Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few weeks ago, we welcomed our choristers back to the Cathedral Close. Many of you know that when our building is open for public worship, our boy and girl choristers provide musical leadership for our Sunday worship on most weeks of the year. Though we have been able to include some solo performances by our choristers during Sunday worship at various points in recent months, I must say it has been a tremendous blessing to welcome them back in person and once again, hear them make beautiful music as they sing together, masked and distanced, outside in the Cathedral Garth. I have the great joy of serving as the chaplain to the choristers, which means I have the pleasure of meeting with both the girls and the boys regularly to check in and see how they’re doing. I consider it one of the most joyful aspects of my ministry here.
Seeing them again, has certainly brought me much joy in recent weeks. And I know that the return to in-person activity and the opportunity to be together with their peers has been good for the kids as well. Spending time with them has reminded me of the particular challenges of being a kid in these pandemic times. It seems most children were able to quickly adapt to the technological changes required for a virtual world, but that doesn’t mean it was an environment in which most were able to thrive. Navigating teenage years is already challenging enough on its own. The particular stresses of the pandemic, isolation from friends, lack of opportunity for in-person socialization with peers, missed rites of passage, both small and great, all these and so many more have made this year so difficult and so stressful for so many children. As I’ve been considering the challenges that kids face during this pandemic and praying that we’re starting to turn a corner, we’ve been confronted with further news of children suffering. Suffering in ways, tied up with the evil forces of racism and violence that infect our country, a suffering that many of us might wish to avoid or ignore altogether.
Ten days ago, body cam footage was released showing a police officer shooting and killing thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo in an alley in the west end of Chicago. He was thirteen years old. I must say I was shaken when I first heard the news. I immediately thought of the kids I work with, some of whom are the same age. At thirteen, a kid should be enjoying being a kid. Having fun, spending time with friends, learning about themselves, discovering their passions and their hopes for life. The killing of a thirteen-year-old child ought to shake us in a particular way.
Two weeks ago, more tragic news reached us that yet another Black person was killed by the police. Dante Wright, himself just twenty years old, was killed by an officer who allegedly attempted to use her taser, but instead fired her gun, shooting and killing him. Dante Wright was a father. He had a two-year-old son. Several photos of him holding his young child have been widely shared in recent days. They show a young man filled with pride, beaming as he holds his precious son. In a recent interview, Dante Wright’s mother reminded the world that he had a two-year-old son that’s not going to be able to play basketball with him. A young man killed; a child left without a father.
As individuals around the country, and indeed around the world, awaited the verdict in the case of the man charged with killing George Floyd, a photo from a few years ago was widely shared that showed George Floyd, sitting with his daughter in the front seat of his car. Amid all the media attention on the trial, that photo grabbed my attention and added such a depth of humanity to it all. Like Dante’s son, that young girl will grow up without her father. The world will forever know the name George Floyd, but she won’t have the opportunity to grow up with and be guided by her father. That was taken away from her, as it has been for far too many.
George Floyd’s death on May 25th, 2020 sparked a wave of protests against police brutality and the killing of Black and Brown people across this country and across the world in what became one of the largest movements for social change in this country’s history. Almost 11 months later, a jury issued its verdict this past Tuesday and Derek Chauvin, a former police officer, was found guilty of all charges of murder and manslaughter. We pray that George Floyd’s family begins to find some peace. Some might want to see this verdict as a victory, but that word feels oh so inadequate, even inappropriate. It was a basic form of accountability for a case that included clear footage of the entire event, including the over nine minutes in which Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, slowly taking the life from him. For a case that had so appalled the world that it caused millions of people to rise up in protest, for a case such as this, still so many found themselves on Tuesday afternoon, incredibly nervous and fearful as they awaited the verdict. It was but a beginning on a path toward justice. The danger of this moment, particularly for those of us who are white, is to see it as a sign that lasting change has come and that there is no further work to be done. The danger of this moment is to believe that in the conviction of one man, there is no longer a problem in this country. What then are we to do? Especially those of us who claim the Christian faith and seek to follow Jesus.
The scriptures meet us this morning, offering us words of comfort and words of challenge. The past three Sundays have presented us with gospel narratives that tell of Jesus appearing to his friends after his resurrection. On this fourth Sunday of Easter, our focus, though still rooted in the resurrection, shifts as we hear Jesus identify himself as the good shepherd. This image is a familiar and comforting one for so many. An image that conveys such tenderness and intimacy. The good shepherd knows his own and his own know him. They know his voice and follow him. The good shepherd leads and protects his sheep.
Our Psalm this morning, one of the most beloved passages of scripture, reinforces this sense of intimacy and protection. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Here at the Cathedral, our smallest chapel is dedicated to the good shepherd and features a beautiful image of Jesus gently and lovingly cradling a small lamb. The image of the good shepherd can be a source of great comfort, but we must also consider what might at first seem to be a basic question: what makes the good shepherd good? The text offers us a clear answer. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. For this reason, the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. Unlike the hired hand, who when seeing the wolf coming, leaves the sheep and runs away. The good shepherd does not flee or abandon the sheep. The good shepherd lays down his life so that he may take it up again.” New life rising out of death. That is the power of resurrection.
This scriptural expression, to lay down one’s life, is unique to the gospel of John and the letters of John. We find it again, in fact, in our reading this morning from First John. The author of that letter proclaims that we know love because Jesus laid down his life for us. That laying down of life is the greatest example of love, an example that not only allows us to know and see love, but also invites us to action. Showing us that we ought to lay down our lives for one another. Here is a call to imitate Jesus in a very real and indeed, a very costly way, to lay down our lives for one another, just as the good shepherd laid down his for us. This call to imitate Jesus is a call to authenticity and the living of our lives as Christians, as people who seek to follow Jesus. The writer of First John goes on to ask, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
It is a plea for harmony between our beliefs and our behavior. We who believe that Jesus is indeed the good shepherd, who laid down his life for us so that we might have life and have it abundantly, must follow him in that way and lay down our lives for one another. This is the dynamic of a resurrection life. Of a way of being that really believes that in laying down and letting things die that need to die, new life will arise. This dynamic is, I believe, one we must live every day of our lives as we daily die to sin in all its various forms. It is foundational for the Christian life. But here, in this moment, God calls us as individuals, particularly those of us who are white, God calls us as church to a particular expression of this dynamic, of a laying down so that new life might arise.
The murder of George Floyd revealed to so many white folks what was already so very clear to our siblings of color. Racism and injustice still deeply infect this land. Millions rose up in the days following George Floyd’s death. The reality that we must now face is that the racism within us, the racism within our society, will not be healed in a week, a month, a year, perhaps not even in a lifetime. And will not be healed by a guilty verdict in one case. The path ahead is one of long-term commitment. It is no time to become complacent. It is no time to feel that the work is done, for that is so obviously not the case. It is a time to heed the words of the author of First John who tells us, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” It is a time to continue to lay down those things that need to be cast down within ourselves, within our church, within our society, to allow God to bring forth new life.
Last May, a few days after George Floyd’s death, I met with our girl choristers on Zoom. One of the head choristers, at the time a rising high school senior, addressed her friends and her colleagues with words I simply can’t and won’t forget. She told them, “I need you to be as angry about this next week, next month, next year, as you are right now. I need you to be with me in this for the long-term.” That is our call, as people of faith, seeking to follow Jesus. It is a call to lay down our lives for one another. To allow what needs to be given up, to be given up, so that new life can emerge, in ourselves and in this country. So that children are no longer killed, so that children no longer have to be forced to grow up with no parent, so that Black and Brown bodies are no longer killed by the police. Jesus, the good shepherd who laid down his life for us and revealed to us the costly yet life-giving way of love. Jesus shows us the way. Let us continue on, so that all God’s children might have life and have it abundantly.