O my God, you are here… but always you are where we are, and always you love us, calling us each by name. Amen.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday Jesus tells us that he “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Well, that’s a metaphor, no matter what sheep-like sounds we might make at odd moments or how much we might sometimes behave like sheep. It’s still a metaphor. We’re not sheep. I feel quite confident about that as an unequivocal statement. But though we are not sheep, we do respond to this picture of Jesus as our Good Shepherd. We respond because he says he has come so that we might “have life, and have it abundantly.” God really wants us to get the most out of life. If we love life, if we choose life, we respond with joy to the one whose deepest desire is to give us life in abundance. If we do not love life, if we choose death, then we respond more readily to the enemy of the Good Shepherd, the thief, who Jesus says, “Comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
This past week there was a very disturbing picture on the front page of the New York Times. It was a picture of a boy’s burned body. That picture has haunted me all this past week. The picture was taken near Bentiu, South Sudan. When I read today’s gospel lesson, I suddenly realized that the “thief” who fired the rocket that killed that boy came to steal and kill and destroy. By killing that boy that thief stole his life from him. That thief killed his hopes and dreams. That thief destroyed sacred life and devastated a family. That thief was in love with death, with Hitler, with violence. And in the end a young life was stolen, he was killed, and his end was destruction.
That charred boy-body on the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times is one of many deaths in a civil war begun many years ago. The soldiers, their skilled ruthlessness honed during that long and bloody war in the Sudan, have been stealing and killing and destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, subjecting them to atrocities because their presence does not fit a Sudanese ideal of what the Sudan should be. And for many of these Sudanese soldiers, their lives will end in death, the futures of their families will be stolen by war, their loved ones left grieving their destruction.
With the death of that young boy and the renewal, this past week, of war in the Sudan, one is tempted to ask what conclusions we might draw from these two violent events — one, thank God, over and done with; the other apparently resumed.
If we Christian, who profess to “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” if we profess that and embody the faith of Easter, then we must always be ready to share life and hope with others. Doubtless prayers were offered for the repose of the soul of that boy who died and for his grief-stricken families and for others wounded in the renewal of airstrikes. We continue to pray for a just peace in Sudan and so many other places in our war-wearing world. Let us, who profess Jesus Christ as the Lord of Life, continue to pray for all of those suffering, and let us pray with the hope born at Easter, the hope given us by Christ’s Resurrection, that somehow, in the end, new life will triumph, that God will bring life out of death, good out of evil.
Why are Sudanese killing each other? South Sudan became independent last year in fulfillment of a 2005 peace accord that ended decades of fighting between north and south. But, there’s oil in the Sudan and the north and the south cannot agree on how to share the oil and the wealth that will result. The president of the Sudan, Mr. Bashir referred to the people of South Sudan as insects. That’s language reminiscent of hateful words that Nazis used to describe Jews. Not surprisingly, there is a religious factor in this war. Last week, mobs attacked a Roman Catholic Church attended by Southern Sudanese in the country’s capital, Khartoum. These are some of the reasons behind the war and I’m sure there are many, many others.
The kinds of violence we are seeing on a large scale in so many parts of the world are repeated over and over again in smaller versions. I don’t watch much television but I catch a glimpse now and then and I’m aware that for some weeks now audiences have been bombarded with “all news, all the time” reports about the killing a young black man in Florida by a white man, who claims that he shot in self-defense. Continuous reports somehow create a tone to reporting about violence and death that seem to begin to numb us to the cost of violence for individual human lives, both victims and perpetrators.
Last weekend, while visiting with a good friend of mine, I watched an episode of a television series entitled, Magic City. Maybe some of you have seen it too. The story line contains what have become usual themes for television viewing: power, greed, sex and violence. And the images flashed across the screen had plenty of graphic violence. I don’t think of myself as a prude, but to my shame and dismay, I now realize how unfazed I was by what I saw.
I’m not a media expert; far from it. But I’ve been thinking about the violence portrayed in media. There is real violence and imagined violence. And I couldn’t help thinking about the connection between the two. As I pondered this, there’s one question I want to ask. The television industry has long maintained that the pervasive violence one finds on television does not influence children’s behavior, or anyone’s behavior for that matter. But isn’t the entire financial basis of the television industry advertising? And isn’t television advertising predicated on the idea that repeated exposure to television can change our behavior so we will buy certain products? If this were not the case, why would companies spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars each year on television advertising to change our behavior and motivate us to buy certain products? It seems logical to conclude that what we see and relish and drink in visually for a national average of more than four hours a day on television changes our lives. How much it changes us depends on the individual. Obviously, the vast majority of people in our society do not become violent as the result of watching violence on television. But does not our acquiescence to an atmosphere of violence in our society, fostered by television, contribute to the emergence of violent behavior? Individual reactions to television vary widely. But it takes only one person to create hell on earth for the victims of that violence.
I probably strike you as a technology dinosaur with my references to television. Because, it seems now only more disconcerting that we carry around these messages and images in the palm of our hand. Instantaneous access to violence, should we choose such a thing.
As Christians we pray that God will give us the grace to counteract evil, to be a force for the good. And in the face of tragedy, we pray that God will bring good out of evil. It was the Scottish writer George MacDonald who said in Lilith, “Annihilation itself is no death to evil. Only good where evil was, is evil dead. An evil thing must live its evil until it chooses to be good. That alone is the slaying of evil.” Only good where evil was, is evil dead….
Which brings us to this peaceful place, Jesus’ followers together in this glorious Chapel, on a peaceful April Sunday morning. Here are some questions I want to suggest we ask ourselves: “How often do I respond to those who wrong me with an inner desire to see them done away with, destroyed, annihilated in some way, instead of asking the question that God must be asking, ‘What can I do that might bring about their redemption, a change in their behavior for the better?’” Another question: “Is venting my own anger and frustration at them, or satisfying my own need for revenge on them, more important than doing what might help them to change for the better? Is this a situation where it would be a lot better for me just to sacrifice my anger, just give it up, leave it alone, for the sake of something better?’’ God is always on the side of redemption and change for the better. Always. If we’re not, we’re fighting God.
Our propensity to think in dualistic term, the “us versus them” way of thinking, our tough talk, our blustering and our posturing has spawned wars throughout human history. Only when human beings everywhere realize that not one human being is expendable, not one human being is of less worth than ourselves, only then will there be any hope of an end to wars.
Again, should we not be examining our day-to-day behavior to see if there are ways in which we treat others as though they were of less worth than ourselves? And if we’re pretty much O.K. in this regard, then what are we actively doing to affirm the worth and dignity of every human being we come in contact with? That is, after all, what we have vowed to do in our baptismal covenant; the same covenant I quoted earlier about renouncing Satan. That is what Christ calls us to do by his own word and example: to affirm the worth and dignity of every human being we come in contact with. Not to label others, not to pigeon-hole them, dismiss them with as a category and demean their humanity, but to call others by name as our God calls each of us by name. To value with compassion every other human being. May God forgive us where we have failed to do this. Thank God for where we have succeeded. May God give us the motivation, strength and grace always to do better…and he will, you know. He is our Good Shepherd and he calls us each by name. Our shepherd’s deepest desire is to give us life, abundant life! Choose life, choose life — for yourself and for others! Amen.
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