Apr 26

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:

'The Good Shepherd 130' photo (c) 2011, Waiting For The Word - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Easter 4 (Good Shep­herd Sun­day) – Series C

Based on Psalm 23 and John 10:22–30

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.



Dec 22

What if the orig­i­nal Christ­mas events hap­pened today in the dig­i­tal age? How would we learn about it and tell oth­ers about it? Makes you think. Merry Christ­mas, everyone!

Jun 24

It can be hard to do some­thing pub­licly when you know not all peo­ple will agree. But I have come to such con­vic­tion about the mat­ter addressed in this procla­ma­tion that I can­not authen­ti­cally do any­thing else. I have added my name to the procla­ma­tion below (it may take a cou­ple days for those adding names to catch up with all their emails). If that causes me to lose friends or fol­low­ers or clients or poten­tial clients, so shall it be. I believe I am doing not only what Jesus “would” do but what he DOES do: includ­ing those soci­ety has too often treated as unclean. Time and time again, Jesus touched, ate with, served, and showed love for peo­ple deemed unclean by sec­u­lar and reli­gious lead­ers and oth­ers. I strive to walk in the foot­steps of Jesus — in this and in all else — so help me, God.

P.S. I’m happy to explain in pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion with any­one inter­ested how I arrived at and why I believe in this posi­tion, but I’m not inter­ested in debat­ing about the mat­ter. I agree with the Procla­ma­tion where it states that “the debate is over.” I’m weary of it.


(The for­mat­ting copied imper­fectly below from the web­page where this is posted. I’m not going to try to edit it here. I encour­age you to visit www​.Heart​land​Procla​ma​tion​.org to see the doc­u­ment as posted and to view a full list of signers.)

The Heart­land Proclamation

by the Heart­land Clergy for Inclusion

As Chris­t­ian clergy

we pro­claim the Good News con­cern­ing Les­bian, Gay, Bisex­ual and Trans­gen­der (LGBT) per­sons and pub­licly apol­o­gize where we have been silent. As dis­ci­ples of Jesus, who assures us that the truth sets us free, we rec­og­nize that the debate is over. The ver­dict is in. Homo­sex­u­al­ity is not a sick­ness, not a choice, and not a sin. We find no ratio­nal bib­li­cal or the­o­log­i­cal basis to con­demn or deny the rights of any per­son based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Silence by many has allowed polit­i­cal and reli­gious rhetoric to monop­o­lize pub­lic per­cep­tion, cre­at­ing the impres­sion that there is only one Chris­t­ian per­spec­tive on this issue. Yet we rec­og­nize and cel­e­brate that we are far from alone, as Chris­tians, in affirm­ing that LGBT per­sons are dis­tinc­tive, holy, and pre­cious gifts to all who strug­gle to become the fam­ily of God.

In repen­tance and obe­di­ence to the Holy Spirit, we stand in sol­i­dar­ity as those who are com­mit­ted to work and pray for full accep­tance and inclu­sion of LGBT per­sons in our churches and in our world. We lament that LGBT per­sons are con­demned and excluded by indi­vid­u­als and insti­tu­tions, polit­i­cal and reli­gious, who claim to be speak­ing the truth of Chris­t­ian teach­ing. This leads directly and indi­rectly to intol­er­ance, dis­crim­i­na­tion, suf­fer­ing, and even death. The Holy Spirit com­pels us:

to affirm that the essence of Chris­t­ian life is not focused on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, but how one lives by grace in rela­tion­ship with God, with com­pas­sion toward humanity;

to embrace the full inclu­sion of our LGBT broth­ers and sis­ters in all areas of church life, includ­ing leadership;

to declare that the vio­lence must stop. Christ’s love moves us to work for the heal­ing of wounded souls who are vic­tims of abuse often prop­a­gated in the name of Christ;

to cel­e­brate the prophetic wit­ness of all peo­ple who have refused to let the voice of intol­er­ance and vio­lence speak for Chris­tian­ity, espe­cially LGBT per­sons, who have met hatred with love;

There­fore we call for an end to all reli­gious and civil dis­crim­i­na­tion against any per­son based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity and expres­sion. All laws must include and pro­tect the free­doms, rights, and equal legal stand­ing of all per­sons, in and out­side the church.

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