Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18
Uncited/Unedited by J. Laovy
Our scriptures, today, are tricky. On a certain level, I feel like I`ve done some poor planning. As we think of the Good Shepherd, and the 23rd Psalm, perhaps your mind imagines lush, verdant pastures with frolicking lambs pausing to drink from a cool, deep, glacial pond. There you have a care for creation sermon! But we did that last week, as we imagined atoning with the environment. Or, perhaps, your mind evokes an image of Jesus, standing at a pen of sheep, criticizing the hired hand who does not lay down his or her life for the sheep as Jesus does, so you imagine yourself becoming a rancher, a shareholder for the sheep, and you hear a call to ministry like Jesus – that would have been a perfect missional circles sermon, but we did that already, too! I`m just glad that you’re imagining these things so vividly, because those sermons are much more effective than any I can offer.
But my mind is going to a weird place, today. As I pray for the tragic earthquake in Nepal, and as I remember my cousin, and as I begin to understand the many ways in which all of our lives intersect with tragic circumstances, the good shepherd metaphor begins to feel like a paradox. It stops being a Thomas Kincaid painting with rich greens, and deep blues, with fuzzy white sheep, and lots of light…and becomes more uncanny, like a Salvador Dali painting, where you might see a pretty scene of some sheep grazing, but where you see what can only be wolves eyes in the distance.
As I imagine this dissonance, as I feel the distinction between these almost childlike dreams and adult emotions, the question that rises to the surface is this: why do bad things happen to good people?
Let me begin by saying there is no satisfying answer to this question. I don`t believe that any amount of theological reflection, biological discovery, or even abstract platitudes will ever help us come up with a satisfying conclusion to that question. Why do bad things happen to good people? I have no idea. I`m probably walking on thin ice here… this is that eternal question that we wonder about over and over in our minds, but rarely to we think of it in worship, or even out loud, because it hits too close to home. Why do loved ones die suddenly or tragically? Why do natural disasters occur? Why do people act toward us the way they do, despite our best efforts to be good and healthy? Why do bad things happen to good people?
I think the inverse of the question proves just how frustrating this question is: why do good things happen to bad people? When we ask the question this way – why do good things happen to bad people – we remember that our own understanding of justice is based on life. Life is good; death is bad. When people are living, they are being rewarded. When they are dying, they are being punished. And at the same time, I don`t know if this black and white approach is really a part of Jesus`good news.
As we try to intellectualize our faith – you know, we progressive Christians like to be the thinking Christians, the intellectually consistent Christians – as we try to intellectualize our faith, we say that God plays no hand in fostering tragedy. God doesn`t create pain, God doesn`t create sadness. We publicly teach that its futile to pray for healing, because God doesn`t pick and choose when to intervene. We teach that its futile to pray for certain outcomes – like who should win the election, or who should win the Stanley Cup – because God doesn`t pick and choose when to allow the Flames to beat the Canucks.
And still, in our hearts of hearts, we wonder: why do bad things happen to good people? And I think thats a good thing. It means we are human beings.
Has anyone here seen the movie Dr Strangelove? One of my favorite things about the film is that it has two titles: which are, Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The film satirizes the cold war relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States, and illustrates the absurd comfort that comes when both parties escalate their nuclear aresenal – an attack on the other is effectively an attack on oneself, and the rest of the world. Dr Strangelove, the man, is a former Nazi scientist who represents the common enemy of both the Soviet Union and the United States, and which ultimately led to the insane rivalry between the two powers. And Dr. Strangelove, the man, reminds the US President and the Soviet ambassador, that this doomsday scenario is only effective if everyone knows about it. Thus, panic, and a strange sense of comfort ensues. Hence the dual title: Dr Strangelove, the mad scientist bent on creating panic, and the inverse title: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
We can almost look back with nostalgia – well, not good nostalgia, but at least a macabre nostalgia – on the cold war. But I can`t imagine the kind of ruckus that Dr Strangelove would have made in the culture, at the time. The current cultural remembrances of the mid-century, the height of the cold war, is that of a contrived happiness to mask the anxiety and sadness. I didn`t live through the mid-century. But when I look at tv shows like Mad Men, which depicts the story of a Madison Avenue advertising executive, over the course of the 1960s, we see a depressed, self-hating character, almost in an identity crisis, surrounded by optimistic “we`re going to the moon!“ furniture, bright colors, and materialistic excess.
I think that`s our impulse. Instead of wading through the muck and the mud, the deeply troubling and sad things of our lives, we prefer to cover it all up with happy faces. We avoid grieving, and we want things to be explained in ways that we can accept. So, despite our best efforts to be happy, positive people throughout the day, in the middle of the night, we wonder to ourselves: “Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen to me?“
And still, there is no satisfying answer to this question. An unsatisfying answer may be: `they just do`. Yet, I doubt I will ever be content with an answer to this question.
But, as cathartic and sad feeling as this sermon has been, this is an Easter message, not a Lenten journey. So, remembering that Dr. Strangelove`s meaning was conveyed in a deeper way with its seemingly paradox two titles, I offer you this: `Jesus the Good Shepherd, or, Why do bad things happen to good people?“
What does it mean to be a shepherd? I think it means a lot of things. Many of you call me a pastor. There are also other pastors in this room. Many of you may remember a pastor from a time in your life, where you experienced some transition, great challenge, or sadness. The word pastor literally means shepherd. I`m not the good shepherd; I`m the sometimes adequate shepherd. Jesus is the good shepherd, and I pray that Jesus can work through me.
But being a shepherd, I think, means being willing to wade through hell and high-water, in order to accompany others on their journey through bad things. We are all good people, even on our worst days. And bad things happen to us, because they do. But this is Jesus` message of good news: that the Good Shepherd will go through extraordinary lengths to safely accompany us through life. And as Christ`s delegate shepherds, we are called to accompany others through their experiences of bad things.
I know that there are some in this room who have tried to make sense of tragic death. I know that there are some in this room who have tried to make sense of strained or severed relationship. I know that there are some in this room who have tried to make sense of natural disaster. I know that there are some in this room who have tried to make sense of illness. I know that there are some in this room who have tried to make sense of evil, dehumanizing actions in the world. And yet, is it not the presence of shepherds, sent to us by God, who restoreth our soul?
This is the Easter Message. As we witness to God`s reconciling movement throughout the world, and throughout our lives, that Good Shepherd, often acting through us, prepares us a feast, and sits with us as we eat, even in the presence of enemies.