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. https://cac.org/love-is-who-you-are-2016-08-11/ (Accessed online, April 21, 2018).

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

Undoing Domination, a Sermon

Sermon written and delivered by Michael Anthony Howard at Stanley Congregational Church, Chatham, NJ on July 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission. Listen to the sermon audio, download sermon notes, and access the sermon worksheet here.

IMAGE CREDIT: Die gelbe Kuh (The  Yellow Cow ), by Franz Marc (1911) [ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franz_Marc-The_Yellow_Cow-1911.jpg ]

IMAGE CREDIT: Die gelbe Kuh (The Yellow Cow), by Franz Marc (1911) [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franz_Marc-The_Yellow_Cow-1911.jpg]

The Logic of Domination

There are about 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone. It is amazing when you think about it. The Milky Way isn’t even very big. Every star has an approximate average of 1.6 planets. So, if you do the arithmetic, that’s 650 billion planets. The Earth is home to roughly 2 billion species of life. Some 70 to 90% of those species are bacteria. There might be a total of 40 million insect species. Yet, our science is just in its infancy. Some 10,000 species are discovered each year. To date, only about 1.5 million species have been described, and less than 1% of those are bacteria. Of those two billion species (or 1.5 million species we have named), almost 60 thousand are vertebrates, 5 thousand are mammals, and 350 are primates. Human beings are but one of them.

While the universe has been around for 13.772 billion years, we homo sapiens have only been around some 300,000 years. If my middle school math days serve me well, 13.772 billion minus 300,000 is still 13.772 billion — in other words, we’ve not been around long enough for our history to be within the order of significant digits.

Despite evidence to the contrary, many of us have been taught to think of our place in the world with an outrageous and unjust logic — the universe is ours and it exists for the taking.

But this logic doesn’t just stop with anthropocentrism. Let’s follow this logic down a little further. Of the 7.6 billion human beings on the planet, how many have access to clean drinking water, a healthy diet, good health care, a quality education, a living wage, etc? A little more than half of them are men. Of those 3.8 billion men, how many of us are white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, Christian, American? All of these characteristics are things that I share with most of our national leaders, almost all of our nation’s past presidents, and the richest man on the face of the earth. I find it curious and scary to believe that such a small portion of the world’s population has believed for so long that the world was made for them. But let us not be naïve, most of us humans think the same way about our relationship to the rest of Creation. Domination, see, comes in many forms.

This unjust logic of ours, our model of society, our understanding of the meaning of life, the way human beings have perceived themselves in relation to the rest of Creation — at least for the last four hundred years or so — has almost entirely shaped our way of life. It is hard to disagree with liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, when he described the modern human. Most of us live, he said, as if the most important thing in life is

to accumulate vast amounts of the means of life — material wealth, goods, and services — in order to enjoy our short journey on this planet. In achieving this purpose we are aided by science, which comprehends how the Earth functions, and technology, which acts upon it for human benefit. And this is to be done as speedily as possible. Hence, we strive for maximum profit with minimum investment in the shortest possible period of time. In this type of cultural practice, human beings are regarded as above things, making use of them for their own enjoyment, never as alongside things, members of a larger planetary and cosmic community. The ultimate result, which is only now becoming strikingly visible, is contained in an expression attributed to Gandhi: The Earth is sufficient for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed. [1]

In other words, our basic model for relating with each other — how we know what life is all about — is domination. When we see ourselves as being above rather than alongside, we operate within a framework — a logic — of domination.

The Dominion Argument

At Brookside Church, we’ve been wrestling lately with our ability to own up to the fact the Bible has been used to justify violence. When it comes to our interpretation of the world, our relationship to Creation, the way we think about salvation, and how we understand what it means to follow Jesus, the Bible can be both helpful and problematic. Last week, I pointed out how the gospel’s portray Jesus as skipping over problematic passages when he read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue. That way of reading scripture, which is commonly know as “cherry picking,” I asked us to consider thinking about it as “avoiding landmines.” I argued that if we are not careful with the way we read scripture, we will find that the body of Christ may actually lose body parts.

This morning, I want to draw your attention to a specific biblical landmine. This is one of the most commonly referenced passages when it comes to Creation, justice, and the role of Christianity in the world: Genesis 1. It’s not so much an entire passage or even a verse — really, it’s just one word: dominion.

This entire chapter is a beautiful and poetic description of God’s relationship with Creation. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that when it is read with the intent of asking what our relationship to Creation should be, Christians tend to narrow in on this one word. And this is specifically true when you talk about the relationship between human beings and other non-human animals. God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion…”

Dominion? “Didn’t God set human beings over Creation? Didn’t God give people dominion over animals and doesn’t that mean we can… [kill them, eat them, wear them, cage them, experiment with them, fill in the blank]?”

First off, the word dominion is repeated twice. That must mean it was important to the scribe or scribes that used it. But that should never, ever, trump what God said about Creation at every step along the way, “It is good.” For God to declare these things to be good, especially animal life, even before human beings existed, implies that they are valuable in their own right — that God delights in them. As Jewish scholar, Roberta Kalechofsky points out, “this substantiates the view that animals were regarded as integral subjects in their own right. God’s [expressed] delight in these creations…does not reflect a god who created animal life to be in bondage.” [2]

Carol J. Adams, arguably one of the most important feminist writers today and author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, wrote, “The more the word dominion is broken away from [the context of this poem of beloved relationship in] Genesis 1, the more likely it is that what one is defending is a broken relationship between humans and other animals and the world they inhabit.” [3]

Even more, what is interesting is that while the word radah, which we translate as dominion, is mentioned twice in verse 28, in the very following verse (Genesis 1:29), God says, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” In other words, whatever dominion humans have been granted over animals, it doesn’t involve eating them. Even more, if we’re going to be using this passage to understand our relationship with Creation, we must be constrained first and foremost by our reverence for the fact that God took delight in what God created. God said, “It is good.”

I mean, think about it.

“It is good,” so we are justified in separating a baby calf from its mother so we can have her milk. “It is good,” so it must be okay for us to cut off the beaks of chickens. “It is good,” so we can feel innocent when we pay someone to rip into their flesh in order to prepare our dinner, knowing that most of us would refuse to spill their blood if we had to do it ourselves. “It is good,” we think, because it is good for us human beings. That is the logic of domination.

If dominion doesn’t mean domination, what then does it mean?

Quoting again from Carol Adams:

It has been said that if kings and queens exercised dominion over their subjects the way human beings do over the other animals, kings and queens would have no subjects. So why is being in God’s image often interpreted in view of power, manipulation, and hegemony instead of compassion, mercy, and emptying unconditional love? We often anthropomorphize God as powerful, fierce, and angry (if not belligerent). When we are lording over others, using power — it is then that we are most likely to assert the image of God. Acts of unconditional love, suspensions of judgment, mercy for the weak, and kindness to animals get associated with a wishy-washy picture of who Jesus was, but are rarely discussed regarding God the Creator. [4]

The Impulse of Jesus

And here we come to the heart of the matter. Most of us have had our imagination of God shaped more by this logic of domination than by the teachings of Jesus. The Christian God as often taught by some Christians is a god of domination. He — and this god is always a he — could more easily be confused with the violent war gods of the Greeks or the Romans than with the teachings of Jesus. What if we approach the question christologically? What if we decided to ask what “dominion” might look like — our relationship to Creation and non-human animals — if we begin our thinking about God and humanity by learning from Jesus?

The central impulse at the heart of Jesus’ teachings was the proclamation of the Reign of God, or what Walter Wink called “God’s Domination-Free Order.” It was the creation of a new community, a new citizenship, based on a shared commitment to doing the will of God. This is what many of us have begun calling “The Beloved Community,” or the “Kin-dom.” Kin-dom, I think, helps point us to the truth that Jesus’ teachings challenge us not to see ourselves above Creation, but as alongside it as kindred earthlings. For followers of Jesus, this kin-dom teaching consisted of a twofold commitment to nonviolence and undoing that logic of domination. Walter Wink called it the Domination System: “An encompassing system characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, patriarchal gender relations, prejudiced racial or ethnic relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them.”
 [5]

Understood in this way, Jesus’ ministry was a radical critique of the logic domination, aimed at bringing healing to Creation by calling people to repentance and helping them discover what it means to be fully human.

The central teaching of the church is based on the idea of the incarnation — that somehow, in Jesus, God was revealed not to be above Creation, but alongside Creation. The central quest for communities of faith today is to recover for ourselves what Jesus unleashed, that original impulse at the heart of his teachings aimed at undoing the old order of domination and bringing about a new order of life and freedom. Only then will the church have what is needed to bring about positive change in people and all Creation.

I pray that this becomes our quest, that hear the voice of our still speaking God and take up our call — to learn to stand alongside Creation as kindred earthlings, following Jesus to undo the logic of domination.
 — Amen

Notes:

[1] Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), p. 2.

[2] Roberta Kalechofsky, “Hierarchy, Kinship, and Responsibility: The Jewish Relationship to the Animal World,” in A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics, edited by Paul Waldau and Kimberly Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 97–98. Quoted in Carol J. Adams, “What About Dominion in Genesis?” In A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals (The Peaceable Kingdom Series Book 2) (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), p. 5.

[3] Carol J. Adams, “What About Dominion in Genesis?” p. 5.]

[4] Ibid., p 2.

[5] Walter Wink, The Human Being Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 270.