Rev. Teri Peterson
Community of Hope
John 10.10b-16, Psalm 23
25 April 2010, Easter 4C, Day of Prayer for Colombia
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
he leadeth me beside the still waters;
He restoreth my soul.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, 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 am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.’
Many of you know that I just returned from a week away—and most of that week was spent at a seminar that took place on a cruise ship in the Bahamas. Sometimes the life of a preacher is hard, but someone has to do it! I spent the week with 20 other clergy women, discussing and practicing and receiving hospitality in all kinds of different ways. One day we decided to visit the Lucayan National Park on Grand Bahama Island…but between 7 of us together we couldn’t quite figure out how to get there, until we heard a voice calling us across the road. The voice turned out to belong to a taxi driver named Uncle who agreed to take us the 30 miles to the park, wait with us all day, and bring us home again. Uncle also turned out to be an amazing tour guide, as he drove us out of the tourist area of Grand Bahama and toward the other side of the island. He pointed out Johnny Depp’s vacation home, random neighborhoods, lots more vegetation than we expected, and various other sights along the hour’s drive. Once we were in the park, we could hear his booming voice whenever we rounded a bend in the path and we knew he was still waiting for us. When we returned to the van we could hear his laugh echoing from the small building where he was playing cards with the park ranger. He sat with us and shared a traditional Bahamian lunch of conch fritters, beans and rice, and French fries, and when he figured it was time to head back he called us off the beach. In some ways, he was our shepherd, leading us to the places we wanted to go and showing us a glimpse—just a glimpse—of life on Grand Bahama, which is not all tourist markets and cruise ships and brightly painted shops. He offered us hospitality beyond what we could have expected, and we became a family for the day.
One of the most interesting things to do when traveling is to get out of the tourist area and see where you really are. Many of the places we love to visit—the Bahamas included—sell themselves to us as one thing while hiding something else. We rarely see real life when we take a shore excursion or spend a week in a resort—the real life outside the walls is messy and hard and often marked by poverty, which is not the stuff vacations are made of. But they are the stuff hospitality is made of.
Our call to offer and receive hospitality is not limited to interactions with people who look like us, talk like us, live like us, or even are people we like. If it were, we would be no more than a hired hand, who runs away at the first sign of danger—because that’s what we think, subconsciously, right? That those who are different are dangerous—dangerous to our way of life, to our economy, to our religion, to our political structure, to our worldview. But Jesus says “I have other sheep not of this fold…and I will call them, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” No running away, no welcome only for the spotless white sheep, no dividing the pasture—one flock, one shepherd.
And our shepherd is the God we know is Love—the one who prepares a table, invites all to come, leads us to green pastures and deep clean water, who provides the nourishment we need and a community to share it with.
Except I wonder what that can mean to people who don’t just walk through, but live in the valley of the shadow of death? How do people read this psalm, so beloved by many of us, when the reality of their life does not involve clean water, or green grass, or a table filled with food? How do the millions of people forced off their land read these words? People whose crops have been killed by aerial spraying meant for coca, or people whose children no longer feast on the fruits of many trees but instead scavenge the trash heaps of Bogota, of Khartoum, of Mexico City, of Cairo? What can “you lead me beside still waters” mean to a community whose stream was polluted by a mining company? How can we even begin to think about, let alone spiritualize, the Good Shepherd when there are so many people not just abandoned by the hired hand but then terrorized by the wolf and the thief?
I know it’s hard to try to read these, some of our favorite passages, from this other context. We are so used to our own context—where we are the people with economic and political power, where we have been culturally conditioned to think about green pastures and still waters and tables prepared in the context of funerals—where we’re supposedly talking about heaven. But we all know Christian faith isn’t truly about what happens after we die, it’s how we live into the kingdom of God here on earth—‘Your kingdom come.’ The last line of the psalm is more often translated, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” Now. Here.
I don’t have any answers to the questions I’ve asked this morning. I don’t know how to think about the promise of green pastures, still waters, feasts, houses, or even one-flock-one-shepherd, in the midst of a world where children are murdered because their parents dare to speak out for peace, where people are driven from their land because of their ethnicity, where greed and violence seem more powerful than love and justice. The best I can do is to hope in that promise, and to do what I can to be a part of its fulfillment. I can leave the cruise ship or the resort and meet people where they are, I can love and accept people for who God made them to be, I can invite people to share their lives and mine, and I can accept invitations to cross the fences we’ve set up to separate the flock.
I read a story this week of a Colombian woman named Daira. When other members of the community council began to be murdered, she slept in a different place every night until the day she realized she had to flee. She says, “My dream was to stay there…in fact, I still dream that someday I will be able to return. I cannot stop dreaming, because if I stop dreaming then everything ends.”
Perhaps this is the word for us here—that we must continue to dream of a better world, to place our hope in the Good Shepherd, because if we stop dreaming, stop hoping, stop working for the kingdom, if despair takes hold, then everything ends. So may we be people of big dreams, people of God’s new community of hope.