The Good Shepherd in Boston

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut on  April 21, 2013.

I thought I might put last weeks events in perspective by going on line to see how often such events take place.  I learned that there were sixteen mass shootings last year of which Newtown was only the most horrific. But of course Boston wasn’t a mass shooting; neither was 9/11. Maybe we need a general category of horrific events.  But then where would you stop. Do you think there were times when life was simpler and such thing’s didn’t happen?  What about Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and Auschwitz?  How about Rwanda, less than 20 years ago where somewhere between half a million and a million people were killed in 100 days.

Boston was horrific – but not unusual.  Human being do dreadful things to each other and Christians should not be surprised.  We remember Good Friday. And not just Good Friday. You can also think of last week’s events in the context of today’s readings: St. John’s vision of heaven: a great crowd that no one could number. His angel guide asks him who they are and John says in effect, “You tell me.”  So angel replies in familiar words often read at funerals:

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

“These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal.”  These are God’s servants who have suffered.  It’s a very old story. One of the things I do in my spare time is to go to Hartford once a month and take part in a seminar that studies the Bible in Greek. Recently we’ve been reading the Epistle to the Hebrews and last month we worked on chapter 11, that wonderful portrayal of faith in terms of human witness.

What is faith? Chapter 11, verse 1, tells us it’s “the substance of things hoped for the evidence of things not seen.” Well, yes, but what is faith?  As the chapter goes on it turns out that the evidence of things not seen is all around us and not invisible at all.  It’s the story of Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, and David and Samuel and the prophets” and others who  ” ….suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,1 they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy.”

The author of that epistle is writing to people who know all about it. It’s happening to them and he’s writing to encourage them by pointing out that they are not the first to suffer – and I’m sure he would have said “You won’t be the last.” Nor were they.  The experience of Christians in the Roman Empire is well known: they were tortured, crucified, beheaded, fed to the lions. Whatever the authorities could think of to induce them to give up their faith they did – and some, of course, did give up But after almost 300 years the authorities realized it was a losing battle and they gave it up and made Christianity the official religion of the empire – so Christians could begin to persecute others and each other.

But Christians also continued to be persecuted themselves.  I lived for awhile in Japan as you know and nowhere were Christians more fiercely persecuted than in Japan from the 16th to 19th century. They were crucified, they were tied to stakes at low tide and left to drown, they were buried to their shoulders while horsemen rode back and forth over them. And Christians were persecuted fiercely in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and Communist China. They are persecuted today in Iran and Pakistan and Northern Nigeria and a number of other places as well.  But not just Christians, of course.  In Iraq today Sunnis shoot and blow up Shiites and Shiiities shoot and blow up Sunnis.

I’m trying, as I said, to put this last week’s events in a larger context. And isn’t it significant that at first we had to guess whether the bomber or bombers were Al Qaeda agents or angry Americans.  After all, we can remember Oklahoma City. The point is, there are lots of angry people out there, and sometimes not very far away, lots and lots of possible suspects, any time something violent happens.

So isn’t it obvious by now that whatever or whoever the immediate cause or excuse the ultimate problem is what Christians call “fallen human nature.” We have a problem larger than any particular cause and the technical term for it is sin. Bad things happen.  We do dreadful things to each other. Why are we surprised?  It’s a sickness that has infected the human race since Adam and there is no “quick fix.”  We can shoot people down or clap them in jail but that’s not a solution.  In the 19th Century, the British exported criminals to Australia — and were surprised to find that there were  still criminals among them.  Brute force doesn’t make people better or  change lives. The only real remedies are worship and prayer – re-centering our lives on the source of good, not evil.

I spent some time last week trying to get inside the skull of someone so unhappy, so angry, that they could set out to kill at random people they had never met. I can imagine getting very angry with someone I know – family or friends, for example. Most violence, of course, is within families. But how could you set out to kill at random? How could you be that angry with the world or perhaps with yourself to kill just anyone?  One thing we know is that many of the gun violence incidents have involved sadly isolated individuals, unstable, unbalanced – we use lots of different terms – but angry at themselves as much as others and often killing themselves in a last expression of that anger. Terrorists are not much different.  They too are perhaps as angry at themselves as at anyone else and ready and willing to lose their lives. No one thought Adam Lanza was angry at America as the 911 bombers were, and the Oklahoma City bomber was, as the Boston bombers may have been, but I think they were all angry at themselves and ready to kill themselves or be killed by others in order to deal with that overwhelming seething, self-destructive anger. The frustration in all this is that it’s so hard for us to know how to respond.  It’s natural for us to be angry. Our lives have been disrupted.  Lots of us had friends and family in the Boston area who had their lives disrupted.  So that’s annoying. And we have a right to be angry.  It’s natural to want to hit back. But at whom?  After 911, we tried to strike back but only got ourselves involved in an endless war that cost us far more than we bargained for and turned out to be almost irrelevant.  Whatever we learn or don’t learn about the Boston bombers, I think we learn more about ourselves. I noticed in the reports from Boston perhaps four different kinds of response: there were, of course, many who ran away. There were also many who had their own friends or family to care for or grieve. There were, thirdly, of course, the authorities whose task was to analyze and search for the culprits. But very different and noteworthy it seems to me – and I’m not the only one to comment on it – was the number of those who ran toward the explosion, whose instinct was not to flee but to help.  There’s a promo clip I often see on MSNBC featuring a man who may be Australian, one of their regular talking heads, I don’t watch his program and I don’t know his name, but he comments on something he has observed about Americans that he thinks is quite unique and it’s exactly what we saw in Boston and Newtown as well – that so many ran toward the danger.  Their instinct was not self preservation but concern for others. Surely that’s what the Bible teaches, the parable of the Good Samaritan very specifically. Who is my neighbor? The lawyer asked. And Jesus told him a story of a man who stopped in a place of danger, where someone else already lay wounded, and risked his own life to help another. If there’s something good to find in these recent tragedies, I think it’s there: the evidence of faith – a thing not seen outwardly but very visible all the same in the actions of those whose lives express it. And faith is often most visible when we act by instinct. You don’t run toward a crisis because you stop to analyze what a person of faith should do.  Faith is also an instinct, an instinctive reaction that grows out of many things – worship and prayer most of all, but secondarily, upbringing and friendships and environment formed by faith – our own faith or the faith of others. Our faith is a pattern of action, an instinctive response that is shaped by others as much as by our own choices. Our faith is shaped by the communities we join and the ones we simply inherit. And we saw something of the result of that last week in Boston.  So that’s one set of things that may be worth saying after Boston: the human community is deeply corrupted by sin and the violence that results is often a result of self-anger but the response of faith is not to hit back not to retaliate and compound the tragedy but to forget our self and accept the risks and hurt that may come from running toward the crisis. Those in white robes are those who came through great suffering – they accepted the suffering, endured the suffering, rather than pass it on and increase it.  But this is Good Shepherd Sunday and the Gospel reading is also relevant. It also tells us about faith And from almost the same angle. One point Jesus made again and again was that the Good Shepherd is one who goes out in search of the lost and strayed and injured and needy and ultimately gives his life for others.  The Last Judgment, Jesus told us, is based on our reaching out to those who were hungry or sick or naked or imprisoned – or injured, surely, yes and the angry and alienated if there’s any way to do it. The Good Shepherd, Jesus said, came to seek and save not those who are saved but those who are lost and he calls us to do likewise.

The vision in the second reading today was of that vast multitude who had come through trials and tribulations, who had not fought back, not lost their tempers, not indulged their anger but suffered, absorbed the evil they were exposed to, as Jesus did, as the Good Shepherd does, as we are called to do: absorbed the evil and tried to bring healing. And maybe that’s enough to say for now: we have a calling as followers of the Good Shepherd, to be agents of change, not people who force change on others but people who open ourselves to God’s grace to absorb the evil, to reach out in compassion, to let God work through us to create that world we heard about in the Revelation of John: where hunger and thirst and anger and hurt are finally healed and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

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