Progress is a strange concept. Sometimes we recognize progress, and see only the good it brings. Take a sheep, for instance. Sheep have a reputation for getting lost. How do they do it? By making progress. Now, everything I know about sheep I learned from sermons, so don’t argue this one with a biologist until you’ve checked the encyclopedia. But the great contemporary preacher, Jeremiah Wright, explains that “Their eyesight is so poor… that they can see no farther than six feet in front of them. They graze in the grass and see something greener up ahead, six feet. They see something greener yet, six feet. See another green patch, six feet. Six feet by six feet by six feet, the sheep get lost, straying from the flock and the shepherd.” Those first couple yards felt like progress. The poor little lamb is six feet closer to feeling full – and six feet further from the one who will protect him from predators and lead him to still waters. Soon the sheep is missing, helpless, and entirely unable to find his way back to the flock. All for a little progress.
The last century is full of cautionary tales about the siren call of progress. Exciting scientific discoveries were quickly transformed into tools of war. The earth’s resources continue to be plundered to keep up with the constant progression of civilization. We may like to believe we have more foresight than sheep, but the human race has created problems that cannot be undone. I read recently about a life-and-death crisis that began in the 20th century and will not conclude until ten thousand years from now. Scientists are frantically trying to develop ways to warn future generations about the massive quantities of radioactive materials buried deep beneath the soil of
We are living in an anxious age. Consequences are catching up to us, and in ways more profound than the price of gas. And for all the so-called progress humankind has made in the last few hundred years, our world is still plagued by wars and rumors of wars. The fall of the Berlin Wall may have warmed relations between some nations, but new hostilities quickly took their place. The horrors that unfolded on September 11th rattled us to the bone, and the years since, so replete with violence and disasters, have only continued to hammer our wounded hearts and nerves.
This sanctuary is supposed to be just that—a sanctuary. A safe place, set apart from all that pain. As I prepared to preach this morning, I wondered whether we would really have the energy to face the valley of the shadow of death this morning. We could easily leave the anxiety in the parking lot, pretending for a precious hour that the world beyond these walls resembles the
Most of us are anxious. Anxious for the world, for the church, for our own families. For ourselves. And there is no better place than the safety of the sanctuary to admit that we are afraid.
The promises we encounter in the scriptures today are easily tamed, and taming scripture is always a dangerous habit. The image of the Shepherd is pleasant. If we read carelessly, we are likely to ignore that in both the beloved words of the 23rd Psalm and the gospel according to John, the metaphor of the Lord as our shepherd emerges from a context of very real danger. Even as the Psalmist claims his place in the House of the Lord, he points out the hazards he encounters on his journey. He is in the presence of his enemies. And it is when he is face to face with evil that he marvels at the wellspring of God’s goodness and mercy. Despite the evidence pressuring him to collapse with fear, the Psalmist entrusts himself to a God he knows will restore his soul.
Christ is the good shepherd who lays down his life for us. He becomes our salvation from all that seeks to harm God’s creation. And he does not accomplish the work of our salvation by whisking us away from the wolves and depositing us in a safe space. He lays his life down, absorbing the evil and the pain until it is time to take it up again. He lived, and died, and lived again in the same frightening, painful world in which we live.
The scriptures today present a way of life, a Christian spirituality that is deeply relevant, even if the language of sheep and wolves seems removed from our modern lives. The Psalm and the gospel invite us to trust in a time when nothing seems trustworthy. They challenge us to lean on God’s eternal shoulders in a world that cannot seem to hold our weight. They dare us to move beyond the fear that Christ is merely a hired hand.
With all due respect to the hired hands of this world, this is a crucial point. Just as Christ’s flock is not left under the care of someone who may or may not opt to take his responsibility seriously, neither is God’s creation left to make do without our Creator. Despite the evil that appears to maintain a firm grasp on humankind, we belong to God. We are such beloved members of his flock that Christ would give his life over for a chance to guide us back to the House of the Lord.
As Christian people, we cannot afford to act as though our lives are in the hands of hired help any more than we can afford to pretend that evil does not exist. We have to take that narrow, difficult way. Even if we can see only six feet ahead of us – especially if we can see only six feet ahead of us – we must listen for the call of Christ’s voice, and trust. Nothing could be harder, and yet nothing else will save us. When we recognize that we belong to God—that everything we have and everything we are rests within God’s loving care – then we are freed from fear. Then we are freed to bind ourselves to God and to one another, and to live in the abundance of God’s Kingdom.
If we have learned anything from the last century, we have learned that the wolves are ferocious. We have learned that the valleys are not only dark, but the land itself quakes and floods. We have learned that single-mindedly seeking greener pastures rarely works in our benefit. We have learned that one day the culture will celebrate church-going as an essential part of life, and the next day will pull the narthex rug out from under us. And by the grace of God, perhaps we have learned that no matter if we are in the valley or on the mountain, the voice of Christ still resounds, calling us into lives of compassion, generosity, and trust. The world changes, the voice persists. Follow the voice.