April 25, 2021
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Those of you with whom I’ve discussed preaching know that I preach once every few months because it generally takes me that long to write a sermon. I’ve been working on a sermon about today’s epistle passage since late February. I’ve been wrestling with issues around giving, and John’s question really got me: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a neighbor in need and yet refuses to help?” It hit me in gut in the way that for me has only come to mean I need to sign up to preach, because I need to dedicate time and effort to the wrestling match between my heart and scripture.
This sermon was particularly slow in coming together, in part because I’m still really struggling with how to apply some of the insights I’ve gained to a very real situation in my life.
But it’s possible that the sermon wasn’t coming together because the Holy Spirit decided we had other plans. Earlier this week, I decided to shelve that sermon. Because I have this pulpit on this particular Sunday, I need to talk about the police.
Let me pause here because parents: this is not a particularly family-friendly sermon, I will be referring to events that have been happening in the news. And actually, this disclaimer is for all of you. We are living in intense times. If today is not the day for you to engage with this topic and you need to walk away from your Zoom for the next 15 minutes, it will not hurt my feelings.
Let’s, all of us, take a deep breath. Lord, let the words of my mouth and meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.
Eleven months and two days ago, a police officer named Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd until he died, while Chauvin’s fellow officers stood by and watched. On Tuesday, in a historic decision, a jury found Chauvin guilty of murder. Historic because he is just the seventh officer found guilty since 2005, during which time police have killed more than 15,000 people.
But in the very moments we took a collective sigh of relief at that verdict, Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16 year-old girl, lay dead in the driveway of her foster home after a police officer in Columbus, Ohio shot her 4 times in the chest. The officer arrived at a chaotic scene, with Bryant wielding a knife, and he began firing within seconds.
So far this year, police have killed 284 people. We are right on track for the police to kill the same number of people they did in 2020. And the year before that. And the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that. If nothing changes, there will another seven hundred George Floyds and Ma’Khia Bryants before this year is over. Diversity training, body cameras, use of force guidelines – none of it appears to be making much of a dent.
And what I have to ask is, what is stopping us from stopping this? According to a USA Today poll from March, less than half of the respondents supported reallocating some resources away from police to other social services or crisis responders, and fewer than 1 in 5 said they supported the “defund the police” movement. While I’m guessing that the results would be different in this congregation, last fall when Caren Holmes led a two-week course on this topic, it was clear that many of us are not on board with the idea of abolition. And I have to ask myself Why? Why, after all this, are we not ready to shut the whole thing down?
I can only speak for myself, but, to borrow from Colonel Nathan Jessups from A Few Good Men: “deep down in places [I] don’t talk about at parties,” I want people with body armor and weapons to the dirty work of keeping our communities safe. That is, I want reform instead of abolition because, the police are still a component of my idea of safety. Not in my normal day to day life – but in the what-ifs, the worst-case scenarios. After all, I don’t want to be the one responding to Ma’Khia Bryant’s emergency call.
And this strikes me as an attitude that bears little resemblance to Jesus.
And so I decided to preach this sermon, and I turned back to our readings this week. I reread the John passage, one I had skimmed only quicky while preparing my first sermon: right, one of Jesus’s many “I am” statements in John, the good shepherd, blah blah blah. But this week I heard it differently.
“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd would die for the sheep.
The hired hand, who is neither shepherd nor owner of the sheep, catches sight of the wolf and runs away, leaving the sheep to be scattered or snatched by the wolf.
That’s because the hired hand works only for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd.
I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.
In the same way, Abba God knows me and I know God – and for those sheep I will lay down my life.”
There is so much here about safety and love and danger and duty to care.
What really struck me was Jesus distinguishing between his willingness to lay down his own safety for the sake of love, and the hired hand for whom that is a non-starter.
Look, the hired hand’s reaction makes sense, just as our own concerns about safety make sense. We live in a country where there are mass shootings on a weekly basis. Crime and violence are real, and have been exacerbated recently by the isolation, fears, and economic stresses caused by the pandemic. Safety is one of our most basic human needs, and when the hired hand chooses his safety – see wolf, run – it is a natural, rational response.
But we don’t follow Jesus because it’s a particularly practical way to navigate the world. The way of Jesus didn’t make sense in the year 33, and we sure as heck shouldn’t expect it to make sense in 2021. “God chooses those whom the world considers foolish to shame the wise, and singles out the weak of this world to shame the strong.” It has always been and will always be risky to choose love over power. That choice did not go well for Stephen, or James, or actually for most of the early apostles. It did not end well for Saint Valentine, or Saint Maximilian, for Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. Choosing love sometimes comes at a very high cost.
But at this point, it feels increasingly clear that if I need the police in order to feel safe, the cost of my safety is the lives of my neighbors. I would like to be wrong about this, but current evidence points to the fact that the continued existence of the police means continued killings by the police. Two weeks ago, Minnesota police shot and killed Daunte Wright just miles away from the courthouse where Derek Chauvin’s trial was taking place. Or even just consider what has taken place this week just since the verdict on Tuesday evening: Ma’Khia Bryant, and then later that night, Massachusetts police shot and killed Phet Gouvonvong. The next day, North Carolina police shot and killed Andrew Brown, Jr.; an unidentified man in a mental health crisis was shot and killed by police in California. Wednesday night a Virginia police officer fired between 7 and 10 shots at Isaiah Brown, who is currently in critical condition.
When the hired hand chooses his safety, he sacrifices the sheep – who am I sacrificing?
What would I do for safety?
These are painful questions to ask. They get at some of our deepest vulnerabilities. Two years ago today I relocated back to DC from Haiti in part because I did not feel safe, so I’m well aware I have my limits. But I can’t ignore that we are in a dire situation. I can’t ignore that the police exist in the interest of public safety, which includes my safety, which means that I am, at some level, involved in – maybe even complicit in – each of these deaths. So I have to take these questions seriously.
I do not want to do this alone. A few days ago, I shared a new resource that the Mennonite Church created, a nine-week study program [that] “challenges participants to think creatively about personal and community safety in a Biblical context.” I need this. Because even now, I still see the question as: can I give up my idea of safety for the love of my neighbor? But as Caren Holmes told us in Abolition 101, that’s a false choice. That is, it is possible to separate safety from policing; across time and place, communities have kept themselves safe in many different ways.
What does the Bible have to say to us about safety? Can scripture help us imagine new ways – or remember old ways – to keep our communities safe?
Just in today’s lectionary, I get glimpses of this.
“Even if I’m surrounded by the shadows of death, I fear no danger, for You are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they give me courage.”
What would it mean, today, to imagine that our safety might be found in the shepherd’s staff instead of the police officer’s gun? What would it look like to live out the trust embodied in the twenty-third Psalm?
Even asking that question makes me feel a little more hopeful that there are answers.
I hope some of you will join me in continuing to wrestle with this subject. It is daunting, but I believe the Holy Spirit will walk with us, and our Good Shepherd will show us the way. AMEN.