“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 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. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes 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.” – John 10:11-18
If you were here last week, you probably remember that part of the sermon talked about the rabbits in the novel Watership Down. I figured that we’re still in the church season of Eastertide, and we all think about the Easter Bunny and rabbits at Easter time, so that made some kid of sense. Well, it’s still Easteride, so I have some cover for still talking about those same rabbits and their adventures this Sunday, too.
Last week, I said that when the rabbits left the security of their old warren and set out on their own, they survived for two reasons. I talked about the first of those reasons last week – that they realized they couldn’t get by on their own as individuals, that they had to work together as a group, a community that recognized and valued the contributions of every member of the community; and that they developed that sense of community largely through maintaining and retelling their common stories that shaped their moral and ethical lives together. This week, we’ll look at the second reason that was the key to their success.
At one point in their wanderings, the rabbits are welcomed into another warren as guests. In some ways, the warren seemed like a paradise. It was near a farmhouse, and the people who lived there spread lots of food out for them; they didn’t have to work hard to find enough to eat. Life was easy, because the people had chased away and fenced out all the natural predators the rabbits would have had otherwise. But there was something that just wasn’t quite right about these rabbits. Without the need to work for their food, the rabbits had gotten fat and lazy, and even a bit self-absorbed. And they’d stopped telling all the great communal stories of the hero-rabbit, “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies,” because they didn’t really seem to have any to worry about. And because of that, these rabbits also had very little sense of community or connectedness. And for some reason, they never answered any question that began with the word, “Where”.
The band of roving rabbits learned why that was the case one day when one of them got caught in a snare set out by the people in the farmhouse, and when they ran to get the other rabbits to help get him free, they all just stayed quiet and turned away, ignoring their cries for help. It turned out that this happened every so often; the people would catch and eat one of the rabbits – not often enough to make the rabbits move away from their comfortable living, but enough to make them stop asking the painful question of where someone was when they went missing. That’s why they’d stopped telling the morality-building community stories of the hero-rabbit. It would only have reminded them of the moral compromise they were making for their own personal comfort. And forming close community bonds would only have made it more difficult to look the other way and let go of someone when they got caught in one of the snares. That was why these rabbits had been to welcoming to the visitors – they were just seen as snare-fodder; with them around the odds that one of their own getting caught was reduced.
It isn’t hard to see the potential parallels between this story and where we find our own society. Almost every day, we all participate in some way in preserving or enhancing our own personal comfort and well-being at the expense of other, more or less invisible people who we have little or no personal connection to. It shows up in all kinds of small ways. We buy shoes made by slave labor in some foreign country, in order for them to cost as little as possible. Or we eat food or drink coffee that came cheap to us because the corporate buyers have so much market clout that the producers can barely survive on the prices they can get for their goods. We look the other way when other countries treat their own people with all kinds of injustice, because we don’t want to rock the boat, or maybe more accurately, we don’t want to rock the oil tanker, and potentially disrupt the free flow of oil to prop up the standard of living we’ve become accustomed to. We pick up our value meal at the drive-thru, knowing full well that the person behind the window is working 55 or 60 hours per week, with no benefits, and still can’t get through the month without SNAP and the food pantry. We know all this, but too often we turn away and try to ignore it, refusing to confront the reality, because it means cheaper consumer prices for us and higher corporate profits for the companies our retirement funds are invested in.
It’s a rotten part of our common life; one that hurts to shine the light on too brightly or too often, but it is a very real moral dilemma for us as Christians; as followers of Jesus. The reality of the brokenness of our world is that we can never totally avoid our complicity in things like that, which unjustly harm others. But we do have a moral obligation to do whatever we can to minimize the situation. What can we do? For each of us, it might be something different. Do we boycott companies that operate in unjust, exploitative ways? Do we shift our investments to more socially responsible funds or companies? Do we only buy Fair Exchange coffee for our fellowship time, or refuse to shop at the big box store that rolls back its workers’ wages while raking in excessive, record-breaking profits?
We’re all knee-deep in this situation – this sin – and there’s just no getting completely out of it. None of us is going to do some big thing to solve the whole problem. But all of us can do some little things in the way we live, in the decisions we make, to at least minimize the problem. We can all focus on ways that we can structure our own lives in ways that don’t exploit those nameless, faceless others that are caught in the snares of our world. We can, and we have to, find ways to help get as many of them out of those snares as we can. Because even if we don’t know their names, or they’re faces, they’re all just as much God’s own as we are. God has said that we’re all part of the same rabbit warren.
Our own hero-rabbit – our own “Prince with a Thousand Enemies” gave us the model for how we need to think ethically of others. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, who loves and tends and cares for his own flock even to the point of laying down his life to protect and shelter them – us. This same Good Shepherd says that we’re all to be part of one flock, or maybe we could say one warren, and he gave us the command to go onward, in his name, doing the same for others – extending that same loving care to those we meet, and even to those we may never meet, in the way we live and in the way our lives affect theirs. This is really a matter of justice, the kind of justice that God calls us to as part of the kingdom of God. And it’s a matter of hospitality, too – not the shallow, self-serving hospitality of the host rabbits in the story, but the radical, extensive, costly kind of hospitality that our Good Shepherd extends to us – leading us to green pastures and still waters – and that he’s told us to extend to others.
Thanks be to God.