Sometimes, in Canada, we make the mistake of looking with a long lens for poverty issues that require our attention. But in truth, we don’t need to look very far at all. In Canada, the two real divides in this country are not French and English or East and West. They are First Nations and non-aboriginal. The grim conditions on First Nations and Inuit territory taint every international standard on which Canada is measured. When researchers list the best places to live in Canada, reserves are always at the bottom. While we grumble about the quality of our classrooms, the children there go to schools where mucky water comes out of taps, if they run at all, or the buildings are contaminated with mold. While we are renovating our living rooms, their houses are crumbling around them because they were not built to withstand the weather conditions. They have the highest rates of poverty, addiction, school drop-out, and teenage suicides. This last is at epidemic proportions. First Nations men and women will crowd our soon-to-be-built super-prisons. And these issues build with each struggling generation: there are currently more aboriginal children in foster care – often far from their communities – than ever attended residential schools. Western provinces expect these numbers only to grow. And meanwhile, children who live on reserves receive significantly less funding for education and other services than our own privileged children.
We should be ashamed of this. Instead, too often, we are overwhelmed by it. Or we say it is the government’s responsibility. Or worse, we cast blame that borders on racism. We see only what is close up and not the big picture – the abject poverty, the mental health problems that linger from a history of persecution, the lack of opportunity. There are no easy solutions to this, but it’s hard to hear both our second lesson and our gospel today and not hear clearly that we should be doing something.
Let’s take a look at that second lesson:
“For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”
This kind of statement often makes us feel nervous, or at least guilty. Because, let’s face it, we are living the good, pretty safe life. Much of the stress we suffer is self-inflicted – not the consequence of war or crime. Suffering can be interpreted many ways. To feel pain or distress, injury or punishment, as Jesus suffered on the cross. To tolerate or endure evil or pain, as the disciples would certainly have experienced. Or to appear at a disadvantage, which is to be underestimated, as we so often do to ourselves and others. Certainly, First Nations people in this country often fall into all three categories. But what is our place there, as people who don’t suffer by a natural disadvantage?
First of all, Peter is making a distinction. He makes it clear that he is not referring to the suffering that results from our own selfish actions or social climbing, from our own all-costs-hunt for success. He wants us to understand it as the suffering we intentionally submit to for the good of the gospel, the well-being of others. Understandably, this won’t always mean mortal danger. But it may mean volunteering for a good cause when we are busy or tired. It may mean going back a few steps to give a hug to a homeless person. It definitely means putting yourself out there, at risk of failing, in the pursuit of truth.
As the second lesson clearly reminds us, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” So, not only it is our hope to do good, it is our responsibility to do good, even if it means suffering for others. “For to this you have been called. For to this you have been called.”
The image of the Shepherd is one of the most significant representations of Jesus, and certainly the one that has most captivated artists and songwriters throughout the ages. Why does this metaphor work so well for us? First of all it is comforting. If we are the sheep bundled up in a cage, as people confused about where to go or when, then it’s reassuring to imagine Jesus arriving at the open gate to give us direction, to spare us the job of choosing the path.
One thing I really like about the gospel reading this morning is that it stresses that we will always know where we stand with God. Jesus arrives at the front door and boldly knocks. He doesn’t skulk around to the back door or wait in the shadows to jump out at us. He is not the voice whispering those distractions in our ear, the voice that says: “You need this, you want this, take this.” Those are “thieves and robbers,” we are told. What are they stealing exactly? Our focus, our attention, our sense of outrage at wrongdoing. They steal our vision away from the larger world and toward our own interests.
But Jesus arrives at the front door, no doubt banging at it firmly, and lays it out plain as day: “You are loved by God. Now go show that love to others.” He arrives as the Shepherd who knows the sheep by name and who can respond in a way that inspires each one to follow. It is significant that our gospel lesson mentions the fact that Jesus knows us each by name. This sends a message that we are seen by God to be individuals with unique abilities. To suffer for the Good of others will mean different things to each of us. Some will give time. Others will give money. A few will stand up to evil and truly risk themselves for the sake of the flock.
And what of the flock? What do we know of the sheep themselves? Sheep stick together, they travel in a group, they eat together, they protect the youngest from the predators who would lurk on the circle. If we follow the metaphor through, then the flock becomes the larger community of humanity and a circle that begins with our own family and congregation and city and country and keeps growing from there. But certainly, our responsibility is to be both sheep who follow Jesus and shepherds in sheep’s clothing within the flock itself.
This week, during a lively discussion in council, we considered where next our focus should turn, where Jesus might be asking us to follow. Council would like to cast our gaze closer at home, to explore ways we might help fellow Canadians in need. A key component of the project is that it inspires our youth – to understand their place in the flock both as privileged protectors and as sheep who follow the shepherd. At our Church Picnic and into this fall, you will hear more about the plans to assist programs trying to improve the quality of life for First Nations in Canada.
In the meantime, our assignment from this morning’s gospel is to look around, without distraction, at the sheep in our midst. Look for the ones who are unsteady on their feet, or whose wool is looking a little worn around the edges, and offer some support. Keep alert to the Good Shepherd standing at the gate calling your name. If you do, Christ will lead you not to a place where there is no suffering, but where we suffer for the right reasons. And certainly, to a better life.