The Moral Universe – The Good Shepherd

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A sermon given on 4/26/15 at Christ Trinity Church, Sheffield, MA

In the 1980s, when I was groping my way back toward God, I had gotten as far as saying the Lord’s Prayer in the early morning when I was walking my dog Greta. For variety’s sake one morning, I also started to say Psalm 23. What I heard come out of my mouth, though, was “The Lord is my German shepherd. . .”

My first reaction was terror that I had committed blasphemy. Then, watching my beloved companion run into the dirt lane to greet her possum friend, I realized that it was not blasphemy at all, but in fact a truth that I had just discovered. For I realized that God had used the very things I most loved to get through to me: my pets. Having grown up in a buttoned-up, Yankee-Irish household, I realized that Greta was the only living creature I regularly told “I love you.”

When I saw a National Geographic special a few years ago on the subject of how dogs bond with their owners, I learned that not only does hugging a pet release the hormone oxytocin in the human, researchers found that it also releases oxytocin in the pet. So this act of love is mutually beneficial and creates a special bond.

“I am the Shepherd. I know my flock and they know me,” Jesus says in one of John’s “I am” stories. This is a different Jesus from the other gospels, a more metaphysical Jesus who yet uses images that people of His time could understand. There are countless references to sheep and lambs in both the Old and the New Testament, and Jesus Himself is called the Lamb of God, denoting the sacrificial offering of Himself on the Cross.

You don’t have to have any real experience with sheep to know that they are known for their, well, dimness is the polite word. They don’t seem to have any radar for danger and will wander away from the flock where they are vulnerable to predators. You can’t lead them because who knows what they’re getting up to behind you? Sheep have to be driven, the shepherd behind them and directing the dogs who may be helping to keep the flock together.

Can we see ourselves in this scenario at all? From the time of the Exodus, when the Israelites kept wandering off the path that Moses was leading them on, to right here, right now when we, with the best intentions, get distracted by the world and forget who we are and whose we are, human beings have been easily led astray. We need to be driven, just as Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert.

jesus picture 2Now, you know I love show and tell, so I’m going to pass out a picture that was the source of another revelation that strengthened my faith. My brother had a print of this picture in his house, and it drew my attention every time I visited. He must have noticed, because a few years after the Twenty-Third Psalm incident, I opened my Christmas present from Alan to find this print. By now I had been received into the Episcopal Church and had become active in the healing ministry. But I was still holding back parts of myself from God, parts that feared I would lose my “edginess” and reveal me as the wounded healer I was.

I put this picture up in my bedroom so that it would be the last thing I saw at night. For months I contemplated the bliss on that lamb’s face and yearned to feel the same bliss. One night, as I reached to turn out the light, I felt a roaring in my head and looked up at the picture again and suddenly I saw how much Jesus was enjoying holding that lamb. I saw that Jesus needed to be holding that lamb. Jesus needed to be loving that lamb. Jesus was yearning to love that lamb as much I was yearning to be that lamb. And if that is so, then Jesus yearns to love me; Jesus needs to love me. And if me, then you also.

“I am the Shepherd who cares for his flock,” Jesus says. But he is saying a world of other things and creating a whole theology in that statement. You can’t be a shepherd without sheep. A shepherd needs a flock, and a flock needs a shepherd. That mutuality is a must.

Now, I do realize that this picture can be seen as somewhat sentimental, and I don’t mean to sentimentalize Divine Love in a world where there is so notoriously a lack of love in the news. Just in this week we learned of more Christians being beheaded by ISIS, of 800 African refugees drowning and the efforts of European Union countries to get Italy to stop trying to save African refugees so the refugees will stop trying to escape their horrific situations. We learned about a massive buildup of US and other warships heading to Yemen to stop Iranian involvement in the unrest there. We read every day about the ongoing effort to execute a terrorist here in Massachusetts; we read the gut-wrenching stories of the victims and weigh them against the notion of judicial homicide. Two more young African-American men died this week at the hands of the police, and protests in Baltimore have taken a violent turn. And a politician posited that affordable health care for all is so heinous that it is going to cause the Rapture.

This isn’t a sentimental world we live in. And we might be tempted to ask the question, “If the Shepherd cares for his flock, why isn’t he caring for those beheaded Christians, those refugees, those bombing victims and yes, that young man who became a terrorist and the policemen who were responsible for other young men’s deaths?”

Could it be that until we acknowledge and embrace the mutuality of God’s love and need for us, we cannot overcome the powers that want to destroy it? John’s letter says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Truth and action – God’s truth leading to our action. Further, John refers again to Jesus’ commandment that we love one another even as He loves us.

Anglican Bishop NT Wright wrote a book called Surprised by Hope, a riff on C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. In his book, Bishop Wright suggests that our time here on earth is meant to be used building the kingdom. Can God not build the kingdom on His own? Of course He can, Bishop Wright says, but He needs us to invest ourselves in it, the way we would invest ourselves in a job that we love.

In the last chapter of John’s Gospel, during Jesus’ last earthly encounter with His apostles, He asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” When Peter insists each time, “Lord, you know I love you,” Jesus admonishes him to feed and tend His sheep. One of our collects says, “Give us life until our work shall end, and work until our life shall end.” It doesn’t say, “Give us work until we think we’ve done enough,” but until our very lives shall end. Our work? Not just to say, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven,” but to be a part of making that happen. The kingdom of God, where all people are equal, where there is no more war, where we seek justice rather than revenge, where every tear shall be wiped away, where the lion shall lie down with the lamb and yes, where the German shepherd shall play with the possum.”

Jesus was talking to us when he told Peter: “Tend my lambs, feed my sheep.” May we be driven by the knowledge of Jesus’ love for us and His need for us to work daily to feed His sheep until we meet the Good Shepherd face to face.

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The Moral Universe – Bryan Stevenson and Just Mercy

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With the near-miraculous release of Anthony Ray Hinton from death row on April 3, Bryan Stevenson’s name was in the news again. His Equal Justice Initiative was responsible for proving that Mr. Hinton, imprisoned for 30 years, was innocent.

Anthony Ray Hinton with Bryan Stevenson on April 3

Anthony Ray Hinton with Bryan Stevenson on April 3

I bought Mr. Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, shortly after it was released but I didn’t read it right away. I was facing the death of my beloved brother and couldn’t face a discussion of death row issues. Then I learned that Mr. Stevenson had recorded his memoir himself, so I decided to listen to it instead.

Though there is something on almost every one of the nine discs that brought tears, I am so humbled and grateful to Mr. Stevenson for the work that he has been doing for more than 30 years now. With a law degree from Harvard, the world could have been his oyster. Instead, the young African-American idealist who grew up in a poor, segregated rural area of Delaware headed back south to work on behalf of people wrongly or improperly prisoned. He interned for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Georgia and later founded EJI and based it in Montgomery, Alabama.

Walter McMillian on his release from prison

Walter McMillian on his release from prison

The memoir mainly recounts the story of Walter McMillian, who was convicted of a murder he did not commit, of someone he didn’t know, on the testimony of another person he didn’t know. Ralph Myers made up his testimony in order to get a lighter sentence for a different murder that he was involved in. He tried to recant his testimony, and for punishment by the state authorities was put into prison. He recanted his recantation, but years later when straight to Mr. Stevenson to tell the truth once and for all.

During the eight years that Mr. McMillian was in prison, Mr. Stevenson had many other, too many other cases that he outlines and updates as the book goes along. He gives us a heart-breaking glimpse into the lives of people on the outskirts of life who have no one to fight for them until Mr. Stevenson and EJI came along. Most, but not all, of them are African-Americans, unsurprisingly. Many of them are children who were tried and convicted as adults and given life sentences or, as Mr. Stevenson calls them, death in prison sentences. Many of them are also developmentally disabled and, while guilty of the crime they were convicted are, are dumped without ceremony and without any accommodations for their disabilities.

Bryan Stevenson giving a TED talk

Bryan Stevenson giving a TED talk

One of the tales he tells is of a mentally challenged man who has been in prison since his early teens. His physical condition has deteriorated to the point where he needs a wheelchair. When Mr. Stevenson first comes to visit him, the man is in a cage where, the guard says, all those charged with murder have to be. Mr. Stevenson demands that he be taken out of the wheelchair for the consultation, but the guards can’t get him out of the cage because it is so small and the wheelchair takes up so much room.

Mr. Stevenson himself has faced discrimination when visiting prisons to see clients; guards don’t believe or acknowledge that he is a lawyer. One guard insisted on strip-searching him every time Mr. Stevenson went to see his client.

While Mr. Stevenson and EJI do manage, with thousands of hours of appeals and investigation and documentation, to free many innocents or improperly imprisoned people, there are also many cases that cannot be won because of the roadblocks put up by a judicial system that is biased and won’t cooperate. He talks of being at executions and the toll it takes on him.

Why does he do it? Why does he risk his own life, the lives of his colleagues (EJI gets regular bomb threats), his health and his personal life to help the defenseless?

It is his brokenness that seeks the brokenness in others and makes him not only sympathize with them, but truly empathize. He becomes personally close to the people he’s trying to help. He and Mr. McMillian continue their friendship long after the latter has been exonerated and released from death row. The children Mr. Stevenson writes about could be his own children.

The notion of the wounded healer goes back to Jesus at least. But for all that, Mr. Stevenson sound like a young man, rather than the 56-year-old he is. His enthusiasm, his passion for what he does, rings out in his voice. To see pictures of him escorting Mr. Hinton out of prison, you’d barely guess the psychic pain his chosen work puts upon him.

Most telling of all, even the men he couldn’t save thank him with all their hearts for caring about them.

When Mr. Stevenson was a teen-ager, his grandfather was murdered by young men intent on stealing a black and white TV. You might think he would have dedicated his lives to victims. But to his way of thinking, the people he defends are victims themselves.

I wrote recently about the urgent need to do away with the death penalty. It is clear that statistics about the use of the death penalty in the US compared with other nations and statistics about the number of innocent people who have been executed or on death row, or the statistics about mentally challenged or brain-damaged people who have been executed, are not having an effect on our society.

While listening to Mr. Stevenson’s book, it came to me that anyone who supports the death penalty should have to witness some executions. Then they should spend a lot of time reflecting on their own brokenness so they can learn to empathize with the brokenness in others.

“God forgive them, they know not what they do,” Jesus said on the cross of his crucifiers. I believe that states that sanction the death penalty know exactly what they’re doing and do it anyway. God may forgive them; I can’t.

The Moral Universe – Carrying MLK’s Cross

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Perhaps it is appropriate that the commemoration of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. comes on Holy Saturday this year.

We know that Dr. King was a real human being, with faults that have been sometimes too eagerly made public. But that he was a martyr in the cause of civil rights, no one can deny.

There was a time when I couldn’t stand to listen to old fogies say, “I remember where I was when. . .” Now I’m that old fogy. On April 4, 1968, I was 15 years old. We had an early dinner, and my parents took me to the neighboring town for the second night of a talent show that I was in. Ordinarily, we would have been at home with the television news on, but this night we had to forego that ritual.

My “talent” was playing the piano, which I didn’t do extraordinarily well. While I had taken piano lessons, I had never studied long pieces, a whole sonata, for example. So I had made up a medley of “Für Elise” by Beethoven and “Lara’s Song” from “Dr. Zhivago.” Despite my lack of exceptional talent, another mother tried to have me disqualified because her daughter was playing “Für  Elise” (correctly, as it turned out).

My parents went out to the car after my turn came, but I hung out for a while. A thunderstorm had begun, and when I finally ran out to the car and jumped in, soaking wet, I at first thought the tears running down my mother’s face were a reflection of the rain on the windowsill. Then my father told me, in a solemn voice, “Martin Luther King’s been assassinated.”

By 1968, it had been about five years since television stations had started to take the civil rights movement seriously and broadcasting both the horrific (Freedom Riders buses being burned) and the triumphant (March on Washington) aspects of the movement. I had seen African-Americans being cannoned with water on the nightly news or being menaced by barely restrained dogs.

In my youthful liberality, I just couldn’t understand why black people were hated so much. I had yet to learn about the complexities of white supremacy and institutionalized racism, in both of which I myself have been complicit. It seemed very clear-cut to me when I was 15. I would sometimes pretend, while sitting in a hot bath, that I was speaking to the United Nations on behalf of all African-Americans and make the case that we were all equal and, foreshadowing Rodney King, why couldn’t we all get along?

In later years, I would feel embarrassment upon remembering this, until I learned that Stokely Carmichael and other founders of the Black Power movement, also went to the UN, believing that the racism in the US made of African-Americans another country that needed the UN’s protection.

mlkOn the program for this year’s inter-church Good Friday program is this quote from Dr. King: “Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil; a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

Oh Dr. King! Oh Medger Evers! Oh James Chaney! Oh Malcolm X! Oh Jimmy Lee Jackson! Oh Viola Liuzzi! Oh all the martyrs of the movement, would that 47 years ago this country had had the will to keep alive the ideals that you embodied; had had the will to protect the legislation that came out of each painful moment of your work; had truly believed that racism could be overcome; had understood that that creative force working to pull down the evil cannot do it without our participation because where there is free will, there will always be evil. If we do not align our wills to God, we cannot possibly reach the bright tomorrow.

My heart broke recently (it’s been breaking a lot lately) as I listened to an audio version of Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography. His last chapter detailed the strides that had been made and his optimism for the future. I had come to feel as if I knew him intimately after listening to this very personal memoir, and I wanted to weep thinking of what he would make of our world today.

Barbara Harris, the first African-American woman Episcopal bishop, used to exhort us to be Easter people in a Good Friday world. Despair over the death of Dr. King and his dream is not an option. We must resurrect his dream on a daily basis. We must meet Jesus at the tomb every day and say, “Yes, Lord, we believe and we will spread your word and work unceasingly to bring your kingdom here on earth.” Let us not betray the martyrs, but fulfill the work that they started.