This has been a difficult and strangely chaotic week, on many different levels.
First, there was the bombing at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring well over one hundred others. Many of us have friends or relatives who live in Boston, or know someone who was running in the race; or we have a personal history with the city, and affection for it, and so the bombs at the finish line hit us hard, whether or not we knew anyone who was injured.
And as I mentioned in the message I sent to the parish earlier this week, Boston and its celebration of Patriot’s Day stand for so much more than the history and events of one city; so much of Boston is woven into our national story, our sense of who we are as Americans. So the attacks cut to the quick of our identity; it hurt our souls, as well as damaging the bodies of spectators and runners.
Then on Tuesday it was announced that letters containing poison had been mailed to several senators and to the President; so far no one who handled those letters seems to have become ill from them.
On Wednesday, in a very emotionally laden atmosphere, the Senate voted not to close the loop hole on background checks for gun purchases on the internet and at gun shows. Given that ninety percent of the American people favored this bill, which was put forward in response to the shootings in Newtown, CT back in December, it certainly struck me personally that some of the legislators were not listening to the will of the people.
Then Wednesday night late the news came through of the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas that killed fifteen people and leveled half the town. When I saw the photo of the explosion, my first thought was that it looked like a nuclear mushroom cloud.
In the meantime, we all saw and heard the requests of the Boston police and FBI for any information that might lead to the identification and arrest of the bombing perpetrators.
And Friday we awoke to the news that a man hunt was in progress, but not before one of the suspects was killed in a shootout, and an MIT security officer had been gunned down. With Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown in lockdown it was a very tense day, as we waited for some kind of news, some kind of resolution. Our son and his girlfriend are in graduate school in Cambridge, so Friday seemed particularly unsettling. I think the nation as a whole drew a collective sigh of relief Friday night when the second suspect was captured.
And in the middle of all this we prayed: prayers of grief, anguish, confusion and anger; we prayed for healing, thanksgiving for those who survived, comfort for those who mourned. We lifted our hearts in gratitude for the police and first responders and ordinary passers-by who did what they could: made a make-shift bandage, offered a cell phone, sheltered strangers. We asked guidance for those working on the case, for the leaders.
I am sure that these words ran through the hearts and minds of many: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
It is, of course, the psalm that is most widely known and used at funerals, or in times of danger or trouble or pain. The 23rd Psalm is memorized more than any other, and we can certainly understand why. Its poetry and imagery call us to trust in God, to lay down our burden of fear, to rest in a good and protected place, knowing that God will care for us. We all know what it is to need that kind of care from God, at one time or another.
We read this psalm this morning because it is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, what we sometimes call Good Shepherd Sunday; and on this day we remember in particular that in the Gospel of John Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. He was claiming for himself all of the images, memories and expectations from the Hebrew Bible of the Messiah being the Shepherd of Israel, the king who would know his flock (his people) and would guide, feed and protect them from all predators, and all who wished them harm.
As we are here in Easter season, reflecting on our experience of the Risen Lord, we also claim this image; we look back to all of the longings and all of the expectations that our Biblical ancestors had for God’s Messiah, and we see them come to fruition in Jesus. So it is no surprise that this psalm speaks to us with words of comfort and peace – goodness knows we need them, especially after the week just past. However, if Jesus is our shepherd and we are his sheep, his flock, we have to follow him; we have to do what he does, walk in his ways.
The psalm goes on to say: You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over; or, in the King James translation: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
In the presence of our enemies, those who trouble us – the psalm proclaims God’s goodness and abundance even in the midst of those who oppose us, trouble us, are our enemies. We have been reminded all too clearly this week that we do have enemies – perhaps because of who we are or what we represent, or maybe for reasons that will never make sense to anyone outside of the perpetrators’ minds; we may never really know.
But Jesus is our shepherd; his goodness and abundance sustain us even in the presence of our enemies, and we are sustained and upheld so that we can follow Jesus’ lead, do what Jesus’ does.
And Jesus very clearly had something to say about our enemies and those who trouble us.
In the Gospel of Luke he says: “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28).
And in Matthew he puts it this way: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45).
There is no getting around it; Jesus asks us to pray for our enemies – and today that means the two men who made and set off the bombs at the Boston Marathon. This is hard; we don’t want to do it.
But we need to remember that praying for someone does not mean that we like them, or agree with them or approve of what they have done; nor does it mean we have forgiven them. Praying for someone in this way means that we hold them in the Light of Christ, we commend them to God and God’s wisdom, not because we want them to escape punishment that may be deserved, but because we want God’s justice and mercy to be fulfilled, whatever shape that may take.
The souls of these two brothers have been damaged, spoiled by the violence that has come from within them, and the violence they have done. One is now answering to God directly for his actions, the other is in custody in a hospital in serious condition until such time as he is able to be questioned as the investigation proceeds – and he most certainly will be held accountable.
But there is spiritual work to be done in the days ahead, and our part of that is to pray for this young man, as hard as that may be for us – for he is still a son, a brother, a nephew, a friend; he is still a person made in the image of God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, just as we all are.
Jesus the Good Shepherd loves us, sustains us, feeds us, shelters us, gives us rest and peace – and bids us to follow him – even to a place we would rather not go, even when the road is hard. But it is ultimately for the good of God’s world, and for the good of our own souls.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 21, 2013