This past Tuesday, Jean Vanier died at the age of 90. Vanier was a Roman Catholic Canadian theologian who founded L’Arche, a worldwide network of communities comprised of people with intellectual disabilities and those who assist them. At the heart of each L’Arche community is the primacy of relationships that are intended to be mutual and reciprocal. The “core members”—those who have intellectual disabilities—and their assistants share their lives with one another. Every person in a L’Arche community is considered an equal because every person is viewed as someone who can both give and receive.
L’Arche’s vision is beautiful and refreshing in an age characterized by individualism, because it seeks to avoid a posture of charity that would create a power differential between the one who is served and the one who serves. Assistants in L’Arche communities are as much the receivers of blessings and gifts as core members who may need some help with laundry or other daily tasks. Every person has a need, and L’Arche places all of these needs on the same level.
L’Arche’s vision holds the unbiased love of Christ at its center, elevating the importance of every person’s dignity. This is, of course, something we Episcopalians talk about all the time when we reaffirm our own baptismal covenant, as we did last Sunday. But L’Arche’s emphasis on “the dignity of every human being” puts the words of the baptismal covenant into action.
In L’Arche communities, respecting every person’s worthiness is more than just kindness; it is Christ’s love manifested in the shared humanity of disabled and non-disabled. The one who serves is also the one who is served. Gestures of compassion and mercy are exchanged in a fluid equilibrium of giver and recipient. And the fulcrum in this mutual exchange is Christ, Incarnate Love himself.
And so, it probably comes as no surprise that the Biblical image of Christ as Good Shepherd was one that Jean Vanier treasured. The Good Shepherd, after all, is concerned with the well-being of all sheep, no matter their condition and no matter how marginalized they may be. Vanier saw the witness of Christ as Good Shepherd as a call for all of us to become shepherds. In his words, “[t]o become a good shepherd is to come out of the shell of selfishness in order to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible.” We are all responsible for one another, no exceptions.
Taking a cue from Jean Vanier, if we are called to shepherd others in selflessness, we must also be willing to receive shepherding. We must acknowledge our need for comfort and healing from Christ. And far more from being just a bunch of weary, aimless sheep in need of guidance, I would venture that every single one of us, by virtue of being human, is at the deepest level wounded in some way. And we need Christ the Good Shepherd to heal that woundedness.
In L’Arche language, our wounds are the basis of our common humanity, our collective human condition. Somehow, though, our world has gotten to the point that being wounded is associated only with severe trauma. But we are all hurting, aren’t we? And because we are all hurting in some way, the image of a Shepherd who himself suffered even to death for our sake is indeed a source of solace.
Intellectually, we might all understand the assurance of a saving Shepherd who leads his downtrodden sheep to pastures of healing water. But, I wonder, do you ever doubt whether your wounds are significant enough to be soothed by Christ’s healing hands? What I mean is do we really believe that some of our minor afflictions are worthy of Christ’s attention?
If I’m honest with myself, there seem to innumerable gaping wounds around me that make my own pains pale in comparison. Recently, there have been far too many acts of terror, far too many shootings, far too many natural disasters. Here’s the question I struggle with: should I be concerned about my own difficulties, frustrations, or anxieties, when other children of God are being gunned down in their houses of worship or when thousands are dying of Ebola on another continent or when many in this city are perpetually anxious about their next meal?
And yet, I know that if I can’t even recognize the need for healing and grace in my own suffering, however, minor it may seem, how will I ever recognize the desire for healing in others? Who am I to downplay my own fragility when it’s precisely in recognizing it that I own my citizenship in the broken human condition? And it’s this human state of travail, shared by all, that Christ came to save, Christ the Good Shepherd, the Lamb who suffered and is seated in the center of the heavenly throne.
In the Book of Revelation, John the Divine offers us a startling vision of a Lamb who is also a shepherd. Imagine that! The one who is supposed to be shepherded becomes the one who does the shepherding. Just look above the tabernacle in the Lady Chapel and you will see the universal symbol of the Lamb that was slain, a gentle, peaceful animal lifted up in triumph, with a flag of victory. What might seem laughable to some is actually our central image of hope.
The One who shepherds is the Good Shepherd precisely because he has identified with our wounded human condition. Christ the Good Shepherd has shared the pain of earthly life so that he is the One worthy of all worship. And through his eternal triumph, suffering loses its power, death loses its sting, and we are made white in the blood of the Lamb!
And yet in hearing Revelation’s account of the heavenly throngs of saints and martyrs robed in white who have come through the great ordeal, do you still have a nagging doubt about whether you can be counted among their midst? Are you confident in numbering yourself among those who will hunger and thirst no more and who will live in eternal bliss? Are you willing to place yourself under the protection of the Lamb seated on the throne? Or do you feel that your tribulations and your sorrow in no way compare to the tragedies of the “great ordeal” and that others are more worthy of God’s attention?
This, too, is part of being human, isn’t it, this recurring doubt of our worthiness to be invited into the heavenly throne room? But the Lamb at the center of the throne is not concerned about how great or how small the ordeals are. In his compassionate response to our human tribulations, this Lamb makes no distinction between degrees of suffering that we experience. To Christ the Lamb, every instance of pain is worthy of his attention. This Lamb is mighty enough, gracious enough, merciful enough to wipe away the tears from the eyes of every person who follows him and seeks his face.
John the Divine’s wild vision of the kingdom of God is both a vision of the future and of what the present could be in some way. It is a glimpse of the True Lamb’s victory breaking into our world in glimpses, in fits and starts. In our present afflictions, we are comforted, and yet we hope for that final day when there will be no more hunger and no more thirst, when every single tear will be wiped from our eyes.
What we, here in this place, in the small and great ordeals of 2019, share with that diverse heavenly multitude is a vision of a Lamb at the center of heaven’s throne, a Lamb who washes us white in his blood. In God’s eyes, we are each clothed in the white of our baptismal identity, and in that identity we hold our common wounds together before God’s redeeming power to heal and to save.
And what that means is that every human suffering, every human pain is a travesty. It means that a school shooting that doesn’t even make the front page of the New York Times because only one person dies is nevertheless a headline in God’s book. And every tear that is shed is one that God longs to wipe away. No exceptions.
If we want to see an earthly mirror of the great multitudes from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne of God and praising him, we could do worse than to look at L’Arche communities. In quiet gentleness that is so radically different from the drama of our chaotic world, the L’Arche vision puts Jesus the Lamb at the center, around whom stand a multitude of people, from every condition, united in their frail humanity. No one’s pain is considered greater than another. It is not a competition of tragedies. No one considers himself or herself as immune from aid. There is simply a motley collection of God’s beautiful children fumbling their way on earth to some kind of realization of John the Divine’s heavenly vision of wholeness and peace.
What would it look like for us to put the Lamb at the center of our vision again? How might this world be different if we really believed that our Good Shepherd was powerful enough to wipe away every tear from the eyes of suffering humans? And if you doubt your worthiness to have your tears wiped away, mark this good news: the Book of Revelation’s great heavenly multitude was so vast it could not be counted. There’s plenty of room around the center of the throne.
Can we in humility trust that we have a place there? At the very least, trust that in your woundedness, no matter how small or great, you are surrounded by a great multitude from every sort and condition. And in the middle of that multitude is the Lamb, the Good Shepherd, who is reaching out his hand to your face and wiping away your tears. And the Lamb will continue to wipe away those tears until one day there are no more.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
12 May 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia