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The Solidarity of the Shepherd

John 10:11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes[a] it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

Jesus describes here two ways of being in the world. There’s the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. And there’s the hired hand who runs away and leaves the sheep to the wolves. There is individuality and there is solidarity. There’s self-protection and self-sacrifice. There is fear and there is courage. There is self-interest and there is love. And Jesus wants us to know that he is on the side of solidarity, of sacrifice, of courage, and ultimately of love. Which for him means standing with the sheep, even becoming a sheep himself, to face down the wolves.

This passage is coming at a point where Jesus is in conflict with some of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The wolf in this teaching is probably the Roman Empire (and through the Empire, the Spiritual forces of evil empowering the Empire), and the “hired hand,” is probably this group of leaders in the Jerusalem Temple who hope that by appeasing the Empire, not running afoul of Rome, they can survive.

It would be a mistake here to read these “hired hands” as Jews or Judaism itself or any Jews today, or even all of the Pharisees then. That would be a kind of anti-Semitism known as demonization, and a weird move for someone who was himself Jewish. At the same time, some Christians engage in another form of anti-semitism, “magical thinking,” where we pretend the dynamics of first-century Judaism and the politics of the Temple are above critique or moral engagement. And that also dehumanizes, it fails to see the tensions and the desires that would influence some people, tragically, to try and appease the Roman Empire. (That’s important to consider as Christians living in another Empire, where many Christians equate Judaism with the state of Israel and treat both rather magically as part of “the only democracy in the middle east,” therefore justifying the genocide of Palestinians that’s happening right now. OK, so even the way we read these stories now in our own context opens up the question of solidarity, appeasing the machinations of Empire versus standing up to the wolves of war.)

So in this story, Jesus is jumping into debates that are very live within the different strands of first-century Judaism, which all had different answers for how to deal with the problem of living under an Empire. There was a group called the Essenes who went and lived in a desert commune to create a different society, a maroon community in a little pocket of the Empire. There was another group called the Zealots, these radicals who operated little guerrilla militias and wanted full blown revolution. Then there were the Sadducees, who were the administrators of the Temple and thought that if they sidled up to the Empire they could keep the peace (you know, better things aren’t possible but maybe we can help the powers kill us a little more softly). And there were the Pharisees, who generally seemed to teach that if the people practiced holiness now, if they kept to the law, then eventually, in time, the Lord would bring about the Kingdom of God. And then there’s Jesus, going around as a rabbi with a bit of a small following, saying that the kingdom of God is at hand now. And of course within all of these positions there would’ve been internal tensions and debates. But all of these people are wrestling with the question of how to be faithful to their convictions in the context of an imperial occupation that seems to be setting the terms for what’s possible in their time.

So if the hired hands here are some of the religious authorities, then the issue here for Jesus, in the story, is not that these people are Jews, but that in doing what they think they need to do to keep the peace, to be realistic, to not poke the bear, they’re unwittingly letting the Empire continue to devour the people. The hired hand will sacrifice some of the sheep to the wolves to keep the rest of the sheep, and themselves, safe, and the problem with that is obviously that it’s terrible for the sheep who get consumed, but it also assumes that no other arrangement is possible, the wolves must be satisfied.

I don’t think we’re in much of a place to judge these hired hands, or to identify an “other” with them, because this is a temptation we all face, to accept the terms that the powers of this world give us. We live in a world run by wolves and the wolves are hungry and we do have to deal with them. To pretend otherwise is to put yourself in a position to be eaten. We want things to be different, but we also have to pay our rent and keep our health insurance, which means holding onto our jobs. Maybe it would be just for Duke to pay a portion of what would be their property taxes to Durham, but then they tell us about their initiatives and centers and institutes for the study of the cause of the condition of the issues behind the issues, and what is there to say to that? We think it makes sense for teachers and classified staff to get their promised raises, but the powers that be say, “Well gawrsh, there’s just no money.” There are so many things to which we’re always being told to nod, to give their due, to tip our caps. The scarcity at the top is always real, while the poverty on the bottom is always an individual choice. Because the wolves are very hungry.

I can’t help but wonder if this sense of what’s real is part of why so many people have drifted away from church or don’t find church to be a life-giving or even interesting place. There used to be this idea that capitalism wouldn’t become corrupt because churches would be teaching people good morals and restraint, so there would be this other control guiding the market. That feels quaint now, because as it turns out, churches exist within the world, too and seem to be subject to market forces also, or at least to their donors. Capitalism works as this universal solvent, absorbing communities and institutions into its own ethics (which is just the profit motive).

And so you can’t even have an ethical or political or theological conversation without deferring to Capital, but that’s impolite to talk about, so people end up using theology words and Bible verses to talk around the basic fact that the people funding a community don’t want it to change. Most churches in the US have fewer than 120 members, and the funding model that most of us have learned is that less than 10% of membership actually funds the budget. So you can be in a community--you can be a minister in a community!--and feel like people are largely on the same page, but then for some mysterious opaque reason, things don't change, and often its because a small handful of people are really the ones running things, even in "free" churches that supposedly don't have hierarchies. So access to capital is the wolf in the room even in “progressive” churches, where maybe progressive means LGBTQ+ people are fully empowered, but then at the same time someone’s got a cousin who’s a cop so we can’t talk about policing; or maybe you can talk about racism in the US, but the millionaire in the room had a meaningful vacation to Israel so you can’t take a stance on the death of tens of thousands of Palestinians.

And so even in these communities where we use words talking about miracles of resurrection and new life and abundance, there’s this underlying message, this implicit training, where the market’s still forming our habits, where the most real thing of all is Capital and we get to continue doing the other stuff as a bonus once we’ve sacrificed parts of our convictions to the belly of the wolf.

But in this teaching, Jesus offers us another way. He tells us that he’s not a hired hand. He doesn’t operate out of self-interest, his ethics are not the ethics of consumption or appeasement. The shepherd works by sacrifice. Not sacrifice as an act of self-punishment or hatred, but sacrifice in the sense that the good shepherd is willing to stand between the wolf and the sheep because he loves the sheep, he’s truly with the sheep. Again, in the story we tell, the shepherd becomes one of the sheep. It’s an ethic of solidarity.

And solidarity here is not just magical thinking. It’s not optimism. Jesus says that he knows the Sheep as God knows him. And eventually he’ll breathe his spirit out on the sheep so that the sheep, this messy rabble of workers and cast-offs, are one with him, too, and through him, one with God. This is the kind of thinking that later Christians, hundreds of years later, will try to make sense of with the doctrine of the Trinity—that Jesus flows into the world from the very love of God and sacrifices himself to the wolves as one of the sheep so that sheep can find themselves in him, and in him, in God, too. Solidarity is not just a strategy or a tactic, solidarity, where we pour ourselves out for one another in love, is the very deepest reality. God is love as solidarity and we are one with God as we take risks for the sake of each other.

Where two or more are gathered, Jesus is with us and we are his body, and the form of that gathering in Scripture is holding all things in common. If that seems like a leap, it’s actually what the letter of 1 John 3 says:

11 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother.…14 We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.…16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a sibling[f] in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and deed.

Where the hired hand is the person who says “We have to pay the wolf his due, even if that means giving him some sheep, like the more vulnerable ones, that’s just how the world works,” the Good Shepherd is the one who says another world is possible. We don’t have to accept the economy of the wolves. Life doesn’t have to be this way. There is a deeper reality available to us which is the very love of God.

And the word for how we practice that deeper reality together in truth and deed is “faith.” Faith isn’t convincing yourself to feel like something is true even when you’re pretty sure it’s not. Faith is saying, “Let’s make a start from this assumption and see what happens.” If we’re constantly getting the implicit catechesis of Capitalism, then for the story of Jesus, for the resurrection to make any sense at all as anything other than a fantasy, we have to keep taking risks for each other, we have to keep surprising each other with the ways new life emerges when we least expect it, faith is practicing love in truth and deed even when we’re not sure of the outcome. When the wolves say to us, “It has to be this way,” we have to practice saying back, “I don’t think it does,” even if that seems like a lost cause because time and again sheep in solidarity have overcome wolves, and the hardest part of those struggles is always getting us to believe we can.

Friends, this is why we encourage our members and our neighbors who are unionizing. This is why we speak back to leaders and institutions that run our community. This is why we experiment in different ways of paying off debts. These are concrete ways that we pour ourselves out for each other. We don’t just leave each other to the wolves, but we pour ourselves out for each other and our neighbors. That’s what it means to be a Christian, that’s what it means to have faith. That’s how we practice the life of the resurrection. There are wolves, but there is a good shepherd and the working people of the world belong to him and to each other, and if we start from that assumption, then we can go forward in courage, love, and imagination, together. Amen.

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