Good Love

Sermon delivered by Michael Anthony Howard at Brookside Community Church, April 22, 2018. Reprinted here with permission. 

The Resurrection illustrates what good love looks like. When love is good, it has the power to transform us and offer new life to the world!

The Raging Rambo

Whether it was natural born or not, Rambo was “a killer.” As Kathy Stevens puts it, he “thought his job was to kill us. It was a job he seemed to relish.” When Rambo arrived, he was “full of testosterone and rage.” He was “so violent and volatile,” she said, “we began to compare…war stories.”[1]

Photo: Catskill Animal Sanctuary

Photo: Catskill Animal Sanctuary

Rambo you see, was a hateful, hostile, raging Jacob ram. If you happened to be the poor, helpless human assigned to feed the sheep for the day, Rambo was ready to draw first blood. He would rear up on his hind legs and come at you head-first, full speed ahead, with those twisted horns of his. Kathy and her team had rescued Rambo from an animal hoarder. There were seventeen animals locked in a very small, filthy stall. One was a dead cow. The other animals were adopted, but Rambo was too violent. Even a few very experienced sheepherders tried to take him in, but they gave up within a few days.

It was hard to know what to do with him. There was deep concern for the safety of farm workers and the rest of the sheep. Rambo was claustrophobic. He was too destructive to keep in a barn stall. He destroyed the fence, “smashed it to smithereens.” It is not untypical for Jacob rams to be highly emotional and extremely dangerous. But even after Kathy had Rambo neutered, nothing seemed to ease him. Alarmed that Rambo might get someone killed, Kathy was advised to “put him down immediately.” “For our own safety,” Kathy said, “I struggled with whether…it was indeed time to give up on Rambo.” In two years, Kathy had seen dozens of injured and traumatized animals be transformed. “This,” she said, “would be our first failure.”[2]

I think Kathy is an example of what Jesus called a good shepherd. She is a sheep-lover, someone who really loves her sheep. She challenges us to rethink what we mean by the word good. She helps us see what good actually looks like.

Framing Exercise: What is Good?

The relationship between Kathy and Rambo helps us better understand the teachings of Jesus we read this morning. It relates to what linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff calls framing.

In our text this morning (John 10:11-18), Jesus uses the word good. How we understand what good means depends on how it is framed. “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we [perceive and reason about things.] As a result, frames shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.”[3]

By identifying himself as the “good shepherd,” Jesus is in the process of reframing. He takes the everyday experience of tending to sheep and makes a comparison between what is good and what is not good. In comparing the “hired hand” to the “good shepherd,” he is reframing our understanding of what constitutes as good.

Love Without Domination

The deep truths in passages like ours today can elude us because of the way we frame them. I grew up on a farm, and we had all kinds of animals. I’m not sure I would say I loved all of our animals, but like many farmers, I think my folks would say they did. Many farmers will say they love their animals, but what they mean is that they have an attachment to them. They feel a kind of warmth, an affection, a fondness for them. Caring for animals is certainly hard work. While they may call it love, I think most of those human-animal relationships are examples of domination. Rarely do they mean the kind of good love Jesus described in our passage for today.

Let’s begin with a first question: Why would someone get in the business of taking care of sheep? There are many who are widely considered shepherds, but they are not good in Jesus’ sense of the word. The frame here is one of domination. Rather than shepherds, these farmers would more properly called wool harvesters. They see the sheep as a possession. Their relationship is one defined by ownership, based on maximizing their benefit. Their relationship is one of domination. When the sheep are no longer profitable, the relationship ends—and most of the time, that means death for the sheep.

The good shepherd, on the other hand, is a sheep lover. They see the sheep, not as possessions but as partners. The frame here is one of nurture and mutual care. The sheep and the caretaker both exist with equal value and dignity. One does not exist for the sake of the other. The benefits that come from this kind of relationship are more spiritual than material. As Richard Rohr puts it,  “Material gifts decrease when you give them away. Spiritual gifts, by contrast, increase the more you use them. Yes! You get more love by letting it flow through you… If you love, you will become more loving. If you practice patience, you will become more patient.”[4]

The Teachings of Jesus

Throughout Easter, I have asked us to consider the Resurrection as our divine initiation into life free from the powers of Death (with a capital D), the Domination System that governs our relationships, our institutions, and the way we look at the world. By using the term good shepherd in contrast hired hand, Jesus is offering to free us from the domination system by reframing our understanding of what is good.

In the context of the gospel story, we can assume that the hired hands represent the political and religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They see their relationship to the world under the frame of domination. When danger comes, they run. Protecting their authority, maintaining the status quo, or upholding their religious doctrines are more important than keeping their followers—the “sheep”—from danger. As participants in the Domination System, the sheep exist for the hired hand’s benefit. Everything they do is carried out for their own self-interest.

Jesus, on the other hand, represents the good shepherd. His relationship to the world operates under the frame of nurture and mutual care. Jesus identifies himself not as someone above the people, but as one of them. The shepherd identifies with the sheep as if the shepherd and the sheep share a common nature. For those that maintain a classical trinitarian theology—the Father, the Son and the Spirit are co-equally God—what Jesus says should blow your mind. Jesus says, “Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father,” this is the same as the relationship between the sheep and the good shepherd. When danger comes, Jesus offers his own life for the sake of those he loves. Because for the good shepherd, when the sheep suffer, the shepherd suffers.

Jesus is an illustration of what the good shepherd looks like. He is good because he loves the sheep as he loves his own life. He is good because he is willing to lay his life down for the sheep. He is good because his love is a good love. The shepherd sees the sheep on their own terms, as fellow creatures with their own needs to meet and hardships to bear. For the good shepherd, the sheep are here with us, not just for us. That is the only what that love can be good, when it is a love between two equals.

Kathy Stevens and Kaden Maguire

Kathy Stevens is an example of a good shepherd. She is a sheep-lover, someone who really loves her sheep. Like Jesus, watching her work challenges others to rethink what we mean by the word “good.” She helps me see what “good” actually looks like.

Starting out with nothing, Kathy created the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, a 148-acre refuge in New York's Hudson Valley for eleven species of farmed animals rescued from cruelty, neglect, and abandonment. They have rescued over 4,000 animals since 2001.

Kaden Maguire is an example of one of the Catskill staff, but he is anything but a mere hired hand. He knows every one of the sheep by name. He can tell you about Cleo and his son Ferguson, two sheep that suffer from a disease called Lintivirus. Cloe came to the farm as one member of a whole herd that were rescued from an animal cruelty case in 2016. They had been neglected. They were knee deep in waste, emaciated, and infested with parasites and disease. In the framework of domination, these sheep offer no material benefit whatsoever. They cost time, money, and resources to keep alive. And yet Kaden is out there, every day, watching sheep like Cloe, Lavern, Bertha, and Leena as they care for their children and teach the world how smart, kind, and beautiful they are. By spending time with Kaden, I got a glimpse of what Jesus must have meant by the good shepherd. Kaden loves his sheep, but it is a love that seeks to be free of domination. Kaden is a good shepherd because he teaches the world what good love looks like.

The Rest of Rambo’s Story

My wife Zion and I took our daughter Joey to stay at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary just a few weeks ago. I had just preached a sermon—you might remember it—where I talked about “Rambo Jesus.” Well, wouldn’t you know, we stayed in the Rambo room! One of the first stories that our guide, Drew, wanted to tell us was Rambo’s story.

After having him neutered, Rambo calmed down a little. But they were still afraid. They didn’t listen to the advice of those who said Rambo needed to be put down. Instead, they decided he just needed a little more time. They let him roam freely, and after a while his eyes began to change and he seemed to show signs that he trusted that he was never again going to be confined. He began to let go of his anger and feel at home at the Sanctuary.

On one cold bitter night, after turning out the lights and saying good night to everyone, Rambo came up to Kathy and began to bleat as if something was wrong. He led Kathy into a stall where she found two of the turkeys missing, Chuck and Cliff. Rambo then walked out with Kathy into the rain to find them outside their pen. Chuck was drenched with his head tucked in trying to stay warm. Poor Cliff was motionless in the driveway in a cold, shallow puddle.

Once everyone was back, dry and safe, Kathy began to reflect, “What just happened?” It was the first time Rambo had really used his voice, and he had figured out how to tell a human that something was wrong. Even more than that, he had just shown concern for two animals of a different species. Kathy says that that moment changed her life. As she writes in her book, “Nothing I [had read or studied in my many years of graduate education and experience] told me that my core beliefs were based on a false set of assumptions, on naïveté or ignorance. But in a darkened barn on a bitter early winter night, a sheep who finally believed he belonged with us did exactly that.”[5]

That’s what reframing looks like!

Not everything we call love is good love. Often it is little more than a sentimental form of domination. Good love, however, is based on relationships of nurturing and mutual care. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd [because] I lay my life down for the sheep.” That is what the Resurrection teaches us, that God doesn’t give up on us when things get tough. God loves us with an infinitely patient, an unending, deeply nurturing love—the way Kaden loves Cloe, the way Kathy loved Rambo. This is the kind of love Jesus calls us to have for each other and the world around us.

As 1 John 3:16 tells us, “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

The Resurrection illustrates what good love looks like. What the world needs are people who give their lives to learn how to love well, who know what good love looks like. Because when love is good, it has the power to transform us and offer new life to the world!

[1] Kathy Stevens, Where the Blind Horse Sings (New York : Skyhorse Pub, 2009), p.49-50.

[2] Ibid., p. 51.

[3] George Lakoff, The All-New Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014), p. xi-xii.

[4] Richard Rohr, “Love is Who You Are,” Thursday, August 11, 2016. (Accessed online, April 21, 2018).

[5] Kathy Stevens, Where the Blind Horse Sings, p. 57.

Gopala, Jesus, and the Friendly Beasts

Interspiritual Friendships and the Care of Animals

by Michael J. Iafrate

A few months ago, I sat in a crowded movie theatre watching the local premiere of the documentary Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All. The majority of the audience was made up of members of a nearby West Virginia Hare Krishna community called New Vrindaban founded in 1968. The film tells the story of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s journey from India to the United States, virtually penniless, in 1965, his founding of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and the explosion of his spiritual movement. Many of the devotees around me knew Prabhupada personally and have been connected with New Vrindaban since nearly the beginning.

Michael and Ed Sloane with a friend after Wild Church service | photo by Matt Smith

Michael and Ed Sloane with a friend after Wild Church service | photo by Matt Smith

There was a certain surreal quality in the event, as I felt both like a guest among adherents of a religious tradition very unlike my own, but also like an “insider” among friends. Though I am Roman Catholic, the story of the “Hare Krishnas” is well known to me, having met devotees through the punk rock scene while I was in high school in the early 1990s. Sitting among the devotees, I smiled at the film’s vibrant presentation of the history and its impressive collection of archival footage. I laughed out loud with the rest of the audience at its inside jokes and nodded at its articulation of a contemporary spiritual figure’s ancient wisdom.

Like the devotees, too, I knew the film glossed over some of the more troubling aspects of Prabhupada’s views. But the evening was an appropriate celebration of a religious community with a remarkable history, particularly in this part of the country. And as the film concluded with some of the ways the Hare Krishna movement has touched national and global cultures, the event was an opportunity to pause and be thankful for perhaps the most important gift the Hare Krishnas gave me—a gradual deepening of awareness about the sacredness of creation, and particularly of other-than-human animals.

Wild Church altar | photo by Michael Iafrate

Wild Church altar | photo by Michael Iafrate

As a teenager, several of my friends had “gone veg” for a variety of reasons: animal rights, environmental, health, political, and so on. And so the conversations among us began. Krishna devotees I knew, though, situated all of these very good arguments for vegetarianism within a wider spiritual context that I, as a fairly typical young Catholic omnivore, found intriguing—and eventually very challenging to my own worldview and lifestyle as I entered adulthood. Though it would take a few more years, after college I realized that through these encounters I had come to internalize an evolving commitment to nonviolence, to seeing creation as sacred, and to understanding eating as a religious act—or better, a sacred or sacramental act. I have been vegetarian, and sometimes vegan, ever since. And when people ask about my reasoning—whether it is for animals rights, environmental, health, or religious reasons—I simply say all of the above.

Becoming a Catholic vegetarian at that point in my life, and before I entered into graduate theological programs and various forms of church and activist work, helped me to enter a path of discovery of resources within my own faith community that witness to a neglected but important tradition of concern for animals, one that is now, thankfully, becoming more well-known and widespread. In the twenty years since I’ve embraced vegetarianism, I have watched the development of deeper reflection on animals among Catholics: a richer appreciation for the care of animals from our tradition’s past, as well as creative expressions of “animal theology” among Catholic theologians, often deeply connected with wider social justice and “life” issues and with more recent eco-theologies as well. This recent reflection has even arguably “trickled up” into “official” church teaching, as concern for animals is seen in the Catholic Catechism and in the teaching of Pope Benedict, and most recently as Pope Francis affirmed the intrinsic worth of animals in his encyclical Laudato Si’.

The gifts I received from these early interspiritual friendships did not end with my own vegetarianism, however. Often, when Christians open themselves to encounter with other faith traditions and learn what they teach about vegetarianism or meditation, they realize that their own traditions contain lesser-known ideas and practices along these lines as well. And they are then content to return to a Christian context which now “meets their needs,” thankful to non-Christians for bringing to their attention aspects of Christian tradition they had not previously seen. While these kinds of revelations are certainly worthy of celebration, I have come to appreciate a more relational and dynamic approach to interspiritual friendships.

Since returning to the Ohio Valley after a time away, I have been blessed with continuing and deepening (and multiplying!) interspiritual friendships with people of many faiths, including members of the New Vrindaban community. Together, in both informal and formal ways, we have initiated a number of local practices of interspiritual friendship, not only to “take” from one another, or to become more aware of obscured aspects of our own traditions, as valuable as these might be, but to nurture real friendships; to share experiences of common worship and contemplation; to enter together into that Holy Mystery within, between, and beyond the words of our particular traditions; and to work together as people of many faiths to create a better world.

One of the ways we have done this is through a small interspiritual community we are calling Wild Church West Virginia. My friend and colleague Ed Sloane and I had heard of the outdoor Eucharistic liturgies of the ecumenical Wild Church Network and Watershed Discipleship movement, and thought it would be appropriate to explore the possibility of a Wild Church community here in West Virginia, bringing to it the uniqueness of the place where we are rooted. From our Catholic context, it seemed especially fitting given our own involvement in the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and the Roman Catholic Church’s ecological turn under the leadership of Pope Francis.

Inspired by CCA’s place-based liberation theology, Francis’ theological vision of global eco-justice, and the Wild Church Network’s various expressions of deep ecological liturgy—and deeply moved by the interspiritual experimentation of Bede Griffith’s Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) and the monthly Yeshu Satsang in Toronto—Wild Church West Virginia was born on Pentecost Sunday 2017. Our current mission statement reads:

Wild Church West Virginia is an experiment in “re-wilding our faith.” We believe that many people of faith and good will seek a connection with God and one another that is not limited by institutional walls. Loving encounter grounds and nurtures tradition. By stepping outside and going to the margins we can more readily encounter the mystery of God.

Our monthly outdoor agape meal liturgies witness both to the goodness and brokenness of creation. We have gathered in the hilly, wooded terrain of land connected to Bethany College in West Virginia and in the breathtaking natural “cathedral” of Raven Rocks in Southeast Ohio. Yet we also plan to gather at ecologically damaged places—mountaintop removal sites and street corners which represent to us the destructive social environments humans have constructed and which cry out for justice.

As the community grew, we saw that many people attracted to Wild Church West Virginia were from non-Christian faith traditions, or people alienated from various Christian churches, or people who, like us, share a deep curiosity about “other” faiths and believe that we can and should celebrate with and learn from one another. Though rooted in the Catholic tradition, we soon, very consciously, made more of an effort to become a wildly inclusive, interspiritual community that acknowledges the holiness of the many names of the Divine and welcomes people of all religious traditions to the table.

For our December Wild Church liturgy on the second Sunday of Advent, we worked with a number of devotee friends to hold an Advent/Christmas celebration at New Vrindaban’s goshala (cow shelter), part of their cow protection program. Gathering in the chilly barn among the community’s cows, the interspiritual and multispecies liturgy celebrated Christ coming into the world among people of many faiths and among other-than-human animals, blending Hindu and Christian chants and hymns accompanied by harmonium and guitar (including “The Friendly Beasts”) and readings from Vedic, Hebrew, and Christian scriptures. Ed gave a rich homily on the readings, stressing the unique ability that animals have to teach humans about the Divine and reminding us how fitting it is that animals and their caretakers were the first to welcome the coming of the Light of the World. The lay-led agape meal’s offertory included a Hindu arati service led by a devotee (including the waving of lights before the altar and icons), and we blessed and shared locally made bread and apple juice made from local apples—no wine, as devotees abstain from alcohol. The liturgy was followed by a short kirtan with communal chants to Krishna under the name Gopala (“protector of the cows”) and a sharing of prasadam, a vegetarian sanctified meal, in this case paneer over spinach rice.

Arati service | photo by Jocelyn Carlson

Arati service | photo by Jocelyn Carlson

In our Wild Church liturgies, silent interfaith meditation gatherings, and sacred conversations, the friendships begun in our local interspiritual community continue to deepen, and we dream together of new possibilities around the arts and in activism. Together, we are coming to believe in a vision similar to that of Sufi mystic, scholar, and author Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, that we are called “to return to our own root and rootedness: our relationship to the sacred within creation.” With Vaughan-Lee, we believe that “Only from the place of sacred wholeness and reverence can we begin the work of healing, of bringing the world back into balance.”

That work of healing and of bringing creation back into balance, we believe, must include all of us, learning across traditions. It must also come to include all beings, and indeed may even be led in many ways by those beings long considered to be less than human. Here in West Virginia, a place deeply damaged by the so-called First World’s extractive mentality, we continue to “rewild our faith,” and to learn from the friendly beasts and from their caretakers, including those whose spiritual traditions have been most attuned to non-human animal lives.

Michael J. Iafrate is a theologian and songwriter from West Virginia and a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. He currently serves as Co-Coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and was the lead author of CCA’s “People's Pastoral” letter The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us. His writing has appeared in National Catholic Reporter and Religion Dispatches, various journals, and the collections Secular Music and Sacred Theology (2013) and Music, Theology, and Justice (2017). He is also a singer-songwriter and old time musician, and his most recent album, Christian Burial, was released in 2017.