As we said at the beginning of worship today, along with this Fourth Sunday of Easter being traditionally, Good Shepherd Sunday, with the familiar words of Psalm 23 “the Lord’s my Shepherd, I shall not want…” and the reading from John 10, that includes Jesus saying, “I am the Good Shepherd,” it is also designated in the ELCIC as Vocational Sunday – or “A day of prayer for vocations in rostered ministry.” And as we also said at the beginning of worship, this is connected to racism/anti-racism in the church that was the work of our BC Synod Study conference for rostered leaders and students this past week – and awareness and lament of tragic racist events in the US and continuing in our nation and communities as well. It’s a lot to take in - 4th Easter, Good Shepherd, Vocational, Anti-racism Sunday! And it seems the Spirit’s leading that all of these are connected.
At the Study Conference we had two excellent guest presenters. Pastor Lenny Duncan, ELCA pastor/mission developer in Vancouver, Washington, author of Dear Church, and recently released, United States of Grace. Pastor Lyndon has mentioned him before, and Pastor Duncan recognized Pastor Lyndon in his presentation saying it was like seeing a favourite NFL player drafted to the CFL and wanting him back! Pastor Duncan is a Black, Queer pastor who speaks with boldness and truth about white supremacy as a “demonic system” in the church and in the world, “something black people have always known since being taken as slaves.” “It is evil,” and the church must join “the battle against this evil if the church is to be God’s holy vessel on earth.” I cannot do justice to all Pastor Duncan shared with us with energy and passion, with sharp criticism and unflinching truth, nor can or should I as a white pastor, who benefits from the privilege and power that this system of white supremacy gives to me, including in the church. I listened and was uncomfortable and challenged and struggled and learned, recognizing the personal work I need to do to address my own unconscious racism and inaction, and my “commitment level” to participate in what Pastor Duncan described as acts of “making peace, waging peace, and movement chaplaincy” to “support and empower those groups working for the good of the world,” in what he described as a “spiritual shift in the world since George Floyd’s death.” All of this presented to us as the accused in the murder of George Floyd was found guilty on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, our guest was Stephanie Allen, an executive with BC Housing, she completed an award-winning Masters’ thesis titled, “Fight the power: Redressing displacement and building a just city for Black lives in Vancouver.” Stephanie Allen began with the quote, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” She also emphasized that “race is a human construct,” “built out of fear of scarcity - that there isn’t enough for everyone.” She provided us with a history of anti-Black racism in Canada, including slavery, policing of Black lives, segregation, legislation, immigration that excludes Black people, town planning to keep Blacks out of communities, and displacement of Black people and whole neighbourhoods, like “Hogan’s Alley” for the construction of the Vancouver viaduct system. And she spoke about the unconscious racism and oppression that remains part of us, and the underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous and people of colour in so many areas of opportunity, and the over representation of the same in poverty, homelessness, unemployment, imprisonment, physical and mental illness. Again, it was challenging and necessary and painful to hear and learn, and how much more so for the small number of Indigenous and people of colour among our rostered leaders and students.
It was their pain and anger from the racism and exclusion they experience in the church that was difficult and critical to hear. Pastor Nathan Fong, from Grace Lutheran in Burnaby, gave the opening sermon, speaking about his never feeling like he belonged as a Lutheran or pastor in the church. And the racism he and others experience from colleagues and other people in the church, and the lack of awareness and appreciation by white colleagues of that pain and trauma. He spoke of his doubt that this could change, questioning the church’s willingness, our willingness, to be and act differently.
And for this Vocational Sunday, it is Pastor Nathan who prepared a sermon for use across the ELCIC. In it he writes: Have you ever felt like you just didn’t belong? I know I have. See, way back when dial-up internet still roamed the earth, I was in high school just being all teenager-like. I was still finding out who I was, defining my personality, and figuring out how I fit in my family, among my friends, and in the world. Pastor Nathan goes on to talk about repeatedly taking vocational tests in school, and each time, in contrast to his friends identifying with “cool jobs like doctor, lawyer and race car driver,” his repeatedly identified him as “religious leader, rabbi, priest.” Despite doubts within himself and among his friends and family, this continued to work on him and led to his serving as a Pastor today. He goes on to say: But you can see how I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt it with my friends who thought it was weird that this kid that grew up with them doing all the urban kid stuff with them would become a pastor. I felt it with my family who thought I wasn’t cut from the right kind of cloth and wanted “better” for me. And then I started to feel it within myself as all the things they said continued to ring in my mind, causing doubt, suspicion, and fear.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says in today’s gospel, “I know my own and my own know me.” That sounds real pretty, Jesus, but if you know me so well, why did you put me in this position where I feel this way? Why did you burn this passion within me for the gospel and its proclamation? Why did you call me, of all people, to serve you in this way? Because, clearly, I don’t belong. Clearly, I don’t fit in. Clearly, I don’t have what it takes if I have doubt within myself of myself, my abilities and talents or lack thereof, and how long I can last without trying to make an inappropriate joke. And so I wonder how many of us might feel the same way. Maybe we feel like we don’t belong as well, maybe we feel like we can’t do much to help further the dominion of God because we aren’t talented or knowledgeable or whatever enough to make it. …Jesus words are here to encourage us, reassure us, empower us and lift us up and remind us that even when the world tells us that we aren’t good enough or don’t belong, God continues to call us by name and invites us and welcomes us into Jesus’ one flock where he is the shepherd and we are known, blessed, and dearly loved.
Pastor Nathan notes Jesus’ words about “other sheep who do not belong to this fold,” who Jesus must also call and bring into the one flock, reminding us that in Jesus no one we might see as outside, is. All are included, all belong. Pastor Nathan concludes: …whatever demographic we find ourselves in or identify with, on whatever margins we feel like we’re residing just outside of, within whatever label that we associate ourselves with or has been unwillingly affixed to us, we belong.
The image of the good shepherd that I am most conscious of today, is that of protector. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The rod and staff of the shepherd are for protection of the sheep against anything that could harm them. In the same breath as Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he says, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And four more times in these short verses, Jesus restates this truth. Jesus willingly lays down his life to protect the sheep, God’s own. And in 1 John, we hear, “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a sibling in need, and yet refuses help?” How does God’s love abide in me, who has been given the world’s privilege and power by virtue of my skin colour alone, and sees Black, Indigenous and other people of colour oppressed, dismissed, excluded, held back, burdened, choked to death, shot and killed as teenagers, in need of protection, commitment, advocacy and support, and yet I refuse, too afraid, too cautious, to help? John says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” The way of the good shepherd is to lay down one’s life for the protection of our neighbour in need. What in and of my life do I need to lay down, to give up, to get out of the way for my differently coloured siblings in their need, not as saviour - that is in Jesus alone, but as oppressor, to stop, and act instead in love. What is the level of my commitment to the good shepherd and my neighbour of colour to do that? Only, abiding in the good and gracious shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, in whom we and all are completely known, in whose risen Spirit alone, can I and we live this love. Let it be…