Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Helper of the Helpless and the Saviour of the Lost - A Homily for Easter 4, Year C, 2013

Homily for Easter IV, Year C, 2013
Sunday, April 21st, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 10:22-30
Jesus’ claim of John chapter 10 to be the Good Shepherd, and the reminder in Psalm 23 that Jesus our Lord is indeed our shepherd, seem well suited to reflect on the events of the past week.  Whether it be the bombing in Boston, the explosion in Texas, or the earthquake in China; if it be the heightened tensions in the Korean Peninsula; or if it be the general feeling that the world is coming apart, the Good Shepherd has words of hope, compassion, and love for us still.

We stand a step removed from the terrible events of the past week, and yet the ever-watchful eye of the media draws us into the nexus of the horror and pain that is felt any time disaster strikes.  What if it were us?  And so the pain of others easily becomes a pain we carry, for we can see that it might have easily been one of us, or one we love.  Even though we stand somewhat removed from the terror, we find ourselves somehow locked in its grasp.

But for those who were there, even as for those of us who were not; for those who have lost so much, even as for those of us who only feel their loss from a distance, God searches and seeks for us, in our fear, in our sorrow, in our grief, and in our loss.  “I am the Good Shepherd, and I know mine own and mine own know me.”

The great comfort of the Christian gospel is that in precisely moments like these when we ask “where was God?” the answer comes, “here is God.”  We shall never truly understand the answer as to why God does not intervene to prevent evil, or to prevent the forces of nature from causing destruction, or to correct human error to prevent accidents.  Perhaps there are moments when God intervenes, and yet, there are so many when he does not. We have to deal with a universe that unfolds by defined laws and human free will, but does that mean that God is not present, that God does not care?

Quite the opposite, I think.  The whole story of the gospel is that God does care; God does care about the suffering of his people.  In the person of Christ Jesus he enters into our world, into our humanity, and joins our suffering to his – the true definition of “compassion” – to feel with, to suffer with.  God suffers alongside us and God feels our pain.  What is more, God is at work in our lives and in our world redeeming our suffering and redeeming our pain.  It is in the moments in which we feel most abandoned, most alone, most forgotten, that he reminds us that he has never and will never abandon us: “Even when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am with you.  My rod and staff, they comfort you.”  It is in these moments that the Good Shepherd is seeking us out, calling our names, and reminding us that even though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.  His rule is a gentle one.  He rules as a comforter and refuge, a hope in times of trouble. God’s rule is one in which we learn that the events of the day, as powerful and as awful as they may be, shall not be the story that shapes our lives, but rather his compassion and mercy shall shape our story.   It has often been said during this week, and I think the sentiment is a good one, “when you see evil, when you see harm, look for the helpers.”  It is in acts of mercy, compassion, self-giving and goodness that we shall see the loving hand of the Good Shepherd.

This brings us to a second thought about the Good Shepherd in light of the events of the past week.  Many people have died.  The same questions abound, the same “whys” are cried out.  And for a time, perhaps the only answer is silence.  However, as I look back on the losses of my own life, and as I ponder the mystery of death, I come to realize that although my loved ones have been plucked out of my hands, they have not been plucked out of the hands of God.  A passage often read at funerals, from the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.”  And again, hear the words of the Good Shepherd:  “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.  My Father who has given them to me, is greater than all and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”  There is nothing else I can do for the dead.  It is a harsh and dreadful reality, but even though they have been snatched away from me, they cannot be snatched away from God.  In God, even in death, they find eternal life.  So while human mourning and grief are real, and often crippling, once again, our hope is not in human hands, but in the hands of the almighty, who will not lose even one of his own.  Thus, we find in the Christian gospel words of comfort, but the gospel brings not only comfort, but challenge.

And so this brings me to a third thought, a challenging and difficult thought, and for this I will veer away from the Good Shepherd for a moment and to St. Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.  This question has to do with those who hurt us. I first began to formulate these thoughts earlier in the week when I heard of the sickening behaviour that was taking place in London after Lady Thatcher’s death.  As we have all heard, parties broke out and people began singing “Ding, Dong, the witch is dead,” and danced on her grave.  Anyone who participates in such behaviour and calls themselves a Christian is due for a serious reality check and a review of the words of Jesus found in St. Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.  Now, I would be the last one to eulogize Lady Thatcher for the way she governed.  There are many that credit her with saving her country and there are others who claim great suffering under her regime.  First of all, this is the cost of democracy.  We shall have leaders who will pursue policies we do not like, and we shall have the freedom to stand against them. We shall have leaders that do harm, and leaders that shall do good, and we shall often disagree on what constitutes harm and good.  We shall have leaders that we hate.  But I ask you to consider the words of Jesus from Luke chapter 6, and consider what transpired in London: “But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  In our Bible study on Luke this week, we reflected on this passage.  This is perhaps the most revolutionary and world-changing claim of the gospel. Judaism knew “Love your neighbour,” and indeed that is a core value for us, but “love your enemy?”  We find this a hard pill to swallow.  Aren’t we supposed to hate our enemies?  Not if we are Christians.

And what does it mean to “love our enemy?” Well, Jesus tells us: do good to them, bless them, pray for them.  This means that what happened in London when people danced on the grave of Lady Thatcher was the most profoundly unchristian, and indeed, anti-Christian act that one could imagine.  Do the words of Jesus mean anything to us when we behave in such a shameful way.  Now we may say that was not us; that we were not there dancing on the grave, but now consider the events of Boston.  There was much rejoicing at the killing of one suspected perpetrator and the capture of another.  Should we rejoice that an evildoer is caught?  By all means.  Should we congratulate those who bring wrong-doers to justice? By all mean.  Should we breath a sigh of relief that the innocent are once again safe? By all means.  But should we rejoice in the death of a sinner?  I dare say, we should not.  Should we rejoice in the humiliation of a deluded young man?  I dare say, we should not.   To be sure, justice is a principle of the gospel, as well as mercy.  People must be kept safe and those who are dangerous must be removed so as to ensure the public good.  And yet, we can be merciful in all of this.  We should not puff ourselves up with false pride and dance on the grave of a young man who, for whatever mystifying reason turned to wickedness and chose to harm his fellow human beings.  We should not abuse the abuser with torture or humiliation, for even the sinner is still a child of God.  It may be hard to love ones such as these, but can we at least aspire to a greater humanity than what has been demonstrated by their actions? Shall we at least do good to them, where they were unable to do good to us?  Shall we pray for them with hope in our hearts, where they felt their prayers of no avail for us?  Shall we find mercy for them, where they felt no mercy for us?  Jesus reminds us with these very words, “that God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked,” and then admonishes us, “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”  These are hard words.  But then I realize that those two boys could just as easily have been my children, or you children.  Even in the midst of all that they had done wrong, would I still not desire mercy even as justice is accordingly meted out?  Would I still not hope, beyond hope, that something good might be salvaged in them?  Would I not pray for them if they were my children, or your children?  And here is the rub, they are God’s children, as wicked as they might be, and we learn that God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, and that we ought to be merciful as he is merciful. 

We need not condone what they did.  Nor should we suggest that justice should not be done.  Yet we ought not to descend into a mutual or similar barbarism and rejoice in wrongdoing or bloodlust.  That is not the Christian.  That is not Christian holiness.  That is not the way of Jesus. The Good Shepherd is a loving shepherd, a merciful shepherd, a shepherd that seeks out the lost, all the while caring for those closest to him.  And so an old prayer from the prayer book comes to mind as I draw this to a close,

“Be mindful, O Lord, of thy people bowed before thee …. Succour all those who are in tribulation, necessity or distress.  Remember for good all those that love us, and those that hate us, and those who have desired us, unworthy as we are to pray for them.  For thou art the helper of the helpless, and the saviour of the lost.” Amen.