Psalm 23; John 10: 11-18
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 26, 2015 (Good Shepherd Sunday)
It never fails. Sooner or later, the scripture goes to work. God not only speaks but engineers, conspires, and shows me yet one more time, that though God may not be in control, I certainly am not. Again and again I am given opportunities to be compassionate, to take a risk, to struggle, to get it wrong as much as get it right, to ask for help and to give help where it is needed.
The Lord is my shepherd; meaning, I am not. I shall not want. I certainly want for nothing. And so when I am asked to provide out of my means by someone who has no means except to ask repeatedly for help, why do I struggle so? Green grass grows freely in my yard, and I can pay someone to mow it. Clean water flows from my tap, and it's cheap. Restoration for my soul is there for the asking. I can even afford to make mistakes in judgment. There are times I think I know which is the right path, but sometimes it can be the road less traveled.
I’ve been listening to the news reports about migrants in Africa making the treacherous crossing to Europe, willing to risk their lives and some of them perishing in the process. It’s not enough for the Lord to be named a shepherd in our times. We’ve romanticized the shepherd and flock with pastoral images right out of the psalm for today. In the Middle East, shepherds were nomads who lived with their flocks, sleeping out in the elements, always seeking the next pasture, the next water source. With climate change on the rise, the number of migrants will only continue to increase. And so earlier this week I rewrote the 23rd Psalm, thinking of those seeking a better life in another land.
The Lord is a migrant
who only wants to live.
Greener pastures always somewhere else;
Who is made to choose
between suffering and unsafe passage;
To not drown in the waters to be crossed
or die in a shipping container
or turned back at the border by armed men
but be restored to wholeness and justice.
What is the right path
when the way is not open to you?
The migrant’s path
is a death march.
Evil is all around;
There is much to fear.
Bruised and broken
by smugglers’ rod and staff.
No one wants you.
Surrounded by enemies,
the table is bare.
When was the last time
soap and clean water and a soft towel
touched this body, this head?
Yet millions of hands are cupped in hope
of being filled.
will the mercy of our lives
spill over into
the life of the migrant?
How shall we follow one who has no home?
The One who leads us is one who is powerless, who has no voice, who suffers relentlessly. Jesus was a migrant. In Matthew’s gospel he tells his disciples: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” When we welcome the migrant, when we have compassion for those with no homeland or no home, we welcome Jesus and open our hearts to him.
In Deuteronomy, a book from which we read only nine times in the three-year lectionary cycle, verse after verse, we hear of how God commands God’s people to treat strangers, widows, and orphans as valued members of the tribe, to share with them a tithe of the harvest, to not deny them justice, to do all of this as worship to Yahweh. In a patriarchal society women and children who were alone were defenseless because there was no male presence to protect them. Strangers were outside the covenant, yet still part of God’s creation. Therefore, knowing human nature, God commanded that God’s people become their protection, because once God’s people were slaves and knew what it meant to be powerless.
Most of us in the United States don’t know what it means to be powerless. We live with the illusion of control and we relish it. And so it is often difficult for us to surrender, to obey, to be led by a homeless, migrant shepherd. Even so, we know the problems around us are overwhelming, to the point of paralyzing us, which has become our powerlessness. Indeed, how shall we follow one who has no home?
Chris Hedges, in his collection of essays entitled The World As It Is, writes this about battling evil, cruelty, and injustice:
“Perhaps in our lifetimes we will not succeed. Perhaps things will only get worse. But this does not invalidate our efforts. Rebellion—which is different from revolution because it is perpetual alienation from power rather than the replacement of one power system with another—should be our natural state. And faith…is a belief that rebellion is always worth it, even if all outward signs point to our lives and struggles as penultimate failures. We are saved not by what we can do or accomplish but by…our steadfastness to the weak, the poor, the marginalized, and those who endure oppression. We must stand with them against the powerful. …[The] struggle to live the moral life is worth it.”
When we surrender to the One who would lead us, one who is weak and powerless in the world, it is an act of rebellion, of subversion. The world would have us believe that it is the powerful who are in charge, who have control, who determine the fate of the world. This is the way of empire, and we’ve heard this bedtime story before. Even though we might get it wrong, once again God is giving us the opportunity to be compassionate, to take a risk, to struggle, to ask for help and to give help where it is needed. Our God of second and third and fourth chances sets before us the ways of life and death, and shows us, through life, death, and resurrection, that when we surrender, we rebel against the ways of empire and choose not only life, but love.
Even though it feels as though what we do does not make much of a difference; even though our efforts can often be flawed and imperfect; even when it looks like we’re being used; even though to all appearances things just might get worse; to continue to stand with the powerless against the odds—this is what we call faith and being faithful. This is what it means to follow Jesus the Good Shepherd. Nothing was promised that looks like what the world defines as success. The only thing that Jesus promised is that we would learn to love well: to love God our creator with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
American theologian Frederick Buechner wrote "What's lost is nothing to what's found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup." Our cup spills over with abundant life. Lord Jesus, you are our shepherd. We want for nothing. Show us the way. Amen.