As a shepherd takes time to get to know his sheep, the sheep learn to trust him and love grows between them. In the same way, as we get to know other people through taking the time for conversation with them, we grow in love for one another.
Speaker: Hija Yu
Bible Passage: John 10:11-18
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts will be acceptable to you,
our Rock and our Redeemer.”
Last Sunday Cory mentioned that his sheep had two lambs, and he had to feed one of them because it was not sucking its mother’s milk. On Monday, I decided to give Cory a call and ask if we could come and see the lambs whenever it was convenient for him. To my delight, Cory said that we could come that day, so Dave and I went. When we went to where the lambs were, I expected Cory to feed the lamb, but his sons, Jonathan and Caleb, went right into the pen where the lambs were and Jonathan fed the lamb as Caleb caressed the lambs. It was obvious both Jonathan and Caleb enjoyed taking care of them and being with them. At one point the lamb was so happy that it was wiggling its tail.
Seeing Cory’s family taking care of the lambs reminded me of verse 14 we heard this morning: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” It was obvious that the whole family knew the lambs and sheep and the sheep and lambs knew them and trusted them. I was thinking that most likely the sheep and the lambs would not have let me and Dave come so close to them if we were the only ones there, but because they knew and trusted Cory’s family and we were with them, they were not afraid of us. But then I thought perhaps the sheep and lambs would not have been afraid of us regardless because they never had a bad experience with human beings in general so they trust humans.
This reminded me of the time when I was serving as pastor and visiting people. Some people had dogs, and these dogs would bark at me until the owner came out and calmed and reassured them. I learned that usually small dogs bark more than the big ones. The reason, I figured, was fear. The more a dog is afraid, the fiercer the bark. One friend who adopted a dog from a shelter warned me not to pet her dog because that dog only let her touch it. She said the dog had been abused, so it was afraid of people. Its reaction was to bite.
As I watched the recent events related to killings by the police, I thought perhaps the same kind of fear a dog feels might be at work. When I asked a retired police officer Dave knew what role fear plays in the actions of police, he said, “A lot.” When we talked about the verdict of guilty in the George Floyd case, he said he was glad he is retired. He thought the verdict put the police more in vulnerable situations and in danger, and it would make it difficult to recruit police officers.
Another former police officer who had served fifteen years in the force, interviewed by the Washington Post said, “We are scared to death out there. We all experience trauma on a daily basis. And it builds up.” Yet, he said, “We are not taught how to chisel that plaque off our beings. We are not given those tools, and it is not part of the culture, so you start treating the public badly.” He described the look on Chauvin’s face as pure and utter contempt for the bystanders and said that Chauvin probably didn’t start off that way, and most of them don’t. He blamed “years and years and years of the us-and-them mentality, of the thin-blue-line mentality, and the administration not knowing how to treat the mental health of police officers.”
Contrary to the other former police officer worried about recruitment of police, he was more hopeful. He said, “maybe this starts to attract the type of people who are needed, who don’t think they are going to have to go out and thump on people all the time.” (Washington Post, April 21, 2021).
After listening and reading these statements by former police officers, I wondered if some of our police officers, like some war veterans, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders yet are not receiving any kind of help. Some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders are: being easily upset or angry, extreme alertness, sometimes called “hypervigilance,” irritability or aggressive behavior; negative changes in beliefs and feelings.
I agree with the guilty verdict of the former officer Chauvin and can sympathize with people laughing and shouting, “Justice is served.” Many people see it as an important step towards greater accountability in police conduct. However, I also felt incredible sadness seeing the former officer Chauvin handcuffed. I wondered how his family must feel. I was also concerned about his safety. When I heard the news that he was in a solitary confinement for his own protection, I felt better.
Ordinary law-abiding citizens normally think that sending someone to prison solves the problem of crime, and I was no different until I started my part-time job of tutoring inmates in a federal prison during my last year of graduate school which later turned into teaching them art. As my students got to know me, they started to share their stories.
This prison where I worked was a medium security prison for young men aged 18 to 25. I learned about a gang rape that happened to one of the inmates serving a three-month sentence. After the gang rape, he was released. I wondered, if they could release him early because of gang rape, couldn’t they not send him to prison in the first place? If they had done that, he would have avoided the horrible thing no human being should experience.
Another story. One of my students told me that he had washed his tennis shoes and put them above the false ceiling, the kind you can lift up, before he went to sleep. This itself told me that he was trying to hide his tennis shoes so that no one could steal them. During the night, he said something hit his chest, and he jumped up from his bed sweating and trembling because he thought someone had come to harm him. What hit him was his shoes that fell on him. His story illustrated to me the amount of fear one has to live with in that prison.
The worst story I heard was from a prison guard. He said that if the guards wished, they could keep a prisoner for life. How? By provoking an inmate so that he would strike the guard. Because of that the inmate’s sentence would increase, and it can happen over and over again.
I have wondered if there were some other ways we could treat people who broke laws. Then, recently, I read the most interesting book written by a Dutch writer, Rutger Bregman, Human Kind: A Hopeful History. Under the chapter, “Drinking Tea with Terrorists,” Bregman describes a maximum-security prison, the second largest one in Norway. This prison holds some 250 drug dealers, sexual offenders, and murderers, yet there are no cells or bars. The inmates each have a room of their own with underfloor heating, a flat screen TV, a private bathroom. There are kitchens where the inmates can cook.
Bregman described this prison “is a textbook example of what you might call a ‘noncomplementary prison’” Rather than mirroring the detainees’ behavior, staff turn the other cheek—even to hardcore felons. Bregman finally realized that what modern psychologists call non-complementary behavior is what Jesus was advocating in Matthew 5:38-41: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
In this Norway prison, the guards don’t carry weapons. One guard said, “We talk to the guys and that’s our weapon.” (p 326)
Just a couple miles up the road from this prison is another prison, which houses 115 felons who are doing the last years of their sentences. In this prison, Bregman saw inmates and guards flipping burgers together, swimming together, lounging in the sun together. Guards don’t wear uniforms, and they all eat meals together, seated around the same table. Some inmates even commute off the island to jobs on the mainland, using ferry service operated by the inmates themselves. The warden at this prison said, “Treat people like dirt, and they’ll be dirt. Treat them like human beings, and they’ll act like human beings.” (p 328). Contrary to this, one former California prison inmate said: The vast majority of us become exactly who we are told we are–violent, irrational, and incapable of conducting ourselves like conscious adults (p 345).
These two very contrasting ways the prisoners are treated and its outcome made me think of the placebo and nocebo effects, the positive and negative effect our beliefs have on our bodies. In a similar way, it seems how we treat others because of our belief can have positive and negative effects on the lives of others as well as ours.
The director of North Dakota Department of Corrections, Leann Bertsch, after seeing how prisoners are treated in Norway, decided to change how the prisons were run in North Dakota. There had been regulations covering over 300 violations. For example, an inmate could land in solitary confinement for not tucking in his shirt. Among new protocols installed by this director was the guards having at least two conversations a day with inmates. The new protocols at first were met with considerable resistance, but, as the months passed, the guards began to notice the changes. One guard said that previously there had been at least 3-4 incidents a week someone trying to commit suicide, someone trying to flood their cell, or being completely disorderly, but they hardly had any of that after the changes took place. (p 346). The guards also began to take more pleasure in their work as well.
Having at least two conversations a day seems so trivial. Yet, it is a start of getting to know one another, isn’t it? It is a way to start a relationship.
The whole event of George Floyd started because a cashier thought George Floyd gave him a counterfeit $20 bill. What if the cashier had some relationship with George Floyd. Would he have called the police?
Another tragic death happened because of an expired tag on a car, and do you remember the case of a woman who was stopped by the police because she did not use the lane change signal? How many of us can say we never violated that traffic law?
In each of these cases, I wonder what would have happened if both sides remembered Jesus’ saying, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). Or, what if the police thought of themselves as a shepherd taking care of sheep or vice versa?
Cory and his family would not have hit the lamb if one of the lambs or sheep did something it should not have done. They would have tried to find a way to help the lamb or sheep so it would not do that again. Recently, I learned that in Chinese, the character for “patience” or “endure” has two parts: knife and heart. The knife has a sheath in the center. I thought it was a very meaningful image because often love and pain come together. As Christians, that symbol is the cross, isn’t it? Love is not always joy. It can bring us a cross to bear. I can see why the Catholic Church reveres Mary, the mother of Jesus. Imagine how she must have felt, seeing her son nailed and dying on the cross.
Love is the core of Christianity. As I was preparing for this sermon, I decided to see how many times “love” appears in the Bible using biblegateway.com. When I did that, I learned that it depends on what translation I used. In the the New International Version, “love” came up 686 times; the King James Version, 442. The biggest difference was in Psalms. “Love” appeared in the NIV 157 times and 43 times in King James. The difference was due to the King James version using the word “kindness” and “mercy” instead of “love.”
Then, with the help of my neighbor who knew Hebrew, I learned that what is translated as kindness, mercy, love in verses we checked in English were the same word in Hebrew: hesed, also spelled chesed. Hesed is difficult to translate because it stands for a cluster of ideas and it has been translated as mercy, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, compassion, long suffering,
lovingkindness, steadfast love, unfailing love, loyal love, covenant love, and so on. Hesed is defined as a quality that moves someone to act for the benefit of someone else without considering “what’s in it for me?”
One of the most moving stories I heard was what my mom’s friend did when she had a fast-food, carryout place in D.C. One day, a young man came in with a knife and demanded money. A normal reaction would have been fear or try to find ways to stop the person taking the money. But my mom’s friend, who is a devout Christian with a big heart, looked at the young man and said, “You must be hungry. Come and sit down and eat.” Her unexpected kind words and action made the young man teared up, and he sat down and allowed her to feed him. Although I did not hear what happened afterwards, I am sure that was the start of their
Once I was stopped by a police officer because I made a turn too fast at the intersection. I was trying to avoid getting stuck at a red light because I was running late for a church meeting. When a police officer stopped me, I acknowledged and apologized for my speeding and told him my situation, naming the church down the hill. I also mentioned the name of the police officer attending the church I was serving. It was a small town so the young police officer knew the officer I mentioned. After hearing this, he smiled and said that the officer I mentioned was his boss. For a second, he didn’t seem to know what to do. Then decided to let
me go. I know he could easily have given me a ticket, but, I am sure, the common bond— knowing the same officer— connected us. When we have a common bond, it is much easier to bend rules, don’t we? Connection makes a difference. Knowing one another makes a difference.
So, where can we start? Perhaps starting a conversation with people around us at least twice a day is a good start. Conversation can lead us to knowing and knowing can lead us to loving.
Most patient and merciful God, you know us more than we know ourselves. When fear seemed to rise to dominate our response to what is happening around us, remind us to trust in you and help us to respond with kindness, patience, compassion, and love. Help us to take time to get to know one another. We pray in your son, Jesus name, who laid down his life for us.