A pre-recorded sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (also known as Good Shepherd Sunday), 2021
When Peter preaches to the high priests and elders, he tells them what he has seen and known and how he has witnessed the power of God present in Jesus of Nazareth, and continuing in his name. He is a man possessed by the love of Christ. “There is no other name given among mortals,” he describes with awe, “that will save.” Peter knew Jesus as a man, a true and mortal human, who died and was buried: no one else who has lived this life, he asserts, has the power of God to save. But Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus was the Word of God. Jesus is the life of God.
But this is where Peter and I need to be careful not to do violence to the pre-existing promises of God. That exuberance, that faith cannot be used to do violence to the faith or the life of others. The misuse and abuse of Christ’s name has caused terrific grief over the centuries since Peter preached, leading most immediately and devastatingly to antisemitism, which has no place in God’s heart. Twisting the cross into a cudgel, wielding religion as a weapon; trusting in our own righteousness and rightness has led to all kinds of crimes and slights against those of other religions, cultures, traditions, bodies, families …
But a Christianity that follows Jesus is not a religion of superiority, nor of exclusivity, nor one of condemnation, nor of supremacy, nor of self-righteousness: Jesus comes not to lord it over the people whom God has made, but to love them, even to die for them.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; …
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
There is no way of praying this psalm truthfully, honestly, lovingly, in this time and place that does not acknowledge that there are no still waters, there can be no resting in meadows, when violence threatens to break in at any moment. There is no peace while injustice holds sway anywhere among us. And while it’s better than pretending that all is right in our world, let’s not pretend either that justice consists of one man’s conviction for another man’s murder. Goodness and mercy demand better than a cycle of violence and regret. There are no green pastures to rest in yet while racism, armed and dangerous, continues to poison the streams from which we drink, or while weapons of war wreak havoc in FedEx facilities, grocery stores, massage parlours, family homes …
God is faithful to God’s promises, to all people. Green pasture will be found. But let justice first “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Only then will the waters, the raging torrent will be stilled, when justice, God’s justice, God’s goodness and mercy have been poured out and completed.
These promises predate Christianity. God’s promise to provide for Adam, to protect even Cain, to immortalize Abraham through his and Sarah’s offspring, to save Moses from the Red Sea, to restore the people from exile, never again to flood the earth and all flesh: these promises and the promises penned by the prophets and the psalmists all predate the life on earth of Jesus of Nazareth, and God’s promises remain true, for all of God’s people, the sheep of many folds. God’s love is not exclusive.
Yet it is through Christ and in Christ that I have come to know God’s loving kindness. The incarnation, the cross, the resurrection: that God almighty would stoop to step among us, to breathe beside us, to die at our hands, to lead the way out of the grave – that is the revelation that continues to break my heart open to the cycle of grace as often as it is needed.
Jesus’ life, his love convict me of my sin – the ways in which I continue, knowingly and accidentally, to contribute to the cycle of violence and regret instead of self-giving love. In the Introduction to her book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo warns that white progressive people like me are in fact one of the most dangerous demographics when it comes to the work of anti-racism in this country.[i] People like me who think that we know what’s best and how to pull ourselves out of the currents of racism in this society in which we swim; how to redeem ourselves. The death and resurrection of Christ convince me that only the torrent of God’s justice, God’s goodness, God’s mercy will be our salvation. The waters of baptism are only a beginning. There is so much more to do to live into the promises we have made, to find our way toward peace for all of God’s people, truly to love the image of God in every living being.
Even so, even as I stumble and lose my way, Christ is with us, tending and guiding us like a good shepherd, as one who loves his sheep, as one who keeps her promises. Where I am unfaithful, Christ remains faithful. Where I am ignorant, Christ is wise. Where I am cruel, Jesus is kind. Where I am earthbound, and hidebound, and lacking in imagination, the Word of God has dreamt into being everything we know and everything that we cannot yet quite see. God’s promises are true and unbroken.
And so may God comfort anyone caught in the shadows of death. May God bring justice to roll down like river, and righteousness like a mighty river, that they may pool together and become still, that all (all, all) may be refreshed, and one day find peace beside them.
[i] DiAngelo, Robin (Dyson, Michael Eric, contrib.), White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Germany: Beacon Press, 2018), 5