The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: John 10:11-18
These scriptures today have me thinking about another part of our Bible: the story of Cain and Abel. In that story, Cain gets jealous of his brother and kills him. When God confronts him about it, Cain gets defensive. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asks. The implication is that he’s not responsible for anyone but himself.
It’s a message we get a lot in our culture. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Live and let live. Rugged individualism. We shouldn’t need anything from anyone else. We should be able to do it all on our own. If you can’t, you’re weak. You’re lazy and just looking for a handout.
It’s false, obviously. The great majority of wealth in our country, the great majority of opportunity in this country—is inherited, not earned—passed down from one generation to the next. Which means poverty is also passed down from one generation to the next. I’ve talked about this before, but people working minimum wage jobs often work just as hard as anyone else. It’s not about how hard people work—it’s about the kind of work and the kind of people we value.
Not only is it false, it’s also not biblical. God curses Cain, telling him he will be a restless wanderer on the earth. Because Cain did not care for his brother, he would never find peace.
I don’t think God waved some magic wand that kept Cain from ever being happy. I think God was simply naming the curse that happens when we refuse to be our siblings’ keeper, our neighbors’ keeper, when we refuse to acknowledge our deep and essential connection to one another.
Jesus gives us the same message in a different way, his favorite way: a parable. “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.”
Last week, The Episcopal Church released the results of a Racial Justice Audit for Episcopal Leadership, a three-year survey of more than 1,300 members of the church’s key leadership bodies about their experiences of racism, racial identity, and power in the life of the church. The report names Nine Dominant Patterns of Systemic Racism in The Episcopal Church, the first of which is “Transformation versus Transaction.”
Transformation versus transaction. This is the discrepancy I think Jesus is bringing to light in the parable today. The good shepherd is interested in transformation, which means he’s interested in relationship. Because transformation can only happen when we feel like we belong to one another, when we know in our bones that someone else’s well-being is intrinsically connected to our own. The shepherd faces every danger, even lays down his life, to protect those who belong to him and to whom he belongs. And it’s not just those sheep who are already part of his flock. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” he tells us. “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
Whenever Jesus sees a sheep, he sees relationship. Even though he doesn’t know that sheep yet, he knows they belong to each other. He sees the opportunity for transformation. And he goes to the greatest lengths to create transformation.
The hired hand is a different story. Where the good shepherd sees transformation the hired hand sees transaction. There is no investment in the sheep. They don’t belong to the hired hand, and he doesn’t belong to the sheep. There is only a desired outcome: a paycheck. When the wolf comes, he makes a quick calculation: his life or the sheep’s? And he chooses to protect only himself.
And before any of us get on our high horse about the hired hand, let’s remember that we do the same thing. Maybe no one’s life is in danger when we do it, but we treat people as transactions every day. Every time we brush off the grocery cashier’s small talk, every time we get snippy with a customer service person on the phone, every time we don’t look our gas attendant in the eye when we hand her our credit card.
And I’m not saying we’re terrible people for doing these things, because most of the time those people are also treating us like transactions. It’s what we’ve been taught to do. We’ve been taught to size up the worth of a person by what we perceive they can give us and how they give it to us. By how productive or efficient they are. By how dependent our paychecks are on them. We expect most interactions to be transactional. We live in a hired-hand society.
But what would happen if we started to live like the good shepherd? If we looked for relationship and transformation in every interaction? And I’m not saying we need to drop into a deep conversation with every person we meet, I’m just saying what would happen if we treated every person as if they belong to us and we belong to them?
And not just the people who look like us. Not just the people who speak English. Not just the people in our neighborhood. Not just the people in our family or our church community. Remember? “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.”
We belong to each other. That’s what Jesus shows us in laying down his life for all the sheep. That’s what the Body of Christ means.
On Tuesday, I was holding my breath as I waited for the Derek Chauvin verdict. He was the police officer who killed George Floyd.
I think what’s so devastating to me about that situation, about every police killing of our Black neighbors, about white supremacy is that it all shows that we don’t fully believe what we say we believe when we say we believe in Jesus. We can’t justify violence against our Black neighbors and believe in Jesus.
Because to do violence is to inherently dehumanize another person. I’ll say that a different way: when we feel like we belong to another person, when there is a desire for relationship, when we recognize the potential for transformation with another person, violence simply isn’t possible.
Violence is always transactional. It’s always the taking away of power from another.
If Derek Chauvin thought he belonged to George Floyd, that George Floyd belonged to him, there’s no way he could have done what he did.
I was relieved when Chauvin was found guilty of all three counts. I was. But that wasn’t transformation. That was still transaction. The good shepherd doesn’t want a world where the bad guys go to jail. The good shepherd wants a world where we are not even capable of such violence, where we see each other and know we belong to each other.
We have a long ways to go to move from transactional to transformational.
This starts with the little things. It starts with broadening every encounter you have. Not just wondering what you’re going to get out of it, but wondering how you might create belonging in that moment. It means stopping to notice the ways we live that deny relationship.
Transactional is dropping off food at the food bank, which is helpful and lovely, but transformational is stopping to wonder why our neighbors are hungry when there is more than enough food in the world for everyone.
Transactional is reading a book to learn about racism for yourself, which is great, but transformational is figuring out how our everyday ways of being contribute to white supremacy, and then changing them.
It starts with the little things, but the good shepherd calls us to the big things. Because the good shepherd didn’t just smile warmly at the sheep and pat them on the head. He laid down his life. He gave everything to protect those who belonged to him and to whom he belonged.
Very few of us are called to lay down our life, but all of us are called to get intentional, to push ourselves out of our comfort zone for the sake of the flock. For the sake of belonging. For the sake of transformation.