[This is a slightly edited version of a sermon I preached at Grace Allentown, April 17, 2005, John 10: 1-18]
Amid the many wonderful images and stories the media featured after the April 2005 death of Pope John Paul II, there was also a painful progression of silly questions on just about anything that seemed religious. Silly answers, too.
My favorite silly question, as I remember it, came from CNN’s Larry King. He asked Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, "Jim, do you think the Pope is face to face with Jesus now? We only have 30 seconds."
Face to face. A few months before, February 2005, the day before the Super Bowl, was the first time I saw the face of Oakes Fegley, only weeks old at the time… not long away from God.
The next day, the Eagles lost. That night, the face of Oakes saved me from Super Bowl depression. Every time I woke up, rather than replaying the game, I saw the face of Oakes – I kid you not – and fell back to sleep smiling. Dreams of an old man.
[You may know the face of Oakes Fegley. As a young boy, he has starred in several major motion pictures.]
That same year, March 27, Easter morning, about dawn, John Harvard died. He was an Episcopal priest of the Diocese of Bethlehem, 58 years old. John Harvard was a 1969 graduate of, would you believe… Harvard. He ministered as a priest in Peru, Morgantown, Douglassville, Longport NJ and the Hill School in Pottstown.
The last six months of John’s life were difficult. In conversation with John after his diagnosis, Bishop Paul Marshall said John talked about how he would walk toward God through the coming ordeal with the Spirit as companion.
“We get used to living without acknowledging our thirst for God,” the bishop said at John’s funeral. “John was both too smart and too plain for that. He knew he craved God, and wasn’t lazy about seeking God. Even in his last days, I never came away from a conversation with John without being enriched by what his mind and heart were doing in tandem. If ever there were a case of faith seeking understanding and relationship, it was his.
“If we are to memorialize John by any act or gift,” the bishop continued, “perhaps the best way to do so is to let go of whatever in us resists the beautiful madness of loving God with heart, soul and intellect. If you want to remember John, free yourself to know your hunger for God.”
To this day, I remember the face of John Harvard.
I remember also another face. On March 24, 1980, Oscar Romero was martyred in El Salvador.
He will soon be declared a saint. But Rome was not always proud of him,
Romero was a prominent, politically conservative South American priest during the 1960s and 1970s. He was named archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. After witnessing numerous violations of human rights, he heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and began to speak out on behalf of the poor and the victims of El Salvador's long and bloody civil war. This led to numerous conflicts, both with the government in El Salvador… and with the Vatican. I remember that well. It happened during my last few years as a Roman Catholic priest.
Romero had become a proponent of liberation theology, that the Christian Gospel demands that the church should be involved in the struggle for economic and political justice, especially in the Third World. That was what put him at odds with Rome. It made for high and dangerous drama during the late 1970s.
In a strange alliance, the U.S. administration of that time formed a united front with the Vatican against liberation theology. The pope fought the theology while the U.S. administration and its Latin American allies murdered the liberationists. The Pope did not recognize Romero nor affirm his pastoral leadership nor protect him in his hour of great need. It was clearly papal disregard… in order to make a point.
In 1980, after speaking out against U. S. military support for the government of El Salvador, and calling for soldiers to disobey orders that violated human rights, Archbishop Romero was shot to death while celebrating Mass at a small chapel near his San Salvador cathedral. One well-aimed shot, fired with professional precision. It is believed that his assassins were members of Salvadoran death squads, including two graduates of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.
The fourth Sunday of Easter has traditionally been called Good Shepherd Sunday. The gospel speaks to us next Sunday of pretenders, of hearing and knowing the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and of Jesus leading us to new ground, into new territory. I’ve extended the metaphor to include not only hearing the voice but also seeing the face of Jesus.
I think it has been built into our DNA to look for the face and listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd. We’re never too old for this. It’s never too late in life to live as God intended for us to live, to seek the kingdom of God.
Please consider two questions… and you have more than 30 seconds. You have all day, all year, the rest of your life.
Looking for the face and listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd… What is it that you look at in our image-saturated world? What do you listen to through the static?
Do you listen to those who say you’ve got to do it to them before they do it to you. Or do you listen to Jesus who says: But it cannot be like that with you…
Do you listen to those who tell you you’ve worked hard for what you’ve got, nobody did you any favors… let them do the same. Or do you listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd who says: But it cannot be like that with you…
Do you listen to the voice of Jesus telling you you must see the world differently and respond to its challenges with a very different set of values?
You say you never hear the voice of the Good Shepherd?
But you’ve heard those many strong verbs, those gospel imperatives: Repent, be, do, give, forgive, feed and clothe, go and sow, pray, judge not, fear not…
You never hear the voice of the Good Shepherd?
Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the sick. Welcome the stranger. Visit the imprisoned. Raise the dead. Proclaim good news. Sell what you have and give the money to the poor. Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Be reconciled. Take up your cross. Follow me. Find your life by losing it for my sake. Make disciples.
You’ve never heard the voice of the Good Shepherd?
Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers… Persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord… proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ… seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself… strive for justice and peace among all people… respect the dignity of every human being.”
Say no more that you have not seen the face or heard the voice of the Good Shepherd.
See the many faces of Jesus… in some of the faces you know and have known. Hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. Look beneath the shallow and the superficial. Make room for awe… and wonder… Be eager to know God, to embrace repentance and to proclaim hope. See the faces: Oakes, John Harvard, Oscar Romero. Who else… for you? Hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. He calls us by name… and leads us out.
"I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep."