Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down their life for the sheep….No one takes it from me, I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again.”
Reading this gospel this week, these last words jumped out at me in particular – for they emphasize the choice involved. Both the free will choice that Jesus exercised throughout his ministry, and the free will choice Jesus made on Easter weekend. And sometimes that is lost in our notion of the shepherd and the sheep, for we see sheep as docile, and meek, hustling into the corral out of fear while the sheep dog nips at their heels.
But the gospel, while it uses the comforting analogy of the shepherd, doesn’t not define following as meek and docile, but as strong and deliberate. Jesus as a shepherd leads us, and welcomes us into the fold, but as this morning’s gospel reminds us, the decision to lay down our lives, and to take them up again is completely ours.
So, who then are we, the sheep of Jesus, called then to shepherd?
Let me tell you the story of a father of three, the breadwinner for his family. He came to this country as a student, and remained. He learned Spanish and worked as an aid worker in Bolivia. He was known to be a good neighbor, willing to drive his friends to appointments.
Last January, he was worshipping in his place of faith, when a gunman strode though the entrance and began shooting. As parishioners scrambled for cover, he crouched in place and locked eyes with the gunman. Before he could act, he was shot in the knee. A second bullet went into his chin. At that same worship service, six men died, fathers and members of their community. One of them is caught on camera rushing at the gunman to try to stop him. This father survived. But he wound up paralyzed. When the Globe and Mail interviewed him, many months later, he had still not left the medical centre. He could not return to the fourth-floor apartment where his family lived. They need to find a new place to live. But with the father injured, they did not have the money to move.
After the story ran, a gofundme account was created, to raise money for this father’s family. Another was created for the families of the six men who died that day. They were like the gofundme account that has now raised $15-million, in not much more than a week, for the Humboldt Broncos. This money will go to help the injured – including one paralyzed young player – and for the families grieving a terrible loss after that bus crash. Individual funds for players have also surpassed fundraising goals. When a person creates a gofundme account, they set a target: in the case of the Broncos, it was $5,000, meant to be cover incidentals as the true measure of the accident became clear. It raised 3,000 times more than asked for; about 140,000 people made donations from all around the world.
The fund for the six families who lost their fathers in the shooting, asked for $400,000. In 14 months, the contributions of 6,000 people had just reached that goal. For the father in the worship place shooting, the starting target goal was much higher – $200,000. That money would go home to his family. In four months, the fund for him has raised $5,743.
Now, you may say it is wrong to rank tragedies against each other, and certainly both are horrific. Maybe the math alone does not define the true extent of care given; but let’s be honest, the giving of our treasure is often how we demonstrate generosity. And for one tragedy, the nation clearly took on the role of shepherds to injured and traumatized sheep, and in the other, Canadians did not, at least not so much.
Why? That is a question we need to ask ourselves – we who, as Jesus says, make the decision to lay down our lives and take them up again, as we choose.
Make of this what you will: That father’s name was not Ryan, or Evan or Connor. His name was Aymen Derbali. He came to Canada, as an immigrant from Tunisia. And he was worshipping at a mosque in Quebec City. Like the six killed, he was Muslim. The shooter, as we have learned in painful detail this week, was a young white man, who became obsessed with alt-right, and fearful of immigrants, and his act, he claims, was at least partly motivated by a tweet that the Prime Minister made, when the US first announced its ban on Muslims, saying that citizens of any faith were welcome in Canada. His attack was horrific, and no accident. It destroyed Canadian families, and stole fathers from their children. And yet, for these sheep, the shepherds reacted much differently.
Should we be ashamed about that? I leave that for you to mull over.
But we know this to be true, just as Jesus outlines it for us this morning: if we have free will, to give and to take, then we are defined by those choices. We decide by those choices, which sheep to care for, and which sheep to invest less time into. It is natural for us to respond emotionally to tragedies that touch us personally – the thought of those boys on a bus travelling as a sports team resonated with so many families. But how in a country that prides themselves on safety in public spaces, standing against racism defending freedom of religion, valuing multiculturalism, why did a shooting in a mosque, not create the same response. Are we not also people of faith? Are we not also fathers and mothers with children who need our care? Why does that not resonate?
We know why. We don’t want to admit it, we squirm around the answer. But it is right there in the math.
And the gospel does not leave us off the hook for that. Jesus does not let us off the hook this morning. We have been taught by Christ to resist our natural inclinations to build walls, to create groups of others, to rank people, some above the rest. We have been taught to be shepherds, who value even the sheep who wander off, or runaway, or are different than us. We are called to work intentionally to be that force of fairness in the world.
What Jesus says to us this morning is this: we have the choice, the power to lay down our lives for the gospel. To be the sheep, guided and protected by the love and acceptance of God and Christ. And we have the power, to take those lives up again, as we choose. To be shepherds, who decide how to guide and protect in the world around us, to go where we are needed, to reach out to those who need us.
Both those choices, how we make them, and for who, will define us, at the end of our days.