There is an unwritten liturgical rule somewhere which states that you may not have a funeral mass without the song “On Eagles Wings.” I don’t know where that law is, but it’s there somewhere. Yet, for all of its familiarity, that refrain resonates with us in a powerful way. It continues to make a promise about God’s commitment to us especially in the face of loss or tragedy or fear that is profound. (sung a capella): “And he will raise you up on eagles’ wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand.”
That refrain could be inspired by any number of scripture passages, perhaps Isaiah 49:16, “See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name.” But I think today’s gospel is also a source of that promise, where Jesus assures his followers: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”
“No one can take them out of my hand.” I can’t decide if we believe it because it is part of the deposit of scriptures or because we want so badly to believe it in the face of our own hurts and fears. Perhaps a little of both, but we do want so badly to believe, don’t we: that someone is holding us, that someone is protecting us, that we have a direction and a purpose and that life endures through the tough time. We need to believe that someone (sung) “holds us in the palm of his hand.”
When homemade bombs kill children and wound a cheering crowd, don’t we want to know that, that we are still held somehow and protected?
When an explosion at a factory, where people just like us work to eke out a living for their families, kills dozens of people, don’t we want to hold onto our belief that someone is holding the wives without husbands and children without mothers and fathers?
When our loved one is dying or terribly sick and we cannot help them or fix it or get their suffering out of our heads, don’t we want to believe that someone is leading us somewhere?
When we can’t make ends meet or things work out at home, when the grades aren’t right and the friends don’t work out, when things just haven’t gone as we planned, and we’re not sure when they will, don’t we at that point really want, perhaps even need, to hope in a Good Shepherd? Someone who (sung) “will raise us up on eagles’ wings…”
Isn’t that the power of the gospel, of the 10th chapter of John’s that is read on Good Shepherd Sunday every year? The promise that Jesus knows us, knows you and me, and we have a chance to hear his voice even in the midst of so much around us that might be calling us in other directions. The promise that we are not alone even though our loved ones have passed on or let us down. And more than that, that we are loved, held, safe no matter how great the storms and tribulations that shake us. Isn’t that the core teaching of Easter anyway, that Love conquers everything, even death? That we will not only get through what we’re going through, but actually rise because of it? Because as important as faith is for teaching us about life, so much of its power comes in its promise about death, all of the deaths that touch us large and small. It tells us that no one less than the source of all Love and Life has promised to raise us above those sadnesses to a greater love and a new day. Isn’t that, in fact, so much of what Jesus offers us, and what we, in trust, look for in a Savior? In a shepherd?
I was thinking how much our country needs this kind of shepherd in light of the tragedy at the Boston Marathon. So many people want to run this most historic and prestigious race, that you have to qualify to do so. Only 10 percent of marathoners can run well enough to do that. What must it have been like for them, then, to be able to share in the longest running marathon in U.S. history only to have that day of your great triumph stolen from you by senseless violence and tragedy? To have so many of the wounded suffer the amputation of the very legs that carried them to that finish line. It’s just wrong, and sad, and I don’t understand it.
But I don’t understand so much of life: cancer, violence, poverty, heart-break. It all just makes me want to cling all the more tightly to Jesus’ promises today. It reminds me of my need for a good Shepherd, my need to be protected against so much that I cannot control or manage or even understand. Perhaps it is your reflections on Boston that makes you know your need for a shepherd; or something else that triggers it for you. Whatever the experience that opens up in you the awareness of your need for a shepherd, let the words of that great song wash over you now, and in the moments of your struggle, with the promise of our God that you are always, always, always, held in the palm of a hand that will never, never let you go.
(Join with me in singing): “And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand.”