The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Watch the Sermon Here
“I am the good shepherd. The Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another… let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
What a week it’s been.
The verdict we’d all been waiting for was finally handed down. The killing of an unarmed Black man by police in broad daylight, witnessed by a crowd of people, captured on camera, and we still weren’t sure if there would be a guilty verdict. Too many other instances of police killing unarmed Black men and “not guilty” verdicts being handed down. But Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd. As MLK said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That verdict was one more bend in that arc. Thanks be to God.
And yet, as the jury in Minneapolis was about to convict Derek Chauvin of murder, police in Columbus, OH shot and killed a Black child. 16 year old Ma’Khia Bryant. An innocent victim lost to a trigger-happy cop who couldn’t be bothered to de-escalate a fight between a couple of teenagers, and hastily thought the best way to end this was to kill one of them instead.
Any joy or relief over the verdict vanished.
It was a reminder, as if we needed it, that we still have so, so far to go.
A reminder, as if we needed it, that one conviction in 2000 is not the end of 4 centuries of systemic racism.
Because our country still cannot and will not fully reckon with its racist history, that this country was built on the genocide of Black and Indigenous people.
And yes, it was genocide. The intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group of people.
It’s important to take the risk to speak the truth of these things. As our scripture for today says: let us love in TRUTH and ACTION. It is important that we risk confronting painful truths because the alternative? Silence, staying in our comfort zones, while beloved children of God continue to be oppressed? Silence, when Black people are killed by police at an alarmingly high rate? Silence, when Indigenous people are fighting to protect their sacred lands from toxic pipelines and still, in the last decade, fighting against policies that forcibly removed native children from their parents? Silence, when the effects of genocide are still happening in front of our eyes today? That’s not a Godly alternative. It’s not a holy option.
We’ve been working for the past year to tell the truth of St. Michael’s history as well as our city’s history and country’s history, to keep showing up for uncomfortable truths about who are are and how we came to be. And we are now in the midst of discerning what action we want to take regarding reparations for African Americans, as this parish has impacted them. This has not been an easy or comfortable process. But it is a necessary process, and one we must remain committed to if we are to love, not in empty words or speech, but in purposeful truth and action. Because truth and action are what matter. They are the witness of the meaning of our words to the wider world. They make the difference.
On a personal note, I want to tell you how powerful it is to experience truth and action. Yesterday, President Biden did what no other sitting US president has done, and formally acknowledged the Armenian Genocide. He simply named this fact of history and called it what it was. Friends, Armenians have been waiting for over a century for the truth of what happened to us to be acknowledged by the leader of the free world. Knowing the horrors my family endured, and knowing that it was not taught in history books or acknowledged by our own government, and STILL is denied by Turkish government, was deeply painful. And so to hear, finally, the leader of the free world acknowledge that the systematic extermination of the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey a century ago was genocide opened up worlds within me. I don’t know how to describe the whoosh of emotion that went through me. Elation, grief, relief, happiness, deep sadness… all swirling within.
But what it did was that after a century of outrage and pain and hoping against hope that our cries would be heard, the telling of truth finally made room for the grief to emerge. I wept yesterday. And they weren’t tears of happiness. They were tears for all that had been lost that I and all Armenians haven’t yet been able to grieve. For my Medz Mayrig, my great-grandmother, the only survivor in her family, who always told me how important it was to never forget my mother tongue or my faith. But here’s the thing: buried underneath all that grief were seeds of hope that had been dormant. Those seeds finally saw the light of day. Those seeds can now finally start germinating. The truth – and the action of our nation’s leader to speak the truth even when it was risky – was salve to start healing the deep wounds that a century of denial had inflicted. Truth and action have power.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. We have before us the image of Jesus as the one who protects and cares for his flock.
This is a nice image, or so we would be led to believe by centuries of renaissance art and stained glass windows with idyllic pastoral scenes of sheep grazing and a shepherd sweetly piping nearby. But we need to set the record straight on what shepherds do.
Shepherds do dirty work. Shepherds were not, in 1st century Palestine, an honored occupation. They were at the bottom rung of the social ladder.
Shepherds dealt with dirty animals – and dangerous predators. They had to defend their flock from creatures who seek to destroy them for their own gain. Wolves looking for a meal – to kill an innocent, undeserving creature simply so it can fatten its belly.
Shepherds put themselves in harm’s way to fight off these dangerous predators.
Shepherds fight for their flock. Defend them. Protect them at all costs. And as Jesus reminds us, they are different from the hired hand, who is there to protect the sheep, but runs away at the first sign of a wolf. Who lets the sheep get devoured in order to spare his own life.
Loving in words and speech, versus in truth and action, is the difference between the hired hand and the shepherd.
Beloved, as Christ’s body in the world, we must be shepherds. We must be good shepherds.
We hear a lot these days about how Christianity in America is on the decline. I have to wonder if that’s because people walk into too many churches and see a lot of hired hands. If they see energy focused on internal affairs rather than external mission, on studying faith rather than living it, on doing things right rather than living righteously, on maintaining peace rather than preaching peace, on not rocking the boat rather than venturing out into the storm, and they see a social club instead of the body of Christ.
I have to wonder if the body of Christ hasn’t been courageous enough to be good shepherds.
My friends, I am convinced that like Esther was told so many years ago, we have been called for such a time as this.
I believe that God is calling us to be shepherds in a world of hired hands.
Now is the time for us to REclaim and PROclaim our faith – faith in Jesus the good shepherd, who came to show the world what God’s love – sacrificial and unconditional – really looks like. The kind of love that lays down its life for the sheep. We are called, at this moment in time, to not be afraid of that gospel truth. To love in truth and action, to take the risk to confront the wolf. Not because we believe in goodness, but because we believe in Christ. Not because we are good, but because we are Christian.
This is the time to rise up, as surely as our Lord and Savior did, from the shadow of death into newness of life.
This is the time to love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action.
And that starts by speaking the truth and taking the action to boldly name genocide – not only on distant shores, but here at home – and telling the truth of history.
That starts with not shying away from the awful truth that Black bodies are killed by police at alarmingly high rates.
And honoring the memory of those who have been killed, by saying their names. George Floyd. Ma’Khia Bryant. Breonna Taylor. Daunte Wright. Philando Castile. Freddy Gray. Eric Garner. And so, so, so many others.
That starts by asking, not what am I willing to do, but what is it that must be done, to ensure a more just future, the kind of future where God’s kingdom is realized? to pave the way for God’s kingdom, where there is no partiality, where the wideness of God’s mercy extends equally to all people, where within God’s loving embrace, we look at each other and see not a threat to be eliminated, but a beloved child of God.
Loving in truth and action doesn’t bring easy answers or quick fixes. There are no kum-ba-yah moments. Truth, as the saying goes, sometimes hurts. But it also sets us free. When my knee is on your neck, it doesn’t just keep you down. It keeps me stuck, too. Neither of us can go anywhere.
So let’s get up. Let’s rise up, together, and let the good shepherd lead us.