Through the Dark

Psalm 23
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.

Revelation 7:9-17
They will hunger and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

* * *

This past week the world blew up in more ways the one. In China, a massive earthquake. In Boston, a bomb. In the United States Senate, a vote. With a single vote the hope of many was shattered.

How will the stricken families of Newtown, Connecticut carry on? When will their hunger and thirst for righteousness in this land be satisfied? Who will wipe away their tears?

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation (or, “liberation”) belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

They will hunger and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This past week we got a rude reminder if we ever needed one: the world is a dangerous place. And we are as vulnerable as sheep.

On Monday three people were slaughtered by bombs in Boston. On Thursday 32 were slaughtered by a bomb in Baghdad and eight more the next day.

The world is a dangerous place. And we are like sheep.

If a bomb doesn’t kill you, a handgun might—30,000 each year in this country.

The world is a dangerous place. And we are like sheep—soft targets for wolves.

I don’t know what they do in Baghdad, but we now know what they do in Boston to hunt down wolves. In Boston they haul out armored vests, armored trucks, tanks, helicopters, swat teams and an arsenal of weapons that may be larger than some countries.

In this country you can be sure that certain kinds of criminals will be hunted down and apprehended. But, alas, other kinds of criminals get a pass.

In this country you can be sure certain kinds of violence will not be tolerated. But, alas, other kinds of violence get a pass. There is, as the Apostle Paul said, wickedness in high places—wickedness and crimes that television cameras don’t see.

Friday night I watched as “suspect number two” was taken into custody. Maybe you saw it too. If so, soon thereafter you saw a fleet of police and armored vehicles slowly back up, turn around and one by one drive away to wild applause and cheers.

U-S-A! U-S-A!! U-S-A!!!

Any American sitting at home that night armed with military-style assault weapons—there are thousands of such Americans—thinking they could defend themselves against government agents should have taken notice. That display of firepower in Watertown was, in part, for them. Such Americans better think twice! That show of overwhelming force against one lone wolf who terrorized a few American sheep was merely the armament of one American municipality.

Your rod and your staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23) For some people, the Good Shepherd’s “rod and staff” is a tank and a swat team. For some that’s what it takes to comfort and protect the “sheep!”

Of course, we arecitizens not sheep. Still, a government is not unlike a shepherd ordained to lead its people to green toxic-free pastures and beside clean unpolluted water; ordained to provide care in times of trouble and assistance through dark valleys like floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and epidemics.

A government is not unlike a shepherd for its people.

So what happened on Wednesday?

This past week our country blew up in more ways the one. In Boston. In Texas. In the United States Senate.

On Wednesday, the hopes of many for some restraint on gun violence were shattered. How will the families of Newtown, Connecticut carry on?

I really don’t know.

But with tears in their eyes they said they would. Somehow they would make it through the dark night, this valley of death.

Faith is like that. It’s not about beliefs or creeds. Faith is about practice. It’s about faithfulness; it’s about persistence in the face of opposition and doubts. We just keep on. Not triumphantly, but somehow.

Fifty years ago this past week, Martin Luther King was in a Birmingham jail. It seemed the governors of this society would not relinquish white power and privilege freely. His fellow clergy publicly rebuked him for forcing change too quickly.

Wait,they said. Go slower. To which he replied in a letter: justice delayed is justice denied.

Others rebuked King as too gentle, too moderate. The Black Panthers claimed that only violence would change this racist society. And so the Black Panthers stocked up on military-style weapons and paraded through the streets of Oakland, California.

It was a dark time. It was a dark night but King had put his trust in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—not by violence but by love. It would be a long journey through a dark valley. King knew he was not walking alone. So he kept on. Not triumphantly, but somehow.

And that brings us back to the New Testament lesson for today from the strange and mystifying book called Revelation.It’s true a lot of kooky people have extracted a lot of goofy ideas from this bizarre book. But it doesn’t have to be goofy or mystifying. Its message is quite simple once you see it as an adult cartoon or graphic novel and not a Ouija board full of secret codes about the future.

Revelation is a first century letter composed in exile and smuggled to several small besieged communities that were trying—in the way and spirit of Jesus—to transform a violent and unjust world. Revelationportends to be a vision of the future but that’s merely a literary device. It’s not a vision of the future as much as what we might call aninsight for the present, on how things work.

Then as now the world was terrorized by violence, the violence of an empire that imposed its will on societies and individuals because it believed the sword was the greatest power in the world. The Roman Empire was determined to bring about world peace. And it killed anyone who got in its way.

Jesus got in the way.

In the wake of Jesus’ execution, a body of people arose on this planet full of a certain indestructible spirit and an irresistible conviction: not the sword, but the cross was more powerful. And by “the cross” was meant faithfulness to love and mercy no matter the cost. It meant meeting violence with non-violence; meeting hatred with love; meeting despair with hope; meeting injury with pardon; meeting vengeance with mercy; running toward the mayhem not away from it.

Revelationreveals things we might otherwise miss. It begins with a magical, imaginary journey to God’s inner chamber, to the center of universal power. For a moment, the poet teases us with a reference to Jesus as “the Lion of Judah,” the Lion of Judah as the hope for liberation from Roman oppression.

Of course, liberators must be ferocious as wild beasts! But, there’s a surprise. When we look to the throne of God, behold, sitting upon the throne is alambnot a lion. God, as it turns out, is as vulnerable as a lamb, as vulnerable as us.

It’s one way of saying: not violence but gentleness is the power that saves.And that, as it turns out, is the way, the truth and the life.

If we practice that way of love, we will hunger and thirst. We will be scorched by the sun. We will be battered and bruised. Tears will fall. It’s not an easy way.

I know many of you are on that way. Please, keep on. The Good Shepherd is beside you. So say it once and say it again and again. Say it every day until it’s in your heart forever.

Yea, though I walk, through
a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said she won’t forsake me,
I am in her hand.
She sets a table before me
in the presence of my foes.
She anoints my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Surely, surely goodness and kindness
will follow me
All the days of my life,
And I will live in her house,
Forever, forever, and ever.*

Which is to say, those who abide in love, abide in God.

* * *

*from Bobby McFerrin’s Psalm 23 (dedicated to his mother)