Even the Good One

Sermon for Sunday, April 30, 2023 || Easter 4A || Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

This sermon is about God remaining faithful even when tragedy or pain or grief keep us from acting out our faith. Before I start, though, I need to share a trigger warning. I will be briefly talking about the death of a child.

Between March 2020 and May 2021, this building was closed to the public due to the pandemic restrictions. For fourteen long months, we gathered together via Zoom and YouTube, worshiping together in love any way we could as we supported one another through the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic. During those services of Morning Prayer, I shared with you 27 of the songs I’ve written over the course of my life. That’s every song I’ve ever written (that’s fit for people to listen to). Well, every song but one. There’s one particular song of mine that I deliberately did not sing during those fearful months because I didn’t think I’d be able to get through it. The song is raw and it does not end on a particularly joyful note. But I think now the time is finally right to sing this song for you.

Today is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we read Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.” We often read Psalm 23 at funerals because the psalm’s words are so comforting and consoling and hopeful. But there are times in our lives when these words of comfort ring hollow; times when we’re dealing with so much tragedy and hardship that reading hopeful bits of scripture can seem more like tone-deaf mockery than helpful consolation.

I was in one of those times when I wrote the song I’ll share in a few minutes. I was coming to the end of my hospital chaplaincy internship at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. I was sitting alone in the pastoral care office on a Saturday afternoon waiting for a dreadful phone call. A young boy – maybe nine or ten – was going to die in the next few hours. I had been with him and his mother earlier that day. His mother and I had prayed the rosary together. We had cried together. And then I left for a time so she didn’t feel the need to censor her pain in front of the chaplain. I got back to the office and did what I always do when I want to pray but don’t know how. I started writing a song. 

I wrote these first few lines:

Are the other ninety-nine lost when we’re searching for the stray?
It seems like when the wolf comes `round all the shepherds run away…

I wrote these words, and then I pulled the pen from the paper. My hand was shaking. I was crying tears of frustration and anger and sadness. My heart was screaming at me to write down the next words of the lyric, to not censor the brutal and honest thought that was swirling in my mind because of the boy’s impending death. After something like thirty minutes of inner struggle, I finally put the pen back on the paper and wrote the words: 

All the shepherds run away…even the good one.

I stared – aghast – at the words I had written. Now, the gospel story says specifically that the Good Shepherd is the only one who won’t run away. But in that moment of grief and anger and fear, I didn’t have the faith to believe that. I worried that the words I had written down were blasphemous, but upon later reflection I realized that NOT writing them down would have been more blasphemous because it would have meant I wasn’t trusting God with the anguish in my heart.

I continued writing the lyrics of this song that was churning within me that day. And then I got called back to the floor to be with the boy’s mother as he died. Writing the lyrics down helped me to be more present with her because I had spent time alone railing at God about the horrible situation.

I wrote the first two verses that day, and then the song sat for over a year before I wrote the third verse. And still, the song didn’t feel done. Another year went by before I realized that this song of lament could never be finished. The only flicker of hope is that the song doesn’t really end at all. It closes asking Jesus to come again another day because today, this day, I’m not able to receive the love and grace and peace and joy that you, Lord Christ, are always providing.

I share all this with you because I don’t want you to think that because I’m a priest I don’t have times of intense doubt or spiritual dryness or trouble following Jesus. I do, fairly often.  Our lives of faith do not move in a single direction only; they move along a labyrinthine path of closeness to and distance from God and each other. Being honest about this movement, instead of trying to censor it, is one way to remain faithful even when it seems like faith has fled. That’s what this song is about. This is “The Mountain’s Still There.”

Are the other ninety-nine lost
When we’re searching for the stray?
It seems like when the wolf comes ’round
All the shepherds run away
Even the good one.
You say you lead your sheep by voice,
But is your voice always the same?
‘Cause I’ve been standing in your fold for years
and sometimes I don’t hear my name.

And my still water’s rage,
My green pasture’s bare.
Oh, I say “Move,”
But the mountain’s still there.
I buy the field
But did I give it all?
Where’s my pearl?
Where’s my call?

Would the wedding feast take place
If the bride refused the groom?
Would the dead man still be raised
If he refused to leave his tomb?
“Lazarus, come out.”
You say the wind blows where it chooses,
But I don’t hear its sound;
You scatter seed all over me
But I’m afraid I’m rocky ground.

And my still water’s rage,
My green pasture’s bare.
Oh, I say “Move,”
But the mountain’s still there.
I buy the field
But did I give it all?
Where’s my pearl?
Where’s my call?

You restore my sight,
But I close my eyes.
I’m no longer lame,
But I refuse to rise.
Forgive me, Lord,
For my faith is bare—
I say, “Move,”
But the mountain is still there.

It’s hard to see when my back is turned
That the sun’s begun to shine.
I fail to realize that your faith O Lord,
Matters more than mine.
You are the faithful One.
I see a gardener in the morning light
Until you say my name,
But even as your voice grows faint
I forget you ever came.

And my still water’s rage,
My green pasture’s bare.
Oh, I say “Move,”
But the mountain’s still there.
I buy the field
But did I give it all?
Where’s my pearl?
Where’s my call?

You restore my sight,
I’ve never used these eyes.
I’m no longer lame:
I’ve never tried to rise.
O Lord Christ
Come another day,
And like a ram
The mountain will skip away.

But not today
Not today
Not today…

The song finishes with those repeated words: “Not today.” And that’s where the tiny flame of hope flickers, and even the tiniest of flames can push back the darkness: “Come another day, Lord Christ.” Come tomorrow. Come the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. When we are feeling at our bleakest, then maybe, one of those days, we will embrace you again. But until then, we believe you will keep showing up, Lord Christ, with your arms spread wide, calling us each by name.

Photo by Antonello Falcone – The Wiseman on Unsplash.

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