This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crockett CA on Good Shepherd Sunday (April 17), 2016
How do we reconcile an all-powerful and all-loving God with a world of suffering? For millennia, this question has haunted Jewish and Christian theologians, including the authors of Scripture who formulate the question in their own way, usually by asking, “How long, O Lord, will our suffering last?” The question is repeated like a mourner’s mantra in the Psalms and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “How long, O Lord, will you hide your face from me?” (Ps 13:1) “How long will the wicked be jubilant?” (Ps 94:3) “How long shall I cry out and you not hear me?” (Hab 1:2). The question (“How long?”) assumes that God wants to save his people and that God has the power to successfully execute justice in the world, but for some inexplicable reason, He tarries.
God generally does not respond to the question by providing a detailed timeline for his plan of salvation nor does he offer a theological defense. And God generally does not respond by removing all danger and suffering in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. However, God does still respond to the question. And part of what I love so much about studying Scripture is the opportunity to see, unravel and interpret God’s response to the question of suffering; God’s response to the ancient human lament, “How long?”
All of the readings this morning are, in fact, divine responses to the question of suffering. Our reading from Revelation chapter 7 is part of God’s response to a question asked by the martyrs in Revelation 6, who cry out, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Rev 6:10). The beautiful and beloved Psalm 23 follows right after one of the most desperate lament psalms in the psalter: Psalm 22, the opening line of which Jesus himself prays on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the Gospel reading this morning recounts Jesus’s response to a question asked by the Judeans, a question that begins with the words, “How long….?” The rest of their question is translated as “How long will you keep us in suspense?” However, literally in Greek, the question they ask is, “How long will you take away our life?” or “How long will you take away our breath?” So in this way, we can see that the Judeans are here reiterating a question asked by the disciples at the beginning of this two-chapter long passage in John, which begins in chapter 9 verse 2, when the disciples ask the question of suffering when they see suffering in the form of a man born blind and ask Jesus, “Who is responsible for this suffering? Whom can we blame? Him or his parents?”
All of these divine responses to the question of suffering share one thing in common. The Psalm, the passage from Revelation and the passage from John all present us with the image of God as a Shepherd. God responds to our laments, our questions and our confusions around suffering with an invitation to see him as a Good Shepherd, who holds us lovingly in all of our bewilderment, resentment, fear and vulnerability. This profound and pastoral image of the divine Good Shepherd invites us to recognize our vulnerability and to trust in the God who promises to protect and guide us as a shepherd protects and guides his sheep.
New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey spent years living with shepherds in the Middle East and writes,
Sheep have a special problem. They have no defense. Cats have teeth, claws and speed. Dogs have their teeth and their speed. Horses can kick, bite and run. Bears can claw, bite and crush. Deer can run. But the sheep have no bite or claws and cannot outrun any serious predator. They can butt other sheep, but that ability will not protect them from a wolf or a bear. The sheep’s only security is the shepherd.
The Good Shepherd invites us to recognize the ways that we are vulnerable like sheep, the ways that we can so easily become victim to political manipulation, economic oppression, violent terrorism and natural catastrophe. This vulnerability became especially apparent to me four Sundays ago when about 70 Christians (mostly women and children) were celebrating Easter in a park and were tragically killed by the vicious wolf of violent terrorism in Lahore, Pakistan. This tragedy and too many others like it drive me to ask that ancient question with the authors of Scripture, “How long? How long will it be before you judge and avenge [innocent] blood?”
We are indeed vulnerable and we are called to trust in the protection and guidance of the Good Shepherd, which is especially challenging when we see innocent lives destroyed in such horrific ways. And what makes things even more challenging and almost impossible is the fact that the Gospel calls us to respond to violence with forgiveness, just as Christ responded to his own crucifixion with forgiveness. We are called to expose, resist and ultimately stomp out evil and violence, and yet as followers of Christ, we are not called to react to it with more of the same violence. And when it comes to the many victims of the recent earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador, whom do we forgive? God? Whom do we blame?
All of this is very challenging theology and it actually makes me frustrated and very aware of my compulsion to scapegoat, blame and lash out my anger on someone or some group of people: outsiders, refugees, Muslims or God. It also makes me aware of how much my question of suffering is driven by this compulsion to blame. Just as the disciples in John 9 asked Jesus, “Whom do we blame for this blind man’s suffering? Himself or his parents?” I also ask God, “Whom can I blame for the suffering in the world and for frustrations in my own life? Whom can I scapegoat?”
In my studies of the divine response to the question of suffering in Scripture, I have seen that a significant part of God’s response to the question is to open our eyes to see and realize this compulsion to blame that often drives our question and to realize how insidious that compulsion can be. Jesus does this by refusing to affirm our scapegoats (“Neither this man nor his parents sinned”) and then offering himself as the object of blame. As he says five times in the Shepherd discourse, “The Good Shepherd lays down his life” (10:11, 14, 17, 18a, 18b). Jesus does this in order to show us how our own compulsion to blame contributes to the endless cycle of violence and to ultimately liberate us from our predisposition to blame altogether through his self-giving love and forgiveness, embodied in the Resurrection.
So Jesus responds to our question of suffering by holding us in his loving arms as the Good Shepherd, even in all of our fear and anger; and even if that anger leads us to blame God himself, who lays down his life for us as a sacrificial lamb in order to reveal to us our own complicity in violence. This is why the divine response to the question of suffering in our reading from Revelation affirms that the Lamb is the Shepherd and the Shepherd is the Lamb: “for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:17).
Retired Episcopal bishop and former seminary professor Christopher FitzSimons Allison explains how Jesus’s identity as the Lamb functions as part of the divine response to the question of suffering when he writes,
If we understand that […] the deepest aspect of our anger is in the face of innocent suffering and injustice, and that the often unrecognized but primary object of our anger is toward God, then we are at that very center of Christianity asking the question to which the crucifixion of Christ is the answer.
Allison invites us to realize the ways in which our questions of suffering can actually be expressions of our anger and resentment towards God. If that is the case, God promises to hold us, even in that anger and resentment. In Allison’s words,
[Jesus] takes our resentment in his torn hands, our bitterness in his nailed feet, our hatred in his pierced side and buries them. Yet it is not as a scapegoat that Christ takes our anger but as a lamb. The all important difference between a scapegoat and a lamb is that the Lamb makes us responsible. Scapegoats for our anger are projections that feed our self-righteousness. We always attempt to justify ourselves with scapegoats. The Lamb of God puts the responsibility back in our laps where we are no longer able to justify ourselves.
So God’s response to the question of suffering is again not a timeline or a theological defense but rather an invitation to both be held by the Good Shepherd and to behold the Lamb; to bring our questions to God along with any challenging emotions that might be attached to the questions and to allow ourselves to be held and loved in the midst of our anger and even our violence; and to be eventually winnowed of our anger, violence and resentment by the Lamb whose transformative forgiveness takes away the sin of the world, and grants us peace. And we are invited this morning to bring our own questions, confusions, fears and frustrations to the altar and to experience the divine response as we celebrate together what the book of Revelation calls the Supper of the Lamb; the Supper in which we are nourished and transformed in the process of beholding the Lamb and being held by the Shepherd. Amen.
 See Scott A. Ellington, Risking Truth: Reshaping the World Through Prayers of Lament (Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008), 163-182.
 Although the Gospels are not necessarily read and prayed in numerical order, the sequence of Psalms remains significant.
Johannine scholar Raymond Brown says, “The use of this expression for suspense is not well attested.” Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 403.
 See Karoline M. Lewis, Rereading the “Shepherd Discourse”: Restoring the Integrity of John 9:39 – 10:21 (New York: Peter Lang, 2008).
 Kenneth E. Bailey, The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2014), 49.
Christopher FitzSimons Allison, Guilt, Anger, and God: The Patterns of Our Discontents (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), 86.