The Fourth Sunday in Easter The Rev. Austin K. Rios St. Paul’s Within the Walls April 26, 2015
Last Sunday, in the early hours of the morning, a boat carrying approximately 800 migrants capsized, spilling its human cargo into the dark waters of the Mediterranean north of Libya.
The sea began to swallow its victims, and as the morning sun flashed upon the rolling waves, only 25 of the 800 remained alive to be rescued.
The migrants who crowded into the boat that night were from the Gambia, Ivory Coast, Somalia, Eritrea, Mali, Tunisia, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh and Syria…young men and children who boarded the fishing vessel bound for Italy in the hopes of finding safety and asylum.
800 dead migrants…dead because their desperation pushed them to board a failing boat…dead because the watery border between Africa and Europe is so perilous…dead because an entire world turns its back on the suffering they face at home and which causes them to flee and seek life elsewhere.
It is being called the worst incident of its kind ever recorded.
And yet for those who have been paying attention to the increased amount of boat traffic issuing from Libya in the recent years, and who have seen the survivors and tended to migrants who are fortunate enough to make it to this country of Italy…it is clear that unless something is done…more hopeful young men will meet the same fate in the months and years to come.
I often find myself asking the question, “What can be done in the face of such a massive need?”
The issues are so large, and can quickly lead to apathy and paralysis.
However, sometimes the only way to deal with a challenge of such magnitude is to focus on its components.
A faithful answer to “What can be done?” will have to respond to the immediate needs and protection of those who make it to the shores of Libya and desperately board unseaworthy vessels.
An answer will mean caring for migrants who seek asylum here among us, which is why the ministry of St. Paul’s Joel Nafuma Refugee Center exists.
And a faithful answer will also involve global policy adjustments and investment strategies in the countries from which these migrants come…it will have to focus on creating and sustaining a safe haven for people in the place most desired and beneficial…their actual homes.
The weight of these challenges, and the struggle to answer them faithfully can often be so daunting as to encourage us to just avoid facing them, both as individuals and as a community.
However, if we are to be faithful…then avoidance is not an option.
We must not be silent…nor must we be afraid.
For we follow the Good shepherd, who knows his own by name, and who has sheep not of this fold that he must bring home as well.
Today’s gospel from John reveals a Jesus who is in the midst of a debate, with law-abiding Pharisees, about a blind man who Jesus was able to heal.
Those Pharisees are upset with Jesus and with the healing of the blind man, because it doesn’t happen “the right way.”
Rather than rejoicing that a man born blind received his sight, a feat unparalleled in their history or experience, the Pharisees are upset that the healing happened on the Sabbath.
The blind man ends up worshipping Jesus after the episode, but the Pharisees are threatened by him and look to destroy him.
So when Jesus talks today about hired hands and the good shepherd, he is making a contrast between his way and the way followed by the Pharisees (and most of the world).
“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.”
Jesus will show just what he means by this throughout the rest of the Gospel of John.
He will call his friend Lazarus forth from the grave in the following chapter, a sign which frightens the Pharisees so much that they start plotting to kill Jesus in order to “save the nation.”
When Jesus is crucified later in the gospel, we will gain a new understanding of what it means to lay down one’s life for the sheep.
And when he is resurrected after three days…Mary Magdalene thinks that he is just the gardener outside the tomb.
Yet when he calls her name…”Mary” then she knows who he is.
He is the good shepherd…the gate of the sheepfold…the word made flesh that has lived among us, the stone that the builder’s have rejected which has become the chief cornerstone.
Those of us who have been baptized into his body are called to follow in his footsteps, and to be the hands, heart and voice of Christ within this world.
“We know love by the fact that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
Peter and the early disciples did so with boldness, as we heard in Acts today, and generations of the baptized have sought to do the same, trusting that the Good Shepherd will work through them in order to spread the love of God in Christ Jesus throughout the earth.
And this body of believers here at St. Paul’s will do the same, if we wish to know that love more fully in our own lives.
Friday night we held a vigil of remembrance for those migrants who perished in the sea last Sunday, and while we mourned their deaths, we also prayed for new vision and action that will seek to faithfully answer the challenge the global refugee crisis poses.
Christians, Muslims and people of various faiths gathered in the crypt with the light of the paschal candle front and center.
From the flame that represents to us Christians the light of Christ and his resurrection, various refugee guests lit their candles of remembrance.
While we may not know the names of the 800 migrants who died, we do know the names Rakin, Saho, Maiga, Kenfack, Fahad.
And Jesus knows the name of every single one of God’s children who died on that boat.
Their lives mattered to the Good Shepherd, and they matter to us.
Jesus the gardener calls Mary by name…calls Lazarus by name, and to make sense of such senseless tragedy, we too need to recognize that those 800 had names.
Perhaps they are not of this sheepfold…perhaps they are Muslim or Animist, or whatever…what matters is that the good shepherd cares about them and wants to call them as well.
And the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
If we wish to be faithful and follow Jesus, how can we do any less?
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Loving means not turning away from the global refugee crisis, it means finding new ways to love the unlovable that confront us at work, at play and at home, and it means waking up spiritually and seeing and searching for God in the stranger.
It means working for a world that bears more marks of the kingdom that we pray will come, than the shadows of death.
It means one flock, one shepherd.
Will you be courageous enough to follow the Good Shepherd’s lead this week, and lay down your life, in truth and action?