The church wasn’t looking for any attention or accolades, but very soon they had made national news.
It was several years ago, back in 2011, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in North Harlem – a historic and nationally celebrated church where Civil Rights leaders Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. both served as pastor, and where these days the pastor is Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, III. Dr. Calvin Butts is heavily engaged in community leadership and development, and thus often aware of what’s happening in the community. So he was aware of a recent drug bust in the church’s neighborhood. A major, multiple month undercover operation had resulted in the arrest of some 40 people on drug and weapons charges, and the church learned that among them was a 17 year old church member – a girl who had grown in that church through its preschool program, Sunday school, gospel choir, after-school recreation, mentoring, weekend retreats. She had been baptized there and received the admiration of a community who believed in her and came to regard her as a brilliant success-in-the-making.
But now she sat in jail – facing serious charges, that no one could have seen coming for a young woman of such promise. “This was not supposed to be her story,” one church leader said. And so that Sunday, Dr. Butts, with the support of the other pastors, made an appeal to his congregation: “Church, he said, that’s your child who is sitting in jail. I feel God is calling us to bail her out.” The congregation approved, and together they raised $25,000, which was taken to the courthouse at her bond hearing that week. The story quickly spread – it was so astounding to our world where you learn from your mistakes, you pay your own way, you live with the consequences of your decisions, and where if you wander off you have to find your own way back. But when he was asked about the church’s response, Pastor Calvin Butts was straightforward: “Look,” he said. “She’s ours. She belongs to us. We’re going to get her.”
It was as though the church had been reading the gospels and heard of that shepherd who left the 99 to search for the 1, and wouldn’t rest until she was home. The church wasn’t looking for any attention or accolades; they were just looking for one of their own.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says in our passage today. “I know my own and my own know me.”
In church tradition, this Sunday is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” reminding us of the God who loves us and keeps us, the Christ who finds us and calls us, and centering on this image that is perhaps the most beloved and comforting in all of scripture: the Shepherd, with its associations of still waters and green pastures, drawing us to the one who walks with us in our times of ascent, but also travels into the depths with us even through the valley of the shadow of death.
In Matthew and Luke, the image of Shepherd appears as Jesus tells the moving story of the one who leaves the flock to find the one lost. We imagine that sheep draped over the shepherd’s shoulders as they return to a place of safety and rest that we ourselves can almost feel.
In the gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t tell the story of the Lost Sheep, but Jesus does proclaim: “I am the Good Shepherd” and then he begins to tell us what this means: that he seeks us, he enfolds us, he keeps us, he guards us against the wolves and other forces that come to destroy, and he even lays down his life for the sheep. Prior to the verses we read today, he describes how he calls his sheep by name; they know his voice and turn to follow. And in John 10:10, just before our passage, he tells us the reason for it all:“I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”More than day-to-day survival, Jesus wants the flock to live. And Jesus not only wants us to live, but to live with the abundance that can be known through following the Good Shepherd.
As we listen to his words, Jesus reminds us that this is not some distant commitment, but that he lives right alongside of the sheep. Shepherds had a hard life. They faced all of the hardships their sheep faced, only not merely as one of the flock, but as the one responsible for the lot. They were just as vulnerable, just as isolated, just as weary as any of their sheep, if not more so.
That’s the kind of life Jesus lives for us and with us. Jesus journeys with the most vulnerable, and takes on all of their vulnerability. He knows them, even by name. “Lazarus” he calls out in the gospel of John, calling him out from his tomb. “Mary,” he whispers later in the garden of resurrection. “Thomas,” he says still later as he comes back for him, “Put your hand here and believe.” He knows them all, and he always comes to find them.
This is what we see in the miraculous sign that precedes Jesus’ teaching on the Shepherd. Our passage picks up in the middle of a speech Jesus is giving to the disciples and the crowd about something they have just seen and heard about – a lost sheep, found and restored to community through the voice and vulnerability of Jesus the Shepherd.
In John, Jesus’ miracles are called “signs,” and they are followed by a teaching about what the sign shows of his identity. For example, when Jesus feeds thousands with but loaves and fish, the people try to make sense of it all, then Jesus declares the meaning: “I am the Bread of Life… those who come to me will never be hungry.”
This same pattern of sign and teaching occurs in this section of the gospel, Chapters 9-10. His statement, “I am the Good Shepherd” in Chapter 10 is a direct reference to a sign that occurs in Chapter 9. The sign is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. Some of you remember, it describes a man blind from birth, whom Jesus passes one day. As if to bait him, some leaders ask, “Why is this man blind? Who sinned? This man? Or his parents?” as though his hardship came from his own mistakes, his own wandering found him lost, his own mismanagement left him destitute and desperate.
But Jesus dismisses their questions – and with them all the assumptions behind them. Without explanation, he spits on the ground, makes mud in the dust, then pastes it on the eyes of this man. He tells him to go and wash it off and then Jesus, hands still smeared with dirt, departs. When the man returns and he can see.
Well, people don’t know what to make of such astounding, stunning, life-altering grace in abundance – we never know what to make of it. So they start asking questions. The man tries to explain, but to no avail, they even bring in his parents looking for some rationale until finally, exasperated, the once blind man says, “Look, all I know is this one thing: I was blind, but now I see.”
It’s not enough for those searching for answers, so they drive him out – leaving him a lost sheep, once more. And that’s when Jesus does what he always seems to do. He knows his sheep and his sheep know him, so Jesus goes to find him. And when he speaks, notice what happens: the man’s head turns. This man who had never seen his face clearly, recognizes his voice. And Jesus tells him of abundant life, Jesus welcomes him and says you belong as if to say, “He’s mine… I’m going to get him.”
This is what Jesus means in this passage when he begins to talk about “other sheep” and his responsibility for them. Jesus knows that not all shepherds are good. Ezekiel 34, with which Jesus would have been familiar, includes a series of woes to Israel’s false and faulty shepherds: “Eoe to you shepherd of Israel who only take care of yourselves… you have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, found the strays, searched for the lost.” So hedoesn’t leave us in the comfort of the sheep pen for long. The green pastures and still waters can not be our home, because Jesus describes how he has to keep moving and looking for these “other sheep,” those we might not see within the flock, those we would not voluntarily welcome on our own. He must bring them in, that they, too, will listen to his voice and follow.
“They’re ours,” he says to us, “We’re going to get them.”
We’ve seen this commitment lived out in our city throughout this week, following last week’s storms that have left many people already living amidst vulnerability and poverty – and all the disasters that preceded the storm – deeply affected and even further exposed. As a church, we are committed to the longterm, even as we have been able to listen to our friends and neighbors for ways we could help in the short-term.
“Wait for us to coordinate,” many leaders said, urging caution and strategy. It makes good sense, but as is always the case, there are those who don’t wait. They already know that they belong to one another, and so they go with their water, or chainsaws, or ATV vehicles, like what I read described this week by Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, who works with Second Harvest Food Bank. In a stirring essay, she described grabbing her chainsaw and heading to her friend, Trina’s house because a tree had fallen, and blocked her car in, and if she couldn’t get her car out and get to work, she would lose her job. “Trina’s tree didn’t even hit anything – it wasn’t laying across power lines or her roof like the other trees on her block – but it was just as serious as if it did. That tree was blocking her from getting to work. And Trina doesn’t get to work jobs with paid days off and an understanding employer: she knows she is as replaceable as you can get. And her job is means everything to her. Not only does it house her and feed her, it’s the way she is getting back her kids. Her children live in foster care across town – they are safe, praise Jesus, she whispers – because Trina tried and tried to leave her abusive ex but became homeless everytime she did. Finally, the children were removed from her care, and she needs to be employed for three months in her own home alone before she can have them back with her.”
Someone standing around probably would have said, “Well, whose mistake was it that led her to be so vulnerable and desperate.” Someone else might have looked at those broken by this storm and asked, “Who sinned? Was it this person? Was it their parents?”
But the Good Shepherd knows the name Trina. The Good Shepherd knows them all by name, and knows that behind every suffering person is a story, or a series of events, and that no one should be abandoned to the wolves like the hired hands would leave them. So he rejects our assumptions and all our faulty premises, our patterns that leave communities divided and people sitting begging for their lives, and he says, “They belong. They’re ours.”
And so if we read ahead in the Gospel of John, we find Jesus visiting with the disciples after his resurrection and then turning to Simon Peter and asking, “Do you love me?” Simon is baffled at the question, “Of course I do,” to which Jesus replies, “Then feed my lambs.” The exchange repeats three times before finally concluding with the words that first called to him, “Follow me.” Because when you follow the Good Shepherd, sheep become like shepherds, too.
“She belongs to us. She’s ours.” That’s what the Abyssinian Baptist Church said back in 2011. They had baptized her, wrapped her in towels soaking wet, and they had never forgotten that enfolding embrace. They offered that bail money without condition or any promise of what would come. I once had the chance to ask Dr. Butts about this decision, and again he said, “It’s what Jesus called us to do for one another.” A few years ago when I saw him on a trip to New York, he shared that that daughter of their church had gone on to college at the esteemed Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I hadn’t heard much more since then, until this story came to mind this week and I decided to see what I might discover, and with a little searching, I learned that the 17 year old daughter of Abyssinian Church, bailed out by her congregation, did indeed graduate from college, and in 2016-17 she was awarded the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, traveling to South Africa, where she taught English. “There are so many misconceptions about South Africans and Black Americans,” she said upon her award, “and I am excited to give voice to both cultures. Through teaching, we learn. And most of all, I am excited to learn.”
The article about the Fulbright made no mention of her past – it was as though none of us need be defined by our worst mistakes. It made no mention of her church either, and yet they were there, surrounding her, enfolding her, as they had that day in court, when 50 of them showed up bearing $25,000 that everyone else seemed astounded to see. After the hearing, they surrounded her in prayer, after which one Deacon was heard to call her name. Her head turned. “Listen here,” he said, “You’re one of ours.”
What if instead of the Good Shepherd leaving the 99 to go and search for the 1, the 99 sent him out? Come to think of it, what if all 99 followed behind, searching themselves?
What if they had seen so much of this enfolding love of their Shepherd, that they had come to know that none of them could rest until all could rest, that none of them were safe until all of them were safe, and that none of them would know abundant life until every last one was welcomed home.