For ten years, I worked for the Department of Children and Families in Connecticut. For five of those years, I supervised night operations for the Department. During my five years at the Hotline, I oversaw some of the worst possible investigations. Often time’s people would ask me how I managed to keep going in the midst of so much violence and despair. My answer would always be, because I believe in a loving God who is somehow active and working through the efforts of the Department.
This belief and faith in God worked for me until two years before I was ordained. I will never forget that spring. It was just a few weeks before Easter, when suddenly it seemed as if all of Connecticut had gone nuts. Each night, for two weeks straight, the department received multiple referrals of some of the most heinous and violent crimes I had ever heard perpetrated against children.
I don’t know why these reports were any different than the many other cases I handled over the years, but for some reason, I was vulnerable. The emotional wall I had built to separate myself from horrors I dealt with on a daily basis suddenly came crashing down, pulling me into that abyss of darkness I had only observed, and yet, had never journeyed into.
Like many of us, when the violence that surrounds us suddenly moves from being somewhere in the far distance to becoming our own, and the darkness of humanity becomes so thick, we finally have to ask, is God really out there, does God really care? For me, this was that moment of crisis when the psalmist wrote, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me and seem so far from my cries.” My prayers during this time were simple, “Where are you?” For the longest time there was no answer until finally I realized I was asking the wrong question, and then my prayer changed from, “where are you, to, where were you?” To this God responded,” I was there, I tried to stop it, but they wouldn’t listen.”
In Roman’s 8, St. Paul writes, “nothing can separate from the love of God.” This is one of my favorite statements. However, Paul left out one salient detail. Yes, nothing can separate us from the love of God, but ourselves. As Judea/Christian tradition has taught since the beginning of time, God created us with the freedom of choice. It is up to us whether we choose to accept God’s love in our lives or not. In the 19th chapter of Deuteronomy, God ends the giving of the law with the following statement, “on this day I give you blessing and curse, life and death, choose life.”
Loving God or allowing God to love us is our choice. God will never take that choice away from us. As I thought about those who had perpetrated such violence on the young and innocent of Connecticut, I realize they were so caught up in their own hurt, their own realities, their own addictions that they could not hear, let alone feel or see the light of God which surrounded them each day.
In this morning’s Gospel, we heard Jesus proclaim himself as the Good Shepherd an image made familiar to us through the 23rd psalm. He also tells his disciples that he is the gatekeeper, the one who opens and closes the gate to the sheepfold and protects the flock from the dangers of the night.
The traditional interpretation of this passage has tended towards justifying the exclusionary practices of Christianity. For John Calvin, this passage made it easy for him to support his belief in predestination especially with the words, “he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
As I explored this passage, a different interpretation emerged as I asked, what if the role of the gate keeper is not to keep people out but to guard and protect those who have chosen to enter in. In this passage, Jesus is both gate keeper and good shepherd. His job is not necessarily to keep others out, but to protect those who have decided to enter by the gate. It is Christ’s job to seek and find the lost and missing sheep, even when he has 99 others to protect and keep watch over. As I explored this possibility, words from St. Matthew’s gospel emerged, “Ask, and it will be given you, search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and for everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matt 7:7-9)
As I mulled over these words, it became clear, we are all designed to hear and follow God’s voice, that God knows each of us intimately and by name for God created us. And God calls all of us to the gate. Sadly, many have choose not to listen, they choose curses over blessings, death over life. Many have chosen to listen to their own fears, their own anger and hurt as opposed to listening for the loving voice of God in their lives. Or, they are so overwhelmed by the din of their own lives, God’s voice is indiscernible from the rest of the noise.
We see and hear the result of humanities failure to listen almost daily. How else can we explain the kidnapping and disappearance of the girls in Nigeria last week? Or the deaths of twenty six school children in Newtown, Connecticut last year, or the ongoing random violence which continues to plague our country and our world. The list goes on and on all because someone refused to hear, refused or was unable to hear the voice of love in their lives.
As we enter into this fourth week of Easter, I encourage you to continue listening and following the voice of God in your life, to continue living in the security of the sheep fold and to help others hear and follow the voice of God so they too, can live within the security of the Good Shepherd, the gate keeper for the kingdom of God.