Laying down our lives: in the age of gun violence
John 10:11-18 & 1 John 3:16-24
4 Easter – 4/21-22/2018
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Alexandria , VA
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
We know love by this – that he laid down his life for us,
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:16)
Wait a minute, “Lay down our lives”? There are other ways, easier ways, to love.
But in today’s readings, the challenge, the ultimate challenge, is inescapable. Do not be too attached to that breathing, blood-pumping, eating-drinking-moving body that is YOU; do not be so protective of your own life that you fail to defend the lives of others; and above all, do what the Good Shepherd would do. “He laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
This challenge has been especially present to me this spring, as it has, honestly, since December 14, 2012. Giving up my life to save vulnerable others is no longer an abstract ideal that can be held at a distance, admired, aspired to, but never tested. As a chaplain and teacher, would I have the courage to stand between a deranged gunman and the precious children I teach, the way teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary did six years ago — the way adults at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida did three months ago? Every teacher in America has to look in that mirror, and in fact we all do, as violence can erupt anytime, at concerts, nightclubs . . . churches . . . just ask Mother Emmanuel in Charleston.
Ordinary people perform acts of extraordinary love when faced with the choice that, to them, seems no choice at all.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says in today’s gospel, and the words sound rather sweet to us. Countless images of a gentle shepherd in a long, white robe cradling a lamb in his arms have shaped our understanding; and the familiar Psalm we hear today only makes us long to follow to those green pastures and still waters. That’s a fine beginning — but if we stay there, we miss the challenge in today’s passage. Instead of the word “good,” scholars suggest, listen to a more accurate translation.
“I am the model shepherd. The model shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
“Model” suggests that we who follow the Shepherd should follow his example, not just his road map to greener pastures and a cup that runneth over. Those who follow the Shepherd are meant to become shepherds, to face down whatever wolf threatens, and to lay down their lives in his name.
That’s more than any ordinary person can achieve. Except when they do.
I could tell you a story about an ordinary mother who did extraordinary things in the last century, as Paris filled with refugees from the Russian revolution and again as Nazi wolves overran the City of Light. I could tell you how this woman took vows as an Orthodox nun and protected Jews, smuggling them out of the country and hiding them in her home. As we ponder the news that one in five young people today have never heard of the Holocaust, it’s important to remember shepherds like MARIA SKOBTSOVA, who gave her life in a Ravensbruck gas chamber on Holy Saturday, 1945.
But there is more than one way to lay down our lives.
So I will tell you a story about a daughter of slaves who loved education, loved children and, above all, loved the Good Shepherd she followed.
ANNA ALEXANDER was born on Saint Simon’s Island, Georgia, in 1865 — the year the Civil War ended and two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her parents, who had worked as house slaves, were highly educated. Using the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer as their texts, they taught their eleven children to read and to love learning.
Anna took those lessons to heart and eventually went to teach in the public schools in Pennick, Georgia. She was disillusioned, though, when she realized she couldn’t teach the Church’s message there. So she joined the school one of her sisters had founded in a nearby town, and reveled in giving children a Christian education. It was there that a church service inspired her to start a mission back in Pennick — a difficult journey by foot and rowboat.
With almost no resources — and no support from the Diocese — Anna’s congregation met in an abandoned farmhouse and then in an old store where the whiskey counter served as altar. To support the church, Anna kept teaching, took in sewing, and persistently begged for donations. Every weekend, she walked and rowed her way to Pennick, sometimes bringing a priest who would baptize the children she trained. Each summer, she cooked for the diocesan camp on St. Simon’s Island. As helpers, she brought small groups of African-American children who, though barred as campers, at least shared some camp joys.
Maybe it was these same children, refused an education under Jim Crow laws, who inspired Anna to add a school to her mission church and to name the whole enterprise — appropriately today — Good Shepherd Church and School.
Poor as they were, Anna never let her flock forget those even less fortunate. Proportionately, Good Shepherd gave more to needy folk throughout the world than any church in the Diocese.
Having stared down the wolves of segregation and poverty, in 1907 Anna Alexander became the first African-American deaconess in the Episcopal Church — a “set-aside” role for women before they could be ordained deacons.
Anna Alexander died in 1947, an old woman who had laid down her long life — not in dramatic sacrifice, but in faithful service to her community, to children, and to the Shepherd she followed.
There is more than one way to lay down our lives.
I hope and pray that this nation will come to its senses about gun violence, before another student, or teacher, or police officer, or bystander lays down a life to save others. Of course, there are countless other wolves, other dangers, in our fragile society. Still, I have hope — gospel hope.
And one of the things that gives me hope is the faithful, quiet, persistent service of shepherds like Anna Alexander, shepherds like YOU who follow the model Shepherd. In whatever YOUR occupation and vocation, YOUR faithful, quiet, persistent service leads this nation to greener pastures and stiller water. In this way, through the One who laid down his life for us, we may all offer our lives for the sake of love.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, Anchor Bible Series
 “Two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is,” Washington Post, April 12, 2018.