Harrowing Of Hell
April 29, 2015

Good Shepherd Sunday

Preacher: Wellesley Chapman

I had the good fortune a couple of months ago to be sent to Hawaii for work. And as it goes in Hawaii, there seems only enough work to keep one occupied until lunch. So I had a lot of time on my hands, and took advantage of the opportunity to explore. And I spent a lot of glorious time alone. Mostly I ran along paths through coastal lava flows and floated in the ocean. One afternoon I was jogging along the shore and began to think about my brother, Muscoe. Many of you know that my brother died just after Christmas of a brain tumor that, after eighteen months of treatment, refused to be contained. He died a good death, in hospice, without pain. On that afternoon in Hawaii I was thinking about Muscoe and missing him. I looked out over the ocean and the broad, blue skies feeling sad that he was gone, that he couldn’t be there to see all that beauty. And—to my surprise—I also felt deep gratitude for my relationship with him, for the gift of my own breath, and even for the experience of grief. It was overwhelming.

These were big, raw feelings, the kind that don’t come to me often. I don’t let them. It feels unsafe to be so exposed. But sometimes, most often during a long run, physical effort leaves me vulnerable and whether I like it or not, I feel what I’m feeling. And on this day I allowed myself a moment to stay with the feelings. And it was scary to do that because I was definitely giving up control. I couldn’t do it for long. I backed away, took back control, and moved down the beach. But there was a moment there when it seemed as if an invitation was issued: “Stay. Stay. You are safe. Though you wander in this perilous place, there is nothing to fear.” I chose to flee back to the perceived safety of my own little kingdom, and I’ll have to live with that. It hasn’t happened often that I’ve taken notice of the invitation to goodness and mercy. That’s a big step in a spiritual journey.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. And it is also Good Shepherd Sunday, a named day in our fifty-day celebration taken from today’s gospel reading, of course. But you’ll notice the theme of the good shepherd—the one who will lead us to safety—repeats in today’s texts.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” The 23rd psalm is a catalog of the good shepherd’s beneficent capabilities. And John’s gospel describes the risks of imprinting on the not-so-good shepherd, the hired hand, who “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”

I don’t know about you, but I am tempted to trust hired hands every day. Many of them are easy to spot and we won’t disagree much if I say they’re not trustworthy. The easy marks include our possessions and social approval. They’re not scripture-worthy. Consider some Psalm 23 alternative versions that don’t work:

My 401(k) is my shepherd, I shall not want…

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
because I’m popular,
people like me, so everything will be just fine.

Digging down a layer or two you find hired hands who are more clever. False shepherds dressed up in virtue.

Consider doubt, that place between belief and disbelief where many of us spend a lot of time. It is okay to feel uncertain. Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you have a place at Epiphany, right? We welcome doubt. It is part of our natural struggle. But is it possible to become dogmatic about one’s doubt? There is a point, I fear, when it would be easy to convert my uncertainty into a core belief and disengage from the spiritual journey.

I have this recurring discussion with my ten year old, Zoë, about the existence of God. She is is a good doubter, and a virtuous one. We frequently engage in debate around the First Cause Argument. She doesn’t call it the First Cause Argument, she calls it “argh!” But the concept is that all things have a cause, and as we move backward in the chain of causality, we arrive at a first cause, and this we call God. She doesn’t buy it. Good for her! Engaging Zoë on the First Cause is like debating Bertrand Russell. She is consistent and persistent, and I usually give up. In fact, I sometimes wonder if Zoë has been reading Russell. She takes a science-above-all stance as I keep asking about prior causes. It reminds me of the story attributed to Russell in which a woman explains to him that “The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” Russell responds, “What is the tortoise standing on?” And she says “You’re very clever, young man, but it’s turtles all the way down!”

And this is where we get stuck, Zoë and me, turtles upon turtles, engaging less in a discussion about the reconciliation of God and science, and more in a celebration of doubt. Neither of us can claim certainty. That’s fine. But will we begin to worship doubt in place of finding our way to belief?

This brings me to another not-so-good shepherd. Winning. Winning the argument. Being right. I like believing I’m right, that I have a hold on the truth and can share it with others. And I know that most of the time truth is not so simple. We perceive the world around us through complex social and emotional filters, and what we describe as truth may in fact have little resemblance to what others may believe or even an objective, measurable reality. And it is so tempting to try to convince people that the world I perceive is true. That I’m right. In an attempt to be a better person I made a promise to myself that in conversations last week I would make no statements. I would be curious and patient. I would only ask questions.

Want to know how long that lasted? About five minutes. I have opinions. I believe in them. And when a conversation trends away from my version of reality, it’s just really hard to contain myself. So that could have gone better. I’ll keep trying.

Over the last two weeks Kate has asked us to use this Easter season to un-clutter our spiritual lives so that we might perceive more clearly how God is speaking to us. Are there hired hands cluttering up your fields? When you listen for the shepherd, what do you hear?

Let me come back to where I started: that beach in Hawaii where big emotions born of sorrow and gratitude scared me back into my kingdom. I heard an invitation to trust in goodness and mercy, to trust there is nothing to fear. I declined that invitation and followed the hired hand. A hired hands who runs away when the wolves come, because the hired hand does not care about the sheep. But there is a good shepherd. And if we are listening, we can hear his voice when he calls, and follow where he leads.