When I was five years old, I played in my very first soccer game. And in that game, I scored a goal for the other team, which tells you exactly what kind of athlete I was destined to be. But around the same time, it became clear that I was pretty good at the piano, and could more than hold my own as a boy soprano in the choir. But the culture of the deep south where I grew up didn’t exactly applaud me for being good at these things because, well, boys were supposed to hunt and play sports. At church, though, I heard a different message. At All Saints’ Episcopal Church, my gifts were viewed as God-given gifts to be celebrated and not to be ashamed of. There, I received a message that I was a beloved child of God. I have no doubt that that affirming message I received at such a young age in that little Mississippi church has sustained my faith throughout my life, through many trials and tribulations.
Today, we get to send a similar message to a group of young people at St. Paul’s. On this day, we pray a special liturgy called ‘Rite 13’ – a liturgy that names and celebrates the transition from childhood toward adulthood. In this liturgy, we ask God’s blessing on these young people. We pray for them and their parents. And we commit to sharing our wisdom with them on their journey toward adulthood. Today, we celebrate them in all their uniqueness as beloved children of God who are, in the words of the psalmist, “marvelously made.”
In addition to celebrating these young people, we’re also going to ask something of them. The biblical creation story tells us that God entrusted humankind with creative power and the freedom to make choices about how we use that power. In a few moments, these young people will claim responsibility for their creative power as part of their journey toward adulthood. Jeanne will urge them to use this power to “create new life…to shape the world according to God’s purpose…to build and not to destroy.” Sadly, we know all too well that human power can indeed destroy. We don’t have to look far to find evidence of that. Indeed, as I was writing this sermon, I received a text from a former colleague in Austin, Texas. She was sheltering in place after a shooter had just murdered three people near her home – just the latest in a horrific string of mass shootings in our nation this year. Meanwhile, our country is still reeling from the tragic death of Daunte Wright, only the latest black child of God whose life was destroyed at the hands of a police offer. And just overnight, we’ve learned of another such act of violence in our own state, further inflaming the wounds of racial injustice in our nation. Clearly, this question we’re about to ask our young people is a high-stakes question: “Are you aware of God’s gift of creative power and the challenge to use it wisely?”
Just 24 hours ago, a jury in Minneapolis chose to use its power to convict former police offer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. Some have called this decision “justice.” Others caution that “accountability” is a better word, noting that “accountability is only the first step toward justice.” So where do we go from here? How do we move beyond this first step of “accountability” to continue the march toward justice? How do we use our creative power to “shape the world according to God’s purpose?” This is a life-long question for us as people of faith – one that we will all continue asking, even as today, we ask it specifically of our young people. We hope, of course, that they will make wise choices about how to use their creative power…we pray that they will use their gifts in accordance with God’s will. But today is not just about the choices they will make, or the choices we will make. It’s also about the choice God has already made. And God has made the choice to call us beloved even when we inevitably make the wrong choices. God has chosen both to entrust us with creative power and to pour grace upon us when we inevitably misuse that power. God has made the choice to keep his promises perfectly even when we imperfectly keep ours.
Make no mistake, God cares about our choices. But we should be careful not to misplace our faith by putting it all in our own abilities. The world will not ultimately be saved by our choices. The sin of racism will not ultimately be undone by our power. The restoration of humanity will not happen because we hatch the perfect plan. Our power to heal this broken world comes only when we give ourselves completely – our hearts, our minds, our wills and our power – to God: the God who sent his Son, the Good Shepherd, to lead us into paths of righteousness and truth. Our ultimate hope for making choices that are faithful, lies not in the sheep, but in the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life so that we might have it abundantly.
The words of the 23rd Psalm we heard this morning remind us that the Lord, our Shepherd, provides for all our needs. The psalmist assures us that God’s “goodness and mercy will follow [us] all the days of [our] life.” A more accurate translation of the Hebrew would have us hear this familiar phrase very differently, though. Instead of God’s goodness and mercy “following” us, God’s goodness and mercy “pursue us.” God’s goodness and mercy “chase us down.” As we all strive to make good choices about our creative power, let us never lose sight of the one who gives us those powers – the one who pursues us with his goodness and mercy. May we listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls us each by name. May we seek to follow where he leads. And may God’s goodness and mercy continue chasing us toward justice until all God’s children know themselves to be beloved. Amen.