"Hear his voice ... Follow his steps"

April 25, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Psalm 23, John 10:1-21, and 1 Peter 2:19-25 

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil..."

We are living in a strange world, indeed, where the "valley of the shadow of death" is a high school cafeteria, a library, a music room, or a hallway lined with lockers... For all the coverage that the crisis in Kosovo has received in the media, with images more grisly, stories more heart-wrenching than any out of Colorado this past week, what happened in Columbine High School on Tuesday hit me more deeply. Perhaps itís because the distance between here and there is shorter than between Maryland and Yugoslavia, and Iím not just talking miles. The pictures of Littleton show it to be a community not that much different from our own. Those kids look like ours. In some ways itís too close to home. I couldnít help crying as I watched scenes of parent-child reunions and anxiously waiting mothers and fathers, even as I was silently cursing the media for invading the sanctity of such things.

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil..."

A school is supposed to be a safe place, isnít it? But, then, we live in a dangerous world. Events such as this remind us of that fact. Sure, we can install metal detectors at every entrance, with armed guards visible, like many inner-city schools have done. At what point, however, does a school become like a prison? Even in an upper-middle class suburb like Littleton, Colorado?

Iím reminded of Martin Lutherís great hymn. We can try to create a "mighty fortress" of our own for protection, but that doesnít change the fact that "this world, with devils filled, ... threaten(s) to undo us." Can we name all the demons haunting those two misguided young men wearing trench coats and armed to the teeth, who attempted to cleanse their school of blacks and jocks? No, just like we have only a glimpse of the devils surrounding whatís happening in Kosovo. When push comes to shove, what "mighty fortress," what "bulwark never failing" are we trusting?

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil..."

Bob is the principal of a high school in Southern California for students who have problems in the traditional high school setting. He writes: "This year we moved into a new site. I was allowed to design the configuration of the buildings and designed the school with only one entrance and exit. Every morning I stand at the gate where students enter and greet them by name. No one is allowed past me if they are not students.

"By greeting each student in the morning I am able to spot potential problems before the student has a chance to get on campus and cause problems. My inspiration for this campus design and my decision to be at the gate when my students arrive and leave is our Gospel passage for this week.

"Several weeks ago I was out in the parking lot in front of the gate urging some of my gang kids to come inside the gate where they are safe from potential drive-by shootings. Unfortunately before they could get inside one my students threw a rock at a car containing an opposing gang member and his girl friend. The driver of the car drew a hand gun and fired four shots. One bullet grazed the throat of the rock throwing student while another bullet went through the hood of his jacket. I was immediately behind the target, but managed to avoid getting hit.

"I did not think about my personal safety until after the shooter had been arrested. My instinct to get my kids inside of the sheeps' pen was a natural outcome of my faith and upbringing in the Christian faith. I don't enjoy the thought of being shot at or hit by a bullet, but I do know that I am called to serve in this unique ministry. God uses me to shepherd his flock at the school. On Sundays I serve as a priest in the local Episcopal church, during the week I serve in God's sometimes dangerous pastures. I try to follow my good shepherd as one of the sheep of His pasture"....

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil..."

Why? Because the good shepherd is with me. Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." About this shepherd, Peter long ago wrote, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls." (1 Peter 2:24-25)

Yes, this past week made stark some of the dark valleys. We pray for those who are walking that path right now, whether they live in Littleton, Colorado or the Balkans of eastern Europe - or any of the other dark valleys on this globe. We pray that they may know the comfort of Godís rod and staff presence, that the food our Lord provides (physical and spiritual) may sustain them, that the healing oils may flow upon their wounds.

Yes, the dark valleys were pretty evident this week, only the third week after Easter. But thereís also been good news. I was heartened yesterday to see so many young people up on the roof of our parsonage. The guns they were shooting off were nail guns. As I mentioned last week, the Baptists up the road came and replaced the shingles as a gift to us. Theyíre no beginners at this. Theyíve formed a ministry called "Impact Baltimore," and intend this summer to do 25 homes in poorer neighborhoods, something theyíve done in other locations, like Mexico, in previous years.

I must confess I felt a bit strange being on the receiving end of this ministry. After all, weíre not poor. Of course, doesnít the footwashing in our Love Feast involve both washing someone elseís feet, and having someone else wash our own? Speaking of feet, there were lots of them all over that roof. It got a bit noisy inside. A good many of those feet belonged to teenagers. John Connell told me afterward that the girls outdid the guys. "They could talk and work at the same time," he said. It seems when the guys shot the breeze, the work stopped. Regardless, it was good to see.

Even closer to home for me, last Thursday was "Bring your kid to work day." Caitlin, my 7th grader, snookered me into letting her get out of school and come with me. I tell you, we put her to work, didnít we, Janet? Along the way, she surprised me. Kids do that, you know. For the good. To help her get a flavor of what I do, I had her sit down and read the scriptures I planned to use this morning. I told her to write down what she heard them saying. Iím not sure I really expected her to make any sense out of them, but she did. In fact, what she came up with is better than some of what I was coming up with. Let me share what she wrote concerning the passage from Johnís gospel, the one about the sheepfold and the gate, the real shepherd and the thieves and bandits.

"There is no other God but God," she wrote. "The Lord leads you with love, for your heart is like the front gate." Wait a minute, thereís nothing there about love, no mention of the heart. She must have been reading between the lines, hearing the voice of the shepherd speaking her language. She continued. "Any other who tries to rule you will rule through temptation and threats, and they are the thieves and bandits who climb in other ways that cannot get to your heart." I was searching for a word of safety in a world that, this week, suddenly seemed terribly dangerous, and there it was. My daughter was preaching to me. The thieves and bandits cannot get to your heart. As Luther put it, "the body they may kill, Godís truth abideth still."

Why canít the thieves and bandits get to your heart? "Jesus is the gate," she went on to write, "he is your heart." Does it actually say that? Not literally, but thereís truth there, as long as we keep listening for his voice speaking in scripture... "He is your heart. Obey your heart and you will find the true place, heaven." Thatís not a soap opera statement. It would be, if it were not prefaced by the words, "he (Jesus) is your heart ... Obey your heart ... if you do not go through the gate, you shall be left with the thieves and robbers whoís hearts and souls cannot open the gate." ... Maybe I ought to establish a "Bring your youth to work day" on a regular basis...

"Jesus is your heart, obey your heart." Is that what Peter meant when he wrote that we "should follow in his steps"? Sometimes those steps lead to suffering, to the dark valleys. Let me end with a poem written this past week by another teenager, a Christian in Canada who has also heard the voice of the good shepherd in reaction to what happened persons her own age in Littleton Colorado. The poem is entitled: "Nothing is Wrong with Me."

What's wrong with me?
I feel bad
But I don't know these people
I've never heard of the place
Why do I feel I should do something?
I care for people I don't know
I want to run up to every
crying person
injured soul
hurt someone
And take them into my arms
and tell them
It's going to be okay
Every image I see on TV
of crying people
injured soul
and someone hurting
makes me cry
injures my soul
and hurts me
Nothing is wrong with me
Nobody hurt me
or killed me
or hunted me
and yet I still cry
Faces of people
I don't know
things and thoughts
I cant get
out of my head
If this is how I feel
Imagine how people actually affected
must feel
What can I do to help
these people?
Is there anything I can do?
I know
I'll pray.
I'll pray to help the crying
the injured
the hurt
I just hope it works
There is nothing wrong with me
I feel ...
                                            Paula ter Kuile
                                            21 April 1999

©1999Peter L. Haynes

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