Disaster, Easter 4C, Good Shepherd Sunday

Things We Cannot Unsee

I’ll admit it. I’m a news junkie when disaster strikes. I don’t watch a lot of TV at other times, and not when younger children are around. But when the coast is clear, I cannot turn it off. On the evening of 9/11, my then-15-year-old insisted on it. “Why are you watching this? They just show the same things over and over.”

There’s something compels me. I suspect I’m looking for a crumb of reason in the unreasonable, a word of sense in the insensible, a thread of comprehension in the incomprehensible.

I had been watching for just a few minutes when I said aloud, “Oh, whoever did this timed it for the ordinary runners to be coming by.” When FBI profiler Clint van Zandt said exactly the same thing on MSNBC an hour later, did I feel better? No. I felt sadder. But I kept listening.

I’m trying to understand. It’s a coping technique for a crisis. It makes the time go by until the shock passes. It might be better to turn off the TV and cry, I realize that. But that feels dangerous and helpless, and I want to be informed and useful. I’m actually not watching most of the time. I’m listening to the talking, not looking at the images.

Last night, I got in bed, alone because kathrynzj is on a mission trip being actually useful, and instead of closing my eyes, I kept reading the Twitter feed and the Facebook newsfeed, and the live blogs for the Boston Globe and the New York Times (Boston Marathon stories free from both, now! for a limited time!). Real journalists are pretty good about warning readers away from  graphic images, but self-described social media stars don’t have rules, and tweets only have 140 characters, and who knows why people do what they do, but I clicked on a link, and I cannot unsee what I saw when the next window opened.

I expected a story, because I was looking for a story. I think words will solve something.

I knew better than to click on anything that labeled itself twitpic or anything  similar.

But there it was, on a screen held close to my face, an image I cannot unsee.

a puzzlement
a puzzlement

Now, seeing it is nothing compared to living it. In parts of the world where these things happen more often, average folks are looking at the gruesome pictures and not holding back, because they’ve seen horror in the street, maybe in the front yard, and they are hardened to it. I don’t want to see these things. I actually can’t take them in very well. I’m a word person. I was looking for words, but I realize that all my efforts to gain some intellectual understanding of the events of yesterday, all the theories and the family stories and the eventual solution to the puzzle we will someday hear will do nothing to change them.

Tonight’s news featured a mother talking about how wonderful her daughter was, her daughter who is now dead.  I find this excruciating, the testimony of grieving mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters. Maybe it makes things real for them in a way that nothing else can? Maybe the attention of the world makes them feel they are not alone. I don’t know. I do know I cannot unsee them, unfeel them. They make me look at the giant jigsaw puzzle of currently indistinguishable pieces. They make me feel what happened instead of trying to listen to it gingerly.

I wonder what drives the people who do these things, what words are in their heads, what images are in their minds. What is it they cannot unfeel, what is it they cannot unsee that drives them to destruction?

This is the place where I should preach, isn’t it, where the essay turns to God, where I refer you to Revelation and the wiping away of every tear, or to John and the notion that sheep who actually hear Jesus’ voice would never do such things, but I’m not there yet. It’s trustworthy that I will be, at some point, in that Revelation place, or walking through the valley of shadow fearing no evil in Psalm 23, and yes, these are the texts this week.

But I always have to try and solve it myself first.

I don’t recommend this strategy.

Good Shepherd
Adé Béthune’s Good Shepherd

Better to turn to the other words, to murmur the version you remember from your grandmother’s funeral, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shalt fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

Actually, just typing them comforted me, so much that I’m not going to check and be sure I got the King James Version exactly right. There is some comfort in knowing them, in an illogical sense of connection to uncounted women and men and children who have done their crying out to the same incomprehensible God who we try to size down to a shepherd, knowing that somewhere, someone else felt comforted, too.

I want to think it helps more than telling a story on TV. But maybe television testimonials are the Psalms of Lament for the 21st century, the rite of mourning that makes us part of the community.

The one I loved was kind and lovely and thoughtful and fun. 

Why, Lord, why?

The end of her life came too soon.

Why, Lord, why?

He never did a thing to hurt anyone.

Why, Lord, why?

I cannot understand what’s happened here.

Lord, where are You? 

Why is Your world so terrible and so beautiful, 

all at the same time? 

Where are You?

Have we done too many things You cannot unsee?

Easter 4A, Good Shepherd Sunday, John 10:1-10, Psalm 23, Sermons

His Master’s Voice

A sermon for Easter 4A (Good Shepherd Sunday)     May 15, 2011         Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

I don’t know whose voice he’s listening for. We walk around the neighborhood or down by the beach or in the park, or even just once around the parking lot here at church, and sometimes he’s with me, walking right along, and sometimes, he just isn’t with me at all.

And I wonder what voice he is hoping to hear, this 8-year-old dog who has only lived at my house for three months, yesterday. I wonder what voice calls to him in his doggy dreams, or what glimmer of recognition causes him to want to pull me right out into and across the busy street at the end of our quiet block. I wonder which voice would sound like the right voice to him.

My other dogs had an array of people to learn when they were puppies, and I had my work cut out for me in convincing them that they could and would take my soft voice seriously. But they learned, and Hoagie will learn, too. I believe it.

We’re still learning what he’s like. At first I thought he got along with everyone, and then I gradually came to find he will back away from people who put their hands out toward his face too quickly. It doesn’t matter if they are tall or short, male or female, he does not like the quickly-extended hand. And as I try to learn him, I hate to think about the voice that went along with the frightening, perhaps punishing, hand. Because Hoagie is a dog, first of all, essentially trusting and mostly helpless, and more than that, he is a sweet, gentle dog. And the thought that anyone might have used force to intimidate him is horrifying to me.

But when I see him back away, I have to wonder. He has backed away from me, and I am very gentle.

Except, that is, when he really pulls to get to the place where the neighbor’s garbage bag broke open or to get into the pile of compost from our sale yesterday, or when he stops hard when we really need to finish our walk and get home. Then I have to assert some authority, some pull-back on the leash, because that’s the closest I can get to a rod or a staff to “comfort” my tri-colored lamb.

Of course, if he were an actual lamb, and I were a shepherd, I would probably know better. It’s my understanding that sheep have to be herded more than led, protected by the rod and the staff of the shepherd, and by the trusty sheep dog, too. And that’s the premise of the movie “Babe,” in which a bright young pig whose foster mother is a Border Collie proves to be an able herder of sheep, not by virtue of intimidation as he is taught, but by the use of kind words.

Fly and her husband, Rex, try to teach him the right way to handle sheep, but on first attempt, the sheep simply laugh at him.

Babe: This is ridiculous, Mom!
Fly: Nonsense, it’s only your first try. But you’re treating them like equals. They’re sheep, they’re inferior.
Babe: Oh, no they’re not.
Fly: Of course they are. We are their masters, Babe. Let them doubt it for a second and they’ll walk all over you.
Rex the Male Sheepdog: Fly! Get the pig out of there!
Fly: Make them feel inferior – abuse them, insult them.
Rex the Male Sheepdog: Fly!
Babe: They’ll laugh at me.
Fly: Then bite them! Be ruthless. Whatever it takes, bend them to your will.
Rex the Male Sheepdog: Enough!
Fly: Go on, go!

Later, Babe tries it his way. In the quote on our bulletin cover, he reports back to his “mother,” Fly.

Fly: All right, how did you do it?
Babe: I asked them and they did it. I just asked them nicely.
Fly: We don’t ask sheep, dear; we tell them what to do.
Babe: But I did, Mom. They were really friendly.

His sheep know his voice.
Jesus said, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. (John 10:2-6, NRSV)

You have to love that. They did not understand what he was saying to them.

Every year on Good Shepherd Sunday, we get a piece of John 10, with its extended metaphor about Jesus as shepherd. It has more images than we can handle, really, just as it had more images than the disciples could understand. Jesus is a gate, Jesus is a shepherd, there are thieves and bandits—and more, when we go on beyond verse 10. If we have to go back and re-read the verses to try and get a sense of Jesus’ meaning, we are not alone. At least we have the text and don’t have to ask Jesus to repeat himself.

But most of us are far away from what it means to be a shepherd. And if you’re closer to it than I am, please forgive all I am about to say, if need be. I’m a city girl, you all know that, and my total experience with actual sheep is this:

1)      I used to live in Williamsburg, and went to college there, and they have a lot of sheep that move around the Restored Area, and going to find the sheep was a classic babysitting move when I sat for kids who lived there.
2)      I’ve been to festivals and fairs and looked at sheep in pens.
3)      That’s all I’ve got, except that I love their wool, because I’m a knitter.

So I have to go and look around for the shepherd experience in books. And from that I know that shepherds were poorly regarded in the first century. No wonder the disciples didn’t understand. Their teacher, their Lord, was not a shepherd! Jesus compares himself to ragged, lower class guys who had to fend for themselves in the wild while caring for creatures too clueless to notice or pay much attention.]’\ “Thy rod and thy staff” comforted by keeping the predators away and preventing the sheep from falling into trouble. Real sheep don’t follow the shepherd; they require controlling.

Fly is not far off in what she tells Babe.
But Jesus tells a different story. He describes sheep that follow because they know his voice. His voice will be enough to guide his sheep.
I keep hoping that will be the way it happens with Hoagie, that gradually my voice will become his master’s voice, so familiar and so trusted that he won’t doubt or struggle or rebel by refusing to move. I hope he will decide to follow me, because I’m so kind to him, as Babe is to the sheep, so kind that he has no reason not to follow.
But I know what it’s like to be the sheep, wandering away distracted by something shiny, or nothing in particular, paying the shepherd no mind. I know what it’s like.
It happens to the best of us. Also the worst. Because Jesus has told us the sort of shepherd he will be. He’s not rounding us up. He’s leading us out. He’s not intimidating a flock of inferior creatures. He is guiding us with his kind and loving voice. The ideas are all there for us, but most of the time, just like that first flock of disciples, we do not understand what he is saying.
Maybe, though, we remember something else, something we’ve repeated over the years, or heard others read to us, those other words about the shepherd who cares for us. Maybe we’ve heard it so many times we’ve stopped listening to it. Maybe we’re annoyed when we hear it read from the New Revised Standard Version. After all, if the King James Version, which just turned 400 years old, was good enough for Jesus… 

I’m not annoyed, but I have to admit, I translate it to the way I know it better, full of thou and maketh and my cup runneth over, words that sound hilariously old-fashioned at the same time they have the tones of the voice we can trust.
This week I needed to pray. Well, okay, I always need to pray, but on a particular day, at a certain time, I needed to pray and even though I usually have no trouble finding the words I want to say to God, that moment I did not have the words. I fumbled around in my mind, looking for something that would help. I looked at my bookshelves, but I didn’t even open a book, because I realized that what I wanted was right in front of me.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
I shall not want.
I don’t need to look it up. I remember the way it feels to say it. I may add an extra “eth” along the way, but I know where I’m headed, from the green pastures to the still waters to the table prepared before my enemies. That’s where I ended up, in that moment, my head anointed with oil, my cup running over.
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy, surely God’s loving-kindness, will follow me all the days of my life, yes?
Now we might be confused, again, like the disciples, for the shepherd we are following is also the shepherd whose love and goodness follow us. But I’m grateful for the circular movement of those two ideas, because it calls us to respond while at the same time reassuring us that when we don’t or can’t follow just right, we haven’t fallen outside the attention of our loving God.
If that’s too complicated, remember this. I love Hoagie, even if he can’t always remember that my girlish tones are now his master’s voice. Babe did not shame the sheep into following, but spoke to them kindly. I believe our Good Shepherd loves us in just those ways: fondly, protectively, hoping to keep us out of the compost piles of life, sometimes disappointed in the choices we make, but always ready to comfort and care.

May we follow the Shepherd who loves us so much. Amen.