Today’s scripture readings:
1 John 3:16-24
On Tuesday afternoon, I watched as the verdict was announced in the Derek Chauvin trial. I have to admit that, even as cheers of triumph and jubilation were resounding from the steps of the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis to George Floyd Square at 38th and Chicago, my heart just felt heavy. It was the verdict so many of us had been hoping for, and yet, as I heard the verdict read and watched Derek Chauvin react to the news of his conviction, the victory, to me, felt hollow. I hesitate to even admit any of that, much less lead off this sermon with that confession. But I wonder if some of you felt that way, too.
Immediately after the verdict was announced, legislators and other elected officials and community leaders began making meaning of Derek Chauvin’s conviction in social media posts and in statements to the press. Most of them, it turns out, said basically the same thing. They said, Derek Chauvin’s conviction is accountability, but it is not justice. It was a necessary step in the right direction, but it is not the end; it is only the beginning of a much longer journey. As Pastor DeWayne Davis of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis said at an interfaith vigil Tuesday evening, the prophets called for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, but with this conviction we saw only a trickle. Remain dissatisfied, he said. Keep a complaint on your lips. Have a side of resistance with your coffee and muffin each morning, because as long as black people are over-policed, over-charged, over-incarcerated, and over-represented by killings, we’ve only got a trickle of justice. So be dissatisfied and remember what the prophets said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Surely, Pastor DeWayne is right. Derek Chauvin’s conviction brought only a trickle of the justice Black, indigenous, and people of color have been demanding for so long. But that isn’t the only reason the jury’s verdict left me feeling empty and heavy-hearted. It’s also this: It’s hard to feel jubilant when one man has been murdered and his killer is being sent to prison. Don’t get me wrong: Chauvin’s conviction was right and necessary. But the entire ordeal reveals the depth of human brokenness. The fact is, George Floyd is still dead. Our communities are still hurting. A police officer who knelt on a man’s neck until he died has been convicted of murder and is now behind bars, and that’s as it should be. But what would be even better than more racist cops behind bars would be more anti-racists—in our police departments and beyond—more deeply invested in the work of remediation and reparation. I don’t just want to live in a world where a white cop who kills a Black man before our eyes is convicted and sent to prison; I want to live in a world where people of color get to live rich, full, abundant lives and we don’t need to have trials and convictions and prison sentences. We will not achieve true justice by winning more convictions in the courts but by being convicted ourselves of the need to have our hearts and minds transformed so that we begin to see the divine image imprinted on each person and start treating each other accordingly. True justice will come—and I will be ready to celebrate—when more of us see one another as neighbors and work to build a community where everyone belongs and has an opportunity to thrive.
A man who has been blind since birth is sitting along the side of the road when Jesus walks by. Jesus stops, spits on the ground and mixes a little bit of mud out of the dirt and his saliva, and then he spreads the mud on the man’s eyes. Miraculously, his vision is restored. Now, the religious leaders hear about this and are enraged, not only because this healing took place on the sabbath, when no work is to be performed, but because Jesus wields a power that threatens their own authority. The religious establishment questions the formerly blind man repeatedly, asking who it was that healed him and how did it happen? The man replies, “I don’t know who he was. One thing I do know, that I once was blind and now I see.” In a frenzy of anger, the authorities cast the man out of the synagogue, effectively cutting him off from his community. The man has lost his sense of belonging. This man is thrown out, and then Jesus finds him again, and Jesus explains to him a paradox. He says, those who think they see are actually blind, and those once blind who encounter Jesus and believe in his power to heal are the ones who truly see.
And it’s immediately after that story that Jesus speaks the words in today’s Gospel lesson; that story about the blind man cast out of the community but welcomed by Jesus sets the context for Jesus’ words today in John’s Gospel. In today’s passage, Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me. There are other sheep who do not belong to this fold and I will bring them also. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
This good shepherd passage from the Gospel of John is a passage about belonging. To those who have felt cast out or left behind—like the blind man healed by Jesus—who feel as though they have been rejected by the community or were never accepted in the first place, Jesus speaks these words: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”
It’s the same metaphor we hear in that beloved Psalm 23. That psalm speaks of a shepherd who finds us, brings us into the fold, and protects us. All this shepherd talk in the Gospel of John and in Psalm 23 is about a God who knows us, finds us, and makes a place for us. When the world casts us out and makes us believe we don’t have a place in the community, we are known to God. We have a place in God’s flock.
Which I have to believe is just as true for the Derek Chauvins of the world, universally scorned, locked up and removed from the community, as it is for the George Floyds and the Daunte Wrights, victims of extrajudicial executions at the hands of law enforcement. Each person, each one of us, simultaneously sinner and saint, sought out by God and welcomed into the fold. Jesus the good shepherd will not rest until all the sheep hear his voice and find their place. One flock, one shepherd.
The Rev. Traci Blackmon, who serves as Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries in The United Church of Christ, said this week that “true justice is the restoration of right relationship between God and humanity and right relationship among humanity. What we call justice in our judicial system is really measured vengeance…. That’s not justice. Justice occurs when hearts are changed.” Justice is possible, she says, “but only through submission to radical love.”
Near the end of the funeral liturgy, we say the prayer of commendation, which goes like this: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive this one into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.” We say that same prayer at every funeral, not presuming to make a distinction between those who are worthy and those who are not, but trusting that each one of us is a sheep of God’s own fold, a lamb of God’s own flock, a sinner of God’s own redeeming.
I will be ready to celebrate when we learn to see one another as God sees us. When a Black man on a city street outside a grocery store visibly struggling is met not with scorn and contempt but with mercy and compassion. When a white cop makes the absolute worst decision of his career and is made to face the consequences of his actions yet somehow, despite our disgust at his despicable crime, we are able to recognize in him some glimmer of humanity.
One flock, one shepherd, by the grace of God. May it be so. Amen.
Traci Blackmon, Facebook post, published and accessed April 20, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/traci.blackmon/posts/10224202780198582.
DeWayne Davis, as seen in a Facebook video posted by Mariah Furness Tollgaard, published and accessed April 20, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/mariah.tollgaard/videos/10158990039650049.
Sermon Brainwave Podcast, “#781: Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2021,” by WorkingPreacher.org,published April 19, 2021, accessed April 20, 2021, https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/781-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-25-2021.