Preaching After Ferguson: “I will shepherd the flock with justice.”

I’ve had a few requests asking about how our church worshipped yesterday, taking into account the non-indictment from Ferguson. Below is a lightly-edited version of my sermon. However, the most impactful part of the service were the testimonies given by eight members who told us about their responses to the news. After each person shared the church responded by praying a portion of a psalm.

Update: The podcast is now available and it includes the testimonies shared by eight members of our church.

Advent: Lament and Longing

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the season that reminds us of the time when God’s people were awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Our passage, Ezekiel 34, was written during that waiting time: Babylon had conquered Judah; Ezekiel and others had been carried into exile; The Temple had been destroyed. Advent reminds us of the longing and laments these people felt as they prayed for God’s rescue to come.

Advent also reminds us that we await our Messiah’s return. We share with those ancient exiles the bitter awareness that life is far from what it should be; we share with them the hope for the Messiah to come and make all things right. Because things are not right.

When Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18 year old, college-bound, African American man with no criminal record was gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When the young man’s body was left in the middle of the street for four hours in the August afternoon sun, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When law enforcement responded to protests with tear gas and military grade weaponry, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When a town like Ferguson can be 67% African American and yet 93% of arrests made by the mostly white police force are of the town’s black citizens, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When Michael Brown’s personal life and motives are picked apart by a media looking for some reason to justify his killing, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When the same state that ruled against the enslaved Dred Scott’s legal suit challenging his enslavement in 1847 releases video showing Michael Brown stealing a few cigarettes as justification for his death, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When a grand jury meets for three months under the direction of a county prosecutor with close ties to the police department and a history of racial bias and decides not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When a black man is 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white man, we are reminded that things aren’t right.

When so many American citizens question the innocence of these slain men while conveniently overlooking our nation’s pathological robberies: we took the first nation’s land before taking their lives; we stole black bodies from Africa and placed them within a white supremacist system of cotton fields, Jim Crow laws, systematically designed ghettos, and money-making prisons; our towns and tax systems benefits from undocumented brown bodies who do the work we’re unwilling to do for wages we’d be offended by… we are reminded that things aren’t right.

Oppressive Shepherds and Opportunistic Sheep

In response to their new situation in Babylon, the exiles wanted to know what they were to do. Their king was dethroned, they’d been sent into exile, and now the temple was destroyed. In response to so much trauma and suffering, what were they to do? I was texting with a friend this week about the news from Ferguson and, at one point, he replied, “I’m not doing enough.” Like the exiles, we want to know what to do. But the Ezekiel passage doesn’t tell us what to do. Instead Ezekiel makes clear that nature of the injustice suffered by God’s people and it tells us what God will do about it.

Verses 34:1-16 are directed to the shepherds, those in positions of power and leadership. Woe to you writes Ezekiel. God is angry with them for what they’ve not done as well as the ways they’ve abused their power.

You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.

As a result of their unjust rule, the people are scattered, wandering, and being devoured.

Verses 34:17-31 are directed toward the sheep, the people. Some of them, according to Ezekiel have taken advantage of the unjust system created and maintained by the shepherds. Ezekiel charges them: You’ve eaten your fill then trampled the pasture so others can’t eat; You’ve muddied the water so others can’t drink; You’ve abused the weak sheep and driven them away.

And what will God do about the wicked shepherds and opportunist sheep?

 23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.

This is pointing toward Jesus, the Messiah anticipated by the exiles and their descendants right up until that surprising night in Bethlehem. But look closely and see that the metaphor of shepherd is closer to a righteous judge.This shepherd will remove corrupt leaders. He will judge those who have benefitted themselves through an evil system.

What Will You Do When The Shepherd Returns?

The exiles awaited this “one shepherd” to come. We await his return. So how will you respond when this good shepherd and righteous judge returns? There will be many who great his return with celebration and relief. There will be some, like the shepherds in Ezekiel 34, who will be terrified because their opposition to this return king has been unmistakable.

And then there will be others of us who are like the fat sheep in this passage and like the goats in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31-46. In response to the righteous judge this group will respond, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ Those within this group know there is something wrong with our world. We know, on some level, that game is rigged. We know that our nation resembles a democracy to some and a kleptocracy to so many others. But because we generally don’t feel the wickedness of our society we are quickly distracted. We choose to invest in the small circle of our insulated existence rather than the lives of the overlooked and oppressed.

And here is the truth according to God’s word: the judge will pronounce sentence on those powerful people who oversaw the unjust system AS WELL as on those who quietly benefitted from the unjust system.

Which group do you fall within? If you’re unsure, imagine for a moment that Jesus returned today. Imagine the realization that the good shepherd and righteous judge had come to make all things right and new. What would you feel? Would you run to greet this shepherd and judge, knowing that your salvation and vindication had arrived? Would you run the other way, knowing that your day of hollow and wicked rule had come to an end? Or would stand frozen in uncertainty? Unsure of what the Messiah’s return means for someone as middle of the road, as under the radar, as inconspicuous as you? As me?

Jesus In Ferguson

As much as we want to know what to do in the aftermath of Ferguson, as much as the exiles wanted to know what to do in the aftermath of their desolation, Ezekiel is more interested in what God will do. And what God does in the face of such evil is to send us a shepherd, a servant, a prince, his only Son.

And the trajectory of Jesus’ life makes it very clear to us where he would stand in the streets of Ferguson:

His motives are questioned and his reputation slandered.

His body is dehumanized so that his execution could be justified.

He dies in the afternoon sun, a spectacle meant to remind the onlookers who holds the power.

In life he is marginalized and in death he is brutalized.

Are we talking about Michael Brown or Jesus? Yes.

Are we talking about 12 year old Tamir Rice or Jesus? Yes.

Are we talking about John Crawford shot in a Wal-Mart or Jesus? Yes.

Are we talking about Marissa Alexander, imprisoned for firing a warning shot at an abusive husband yet unprotected by the same stand your ground laws used by others, or are we talking about Jesus? Yes.

This is what God’s salvation looks like. We start with what God does, and because of what God does through Jesus and because of HOW God does it through a broken and bruised body, we in turn must look at the black and brown lives that are continually being broken and bruised, not in spite of how our society works but precisely because of how our society works.To paraphrase Ta-nehis Coates, a society structured around the dehumanization of black and brown people is having its intended effect.

And Jesus, the Bible makes clear, stands with those on the receiving end of our society’s violence.

I won’t wrap this sermon up cleanly or neatly. All we have done this morning is acknowledge the reality experienced by so many in our world, a reality we walk back into now. There very well may be things for you to do. But start instead with what God will do and ask yourself how you will respond on that day. How will you receive the returning shepherd and judge? Will you run to him in relief and joy? Then do so now, carrying with you every emotion and thought that you’ve known this week. On that day will you run the other way, knowing that your days of vapid and abusive power have come to end? Or might you be like the fat sheep or the surprised goats, frozen in uncertainty?

The possibility for a joyful reunion exists for all of us, but it requires that we embrace the cross of Jesus and all of its implications.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

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