Lead Us in the Paths of Righteousness
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
May 3, 2020 Fourth Sunday of Easter,
Good Shepherd Sunday
Psalm 23; John 10:11-16
[You can watch a video recording of this sermon at the end of this text and you can see the entire On Line Service by clicking here.]
The 23rd Psalm says that the God who is our shepherd leads us in the paths of righteousness, but we have lost sight of what the word righteousness means. It has become blurred by the negative connotations of “self-righteousness.” Righteousness was a central concept in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian ones, so we need to understand it.
A good translation of “the paths of righteousness” would be the sacred way. It means the right way, the true way, the way of the universe, the way of justice, the way of integrity, the way of liberation from all that is not right. To be righteous is to be in the Tao, to be the best that humans can be, to be children of God.
To live righteously is to live as a good shepherd ourselves. Jesus called us not only to follow him but to do the same works that he did. Paul called us to have the heart and mind of Christ ourselves so that we would create the realm of God on earth, seeing all humanity as one flock, all the earth as one small pasture, and acting rightly in accordance with that truth, as Jesus did.
Tragically, we have not followed those paths of righteousness. We have not been good shepherds to the earth or to the people Jesus loved and cared for most, the hurting and vulnerable and oppressed.
The Tao Te Ching says, “If I had any sense at all, my only fear would be of straying from the sacred way.” Many of us feel that fear right now. We see so clearly that the old normal before this pandemic was wrong in many ways. We see the White House using the pandemic as an excuse to remove all restraints from the industries that have driven us to the environmental and health crisis we are in, we see our government rewarding unethical greed and inequity—the direct opposite of good shepherding.
And yet away from the White House we see signs of righteousness and the awakening of a new consciousness. We certainly are seeing them here in Strafford. Our only fear is that we will not keep following this path when the pandemic is over.
Two weeks ago I set off a controversy by writing listserv postings in praise of kindness and wisdom. I began by responding to a beautiful posting from the Coburns thanking a long list of people for helping the store be a safe place and continue to serve us in extraordinary ways.
I wrote, “I was so thankful to see…how thankful the Coburns feel, because so many of us are extremely thankful for them and want them to feel appreciated, supported and able to continue in business forever! So thank you to all of those the Coburns thanked in their posting!
“Thank you also to our Select Board, recycling committee and volunteers, road crew, Newton School teachers and staff and all the other officers and committee members who are keeping Strafford running.”
I didn’t call them good shepherds, but that is what they are, and there are countless more examples happening daily, done by Neighbors Helping Neighbors officially and unofficially, done by the Strafford Community Outreach team, done by our Deacons and Mission Committee, done by the Strafford Village Farm and on and on.
I ended my listserv posting saying, “At Town Meeting we passed a resolution declaring a Climate Emergency. This is what a climate emergency looks like—pandemics, social and economic disruption and other effects…
“We can meet this ongoing crisis with resilience and neighborliness and make sure that no one is alone and unsupported in their struggles, we can be smart and make sure we can take care of our essential needs like food and fuel and health care, but to rise to this enormous challenge we need to be united in our commitment to neighborliness and kindness.”
I followed that up the next day with documentation of the connection between climate change and pandemics, and with the acknowledgment that “gentleness and kindness are not enough in our response to the pandemic. We also need to be well-informed and wise.”
Then I went on vacation, completely unplugged from the internet. I was blissfully unaware that someone had responded to my postings saying, “in the best political traditions of the gutter politicians, even pastors are now are using the crisis…for advancing the bankrupting, morally hideous…‘Green New Deal….’”
He went on, “You can talk about kindness and wisdom after the fight is over, and I daresay safely sequestered among the somewhat effete rural inhabitants of Strafford and your flock it may hold water now in a touchy-feely way, but….this country and the West needs a Churchill right now, not a Gandhi.”
Of course, I believe that the country and world desperately need both the Green New Deal and Gandhi, and I believe Gandhi would laugh uproariously at being called touchy-feely.
Gandhi laughed good naturedly at Churchill, too, for publicly attacking him in vituperative racist and imperialist terms. Gandhi laughed and then kept on steadily working as a good shepherd for his people and for the British people until he had completed a nonviolent revolution that hardly anyone believed possible, utterly defeating Winston Churchill’s imperialist cause.
But we need Gandhi now for more than his sense of humor or effectiveness, we need him for his paths of righteousness. Or rather, we do not need a Gandhi, we need seven billion Gandhis, as many humans as we can possibly lift to that most mature, Christ-like level of consciousness that Gandhi attained. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount formed the core of Gandhi’s life, along with the Bhagavad Gita. He emulated the good shepherd and he sought the paths of righteousness with all his heart, mind, soul and strength.
He sought that path through the struggle to liberate his people by practicing meditation and mindfulness and by morning and evening worship with his followers. Gandhi loved and was uplifted by many of the same hymns that we sing. He prayed without ceasing, calling on God throughout the day. He said, “My greatest weapon is silent prayer.”
Gandhi was an astute, masterful politician, but the political paths of righteousness came to him through spiritual discernment.
Jesus said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the flock,” which Gandhi did literally and figuratively, suffering beatings and years of imprisonment and eventual assassination, but he understood the act of laying down one’s life not as a defeat or a negative by-product of doing the right thing. Self-emptying was what enabled the shepherding spirit to flow through him, it was the source of his entire movement’s power. Gandhi said, “There comes a time when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effect. This comes when he reduces himself to zero.”
There is a beautiful scene in the film Gandhi where the most powerful leaders in India are having an urgent meeting at Gandhi’s ashram. They are discussing the next steps to take to force the British to grant India independence. A little boy comes up with a goat that has a hurt foot and reminds Gandhi that he promised to try to heal it. Gandhi apologizes to the leaders and leaves the meeting with the boy.
It could have been Jesus on his way to the home of the powerful, wealthy synagogue leader, Jairus, when a poor woman who was desperate for healing touched Jesus and he stopped and took the time to speak with her and complete her healing with his love and blessing.
The paths of righteousness do not race heedlessly toward the privileges of the rich and powerful, they take the time to care for the hurting, the vulnerable, the lowly, the oppressed, whether it be a person or creature or the earth itself. The wisest, most holy and most practical people who have ever lived have told us plainly that the paths of righteousness are our only hope for a sustainable life.
We have tried the wrong paths and they have led us to the brink of extinction, they have led us to a world of terrible suffering with far worse in the forecast. The wrong paths will kill us if we go any farther, and yet the most powerful empire the world has ever seen, an empire of super-wealthy individuals and corporations and the governments that they have bought, that empire is striking back against the awakening consciousness of our collective good shepherd.
Gandhi faced similar odds, and so did Jesus. They urge us to have faith that the Spirit of good shepherding is the greatest force in the universe. They call us to empty ourselves to zero, to lay down our lives for the flock and to allow the good shepherd to guide and empower us to take on whatever threatens the survival of this earth we love.
This sounds like a miserable path to our hedonistic culture, but the good shepherd will lead us to the only sustainable green pastures and truly serene waters. We will find our souls restored and we will have joy. One of the things I love most about Gandhi are the photographs where he is laughing with his enemies. Gandhi said, “Joy lies in the fight, in the attempt, in the suffering involved, not in the victory itself.”
So let us open ourselves to this joy, to the savoring of a gorgeous spring, to the heavenly love all around us, to the inspiration of all the good shepherds who are rising with us to meet this time of crisis. Let us pray in silence asking the Spirit to show us where to make our next step in the paths of righteousness for God and our neighbors’ sakes. Let us pray…