4 Easter, April 17, 2016
St. Mark’s, Southborough, Massachusetts
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Acts 9: 36-43
Revelation 7: 9-17
John 10: 22-30
Let us pray: Help us, dear Lord, to hear your voice, to follow where you lead, and to be good sheep and shepherds of your people. Amen.
My husband and I both love to watch movies. Of course, there are some occasional tensions - minor skirmishes over the remote control. He likes war stories, suspense thrillers, and terrifying plots. I like animated movies and romantic comedies. Life is hard enough, I say. Fortunately, we both like stories of inspiration, and movies that are based upon a real person or a true situation. So, given the diversity and variety of movies available to us, and after a little bit of negotiation, we can often find something that appeals to both of us. If not, I go to bed early with a good book.
There are plenty of movies about good and evil; they just come to us in different packages and from various perspectives. Whether it’s a movie like Frozen or American Sniper, Hunger Games or Eye in the Sky, these movies often portray this age-old battle. As a child, I always loved Superman; other folks favor Batman. And so I was particularly curious about this new movie starring both of them.
In Vulture magazine, someone raised this question, “If they’re both fighting for good, why have them fight at all?” Abraham Riesman responded that each of them fights from a different perspective. He claims that we want to see our superheroes fight because (quote) “the fights mean something. Namely: how to make a better world, with Superman operating through hope and inspiration, and Batman through fear and intimidation.”
He continues, “Batman is not just a man but a broken one, who inhabits a broken universe. His parents were killed by a petty criminal and raised in an era of rapid urban decay. Superman, by contrast, is a farm boy, an alien, raised with a stable adoptive family. He has seen the worst of the world and let it teach him a profound sense of empathy. Superman has faith that humanity will tend toward goodness if you give it trust and hope; Batman lacks that faith and believes the world only gets in line if you grab it by the throat and never let go.”
Life is complex and complicated. Our responses to evil will vary, depending upon our human experiences, our faith beliefs, and the cultures and contexts in which we live. Some of us will fight in order to make our world a better place, or maybe we just want power. Some of us will fight because we believe that we need to grab certain people by their throats and never let them go. We want our hands on the remote control because we’re not sure about their intentions. Most of us, however, perhaps feeling horrified and helpless as we watch the violence or rhetoric escalate, will pray for peace, because we don’t know what else to do.
As Spiderman once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Without doubt, there is a lot of drama, and not a few wars, going on around the world and we look to our powerful leaders for information and protection. Recently, when Russian jet fighters buzzed our Navy destroyers in the Baltic sea, one General in our Navy said, “You don’t get to kill people just because they’re annoying.” We pick our battles! Abraham Reisman asks, “Which of these worldviews provides the better way to live a good and productive life? Superman spends his contemplative moments hoping for the best; Batman spends those moments vigilantly preparing for the worst.”
We follow our various leaders for different reasons. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus refers to those who listen to him as his sheep. “Most of what I’ve heard about sheep is unflattering,” said the Rev. Margaret Guenther. “They are reputed to be stupid, lacking initiative and likely to fall over cliffs or entangle themselves in brush. I am not really pleased to be grouped with sheep.”
She also claims that “we easily turn people into sheep.” For example, we say that immigrants aren’t us, even though all of our ancestors come from other countries, or we think that all Muslims are terrorists rather than people with a different faith tradition than ours. We think that the people in one nation or one political party are all good or all bad. “Although there may be some variations in our colors,” Margaret reminds us, “most sheep resemble every other sheep in the flock.” Biologically speaking, each of us is about 98% the same.
If this is true, and we want to make our world a better place, then we all need good shepherds; for we all get caught in the bushes. We all fall off cliffs. We all wander off course, and lose our ways. We all need the shepherd’s rod to poke us when we’ve chosen to follow someone who does not seek goodness, or we’ve forgotten our own. We need good shepherds to use their staffs to reclaim us and redirect us. We want blessed assurances that our world is not going to hell in a handbasket, especially when our Easter baskets look empty. We want to know that God ultimately has God’s hand on the remote control, even as God allows us the freedom to choose which movies we watch and what parts we play.
We live with harsh realities that cannot be denied. Bombs go off killing innocent people, and death unsettles us. We want Superman or Batman or Jesus to come again and make it all good. When I’ve had a tough day, or I’m worried about events beyond my control, I look for comfort. Comfort food. Comfort clothing. Comfort words. Comfort movies. I want to huddle with other sheep and know that my good shepherd is nearby. Today’s lessons from scripture provide me with that comfort.
The story of Jesus, of his birth, life, death, and resurrection, can inspire us and give us hope. As Christians, Jesus is our Superman, an alien from another world, who operated with hope and inspiration. We are all created in the image of God; and through our baptisms, we are adopted into God’s stable family and become brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus is also our Batman, who grabbed not a few demons by the throat and cast them out into the outer darkness. And although we believe that Jesus won the final war, his victory over evil and death, our minor skirmishes continue today; indeed human wars remain.
The story of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, tells a story about the fight for good against evil, a story about heaven and earth, a story about real death and new life. Psalm 23 assures us that God’s goodness and mercy will not perish. John claims that in the end we will hunger and thirst no more, and that God will wipe away every tear.
We can learn from scripture about how to respond to evil. St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, encourages us “to put on the whole armor of God in order to stand firm against evil. He tells us to fasten the belt of truth around our waists, put on the breastplate of righteousness, and be ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Take the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and pray unceasingly.” (Ephesians 6:10-17)
Sheep are known to suffer in silence and go to their slaughter without making a sound. Such was Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. When we feel as if we’ve come through the great ordeal, Jesus will give us His robes, washed white in His own blood. And then, when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil because we know that no one can snatch us out of His hand. In Him, we have eternal life.
“At that time, Jesus was walking in the temple. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’” Today’s movie is finished. It is a movie about a real person and a true situation, a movie that both Paul and I love to watch. Yes, Jesus was killed; but He also rose from the dead, a victory for God and a victory for us. End of story. Roll the scripts.
Today, listen to His voice; follow where he leads. Be devoted to good works and acts of charity. Be a good shepherd for others.