Spider-Man and the Good Shepherd

Examples of the Good Shepherd can still be found in our hectic, traffic-jammed lives. And we can be shepherds too … A couple of weeks ago I took my annual trek to my home base in northern Indiana to visit my family – or its remnant: my brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew. I flew to Cincinnati (by way of Atlanta – don’t ask!), saw a dear friend that evening for dinner at the airport Marriott, and then rented a car to complete my journey up to my hometown area – the little towns of Plymouth and Bremen near South Bend. So again this year I followed my tedious path, the long drive to and around Indianapolis and up route 31 north – four lanes, but very slow.

Now let me just mention that much of the way from Cincinnati to Indy, and then up Route 31, was riddled with construction. Here is what I suspect: THEY (whoever They are across the entire country), They all got together and figured out exactly which highways I was going to drive, and They said, “Let’s do construction RIGHT THERE!” And so it was. Not quite as bad as the lead photo, but you get the idea!

But there is something about a long and tedious car trip that is conducive not only to listening to the music of the ’60s and ’70s and singing aloud in the car when no one can hear you, but also to thinking about life, your own life, reminding yourself once again about what really matters in the end. That in fact there are a very few things that really matter in the end – family, caring about one another, and ultimately to be bonded in love.

And so all that was reaffirmed on my tedious drive to my home base and my absolutely wonderful visit with my dear brother and his family. And now I am happily back to my daily life and routine in Richmond – to my normal … whatever that is!

But you know, sometimes even in our daily, “normal” lives, once in a while we are still brought up short with something wonderful, some reminder of life’s basic truths … of what finally matters in our lives. Such a reminder came to me yesterday morning in the form of a front-page piece in the New York Times. I was also reminded about this same story on the evening news. Undoubtedly you also heard about the heroics of a man who came to be called “Spider-Man” for his incredible life-risking effort to save the life of a child in Paris last Saturday evening. (See the second photo below.)

But in case you missed the story, let me tell you here of this dramatic event: A 22-year-old man by the name of Mamoudou Gassama – an undocumented refugee from Mali – happened to be walking by a high-rise apartment building that Saturday evening, apparently looking up and seeing a 4-year-old boy dangling from a balcony multiple floors above. From the Times:

With a combination of grit, agility and muscle, the man hauled himself hand over hand from one balcony to another, springing from one parapet to grasp the next one up. A crowd that had gathered before he began his daring exploit urged him ever upward, according to onlookers’ video that was shared widely on social media.

Finally, after scaling four balconies, the man reached the child and pulled him to safety. And suddenly, an act of individual courage and resourcefulness began to play into Europe’s fraught and polarized debate about outsiders, immigrants and refugees.
Shortly before my trip home, I preached a sermon at St. Martin’s … it was what is known in church circles as Good Shepherd Sunday and the theme of the sermon obviously had something to do not only with THE Good Shepherd, but also with what it might mean in our own lives to follow in the Good Shepherd’s path and become shepherds ourselves in our own way … in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in our daily living. There’s no space of course to go into all that here, but near the end of the sermon, I included the following borrowed story because it fit my point so nicely. Here is an excerpt from my sermon script:

In a book titled  Prayer, Stress, and Our Inner Wounds (see third photo), there’s a particularly striking image of a shepherd that the author says stayed with her from childhood. Oh, it’s not the treacly, sweet image of that robed, blond guy holding a small lamb that you see in stained-glass windows. No. It’s the image of a tattered, bleeding guy who’s crawling down a steep cliff to rescue a lamb that’s fallen. And that lamb’s injured … and a bird of prey is circling overhead. The author writes, “I couldn’t see that shepherd’s face as he strained down to reach that sheep, but I could see his knotted muscles, I could see his bleeding hands, I could see his bleeding arms gashed by thorns, his twisted garment torn in the steep descent.” She says, so “I could see that that Shepherd was paying a painful price to rescue his lamb.”
I couldn’t help but think of that same Good Shepherd image yesterday when reading about Mr. Gassama’s daring, risk-taking climb to save the life of that dangling 4-year-old hanging from an upper balcony. And in my reflection, I tied it all in with how I ended that sermon two weeks or so ago. Asking what all this means for you and for me … thinking about our own lives. It’s not likely that any of us will be called to climb a high-rise and rescue a child from sure death. But there are all kinds of ways to practice shepherding in our own daily lives.

Maybe … maybe it could mean being willing to stand between the bullies of the world and the weak ones who are their prey; maybe it means standing between the marginalized and those who hate the Different – different color, different class, different kind. Maybe it could mean protecting the isolated, the stranger, the alien … maybe it could mean standing up … standing between the human predator – the racist, the bigot, the anti-Semite, the liar, the verbal abuser, the gay basher … standing between the hatemongers of the world and their human prey.

The Good Shepherd says, “Go … and do for them as I have done for you … laying down my life for my friends.” The courage, the spontaneous goodness, the humanity of Mr. Gassama does take my breath away. I do believe when we witness such self-risk for the sake of another, you and I are not only awed, but maybe inspired – grateful for the reminder of what it means to be human at our finest and best. And the words sound in our hearts: “Go … and do for them … as I have done for you.”