After this week’s deluge, I know that not a few of you have spent some long hours mopping out basements, or surveying the damage from flash floods that sweptthrough creeks and rivers and over low lying fields. But this has also been another one of those wrenching weeks in our national life. God knows we’ve seen far too much innocent and youthful blood shed in our streets and schools in recent years from mass violence, yet we were all saddened by the recent Boston Marathon bombing, followed by that City of Liberty’s elevated fears amidst the complete lock down and dragnet that followed. All of this while the U.S. Senate was defeating an historic bi-partisan proposal for gun control.
We struggle to make sense of this, and wonder when America will come to terms with its history of violence and its love of guns and ever more lethal munitions. These we have used from our founding, not only to free ourselves from our British oppressors but also to oppress and enslave African Americans and annihilate Native Americans. It would seem that our original sins, the sins of the fathers, are now being visited upon the heads of the children.
Yet even in my own longing to see our nation restrain the Beasts of our violentpast and present, I am reminded of our limits, as public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr suggested years ago in his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Dominant groups, Niebuhr said, rarely yield their power and privileges except when put under pressure by some countervailing social force. While social improvement is possible, the substantive justice we seek in this world is born in strife and is always provisional, fragmentary, and insecure. That is why Niebuhr thought our fondest hopes and ideals for a good and just society are inevitably frustrated since we can only do what is possible within the specific and concrete circumstances of our time.
While Niebuhr wanted Christians to be socially engaged and vigorously involved inpublic life, he was also a Christian realist. For both perspective and strength, he felt we must keep believing that at the end of history, God will complete and give meaning to our partial achievements. Meanwhile he said we must continue relying upon God’s forgiveness so we can bear the evil and guilt that political action or inaction entails.
Mindful of God’s hand at work in the world and the end of history, we return to today’s Easter season readings. Last week our readings focused on the complete transformation of Peter and Paul as key leaders of the Jesus movement among that first generation of disciples. But today our readings emphasize all those in every generation whom the Good Shepherd calls by name, who hear his voice, and follow where he leads “fearing no evil,” as Psalm 23 states. This includes a vision at the end of history from the Book of Revelation describing all those who have come through the great ordeal, through the trials and tribulations of each age, who now enter into everlasting glory in the full presence of the one who is our Good Shepherd, where they thirst and hunger and weep Some of those people likely are resistant to obtaining individual insurance , he said. no more. No wonder Psalm 23 and this passage from Revelation have for centuries been used in our burial liturgies.
The Good Shepherd and his sheep are the operative metaphor in three of our fourreadings today, the same image you see in stained glass above the high altar behind me. Though I’ve been with you such a short time, I find your Good Shepherd window to be the most extraordinary, personal and spiritually captivating image in Trinity’s sanctuary. I can only imagine how it has spoken to you in your lives and journeys and to those before us who have labored and died in faith. For me it speaks of our most intimate bond of inseparable love and protection in Christ.
As I discovered on my sister’s farm in Kentucky, sheep are not dumb; they just have their own form of intelligence. We like to think ourselves above them and of superior intelligence, yet we do share some traits in common.
We usually recognize and follow the voice of those we know and trust, as sheep do their shepherd. Yet we sometimes find ourselves weak and defenseless when faced with great ordeals that exceed our limits, unless we have faith in our shepherd (our savior). We easily go astray, or scatter when frightened or attacked, and need a good shepherd to gather and hold us together. When casino spiele our life is flying apart, we need a story, an image, a strong spiritual identity to keep us intact.
I also discovered that sheep will not listen to a stranger”s voice they don’t know or trust, as Jesus confirms elsewhere in John”s gospel. But in today”s passage Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them. I call them each
by name, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand, even by death. Because the Father and I are one.” And in Baptism we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ”s own flockforever, each and every one of us. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
Therefore, we belong to Christ — to God our Maker and Redeemer — forever. So nothing can snatch us away. Nothing, not even sin and death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul! So don’t forget to seek moments of rest and renewal in the woods and fields of the Lord in this overlapping season of Easter and Spring, when everything sings of resurrection.
Go to the woods where the woodland wildflowers are just beginning to emerge after a long winter in their buried tombs! One after another in succession, you will first find Spring Beauty, then Hepatica, Rue Anemone, Violets both yellow and white, Dutchman”s Breeches, Blue Bells, Trout Lily, and Wild Ginger, all of them gracing the upland forests and oak savannas, with more of their kind to follow. There is nothing quite like Iowa’s invincible Spring on the heels of a long Winter! Let it revive your spirits! And remember what peace wildthings give us amidst the woes of this world, as Wendell Berry writes in his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,”
When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water,
And the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Then, perhaps, we will be ready to respond to Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer that he left us: ”God grant us grace to accept with serenity that which cannot be changed, courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the difference.” Amen