Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, also traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Our readings this morning, for the most part, have centered around this imagery of the Good Shepherd.
As I pondered this theme during the week, I began to reflect upon what it means that God relates to us as a shepherd does to sheep, and not just any shepherd but a good, reliable, trustworthy shepherd. But I also reflected upon the fact that this metaphor does not end there, but rather it continues on to describe the relationship of parent to child, teacher to student, mentor to prodigy, pastor to congregation. Indeed the word pastor is the Latin term for shepherd. We have a dual role, many of us – being simultaneously a shepherd and a sheep. Whether we are parents, teachers, administrators or even just friends, we find ourselves in both roles throughout our lives and our careers.
So we hear these words again. Surely this is familiar territory for us – the 23rd Psalm, Jesus’ teachings about how he is the good shepherd, going after lost sheep, protecting the sheep from predators, laying down his life for the sheep, the sheep knowing his voice.
Is it too much to say that this week, I have found deep resonance for the community of Blacksburg and the people of Virginia Tech in this imagery? Now, I don’t want to over-identify ourselves in an artificial way, but I do see in this imagery a way to begin to find ourselves, not as a people without hope, not as helpless victims, but as the children of God, people filled with hope and vision for the future.
Many of you have heard how I learned of the events that happened that Monday morning standing in front of a TV screen in JFK airport in New York City. The feeling of separation and anxiety lodged somewhere between my heart and my stomach. As busy New Yorkers went about their business, shaking their heads at the tragedy, my heart was torn. I needed to get back.
When I returned to Blacksburg on Tuesday, I found a community that had changed. Something had shifted. It was as if one piece of the mosaic that is our lives here in this town was flipped over, colorless, gone. Indeed 33 pieces were gone. Many more pieces were shattered, broken, wounded.
Emotions were running from anger to fear to just plain sadness and grief. The questions were abundant but carried a similar theme – why? Did we do enough? How could this have happened here?
For those of us whose profession it is to be professional shepherds, these moments will live in stark reality, I dare say, for the rest of our lives.
As I have said repeatedly to the press and to well meaning individuals across the country who have wanted so much to help – we are not disaster victims, we are a town plunged into grief. We are a community in mourning. It is a death in the family, and as you know when a family member dies, you want familiar friends and faces around to help you cope with your loss. The last thing you want is a stranger in your living room, let alone a stranger with a camera and a microphone.
The shepherd in me suddenly discovered that much of my role in those first few days was to keep predators away from the sheep of this community and the sheep of this congregation. Whether it was aggressive members of the media or Scientologists or even well-meaning Christian groups, the people of Blacksburg needed space and privacy to grieve. The students of Virginia Tech craved some degree to normalcy and peace.
Blacksburg has been known as safe and quiet sheepfold for generations. Parents have sent their children here trusting that it is a safe place, a place free of predators, where their children may safely graze on the road to adult life. Well, that quiet safety has been lost, at least for a little while. A predator was on the loose, and it wasn’t one from the outside, it was one of our own.
So many people in this community rose to the challenge that faced all of us. Administrators and professors at Tech did not back down when an easy choice would be to retreat or hide. Parents and care-givers were here within minutes of the news breaking. Students cared for other students. We are a community of shepherds.
Yes, there are lost sheep. Not only did we lose 32 of our precious, innocent sheep, but we lost a single sheep sometime long ago. The disturbed young man who wounded us in such unthinkable ways that Monday morning was a sheep like the rest of us. So many had tried to shepherd him, but for some tragic reason, it was too late.
Others gave the ultimate sacrifice, laying down their lives for the sheep – Professors Kevin Grenata and Liviu Librescu come to mind, with Dr. Librescu literally placing his body between the predator and his prey. This image must never be lost for us. The good shepherd, the greatest shepherds giving their final breaths that others may live.
I take great comfort in the imagery from the reading from Revelation – who are these, robed in white. They are those who have come out of the great ordeal, their robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. The one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more. The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Those of us left here have a long road ahead of us. We are each of us called to be shepherds to a wounded and frightened population of students. The students and younger children of this community will look to us for that sense of safety, that sense of wellbeing. What will that job look like? I cannot tell you from day to day, but we must follow the example of the good shepherd, the greatest shepherd.
We must go after the lost, lonely sheep. We must keep the sheep safe, well-cared for. We must keep all predators, all those who would harm our sheep at bay.
Where are our lost sheep? Who is hurting more than they can possibly say? We must be vigilant shepherds. We must ask tough questions, knock on shut doors, persist in our efforts.
As the people of Blacksburg and the students of Virginia Tech begin our healing process, a long road lies ahead of us. A similar road lies ahead of this congregation. As we journey together toward healing let us never lose hope. With the Good Shepherd, the Greatest Shepherd, as our guide, we know that wonderful things, peace and abundance lie ahead. I pray that we will not lose our courage or our faith or our commitment as we seek to do God’s will. Following the example of our Good Shepherd we cannot fail. Amen.