As I wrestled with the texts for this week—the familiar 23rd Psalm and the “Good Shepherd” passage from John, two lines kept rising to the surface. So, before I say anything else—I want to plant them in your minds as well. From Psalm 23—“Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” From John 10—“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
“Goodness and mercy shall follow me”—God’s goodness and mercy, shall follow me—some translations make it more active, God’s goodness and mercy shall pursue me, bringing up an interesting contrast between the enemies who threaten or pursue in the valley of the shadows, in those dark times, and here at the end of the psalm, not enemies but God, God’s gifts, God’s goodness, God’s mercy, not just offered for the taking, not just given as a one-time handout, but God’s goodness and mercy following us, shadowing us, pursuing us, not letting us go.
I wasn’t surprised to read in the New York Times on Friday morning (in David Brooks’ discussion of an Economist-YouGov poll) that we are a nation divided into two camps. When asked which statement was closer to their views, 75% of one side picked “It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated.” Yet 2/3’s of the other side picked “Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.”
It was almost as if I was seeing Psalm 23 enfleshed, with some people stuck in a dark valley, and some able to follow the lead toward green pastures, toward still waters, toward restoration of our souls. And I pondered again the question, is some of our reality created by what we think reality is? And if so, we have to ask ourselves, Are we pursued by death’s dark vale, or by goodness and mercy and a place in God’s house?
The country was on edge. It was Tuesday afternoon, and word had been put out that there was a verdict in the Chauvin Trial. And then we waited, for more than an hour. We waited, as they let downtown Minneapolis empty out. We waited, as people went home early from work, as stores shut down, and as crowds began to gather at the courthouse, and at the intersection where George Floyd had breathed his last. We waited, and somewhere out of sight, (it was imagined by the newscasters) those employed to protect the city were massing and preparing for whatever was to come. We waited, and one man set up an easel, and starting painting what was happening before him—aware that his picture could be completed in a number of different ways. We waited, most of us close to our tvs, or our phones, or our tablets, or our radios. We waited.
Did we dare hope that this time would be different? With overwhelming evidence, and a cellphone video that we all were exposed to, and months of reminding us how long 8min. and 46 sec was (and then, with more body cams, it became how long 9 min. and 30 sec was!); with seeing a really with-it prosecution team that made arguments that were easy to understand and a really jumbled defense that seemed to be grasping at straws—did we dare hope that there would be justice?
And then “Guilty” once, twice, three times. Tears of relief. An Indigenous woman saying “I can breathe.” Some small amount of justice achieved, of the breaking of a “given” that we could not expect police to be held accountable. A moment outside the awful truth that this does not make our world perfect—since we had at least two more police shootings in just the 24 hours around the verdict. The quiet, prayerful calm of the Floyd family, grateful but not celebrating, since nothing would bring their “Percy” back.
But a step, something to hold onto, a ray of hope that we will not dwell in the valley of the shadow of death forever, but that goodness and mercy shall follow us.
--Follow us, not like a puppy, “what are we going to do next”
--Follow us, not like a threatening car behind us, making us look constantly in the rear-view mirror
--Follow us, like “bringing up the rear” or “I’ve got your back”
--Follow us, like “I’m here if you need me” (like those wonderful parents who don’t hover, who allow exploration, but are also engaged and ready to be there, to give a hug, to kiss a boo-boo, to hold your hand or listen to your fears, to provide back-up if able,
--Follow us, like on twitter or Instagram or Facebook—people who are interested, people who care, people you love.
For a brief breath of time, on Tuesday, God’s goodness and mercy that follows us always, caught up with us and gave us a big, warm, hug. No wonder the Psalmist wants goodness and mercy to pursue us all the days of our lives, so we might live in the house of the Lord forever.
We don’t get to live in that moment always. But if reality is something that can be molded, or at least made a different hue, by us, then I invite us to wrap ourselves in those tears, to draw strength from that step towards justice, to recommit ourselves to making this a better, more loving world.
The title to this sermon comes from John Mayer’s song “Love is a Verb” where he croons “Love ain’t a thing, Love is a verb.” Isn’t that what God in Jesus is all about. Love, the love that became incarnate, “God with us” in a stable; the love that was willing to lay down a life for others; the love that overwhelms all else, even a closed tomb; the love that we are supposed to emulate. Yes love is a verb, it is not something in the ether, but something that is tangible—something we can see, something we can touch, something we can participate in.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we hear Jesus talking about how a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, and we remember that we are called to a life worth living. I hear Jesus saying life is high stakes. What are you willing to lay down your life for? Are you living in those truths? If we want a current example of this, we can look to the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny—who was willing to risk his life by opposing Putin, risk his life by returning to Russia after he was poisoned, risk his life by going on a hunger strike—to try to be the voice of the Russian people, to try to bring about change. Are we following the good shepherd and living lives that are based on deep truths, that are aware of the importance of what we do and who we are, that come from that place of goodness and mercy, willing to pass it on? Are we willing to make love a verb?
Even as we hold onto goodness and mercy, even as we muse about how to live our life with love as a verb, Jesus takes the opportunity, in the midst of his good shepherd metaphor, to chide us. Don’t think goodness and mercy only follow you and your friends, don’t think love as a verb creates an exclusive community. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” We hear what we have heard so often in the last few weeks, “we don’t see it all.”
Jesus is always surprising us. In calling us from our everyday lives to “come and follow me.” In telling parables that turn what we think we know of our world upside-down, and inside-out. In arguing with Scripture (and those who think they know what it means) so that the Spirit of love, of God, not the words on a page, wins. In trusting in God so completely that even storms do not frighten, and even death is not a final card.
Jesus’ ministry is one long lesson in having us “see” differently. Even after resurrection, maybe especially after resurrection, our eyes, our senses, our minds, don’t seem to be able to comprehend what is happening. Remember Mary at the empty tomb when she meets the one she thinks is a gardener (but is Jesus). Remember Thomas, a stand-in for us, wanting to believe, but needing to physically see and touch the wounded Jesus. Remember the disciples in Luke, first on the Emmaus Rd., and then in a gathering, meeting the risen Christ, but somehow not always recognizing the wonder of who is with them.
If we were reading this story in its context, we would know that the gospel of John has just spent the last chapter on an involved story about a blind man. At the end of the story, Jesus suggests that the wrong people have been perceived as blind. Again, and again, we are nudged towards new insight, nudged to see beyond our closed world, invited to leave our mental silos, invited to open ourselves to seeing God in our world, to changing the way we interact with one another, to becoming new.
Here we are, in the Church calendar, in the midst of the 50 days between Resurrection and Pentecost, between the marvel at the empty tomb and the gift of the Spirit who then propels the disciples (and us) into the world. It seems the Christian Church, (and the Jewish faith before it) already knew the good medical/emotional advice to give yourself some time when you are making huge shifts—like rehabbing an injury, or taking off weight, or beginning new habits. People need time to try things on, to think through all the moving parts, to be (if you have the luxury) intentional.
The world of the disciples has been blown to shreds, first with Jesus’ death, and then with the empty tomb, followed quickly by meeting a risen Jesus. It isn’t easy to turn your thoughts, your mental constructs, your ways of reacting, on a dime. The 50 days between Easter and Pentecost are a reminder that Resurrection winds may upend your life in a second, but the working out of that resurrection takes a little longer.
We hear about the disciples grasping at coming to terms with this new outlook. We sympathize with them as they discuss what has happened with each other. Especially this year, we understand what it is like to have to rethink your world view, relearn how to be in the world, reorient yourself to “what comes next.” For we are going to begin to step out of our pandemic cocoon sometime soon. And we are different than we were a year ago. We have decisions to make about what we are moving toward as a community. And I want you to know that your Session has been spending hours thinking and talking and praying and imaging what comes next.
And this is my hope.
That together, we will craft a life—with worship and ministry opportunities that are true to us and that show we believe in the importance of the way we use the gifts we have been given, the talents we have to share, and this special time and place in history. For Jesus is the Good Shepherd and has modeled how we are to act, to be willing to “lay down our lives,” to be willing to make our love a verb.
And may it be so, that we are blessed, we are surrounded, we are pursued, we are followed, we are infused, we are startled, we are changed, by God’s goodness and mercy, all of our days.