A message for a European audience* on the good shepherd.
A little over two months ago a horrible thing happened in Parkland Florida. Coincidentally the day was the 14th of February, a day in America we refer to as Valentine’s day. Ironically Valentine’s day celebrates the love of two people for each other. And coincidentally the 14th of February, this year, was also Ash Wednesday, a day marked by prayer, fasting, and repentance.
Parkland Florida is in the southern part of the state, over 5,000 miles from Estonia. It’s a far distance away; distant in both geography and, in some ways, distant culturally too.
On that day the horrible thing that happened was a mass shooting. The mass shooting occurred at a public high school, killing seventeen, wounding seventeen more. It was one of the deadliest school shooting massacres in our nation’s history. The shooting was done by a 19-year-old man with a history of violent behavior, aggressive language, and mental health issues. Many signs were missed that point to the shooter as a person with the capacity, and interest, in committing such a horrific act. If only those signs would have been heeded.
The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to gun violence when compared to the rest of the world, and not in a good way. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of gun violence globally, it’s almost 4 deaths for every 100,000 people per year. Among other similarly affluent countries the U.S. outpaces them all in this unfortunate statistic. Our northern neighbor Canada has a rate of about 0.5 deaths per 100,000; the U.S. rate is eight times higher. Closer to you, in Denmark, the rate is 0.14 deaths per 100,000. The US rate, compared to Denmark, is 27 times higher. YIKES.
From what I understand Estonia has strict gun controls, and low rates of gun violence, so your experience may be more similar to Canada or Denmark than us in America. That is something to celebrate.
As a nation this particular school shooting has given us pause to reflect on what Americans could have done better, or differently, to protect our children from this and other similar attacks. Our students are staging walkouts from their schools, our citizens are attending rallies, our politicians are talking, our laws are beginning to change. As a people we want to be safe, but we have a long history and love for our freedoms and our guns. This makes the change very hard. Please pray for us, that God will soften our hearts toward prioritizing peace in our land, over all else, because we desperately need it.
Yet within this tragedy and sadness are stories that help to point us to the very nature of Christ, the Good Shephard.
The Hired Hand
The first story is of a school resource officer, a hired hand, there at the high school when the shooting began. This officer was trained in handling crisis situations like this, he was armed, and in uniform, and it was his job to keep students safe. But video footage taken at the school, during the incident, tells a different story.
The officer arrived where the shooting broke out about 90 seconds after the first shots were fired. While gunfire reigned down on students and teachers inside the building, the officer remained outside. The officer remained safe from harm, still outside, for the next four minutes. The attack lasted six minutes total.
When asked by his superior what the officer should have done at the time the superior was succinct. He should have “went in, (and) addressed the (situation).” This officer has since resigned and may face criminal charges for failing to do his job. We’ll never know how different this day could have been with a different response.
That’s a very sad part, tho there are many stories of heroism from this day too. I’d like focus on the story of one hero, a man named Aaron Feis.
Aaron had been a part of this high school for a long time, he graduated from there two decades ago. A few years after that he came back to help coach the football team, and served as a security guard for the school too. As a coach he taught kids to work together as a team. He taught them valuable skills on and off the field, and encouraged them to do their very best. Coaches are also counselors, and he was known to chat with kids who didn’t have a father figure. He was also known to give rides home to students that needed one.
And as a security guard he was tasked with keeping the kids that attended his school safe. He took this responsibility seriously.
After spending over 20 years at this school, first as student, later as coach and security guard, and informally as counselor and friend you might guess he loved this community deeply.
And you’d be right.
When it came time for action that day Aaron knew what to do. After the first shots were fired someone asked on the school walkie-talkie if the sounds were from firecrackers. Aaron replied, “No, that’s not firecrackers.” It was the last anyone heard from him.
While others there that day rightly ran from danger, or took no action when they should have, Aaron took another approach: he ran toward the danger.
He was later found dead, shot multiple times while shielding two students from the spray of bullets. He saved those two lives, possibly more. He laid down his life, quite literally, for those two teens.
And when it came time for Aaron’s funeral over 1,000 people came out to pay their respects. They were there to honor a person who sacrificed himself to save others. They were there to celebrate someone that gave new life to those facing imminent death.
A little over two thousand years ago a horrible thing happened, just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. In modern times we refer to the day as Good Friday. This day too is often marked by prayer and fasting. Thank God we’re an Easter people, because – left in isolation – there is nothing good about Good Friday.
Jerusalem is almost 2,000 miles south of Estonia, also a far distance from your country. But the massacre of One that happened that first Good Friday was the shot heard round the world. It was important enough that it continues to be commemorated by billions of people worldwide. And while this event happened so far away, both in time and distance, it’s impact is felt right here, right now, with you.
The massacre of One was done by a brutal government, the Romans Empire, in a culture known for violent behavior, aggressive language and an appetite to destroy dissenters at all costs. Many signs were missed that point to the true identity of the One massacred that day, though many have since been enlightened. Thank God those signs have been heeded.
All this leads us to today’s text from John, where Jesus tells the story of the Good Shephard.
The Good Shepherd
In the John text Jesus makes a distinction between the hired hand and the good shepherd. The hired hand does not own the sheep, and remains distant from them. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming they leave the sheep and run away. The hired hand runs away because he does not care for the sheep. After all it’s just a job. Perhaps that is not too unlike the Parkland officer.
When the wolf came that day, to a city in South Florida, in the form of a maddened shooter, the officer chose the safety of staying outside, instead of going in and caring for those students. And let’s be honest, self-preservation is a very human thing to do, try putting yourself in this man’s shoes.
But the good shepherd is different. The good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep when the wolf comes roaring in. The good shepherd knows the sheep and they know him, just as the Father knows Jesus and vice versa. The two are forever linked, in a caring relationship, part of the same family. And when you’re the good shepherd you do what it takes to protect your family, at all costs.
When the wolf came to South Florida that day, in the form of a maddened shooter, Aaron Feis modeled an action that is downright Christlike. Like a good coach, like a good counselor, like a good father figure, like a dutiful guard Aaron rushed to help. The county sheriff reporting that day said, “Before you even heard how he died, you knew he died putting himself in harm’s way to save others. That’s who he was.”
What makes his act so remarkable is it is so remarkably uncommon. Who here could follow in those footsteps? As much as I’d like to think I would, to be honest, when put in a moment like that I’m just not sure.
And who is the good shepherd? I am he, Jesus tells us, claiming that identity for his own. The narrative provides a very tangible way to discern divine nature from human nature. Divine nature is one of sacrifice, up to and including death, a sacrifice of self over and above all else. Human nature is to preserve the self, often at the expense of others. The two couldn’t be more different.
Most of us will likely never be faced with a martyr moment; I would never wish these life and death decisions on anyone. Yet every day each of us have opportunities to be like Christ, prioritizing the needs of others while helping to usher in an era of peace.
In America we suffer from various acts of aggression all the time. Our capitalism encourages us to aggressively build up wealth at the expense of others. Our politics, especially of late, are a rash of us vs. them, using violent rhetoric, a one-up-manship where no one really wins. And our issue of gun violence a symptom of prioritizing individual rights over the collective good. God knows we can do better. We have the playbook, ready to be practiced.
These are some of our problems admittedly, they may not be yours. Though I ask you to reflect on what you can do, each day, to prioritize others in your daily lives, just like Christ did. It’s a worthy exercise that can and does change the world one act at a time.
Dear God, guide our hearts to follow your Son, the good shepherd. Grant us wisdom to see how, when and where we are called to live lives of self-sacrifice. And then give us the strength, through your Holy Spirit, to then go, and make it so. Amen.
*Every-so-often a Pastor friend of mine and I swap sermons virtually. We’ll both prepare a message, and then deliver the other in our pulpit. This message was delivered to a congregation in Estonia this week; one day I may use it stateside too.