turn the person who died into one of the ‘devil’s martyrs.’ If [on the other hand,] suffering and death brings us to explore … our capacity for strength, love, and cheerfulness – if it leads us to discover sources of consolation we never knew before – then we make the person or event into a witness for the affirmation of life rather than its rejection.”
And indeed, countless “sources of consolation” – countless “[witnesses] for the affirmation of life” – shone forth in the moments and hours and days following the bombings: Trained first responders and ordinary citizens alike ran toward the explosions to help and save people, ran into the darkness to be the light, ran into the evil to be the good. Thousands shared their homes, food, cars, cell phones, anything needed, with strangers who were hurt, or not physically hurt but emotionally shaken, those in need of shelter while waiting to reunite with loved ones, those who just didn’t know what to do.
We haven’t heard as much from Texas or China as from Boston, but doubtless, there were similar shows of support and compassion in those places too. In any calamity, no matter the size, people plunge into the realm of death to fight for life, light pours into the darkness, good triumphs over evil. The hand of God makes it so. The hand in which we are all held, and from which no destruction, no evil, can snatch us. The hand, too, of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, because the Father and he are one.
The fourth Sunday of Easter is always “Good Shepherd Sunday” when we hear Psalm 23 and John 10. What a blessing these familiar biblical images are at this time, reminding us of the invincible power of God demonstrated supremely in Jesus the Christ. A few thoughts about the psalm:
“The Lord is my shepherd.” When I was on internship, the Director of Music at that church chose a version of Psalm 23 for the choir to sing, and she told us that when she was in a car accident some time back and was trapped in her car waiting for rescue, the first line of Psalm 23 came to her mind: “The Lord is my shepherd.” But that was all she could remember, and she grew panicky, trying to think of the next words… until it dawned on her that the fact that the Lord was her shepherd was all she needed to know.
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” The Lord – the Good Shepherd – is with us… even in the darkness. How do we know? Because inevitably, we see his light – in the helpers, the good, the love of those with us, as the psalmist says: “for you are with me.” And “With,” remember, is Immanuel’s middle name: God With Us.
Blogger Glennon Melton wrote this week about longing, as a loving parent, to keep her kids safe from all danger, yet knowing, of course, that we can’t. Glennon writes: “Our only choice is to redefine the word ‘safe.’ What is ‘safe’? … That we will protect [our children]” – and, we might add, everyone we love, and ourselves – “from all harm? … OK, fair enough. … But here is the thing about that. … The collateral damage is that we will also keep them [and ourselves] from beauty, love, and wisdom. Because … these … [are] a direct result of risk.
“We take chances on things, we go out into the world – we put ourselves at risk – and sometimes we end up empty-handed and wrecked. … The risks of engaging an unpredictable world are great.
“But,” she goes on, “sometimes risk doesn’t leave us empty-handed. Sometimes as a result of setting out into the … world, we find great love, beauty, friendship, and wisdom. Sometimes the rewards of risk don’t leave us wrecked. Sometimes we find our passion, our purpose, courage, connection, and comfort.”
My own addition to Glennon’s thoughts is that “safe” also means, when the terrible things do happen, you – our children, our loved ones – we – are not alone. When we tell our kids or anyone else, “You are safe,” it doesn’t mean “I am powerful enough to keep anything bad from happening to you.” It means “I am here for you. Others are here for you. And most of all, God is here for you. And we all love you. The terrible can never win when you are surrounded by, embraced by, undergirded by so much love. That’s what ‘safe’ is.” And that’s what it means that even though we walk through the darkest valley, God is with us.
“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.”
I learned just this week that the ancient Hebrew for “follows” is more accurately translated “pursues” or “chases.” In all the rest of the Psalms, whenever that word shows up, it describes the psalmist’s enemies pursuing him or her or the people of Israel. But here, in Psalm 23:6, the Shepherd-Lord’s message is, “Even if you, little lamb, don’t follow my leading in paths of goodness and mercy… or even if you can’t follow because the valley has gotten so dark … I will follow you – no, I will pursue you, chase after you – with goodness and mercy and light and love. And you will hear my voice because I will be calling you by name, assuring you that you are safe, and reminding you how much I love you.”
A young marathon runner posted this on Facebook: “I was a half mile from the finish line when the explosion went off. I had no idea what was going on until I finally stopped and asked someone. Knowing that my family was at the finish line waiting for me, I started panicking, trying to call them. [Finally], I was able to get in touch with … my family, and they were safe. I was just so happy … that I sat down and started crying. Just couldn’t hold it back. At that moment, a couple walking by stopped. The woman took the space tent off her husband, who had finished the marathon, and wrapped it around me. She asked me if I was okay, if I knew where my family was. I reassured her I knew where they were and I would be okay. The man then asked me if I finished, to which I [shook my head] ‘no.’ He then proceeded to take the medal off from around his neck and place it around mine. He told me, ‘You are a finisher in my eyes.’ I was barely able to choke out a ‘thank you’ between my tears.”
None of us can run the race of life alone. We need one another… and we need God. Above all, we cannot finish the race on our own; like the young woman who posted on Facebook, evil and death inevitably block our way. But Jesus has run the race ahead of us, has crossed the finish line, and has doubled back to come to our aid. He places his finisher’s medal around our necks … and we know all will be well. We are safe.