Let us observe a moment of silence.
I tried writing this sermon mid-week, mid-chaos, mid-grieving. But it seemed to keep coming. The news didn’t stop. I woke up early on Friday to finally dig into these all-too familiar words from Scripture – The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want – and instead, I dug myself into a day-long struggle with the words of Boston reporters. My former city was on lockdown, my friends and colleagues shut in their homes and dorms and buildings until he was caught. So I got out of bed and sat in my living room and listened to the radio and listened and listened. One brother killed, the other loose, hunted like a wild beast. I called my Boston friends but only one answered. She sounded weary, scared. I told her I loved her and to be safe. What else was I to say? Fear no evil for thy rod and thy staff will comfort thee? Even though you walk through the valley of darkness? Maybe, but the news seemed to keep coming.
The day went on, punctuated by updates and more questions. I couldn’t write this sermon without knowing – without an answer. And then it came…the final scene. A boat, a boy – a teenage boy – and a city erupting in freedom yet again. Was this what it felt like to be led by still waters? To have our souls restored?
News like what happened in Boston hasn’t hit me this hard in a really, really long time. I don’t know if its overexposure but whatever it is, so much of what goes on in the world seems to go in one ear, sit for a minute, and then fall out with the rest of the painful truth. But when I saw the news ticker flash across my phone on Monday afternoon – explosions at Boston Marathon – my heart raced. Those are my people, my town. When I saw the map of where the bombs went off, my heart raced even faster. I’d been there last summer, with 30 of you on our mission trip. We stayed at Church of the Covenant, a church located three blocks from Monday’s explosion. I had been so worried about us that week, worried that someone would get lost or hurt or separated. But never this. Never lost or hurt or separated like these people on Monday. My fears that week loomed larger than life but never like those people this week. Did they recite it? Did they say, I fear no evil for thou art with me…?
The Gospel reading this morning offers these words of Christ: "I have told you…My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me." When the world questions what is right and what is real and what is good and true, these words of Jesus’ are meant to be solace. But these words echoed hollow in my heart this week. My sheep hear my voice. But, I asked my Lord out of sadness, did everyone hear it? What did it sound like? What about those people who are terrified, who are angry, who are fed up with all this relentless bad news? Do they hear your voice, Jesus?
When bad things happen to good people or when bad things happen at all, it can feel like Christ has abandoned his flock. Even in our modern-day sensibilities, we inherently understand the Christ as Shepherd metaphor. It is sewn within the very fabric of our faith. We are protected, guarded, guided by a gentle yet purposeful Lord who knows us, who knows our whole selves. We, as Christ’s flock, are one in a herd but known individually by Jesus who watches over us with intent and honor. But this week – this year – this century for that matter – can leave us wondering: has Christ hung up his shepherd’s cloak and left us in the field to fend for ourselves?
Hear again. Christ answered those who questioned him with this, "My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me." The shepherd can do his job when the sheep do theirs.
As news and photos of the bombings were released, it seemed that people were indeed hearing Jesus’ voice and were following him closely. As blasts bellowed into the skies, those who feared no evil ran to those who needed to be led by still waters. The first responders picked up the fallen and carried them with honor and intent. People sought out the hurting and tore the clothes off their backs to make tourniquets until they could be treated. Runners at the marathon, rerouted after the explosion, kept running until they reached Massachusetts General Hospital so they could give blood when the time came. Those separated from loved ones were given cell phones to reconnect and coats to wear and food to eat and bathrooms to use. In hours after the bombings in Boston, a Google document was set up online by the Boston Globe where locals could offer a room, a place to stay, a shower to those displaced and forced into diaspora. Hundreds offered shelter – dorm rooms, futons, whole apartments – to strangers-turned-fellow herd of the hurting and hopeful.
And these sheep, hearing Jesus’ voice, continue to spread out all over the city of Boston. And it hasn’t stopped. There were first responders and now there are second, third, fourth responders, responding to the fallout of such tragedy. Responding in ways that will take weeks and months to be fully realized. The church where we stayed last summer is offering daily worship services. They’ve opened their doors to the lost and to the found, to those who attend other churches in Copley Square that are closed for the time being. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has swooped in to help, too. There are networks for support being built all around Boston. People have started funds and are sending financial assistance to the injured, sending messages of peace to the families of those that died, and offering gestures of thanksgiving to law enforcement and emergency workers. Hospital staffs are being prayed for and moments of silence are being kept in even the noisiest of places. People are hearing and people are serving one another. And I don’t think its going to stop.
When tragedy – great or small – befalls a community, we as the church are called to be the first responders. And the second, and third, and fourth responders. We’re the ones called to this terrifying work of being in the chaos and being in the chaos until it turns to hope yet again. We’re called to be Christ’s sheep out in the world, shepherding the flock back together through the grace of the One we follow. We’re called to respond, to go out, to get in the nuanced, tangled mess, to gather everyone – and I mean everyone – back, and begin again.
We know this to be the fabric of our faith. Maybe you’re like me though and this week, you’ve felt the threads unravel a bit. I pray that we can start to patch it back together, to mend what has been torn by the fear and grief of this week and all the moments in our lives. We know this mending happens when we respond. When a friend is sick, let us go and visit. When someone has died, let us be there and witness to the Resurrection. When someone weeps through the night, let us sit with them until joy comes in the morning. When we hear that local agencies are out of resources yet again, let us give and give and give yet again. When we hear that children in our schools are homeless, let us find justice. When the poverty level keeps rising, let us find new ways to share our resources. When we hear that people are still marginalized for who God created them beautifully to be, let us welcome them with arms wide open. And when it gets scary and tragic and hopeless, Lord, let us listen. Let us hear the voice of truth that has sang its way through the world’s worst days. Will you recite it with me if you know it?
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
May we hear Christ’s voice calling us to be his sheep – to walk in to the valley, to respond to whatever may come, and to follow the Good Shepherd. And by God, may we gather everyone back into the fold yet again. Amen.