May 5, 2017 | John 10: 22-30 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
The other night when I turned on the evening news I was almost overcome with frustration and despair by the images on the screen coming out of South Sudan. I have known about the food shortages there for some time now, but the prospect of the number of people affected doubling by the end of this summer was news I wasn’t ready to appropriate. Amidst stories of mothers feeding their children leaves to try and keep them alive, the thought of over 5 million people experiencing a severe food shortage in the next few months is daunting. Here we are with Ontario, Quebec and parts of BC gushing with floodwaters and there they are with life threatening drought, not to mention the civil war that has contributed to the conditions in which they find themselves now.
After the news item about South Sudan ended, the broadcast moved on to the war in Syria, not so much the fighting there, but specifically how UNESCO world heritage sites are being purposefully destroyed by rebel fighters. It’s something I hadn’t been previously aware of and it felt like a bit of a tipping point for me. It’s bad enough that lives and livelihoods, homes and infrastructures around being torn apart by this war but the destruction of artifacts that belong to the global family on top of all of that is completely senseless to me.
In a week when here in our community we have lost a beloved volunteer in our Thrift Shop and so many others in our midst are struggling with their health, watching the nightly news made me feel like it’s been a bad week.
Or has it? It really depends on our perspective doesn’t it, on which stories we choose to tell about how the week unfolded. Was it a week full of evil action, devastating disaster and terrible loss and grief? Or was it a week full of good news, full of compassionate care, extraordinary courage, full of resilience, resolve and love of life? Was it a bad week or a week of good news? Maybe the way we answer that question depends on the company we keep.
Today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday in calendar of the church year. It’s the fourth Sunday of Easter and the church in its wisdom knows that by now the energy and excitement of our Easter celebration is becoming a distant memory. It’s time for us to get on with the business of loving our enemies, caring for our neighbours and being the Body of Christ in the world. So the church gives us, every year at this time, this image of Jesus and of God as a Shepherd who guides us through thick and through thin, who picks us up and carries us when we’re weak, who goes out to find us and drags us back home when we wander, who in the presence of our enemies gives us more than we need to sustain us. The church in its wisdom reminds us this week that as we live out a call to seek justice and love kindness in this world and to be a people of resurrection, that although we might face great opposition in doing so, we never go it alone. We carry within us an indestructible spirit we call the spirit of Christ, and an inner compass to direct us to cool waters and lead us into green pastures, to companion us through the deep valleys of this world. We never, ever go it alone.
You may have noticed that in both of the passages we heard this morning, the reading from the 23rd Psalm and the reading from John’s Gospel, there is no indication that believing in God or in Jesus or in any kind of divine presence larger than ourselves means we won’t have to go through trials in life.
The familiar words of the23rd psalm do not say “The Lord is my Shepherd, therefore I will never have to walk through a dark valley” It says The Lord is my Shepherd, and even though I walk through the darkest valley, not around it, not stuck in it forever, but through it, I will not be afraid because I’m not alone. It doesn’t talk of a utopian existence where nothing ever goes wrong, it describes a life threatened by evil and enemies and death. It’s a psalm made for times of terror, made for people who know the reality of fear and the threat of death and who seek some comfort from it. That’s why the words of the 23rd psalm have been read at bedsides and gravesites and funeral services in countless languages, in countless settings, more times than we will ever know.
In the gospel reading from John Jesus is in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival we now call Hanukkah and as on many other occasions he is confronted by those who are not his followers and asked yet again to clarify who he is. Are you the Messiah? Please tell us you are the one who has been promised, the one who is going to grind into the ground once and for all the rulers of the Roman Empire and take back the throne of Israel so that we will no longer be oppressed, so that we can live in peace. Tell us you are the one who is going to help us destroy the likes of the Bashar al Assads of our time.
Into that situation and to those who are sceptics, Jesus replies you really don’t get it do you? Yes, we live in a world where our freedoms have been taken from us. Yes, we live in a world where there is great oppression and innocent people fall victim to heinous crimes, and temples are destroyed, this is our reality, but in the face of all of this there are other truths, another way and evidence of that way is all around us. You see it but you do not recognize it. You may even know it but you do not live it. It is all a matter of perspective. You ask me if I am the one who will save you and I say to you open your eyes, look around and see what I am doing in your midst, look at what is being done in my name in the world, the name of love and justice and compassion.
And then he goes on to say that the reason his questioners don’t get who he is and what he is about and don’t see the fruit of his actions is because they are not part of his flock. It’s a comment that has led to a lot of judgement and exclusion over the years, but I wonder if what the writer of John’s gospel is really trying to set up here is the choice we all have to make in the face of violence, oppression and disaster, the choice to return violence with violence, fear with fear and despair with despair, or the choice to stand in another kind of power and in another kind of truth.
My flock, Jesus says, gets this other way and the reason, they get it is because they know my voice. They know the voice of love. It’s a relational kind of thing, he says. They know me and I know them. We are in tune with one another. They see a good deed, they experience an act of justice, they act with kindness and with graciousness and they hear the meaning and the message of love’s power in those things.
That is why today, even though there are people without food in South Sudan there continues to be those who give their lives to serve as aid workers to bring them relief and others who are getting the message out to the rest of the world, because instead of responding with revenge or fear, they have responded to the voice of love. It’s why we sponsored refugee families to come to Canada, because when we heard of their plight we didn’t just see despair and devastation, we saw the possibility of a new beginning for them. It’s why when people were remembering our volunteer Jack this week they didn’t just shed tears of sadness over the tragedy of his loss, they expressed words of gratitude for having known him and they shared the essence of his spirit, a spirit of kindness and generosity. It’s a choice we make to witness to love, to testify to hope, to listen for the voice of the shepherd when we are walking through the valley.
Whenever there is an act of terror, a natural disaster or a tragedy of almost any kind we can so easily become overwhelmed by fear and despair. There are those who will always feed off our fears, trying to make us feel even more fearful and more despairing. But there are others, first responders, average citizens, people for whom helping others is simply a way of life, a habit of their hearts, who respond to these incidents with creativity, compassion and kindness. Whether they call themselves Christians or not, they are part of a loving, caring flock.
The other night after getting over my disgust at the news item about the destruction of the UNESCO world heritage sites in Syria, I was fascinated to learn about a team of people who are re-creating parts of the ancient city of Palmyra with 3-D printing. The models, made out of paper are exact replicas of the original ornate columns and pillars that have been destroyed. Since then, I have discovered that people have been re-creating damaged portions of the ancient city using all kinds of mediums. There’s an huge arch that has been made out of stone and placed in Trafalgar Square in London as an act of defiance and the entire city of Palmyra made out of items found only in refugee camps by one enterprising man. All of this a testament to the voice of love and the resiliency of humanity. It’s his way of saying “we are not going to let these things die.”
In this morning’s reading from John’s gospel there are two references to what can never be snatched away, that which will endure. The sheep can never be snatched away from the Shepherd and what is greater than all else can never be snatched away from the Father’s hand. In my way of understanding these two references what’s being talked about is that part of ourselves that is both powerful and eternal. It is the sacred nature of our lives. It’s the part of us that can go unclaimed, we can fail to recognize it like the questioners in today’s story. It’s the part of us that can be covered over by fear or silenced by violence. It’s the part of us that can be forgotten and untended. But it can never be taken away because it’s who we are when we claim ourselves as God’s beloved.
And one of the primary roles of hanging out with the flock, is reminding one another and honouring in each other that fundamental truth about our lives. So when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death or when we are confronted with the presence of our enemies or when we are exhausted and overwhelmed by the propensity of our global family to do unto one another and unto our planet the worst of what has been done unto us, we can remember there is another way, there is another perspective.
We often think that the hardest part of following Jesus is living our lives like he lived his, literally following his way. But what our readings this morning suggest is that the challenge really is in recognizing his voice, in knowing it so well that in those moments in our lives when we are being put to the greatest test, we don’t have to stop and think about what to do, we know what to do and how to be from the inside out, it has become our natural inclination.
If we look at the statistics about how many people could experience starvation in South Sudan this summer, or count the number of people in our circles who have been diagnosed with cancer or mental illness, or add up the number of refugees who have fled Syria or the number of children that live in fear and families that are losing loved ones to senseless violence each and every day, our conclusion might be that every week is a bad week and looking at the world that way might lead us to despair.
But we gather in this place because we are a people of hope and we practice a way of love and compassion and we are formed by a spirit of possibility. Love, compassion, possibility: lasting words, eternal life.