Psalm 23; Mark 6:30-34,53-56
Hearing the Old Testament reading, the psalm, and the Gospel this morning, you may have noticed a theme – that God cares for us like a shepherd cares for his sheep. For many of us, that notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a stock image, almost religious clip-art. Picture Jesus, and there’s a good chance you’ll see him with a little lamb on his shoulders, having searched for the lost one and brought it back to join the flock. It’s warm and fuzzy and comforting … and it’s true. Jesus does just that, going out to find us when we’ve stumbled away, sure we can stand up to the wolves and the bears on our own.
In Vacation Bible School last week, I told that parable of the shepherd who leaves the flock to save the one who’s lost. It’s a great illustration of the theme the kids learned all through the week: that when we’re lonely, when we worry, when we struggle, when we make mistakes, when we’re powerless – Jesus rescues us.
I would tell you that’s a true statement. And I said so to the kids during the Bible story on Monday. And then … something happened.
It happened a couple of hundred miles away, but it strikes home for many of us who grew up, or who now vacation, down in the Ozarks. You’ve seen the news stories: Two duck sightseeing boats went out onto Table Rock Lake on Thursday evening, despite severe thunderstorm warnings. Of course, the point of the duck boats is that they drive you along the highways and then drive you out onto the lake – amphibious vehicles that, like their namesakes, are equally at home on the land and the water, rain or shine. I remember the “Ride the Ducks” signs along the highway near Branson when I was a little boy. The ducks have been there forever, taking countless people safely onto Table Rock Lake … until Thursday. Two duck boats and their passengers went out on the water, though a storm was brewing. One boat made it back to shore. The other went down, killing 17 people and injuring others.
And yet, there we were in VBS that week, telling stories of the Good Shepherd who saves lost sheep from the wolves and the bears. We confidently assured the kids, “When we’re powerless, Jesus rescues.”
Psychologists call a situation like this “cognitive dissonance.” Others of us might simply be wondering how churches can dare to make such a claim in a world where tragedy leads the news every blessed night.
Now, the secularists would have an easy explanation. They’d say that, since there is no God who intervenes in the world, the notion of Jesus rescuing us is bunk from the start. That’s one way to make sense of tragedy, intellectually at least.
On the other hand, people from the church side would offer a variety of responses. There are Christians who would imply, at least, that some deficiency on the part of the people involved helped lead to the tragedy. This is the same line of thinking that led televangelists, after Hurricane Katrina, to argue that New Orleans had it coming because of the supposed sinfulness of its culture. It’s also the same line of thinking that leads people in hospital rooms, searching frantically for explanations in the face of awful news, to imply that if people had just prayed harder, their loved one might have fought harder against that cancer. So far, I haven’t heard anyone implying that the 17 souls on that duck boat died as a consequence of God’s judgment or their inadequacy. But I’ll bet you that kind of drivel is coming out of some pastor’s mouth somewhere this morning.
Others of us from the church side would take a different perspective. Here’s how I see it, at least.
First and foremost, I would never pretend to tell you I know how God intersects with tragedy, suffering, and death. That’s because, first and foremost, God is beyond our knowing; and anyone who tells you they’ve got the inside track is someone you probably shouldn’t trust with your favorite pen, much less with your soul. But to me, understanding God’s place in tragedy involves three sometimes unsatisfying facets of God’s heart, and here they are: freedom, compassion, and redemption. And all three of those realities are part of the ultimate truth about God’s nature, which is that God is Love. God is Love. And that’s true even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death – and even when that passage is long and brutal.
So, first, about freedom. To me, living in the world seems to tell us pretty clearly that God allows bad things to happen, and Thursday’s tragedy is just one more example. People have several drinks and then get behind the wheel. People flick lit cigarettes into tinder-dry forests. People go out onto a lake when the weather forecast makes it pretty clear they should just refund everybody’s ticket and send them home. It’s tempting to look to God and ask, “Why did you let that happen, if you love us so much?” And I imagine God – like a mother trying to explain why she didn’t stop her daughter from dating that worthless boyfriend – I imagine God saying something like this: “A puppet can’t love its puppeteer. I have made you in my image, gifted you with minds to think and hearts to love – and love is my bottom line. But you must be free in order to love, or else it’s just manipulation. So,” God might say, “to make you free enough to love, I’ve made you free enough to suffer. If I turn off the car when the driver is drunk, or stop the boat about to venture into the storm, then you are not free. And if you are not free, love disappears.”
So, the first facet of the Shepherd’s heart is freedom. The second, I think, is compassion. Remember what that word means, when you break it down: To practice compassion is to suffer with someone. One of our most basic and craziest claims as Christians points to this part of God’s heart. We believe that the creator and sovereign of the universe chose to enter into human life – being born in poverty, crying in the dirty straw, disobeying his parents, earning a living with his hands, being homeless, pouring out his healing heart (as we heard in today’s Gospel reading) when he badly needed rest instead, watching his friends desert him, being tortured by an oppressive government, and dying in a horrifying public execution. When tragedy happens, the Shepherd’s heart breaks, with the force that comes only for people who’ve been there themselves. God was there with those people on the duck boat as it sank. God was there comforting those who died. God was there strengthening those who survived. God was there with the first responders and nurses and doctors and chaplains, treating the injured and comforting the families of the dead. That kind of compassion is palpably healing – and if you’ve been there, you know it’s true. I will never forget the presence of God I knew one afternoon, 17 years ago, waiting in a hospital consultation room as Ann was having emergency heart surgery. I knew that God was “there,” in the abstract. But my healing started when one of my best friends showed up, and hugged me, and wouldn’t let go.
So, that second facet of the Shepherd’s heart is compassion. The last one, it seems to me, is redemption. All that suffering Jesus endured was not suffering for its own sake. It was suffering that led to victory over sin and death, suffering that opened the door to the fullness of life in God’s presence for each one of us. Easter morning is the last act in passion week for a reason: because death is not the end. Like spring buds at winter’s end, resurrection comes – and deep in our bones, we know it. In Branson, the day after those people drowned, folks from the city and other vacationers started bringing flowers to the Ride the Ducks office, leaving them on the windshields of
So, at the end of even this week – in the cognitive dissonance of senseless tragedy alongside faith in a God we claim rescues us – I can still say, “Yes, it’s true.” We don’t get to order up the details of our rescue. Salvation doesn’t come from the a la carte menu. In that hospital consultation room 17 years ago, after I’d watched Ann’s blood pressure plummet, the news just as easily could have come back differently. And you know – we would have been OK. Eventually, we would have been OK. For I was borne up by the arms of the Shepherd, who came into that room with me and would not let go.