[McFerrin’s Psalm 23]
There is a video making the rounds on social media. Maybe you have seen it. It’s short and to the point.
More than one person has shared that video with a caption that goes something like this:
Actual footage of me and my relationship with Jesus.
That’s hilarious. And it’s accurate. It’s one of those jokes that tells the truth.
In the hymn Amazing Grace we sing, “I once was lost but now I’m found.” But I wonder if those words might be more accurate if they went, “I keep on getting lost and I keep on getting found.”
This is Good Shepherd Sunday, the day every year on which we hear Psalm 23, probably the most famous and most beloved of all the psalms. (If you grew up in a certain tradition, there is a good chance that you know the King James translation of Psalm 23 by heart.) And it is the day as well in which we hear Jesus make this staggering and enigmatic promise:
I am the good shepherd.
What I am noticing in particular this year as I listen to Psalm 23 and Jesus is that each of these readings name danger, they name hurt, they name loss. Yea, the Psalmist writes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me. And Jesus – well Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is talking about the sheep – you and me – living in danger from wolves.
From the beginning, the church has had to wrestle with the paradox that on the cross and in the empty tomb God defeated death and that, simultaneously, death and, more broadly, suffering and unfairness and injustice remained. We still die. Awful things still happen. That kind of seemed wrong to the first Christians. And, I don’t know about you, but it kind of seems wrong to me today. If we are living in the time of Easter – and I don’t just mean this particular season, but rather the almost 2000 years after Jesus’ resurrection – shouldn’t all of that be over?
I guess that I am thinking about hurt persisting after resurrection this week because this is the week in which I got the news that a friend’s cancer has likely metastasized. “Metastasized” being a variation on a lovely ancient Greek word that in, this case, means that the monster inside of my friend that is eating him alive has given birth. Nationally, this was the week in which we witnessed the trial of Derek Chauvin and held complicated feelings as we did so. While there was a glimpse of justice in the verdict, George Floyd remains dead and a guilty verdict against a police officer for this sort of crime remains vanishingly unusual. And here at Grace, this is the week in which our beloved friend and longtime groundskeeper, Frank Schramling, died. We’re going to be doing a parish workday at Grace on Saturday, May 15th – you’re invited to help – and as we encounter the layers of grief in Frank’s death, a big layer will come as we work on Grace’s grounds and he is not there.
The resurrection has happened. We live in the time of Easter. And all of this hardship is still true and real.
In case it’s not obvious, I’ve just painted myself into a corner. If a solid structure for a speech is to pose a question and then to answer that question, I’m kind of hooped. Because, as my old Jesuit theology professor, George Griener, put it, theology – the words that we say about God – are nowhere more incomplete and inadequate than when it comes to suffering and evil.
Lots of folks have tried to give a neat and complete answer to why suffering exists and, in particular, why it exists after Easter. When the door-to-door religion peddlers come to your house, they will cheerfully hand you a pamphlet that explains everything. And just yesterday on Facebook I encountered someone making the extraordinary (and yet extraordinarily common) claim that everything happens for a reason.
What the hell is the reason that my friend’s cancer has metastasized?
What the hell is that a conviction such as Derek Chauvin’s is vanishingly unusual?
What the hell is the reason that Frank is dead?
Do not insult anyone’s suffering by trying to give an easy answer to those questions.
Give them the dignity of sitting with a question that, at least this side of heaven, does not have a good answer.
Maybe I started this morning with poetry (what are the psalms if not ancient poems?) and song because, sometimes, art has a capacity to hold mystery in a way that an argument or a speech or a thesis cannot. We could write books about where Jesus is in suffering – lots of people have, and lots of those books are glorious and consoling and important – but come the end of the book we would still have the sense that our questions were unanswered, that we had barely touched the beginnings of an answer. In art, in beauty, we sometimes catch a glimpse of God, of truth, of love in a way that we cannot via any other means.
So, as I hold the news of my friend’s diagnosis, as our nation holds the news of Dereck Chauvin’s trial, as our parish holds the news of Frank’s dying, let’s sing. Let’s sing about how the Lord is your shepherd and mine. About how we, Jesus’ sheep, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. About how, even in this Easter time, we keep on falling into that ditch beside the road. About our trust, our trust in spite of everything, that Jesus is with us and will pull us back out.