The fourth Sunday of Easter is nicknamed “Good Shepherd Sunday” mainly because in all three years of our lectionary, there is some reading from the Gospel of John having to do with sheep. Today we hear Jesus is the gate by which the sheep come and go and find pasture. Baptism is our gate through which we enter the Church and each week we come back to be nourished at the Eucharist and then go out to be the Gospel in the world. But make no mistake, the thief who comes to steal, kill and destroy is ever present and ever trying to steal us away.
So who, or what, is this thief who tries to steal our “abundant life”? And what is abundant life anyway? In order to approach this, we need to see this story in context. The downside of the lectionary is it chops up scripture and we lose the context. This passage happens as the ending to the story of the man born blind – which we heard in Lent when Canon Slater was with us. Remember? That’s the story of when Jesus healed the man born blind. He didn’t restore the man’s sight; he created the man’s sight ex nihilo (out of nothing). The man is then brought into the temple and grilled by the Pharisees about what happened to him. There is a long interchange including bringing in his parents to testify. The upshot of it all is that in the narrative, the man born blind not only receives sight physically, he receives freedom and finds his voice to advocate for himself. This is liberation! And the price he pays is … expulsion from the community.
Immediately following the healing and inquisition is when Jesus teaches about abundant life. For the man born blind, abundant life was sight and freedom … but both came at a price of being cast out of the system. This implies that “abundant life” is contextual – what it meant for the man born blind isn’t what it might mean to you and me. And if abundant life is contextual, then the thief who would kill, steal and destroy it is also contextual. So what does this mean in our context?
I think we need to begin answering that by looking at our 21st century American life and the value system it promulgates. In theory, we live in a democracy (our political system) steeped in capitalism (our economic system) wherein all get to participate in the political process and the consumption of goods drives our economic engine to prosperity for everyone … right? Notice I said “in theory.” What we have seen as of late is this theory collapse on itself. If we look at economic date from 1979 to the present, it is clear that much of the economic gain has not just gone to the 1% … but to the 0.1%. Since 1979, the one-thousandths of uber-rich corporate executives have seen their incomes go up 400% while real wages for everyone have fallen. Even college graduates have seen a stagnation of their incomes since 2005. Now I didn’t get these statistics out of some “lefty” media organization like Mother Jones Magazine or MSNBC. These figures from economist Paul Krugman who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics and teaches at Princeton University (“Oligarchy: American Style” – NY Times November 4, 2011). He knows a lot more about economics than I do. He has rightly pointed out that America’s political system, as a result of largely unregulated capitalism, has evolved into an oligarchy – a government of the few, by the few and for the benefit of the few. As much as we want to deny this, if we are honest we know it is true. Money and political power are now largely in the hands of big corporations who buy the political influence of both political parties. The Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, for crying out loud! And this evolution towards oligarchy isn’t solely the fault of Republicans, Democrats or Tea Partiers … it’s the whole system. Politicians’ votes are largely being bought by corporate interests regardless of political affiliation. This is the natural consequence of unregulated capitalism. It will always move towards oligarchy.
The result of this shift to a “democracy in theory but oligarchy in practice” has caused the middle class to shrink and puts many of us on the brink of falling out of it each day. Most of us are one or two paychecks away from being in the line at the food bank. We are one illness or car accident away from personal economic collapse. When I hear people say, “We want our country back,” I hear the fear in this statement. Sadly, I believe we spend our time blaming and venting spleens on Facebook more than we do understanding that this is the norm of human history.
That’s right. Oligarchies, as a governance structure, are historically the norm! Government of the few, by the few, for the few has been the dominant form of governance throughout world history regardless of culture. What we experienced in the post WWII era of a stable middle class with rising incomes was a fluke! It happened as a result of regulated capitalism with a taxation structure that redistributed the wealth … and yes, that’s a form of socialism. If we consider our reading from Acts 2 this morning – we hear about the early Christian church pooling their wealth and redistributing it! That’s right – the early Christians were socialists in the economic sense.
If oligarchies, government of the few, by the few, and for the benefit of the few, are normative for the world, then we shouldn’t be surprised that our economic and political culture is becoming more like the era when Jesus lived. In ancient Rome, a narrow band of elites governed the empire. The economic structure was proto-capitalistic but largely based on barter trade. Our economy has some different mechanisms, to be sure, but the challenges of income inequality are quite similar. This inequality has made us fearful – and fear is the thief which steals, kills and destroys our spirit! So what, then, does abundant life mean in our world of wealth inequality and fears of scarcity and want and how do we claim back our abundant life from the thief of fear?
I think we can begin by embracing the idea that abundant life isn’t just something promised in some future time when we die; it is something we are called to live into right now. Abundant life is a challenge to our faith to live contrary to the message we are receiving from the world. It is our call to resist the fears which make us want to pull in our horns and withhold our time and treasure from others. It is our call to remember that all things come from God and that God will provide all we need when we are generous with each other and the world. It is trusting that abundant life looks like freedom and liberation in Christ instead of the acquisition of worldly goods and earthly power. It is knowing that when we gather in community for the common purpose of serving others, we can do so because of the power of the risen Christ. We discover abundant life when we extend it to others.
I had a Holy Spirit moment when Tom+ read the Gospel today. I realized the stole I pulled out of the closet in the sacristy is a symbol of abundant life from a place quite far away. This stole was made by a Muslim woman in Sarajevo. She's part of a cooperative of women who sew and embroider vestments for Christian and Muslim clerics. This cooperative was born out of the violence of the civil war which tore their country apart. The thief of sectarian violence, genocide, and destruction tried to steal away their abundant life. But in the aftermath of that horrible collapse of their society, these women are reclaiming the abundant life God promised in Jesus Christ. While they do not share the same faith, they are learning again to trust each other and work together for the sake of a greater love.
What does this all mean for us here at Grace Church? Well, I think it means we need to relate to what God has given us in new ways. We have this building (and the one next door). We have land around those buildings. I am persuaded we are being led to use these assets in new and creative ways to bring people together for the purpose of serving our community in a new way. Some of you have heard about the idea of stealing back the food supply and using our grounds to grow food. I made a phone call last Monday to Mike Dickson who runs a nursery and restaurant. He is an urban gardener and I called him to ask questions about what creating an urban garden entails and how it all might work. When I told him I was from Brunswick, he was ecstatic! Mike is part of the Convoy of Hope which has been an annual event to help those in poverty with food, clothing and medical care. They have been looking for a site in Brunswick to stage an event and part of that program would be to plant an urban garden. Now you know me, I don’t believe in coincidences … but I do believe Jesus when he said he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. The way that people and resources are quickly coalescing around this idea, the more I am persuaded it is something the Holy Spirit is asking us to do and be for the sake of God’s people. Maybe for us, abundant life looks like … tomatoes, corn, squash, green beans … and the people who will be fed both in body and in spirit from them.