Say Their Names — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 10:1-21

Say their names.

The sentence is a protest. The sentence is a plea. The sentence is a provocation.

Say their names.

I speak aloud the names of Daunte Wright, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Terence Crutcher, and dozens of other victims of police and public violence. In the speaking, I refuse to submerge their stories into the maze of my memories. I keep their names and faces foremost. I remember and repeat their stories. I press the powers for repentance and repair.

Say their names.

I hear the names of Trayvon Martin, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, and Charleena Lyles. I hear the plea to remember them as people created in the Divine Image and beloved by God. They are among the hundreds of God’s children erased from life by systemic violence. Their blood cries out from the ground and implores me to remember.

Say their names.

I speak the names of Joe Coe, Will Brown, Vivian Strong, and James Scurlock. I think about the history of racialized violence in our own community. I am ashamed that so many of us white people know so little of that history. I am grieved that some of us white people work so hard to hide their names and stories from view. I am compelled – for reasons I don’t yet discern – to keep their names and stories in my head and heart, ears and mouth. I am provoked to repentance and renewal when I say their names.

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

The Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. The Good Shepherd says their names.

He doesn’t see the flock as a jumble of horns and hooves, a welter of wool and wagging tails. The Good Shepherd sees individuals, says their names, and leads them out to life. He does not see the sheep as commodities for consumption, as products to be processed, as stock to be sorted and sold, as chattel to be channeled into personal portfolios.

The Good Shepherd says their names and leads them out to life.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, hears of the death of his beloved friend, Lazarus. He travels to Bethany. He weeps at the tomb. He demands the stone be removed. He shouts, “Lazarus! Come out!”

A former corpse stumbles into the sunlight, blinking and still bound in the burial bandages. “Unbind him,” Jesus commands. And while you’re at it, cancel the order for the headstone.

Jesus says, “Lazarus!” and leads him out to life.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. They cower in fear behind locked doors, harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Mary Magdalene wanders through a garden, blinded by her grief. She meets a man. She can’t see him through the tears. She pleads for him to surrender the body of her friend. The man says, “Mary.” Her vision clears. She sees her Master and friend, in the flesh. She hears her name.

Jesus says, “Mary,” and leads her out to life.

Peter has unfinished business with his master and friend. He can’t get past his past, so he returns to repeat it. “I’m going fishing,” he tells the other disciples. They follow him, no better equipped to go forward. Jesus appears, preparing a little breakfast on the beach. The time has come to put the past in its place.

“Peter,” Jesus says to his troubled friend, “Do you love me?”

The question hurts Peter’s feelings. Given the recent past, however, it’s a question that needs answering. “You know I do, Lord,” Peter protests.

“Then feed my sheep,” Jesus responds. Let go of the remorse and regret. Shed the dead end of shame. Get on with your life, Peter. After all, Jesus comes to give us just that – life, abundant life.

Jesus says, “Peter,” and leads him out to life.

The good news for me today begins this way. The Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name. The Good shepherd leads us out to abundant life. I have been named and claimed and aimed by Jesus in my baptism. I have been plunged into his death and lifted into his resurrection.

I hear him call me by name when I hear the words “given and shed for you.” Jesus says, “I know my own, and my own know me.” We meet in the intimacy of a meal where I am known fully and loved just the same.

The Good Shepherd calls me in the power of the Holy Spirit. I hear him call me by name through our Scriptures. I him calling in our serving, through prayer and practice.

Jesus says, “Lowell,” and leads me out to abundant life.

Too often, I act like that’s the end of it. But, for the Good Shepherd this is only the beginning. At least, that’s how it looks from my tiny perspective. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” he tells me, “and they will listen to my voice.” Despite my self-centeredness, I know there are actually other sheep just as important to the Good Shepherd as I am — even if they are not “like me.”

Jesus says their names and leads them out to abundant life.

Jesus says their names – Daunte Wright, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and Terrence Crutcher.

Jesus says their names – Trayvon Martin, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, and Charleena Lyles.

Jesus says their names – Joe Coe, Will Brown, Vivian Strong, and James Scurlock.

There is a harder part to this litany as well. Jesus says their names – Derek Chauvin, George Zimmerman, Kim Potter, Garret Rolfe, Brett Hankison, and hundreds of others. They are a lot more “like me.”

Peter gets named first to confront his past. Until he is named, he cannot be held accountable. The naming may be the final verdict on the unrepentant. Or, if Divine Love has its way, there might be a path toward repentance and life. That’s far above my pay grade.

Jesus says to me, “Lowell, do you love me?” I recoil with hurt and shame. “Lord, you know I love you!” I reply. The recent evidence for my assertion is not all that convincing. Jesus persists. “Feed my sheep.”

For centuries, the system of white male supremacy has insisted on “one flock.” That flock has only white members. Those of other flocks need not apply. That system has been enforced with enslavement and oppression, with violence and death. That enforcement has been both private and state-sponsored. That enforcement continues as the unspoken norm in the present.

Those of other flocks need not apply. Rather, it would be best, according to the current “one flock” system, if they disappeared.

The others were disqualified first by biology – creationist or eugenicist, take your pick. The others were then disqualified by culture – labeled as backward, behind, and barely human. Now, the others are disqualified as a caste of criminals – illegal based on skin tone, deadly even when handcuffed, pinned to a curb, gasping for breath, crying for a dead mother’s comfort.

We disqualify the others with our silence. We disqualify the others when we forget their names. Disqualification in this game results in death.

Say their names. They are killed to pay the price for the “one flock” – white and male, powerful and privileged, propertied and protected.

After centuries of oppression and abuse, lynching and execution, Jesus says to me, “Feed my sheep.” Following Jesus comes with a promotion – from sheep to sheep-feeder. Jesus calls me by name not merely to make me feel better. Jesus calls me by name to call me into ministry. That ministry looks like the ministry of the Good Shepherd – the one who lays down his life for the sheep.

I doubt if I’m going to be called into physical suffering or martyrdom as part of the disciple biz. But the question for me – and perhaps for you – is different. Well, it’s different if, like me, you’re white and male, powerful and privileged, propertied, and protected.

The question is this. Will I surrender any of that power, privilege, property, and protection so that sheep from “other folds” can have life and have it abundantly? It’s not enough for me to use my white and male power, privilege, property, and protection to work on behalf of Black, Brown, Native, AAPI and other oppressed people. That will help, but it won’t be enough.

Like the Good Shepherd, I and people similar to me need to lay down enough of our lives to make room for the sheep from other flocks in the center of life and not merely at the margins.

That’s why this is so hard. Laying down power, privilege, property, and protection feels like losing. It isn’t. It’s moving toward equity. But it costs me something, and I struggle with that.

The end of this gospel reading (John 10:19-21) reveals a debate about Jesus. “He has a demon and is out of his mind,” some said. “Why listen to him?” Others pointed to the evidence of their senses. “These are not the words of one who has a demon,” they argued. “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

No, I don’t think so. The Good Shepherd calls me by name and leads me out to abundant life. In the midst of that abundance, I can begin to part with some of my power, privilege, property, and protection. It’s not a straight line of progress. And I’m just a small part of the system. But it’s where I can start today.

That’s what abundant life really looks like – when all the folds are one flock, sharing the abundant life with joyous abandon. How can I go forth into that life today?

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