Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Shepherd's Song

Shall we just acknowledge, right up front, that it was a HELL of a week? Any week that starts with taxes and goes downhill from there deserves that recognition.  Let’s be honest with ourselves and with God, that this was a week when we needed to lean on something, someone bigger and broader and deeper and stronger than ourselves as we navigated a relentlessly violent news cycle.

In Boston, death and destruction on what should have been a day of celebration. An industrial explosion in Texas that partially leveled a town. Poisoned letters through the postal service. A gun control vote that brought back the horror of December’s school shootings. An earthquake -- did you know there was a major earthquake in China while all this was going on? The manhunt for the bombing suspects in Boston, a major metropolis in lockdown, a city living in fear. Our collective post-traumatic stress from 9/11 was triggered once again.

And closer to our own geographic location, personal dramas gripped us all the while – finances, health, work, school, relationships – because those things never stop coming either. And the rain. The seemingly-never-ending, spirit-flattening cold rain that has only been interrupted by April snow. We ran out of adjectives and resorted to expletives. Dear Jesus, can you please send us puppies and rainbows and unicorns next because we’re drowning in bad news and there is no ark in sight.  How long, O Lord? How much do you expect us to take? We address the questions to God, not because God did it, but because God is the only thing we know on this scale.

Heaven help us, this has been a week of God-sized terrors, which take our fiction of being independent, self-guided and self-actualized and make of it a mockery. This has been a week of being reminded that “independent” doesn’t preach when the blast has knocked you to the ground and you need perfect strangers to tie a piece of cloth tightly around your leg, carry you away in their arms and save your life. Self-guided and self-actualized doesn’t cut it when you’re stunned by the rapid swirl of events, when a misfire in your brain has left you foggy and confused and you desperately need someone to take your hand and help you keep walking through the valley of the shadow lest you fall down and cry your heart out there in the valley and never get up again.

Dear God, we need a shepherd. We need Holy Words and a Holy One, a Holy Resurrected One, because the terrors of the week were quite enough, thank you, and we need somebody bigger to be in charge. We need someplace safe to lie down. We need a drink of cool, healing water. We need green things and flowers and beauty and softness and birds twittering like they do in the animated movies, not that other Twitter that this week carried violence and rumors of violence to us minute by minute, scrolling by on electronic streams.  

Among the oldest depictions of Jesus is the image of the Good Shepherd, a fresco on the ceilings of the catacombs, the burial places of the early Christians near Rome.  We have always needed a shepherd.  Oh, dear God, we need a shepherd. Because to be shepherd-less is terrifying, wandering aimlessly, stumbling near the cliffs in the night. Because without a shepherd, we’re not a flock, not really. We’re just a buffet dinner in wooly clothes waiting for the next wolf to walk by. We need your Holy Words and Holy Nudges and the comfort of learning your songs because you need a song to sing in a time like this.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. The odds are good that someone, somewhere taught you that. You learned it in Sunday School or Religious Education or by recitation at countless funerals, or perhaps from your grandmother. There are other Holy Words too, touchstones, sacred songs from scripture and tradition, songs that you lean on because they are heart-songs, heart-prayers, borne of constant repetition.

A woman with dementia in the hospital where I did my chaplaincy, who had witnessed violence in her own home, was practically nonverbal until the day I said the 23rd Psalm alongside her, mumbling along until we came to the valley of the shadow of death where she proclaimed triumphantly with a prophet’s voice so the entire wing could hear, “I will fear no evil!

My Catholic grandmother used to say the rosary when I was in her cool apartment on a summer’s day.  And though I was raised protestant, my heart knows the words.  Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death, Amen.  I know this, from hearing my grandmother recite it countless times. It was, and is, a heart-prayer.

I was scared of the dark as a child, scared to go down the dark hall to turn on my bedroom light, scared to get out of bed in the night to use the bathroom, and I remember running down the hall reciting the Lord’s Prayer at lightning speed as if it were a talisman against terror, leaping onto the safe haven of my bed. “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”

Maybe it’s not Psalms or the prayers but more recent songs you sing in these times. Maybe it’s from the hymnal in your childhood church where the spine cracked open to “Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.” Perhaps it is Jesus Loves Me, Amazing Grace, or “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn… through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.” Perhaps it is the echo of an organ resounding with the great chords of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God, A Bulwark NEVER failing…” and a congregation, a cloud of witnesses singing in four part harmony.

"For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe…” When we are scared, when we are terrified, when we are wounded, sick in body or spirit, what Holy Word, what Holy Tune is so deeply ingrained in us that it comes to our lips, unbidden? It is that tune, that prayer, that story, that we learned in childhood. It has been said that in singing songs to our children, we are preparing them for their deathbeds. Such are the songs they will sing, the songs and prayers and theology that will pulse through their heart, be breathed through their lips in their last days. Such were the Psalms offered up by the wounded and dying in Boston, by the first responders, by the ambulance drivers and trauma surgeons, by the police officers in their cruisers, on their house-by-house search, by those behind locked doors and drawn shades, and even by those watching their televisions and computer screens with bated breath. 

And though it makes this mother ache to think of, in a time of terror, these are the songs that our children will someday have to draw on.

So I ask this body of Christ, on this Bible-giving Sunday, on this Sunday following terror (not after, never after, not until the last trumpet sounds) on this day where we talk of sheep and shepherds, I ask you parents and you grandparents, you aunts and uncles, you Godparents and faith friends and adoptive and surrogate parents, you brothers and sisters in Christ, you baptismal promise-making, flock of Christ-following ones: How are you claiming your promises?  How are we preparing our children to walk through life? How are we preparing them to walk through the valley of the shadow of death? With what holy words and sacred songs, with what heritage are we equipping them?

How is this flock showing its children that this is the Shepherd and you can trust his voice? How can we teach them the song the shepherd sings and how good it is? How do we set the table for their adulthood?

Oh, dear God, we need a shepherd. The adult sheep, every one of us, and the adolescent sheep and the young sheep and the stumbling, toddling baby sheep who have just come into the flock, those whose little legs can’t hold them up yet, the eldest sheep full of life experience, having seen a lifetime of wolves and valleys and shepherds and streams. Dear God, we need a shepherd.

Let us pray together:
I believe I need a shepherd.
Because I am sometimes timid and other times overconfident,
because I often don't know the best path yet pretend I do,
because I rush into dead ends or lead others into hazardous places,
because my brightest ideas are seamed with darkness,
because the things I crave may not be what is good for me,
I need a shepherd.
I believe in Jesus, the best possible shepherd;
his wisdom leads me to the best opportunities,
his word comforts me when I'm anxious or afraid,
his arm steadies me when I feel weary and heavy-laden,
his wounded body displays the cost of my rescue,.
I believe in Jesus, the best possible shepherd.
I believe that I do not find him but he finds me,
that I live under his care by virtue of sheer grace,
the love he gives me is to be shared with others,
that he treasures my name and prepares a place for me,
that his fold transfixes earth and heaven.
I trust Jesus, the good shepherd. Amen.

"I believe I need a shepherd" (c) Bruce Prewer, used with permission of the author.  Sermon preached at McFarland UCC on April 21, 2013 by Rev. Kerri Parker.   From the Revised Common Lectionary texts for Easter 4C, Psalm 23 and John 10:22-30.  With the exception of the previously stated copyright, this sermon is under a Creative Commons license.
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