Readings for Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter
This sermon was preached at All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley CA on April 28, 2015.
In our Gospel this morning, the Judeans gather around Jesus and ask, “Ayos potay ten psyche humon aireis” (Εως πότε τὴν ψυχὴν ἡμῶν αἴρεις). The first two words “ayos potay” are “How long?” and anyone familiar with the Jewish tradition of lament will recognize the phrase, which is repeated like a mourner’s mantra in the Psalms and Hebrew Scriptures. The same Greek words are used in the Septuagint, ayos potay: “How long, O Lord, will you hide your face from me?” (Ps 13:1) How long will the wicked be jubilant?” (Ps 94:3) “How long shall I cry out and you not hear me?” (Hab 1:2). It is a question I’ve been asking and praying recently: How long? How long, O Lord, will this nation continue to writhe under the pernicious effects of racism? How long must our social and economic structures continue to protect and privilege some while impoverishing and oppressing others? How long must people be mistreated and even murdered because of the color of their skin? These questions of protest and lament, which are now rising loudly and violently out of Baltimore, have been haunting our nation for decades. How much longer?
The rest of the question asked by the Judeans is a translation of the Greek phrase: “ten psyche humon aireis” (Εως πότε τὴν ψυχὴν ἡμῶν αἴρεις). As I have said in class several times, “All translation is interpretation” and that certainly applies in this case. Although the question is translated as “How long will you keep us in suspense?” Literally, the question they ask is, “How long will you take away our life?” or “How long will you take away our breath?” Johannine scholar Raymond Brown says, “The use of this expression for suspense is not well attested.”
How long will you take away our life? We can imagine this question being asked by the ghosts of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and countless other victims of racial violence. “How long will you take away our breath?” Asks Eric Garner whose asthma intensifies under a police officer’s chokehold, which eventually kills him.
How long will you take away our life? A question that also rises out of Nepal where the death toll continues to grow as I speak, nearing 5,000. A question that is asked by thousands of victims of gun violence, including those shot outside of a church in Brooklyn last night. A question that is asked by victims of terrorism and religious violence, which has been festering and infecting humanity as long we have been religious.
It’s a good question. And it’s a good question to ask God, which is essentially what the Judeans are doing when they ask Jesus, who, in John, is most clearly divine. (“I and the Father are one,” he says). For the Judeans, the question is connected with his messianic identity. “If you are the messiah,” they say, “let us know so that you can help us overthrow the yoke of the Roman Empire. How long will you let the Romans take away our life?”
Jesus says, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. You do not believe because, as of now, you are not my sheep.” In John, Jesus knows what is in the hearts of men and women, as the Gospel says in chapter 2, “He needed no testimony about them for he knew what was in their heart” (2:25). He knows that the question is fueled by politics, hypocrisy, and deceit and is essentially an attempt to catch Jesus in the act of blasphemy so that they can feed him to the vicious wolves of Roman violence, in order to save their own necks. He knows that some are already scanning the stones within their reach so that they can act swiftly and hurl the first stone when he falls into their trap. The verse directly following the last verse we read is “Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him” (10:31). There are a lot of stones being picked up and thrown in Baltimore by rioters and police…
“You are not my sheep,” he says. My sheep are not violent. My sheep do not respond to violence with more violence. “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me.”
Last night in Baltimore, after the Governor of Maryland declared a State of Emergency and the National Guard was deployed to patrol the streets amidst the violent riots, more than a hundred Baltimore clergy marched on the streets with arms linked in an effort to restore the peace. One reporter said, “These are the church leaders who are putting themselves in harm’s way to end the violence… they are linked arm-in-arm… one gentleman is in front in a wheelchair.” These are sheep who follow the good shepherd, willing to meet the wolves and even be killed by the wolves of violent riots or of a violent government.
When asked what they thought about the State of Emergency that the Governor declared, “they said there has been a State of Emergency way before tonight in Baltimore city, an emergency in poverty, lack of jobs [and] disenfranchisement from the political process.” They ask the same question, “How long? How long will you take our life away? How long will you take their life away?” but they don’t ask these questions in order to justify more violence. They ask the same question with anger, with impatience, with boldness, but also with a willingness to lay down their lives in the process. They embody the question, as they risk their lives in order to point out the conditions that make society’s victims feel like violence is their only option. They defend and stand up for society’s victims, knowing that they may easily become victims as well. These are sheep of the good shepherd and they will not be snatched away because when someone lays down one’s life for another, they never perish.
The aid workers entering Nepal in order to help care for the more than 7,000 injured victims are risking their own safety and wellbeing as they face deadly aftershocks. These are sheep of the good shepherd. These are the people who continue the work and ministry of those first believers in Antioch, whose imitation of the Christ Shepherd became so apparent that they were called “Christians,” those who belong to the flock of Christ.
The sheep of the good shepherd are not those who are simply religious, who believe in right doctrine, who pray the Daily Office and who regularly attend Mass. The sheep of the good shepherd are those who follow the Christ by risking their own lives for others. They are the ones who are putting their lives on the line in order to transform Baltimore and Kathmandu (and Oakland) into Zion, into the city sustained by the Most High God. These are Christians, who are embodying the Way of Christ, whether they know it or not.
Some of us, like me, need to allow the Shepherd to transform us through prayer and the sacraments so that we can follow the Shepherd more readily. The Good Shepherd is eternally patient with us, willing to receive our own inner wolves. Sometimes I want to hurl my “How long?” questions at the throne of God, even if my questions are angry and violent accusations against God. The Good Shepherd patiently allows this and responds by showing me how I can embody that same question in the world like the Baltimore clergy and the aid workers in Nepal and work towards an answer, as a sheep of his flock, as long as I’m willing to risk my safety and even my life.
In the Eucharist, we encounter the One who receives all of our questions, accusations, anger and confusion and responds with a loving-kindness that feeds us and transforms us into his sheep; into agents of peace who can respond to the pain of the world with a love that is vulnerable, but will never die, for as the Good Shepherd said, “They shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
 Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 403.