Easter 4C Readings: Acts 9:36-43 Psalm 23 Revelation 7:9-17 John 10:22-30
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
It has been a week of tragedy and a week of grace. On Monday, two homemade bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed—one of whom was only seven years old—dozens of people lost at least one leg, and dozens of others were injured in other ways. By Thursday night, a young police officer on the MIT campus was dead. Boston was a city paralyzed by fear as people sheltered in their own homes by order of the authorities. One of the two suspects died in a firefight on Thursday night. By the time it was all over on Friday night, a seriously wounded nineteen year old had surrendered to the police.
This week, we have witnessed images on television and on websites of major newspapers. We have heard endless sound bytes by journalists. We have read stories about people helping each other—offering food, shelter, medical attention to complete strangers. We have listened to reporters’ rapid-fire questions to broken-hearted relatives of the Tsarnaev brothers. On Friday night, we heard applause and cheers of people in gratitude for the police and FBI in Boston.
All the while, the words of the 23rd Psalm kept running through my head. The image of the Good Shepherd haunted me. Within the space of five days, we all experienced two very different realms: good and evil. On some level, it was clear how different these realms were. Terrorism is evil. Heroism and generosity, compassion and the honoring of the dead are good.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” In the Hebrew scriptures, a king was to be a shepherd—one who cared for and protected his people. But for the psalmist, no human being would ever totally fit the bill for shepherd. Throughout the pages of the Old Testament, prophets criticized kings and religious leaders when they did not take good care of their human sheep. Many were corrupt. Many loved power and privilege, neglecting the poor people around them. Many were cruel, forcing their own people into slave labor—Solomon is one sad example of a king who did that.
By the time Jesus of Nazareth walked this earth, his voice joined those of the Old Testament prophets in calling out religious authorities. The Pharisees pushed Jesus to tell them plainly whether he was the Messiah or not. Jesus refused. Instead, he said that the works he did in his Father’s name should be sufficient proof of who Jesus is. Then he told them “but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
The Good Shepherd has a flock of sheep. They know his voice. They live close to him, they follow him, they trust him. They seem to know the difference between good and evil. Don’t follow the bad shepherds, they tell each other. Here is the Good Shepherd. Let’s follow him. He will take care of us. He will seek us out when we get lost. At the end of the day, it is he who will find a calm stream so we can have water. He will call each of us by name, check us over carefully, put oil on any wounds we have, feed us, then stand guard over us all night long.
This week, there has been no doubt about the realms in which we human beings live. There is good. There is evil. There are good shepherds. There are some bad ones. Yet on Friday night, I found myself with mixed emotions. I was relieved when someone was taken into custody—someone whose actions this past week resulted in death, dismemberment, grief, fear. Yet I was sad too. I found myself thinking that this is a nineteen year old boy. Like many teenagers, he is highly impressionable and does not make good decisions. I wondered. Had his older brother manipulated him? Had Tamerlan filled Dzhokar’s head with justification about why it was okay to wreak havoc on Americans who do not practice radical Islamic laws? Did the older brother coerce the younger one into making bombs in an apartment for a twisted cause?
On Friday night, I wondered what Dzhokar was thinking as he lay stretched out in the bottom of that boat in a back yard. He was badly wounded, likely bleeding to death. The night before, he had helped kill a young police officer, his older brother had been shot in a gunfight, then he had accidently run over his brother. Now, his brother was dead. His uncle had accused him publicly of shaming the family and the Chechen people. His parents were thousands of miles away in his native country. I wondered if he was scared. Did he want his mama? Did he realize he had chosen to follow the wrong shepherd?
I have no way of answering those questions. I just know that what we all witnessed this week was pretty extreme. In such a situation, it is easy to condemn what we see as evil and uphold what we call good. Yet at this point, none of us know the whole story. Surely many of us know people—some in our own families—who are able to justify their own actions according to the standards they espouse. Yes, some of those folks have emotional or mental issues. So it is questionable just how realistic their worlds are, how much validity is in the ways in which they justify their behavior. Some even have violent tendencies. I do not know about you, but I have first-hand experience with people I have loved who have turned out not to be the people I thought they were. On Friday night, I thought about some folks I know who could easily say “there but for the grace of God go I.”
The issue of good versus evil and which shepherd we might follow, is the stuff of centuries of thinking, arguing, wondering. We can ask—and often do—the question “If God is so good, how can God allow people to do such evil things to each other?” There is no question that there are good shepherds. There are also shepherds who abandon their flocks or mistreat them or manipulate them or coerce them into thinking that wrong is right. Some of us are quick to blame God. Others blame someone else—and sometimes that someone else is an ethnic group or a religious group.
Yet we must remember that God has created human beings with hearts and minds and the ability to choose. In the Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling deals extensively with the issue of good and evil. Through all of the books, war is waged between good and evil. Evil is represented by He Who Must Not Be Named and those who follow him. Good is represented by a number of people—from Harry Potter himself to his friends, his family, Professor Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and others. Of course the ultimate victor over evil and death is love—sacrificial love. The path to that kind of love, however, is one full of choices.
As a young man, Voldemort—as Tom Riddle—makes poor choices. As Harry Potter grows in his understanding of good and evil, he frets about the evil that he knows lives inside of him. In the book Chamber of Secrets, Professor Dumbledore says this to Harry:
“Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students. His own very rare gift, Parseltongue–resourcefulness–determination–a certain disregard for rules,” he added, his mustache quivering again.
“Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.”
“It only put me in Gryffindor,” said Harry in a defeated voice, “because I asked not to go in Slytherin. . .”
“Exactly,” said Dumbledore, beaming once more. “Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (Chamber of Secrets, page 333.)
You might say that Harry Potter chose the right shepherd. And this past week, you might say that Dzhokar Tsarnaev chose the wrong shepherd. The Good Shepherd does not force us to choose him over another shepherd. Yet if we do, we will know compassion instead of cold hostility. We will know a life of abundance instead of a life of scarcity. We will know a life of light that brightens even the darkest shadows. We will know love instead of fear. Love that goes before us, behind us, around us, over us, under us. Love, goodness and mercy that will follow us all the days of our lives, leading us to live in the house of the Lord forever.
More than one shepherd calls your name today. Which one will you choose to follow? Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
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