Friday, May 01, 2009

Good Shepherd Sunday

Here's my sermon for this Sunday.

Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2009
John 10.11-18
Thomas Arth

In this age of email,
every so often you receive messages
that are forwarded from one person to another to another
and they make the rounds through vast networks
of friends, family, and acquaintances.
Sometimes you have to be careful
because the things being sent sound believable
when in actual fact they are fabrications or hoaxes.
At other times the stories that are sent around
contain the basics of a true story but then
there are embellishments and additions that distort the truth.
A lot of these stories can be like urban myths,
and sometimes you read,
"I heard this from a friend of a friend of my cousin's husband,
so it must be true."

Well, one of these forwarded emails that I've seen a few times
has to do with an interview with Anne Graham Lotz,
the daughter of the well-known evangelist Billy Graham.
I did some research to find the actual truth to the story,
without any embellishment
and this is what I found.

The interview took place on CBS's "The Early Show"
on Thursday, September 13, 2001, 2 days after the terrorist attacks
on the World Trade Center in New York.
Jane Clayson, conducted the interview with Anne Graham Lotz.

According to the transcript of the broadcast, Clayson asked,
"I've heard people say,
those who are religious, those who are not,
if God is good, how could God let this happen?
To that, you say?"

Lotz replied,
"I say God is also angry when he sees something like this.
I would say also for several years now Americans in a sense
have shaken their fist at God and said,
‘God, we want you out of our schools, our government,
our business, we want you out of our marketplace.'
And God, who is a gentleman,
has just quietly backed out of our national and political life,
our public life.
Removing his hand of blessing and protection.
We need to turn to God first of all and say,
‘God, we're sorry we have treated you this way
and we invite you now to come into our national life.
We put our trust in you.'
We have our trust in God on our coins, we need to practice it."

That's what was actually said,
but as the email made the rounds
some things were changed and some things were added,
the basics were still there.
And a lot of people have taken Mrs. Graham Lotz's words to heart,
thinking "Maybe she was right."
We've said, you can't pray or talk about God in the schools,
or in congress or parliament, or in public life in general
so maybe this is what happens
when we don't want God in our lives,
God steps back and says, "Okay, I'm outta here."
So this email comes across your computer screen and you think,
"You know, I think she's got something here!"
and you send it to your friends who send it to their friends,
and so on, and so on.

But is that what God is really like?
As Christians we believe that the best picture we have
of what God is really like
comes through Jesus.
And in today's gospel reading we hear Jesus say,
"I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The hired hand,
who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep,
sees the wolf coming
and leaves the sheep and runs away."
So how does Jesus portray himself, portray God?
Is he the supposed gentleman who quietly backs out of our lives,
removing his hand of blessing and protection?
That sounds more like the hired hand.
Jesus makes a very clear contrast
between the good shepherd and the hired hand.

I've said before,
that we don't know much about sheep and shepherds around here.
As I travel around the countryside
I don't often see flocks of sheep.
Oh, there's the warm and wonderful wool farm out in Wellandport
and there are some Alpaca farms in the area,
but neither of these require shepherds.
When I was in Jordan and Israel a year-and-a-half ago
we would drive through what looked like totally inhospitable land
and now and then you'd see bedouin camps.
Their tents didn't look anything like what we'd call a tent.
They seemed to be long, rectangular structures
covered by big brown blankets.
There might be a small pick-up truck parked nearby,
maybe a camel or two,
and there were almost always flocks of sheep and/or goats around.
It was hard to see what they might have grazed on.
In a lot of places the countryside
looked like nothing but sand and dust and rocks.
But those bedouins were shepherds.
And their livelihood depended on them finding pasture land
and still waters,
to safely guide them along right pathways.
Another thing I saw here and there in the Middle East were dogs,
stray dogs.
I don't know what breed these dogs were.
You'd probably have to go a long way back in their family tree
to find any dog that resembled any breed
that would be recognized by a kennel club.
The dogs I saw were usually lying lazily in some shade to beat the heat.
But I'd expect in the cool of the evening of night
they could be pretty dangerous to a flock of sheep.
This would be a time and a situation
where you wouldn't want the shepherd to act like a gentleman
and quietly back out of the lives of the sheep. \
If you're one of those sheep,
you want a good shepherd who will keep you safe.

That still begs the question,
where was the protection of the good shepherd
on September 11, 2001 in New York City,
or on Boxing Day, 2004 when the tsunami killed so many
and caused such destruction along the Indian Ocean coast,
or on August 29, 2005
when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast,
or last month when an earthquake hit L'Aquila, Italy?
It's a question that's really hard to answer.
People will try to answer
and their answers might satisfy some hearts and minds,
but not others.
I may have told the story before,
about when I was a seminary student
taking my Clinical Pastoral Education course
and serving as a hospital chaplain.
I was on call one weekend, and my pager went off.
I was called to the ICU at Hamilton General Hospital.
The night before, the car that three teens were driving in
was hit by a driver who ran through a stop sign.
Two of the teens were killed
and the third was lying in a bed paralyzed.
I came into that young man's room, scared to death,
and he asked me "Why did this happen?"
What can you possibly say to that?
What kind of answer can you give?
Do you tell the kid
that we're not allowed to pray in our schools anymore,
that people don't go to church much anymore,
that we've put God out of our lives so much
that God has quietly backed out of our lives
and removed his hand of blessing and protection?
Sorry, but that's not the picture of God
that I find in my reading of the Bible.
What do you say to that kid?
Well, I'll tell you what I said.
When he asked, "Why did this happen?"
I said, "I don't know."

So where was God?
I hope God was with a nervous and frightened young chaplain
who didn't have any answers but came anyway
to try to provide some comfort
to a hurting boy and his family.
Where was God?
God was cradling the boy and girl who were killed in that crash.
Where was God?
God was with the nurse who called me and said,
"These people really need someone right now."

Bob Kelly, one of my professors at Seminary wrote:
"Genocide and starvation!
Nuclear destruction!
Poison and pollution!
Is it any wonder that people ask, ‘Where is God?
Why does God not act?
Why does God not end the slaughter and destruction?
Where can God possibly be?'
The Gospel is that God answers our question in a still, small voice:
‘Here I am, dying on this cross.'
"God's own response to all our sound and fury
is to remain the crucified God.
The crucified God is not a god who can be called upon
to bless economic systems, Christian schools,
military forces, or political powers.
The crucified God is the God who died at the hands of the Romans,
in the gas chambers of Auschwitz,
under the bomb at Hiroshima,
of starvation and AIDS in the Sub-Sahara,
in the streets of El Salvador,
in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan—
and the God who lives now as Lord
and will put an end to all gas chambers, all bombs,
all hunger, all death squads.
The crucified God does not try to explain our evil;
the crucified God suffers and dies as a victim of our evil,
and precisely in suffering and dying overcomes evil."

We may not know much about shepherds and sheep.
But I think we can imagine, pretty well,
what a good shepherd is like.
A good shepherd doesn't back out of our lives
and leave us to ourselves.
The Good Shepherd leaves 99 sheep who are safe
and relentlessly pursues the one that is lost.
A good shepherd doesn't remove his hand of blessing and protection
or pout because we've treated him badly.
The Good Shepherd shows the extent of his love
by laying down his life for the sheep.
The Good Shepherd shepherds us
"beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life."
May we live in faith,
trusting in the presence and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ,
our Good Shepherd.

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