Readings: Ezekiel 34:1-16, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrines #322 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/Ofny_9LIarI
This really has been quite the week, hasn’t it? The events of Jan 6th were shocking to watch, though to anyone who has been paying attention, not really surprising. I spent the day glued to the television, my heart racing and breaking at the same time. And of course, even though my sermon for today was already half written by that time, I knew I would need to start over. It is times like these that we need to hear words of guidance from our faith and I will do my best to provide something useful.
But first, I want to recognize a necessary tension. There is an intentional and important separation of church and state in our country. This is in order that religion might not dictate politics, so that we might not become a theocracy. But, religion and faith can certainly inform how we understand and evaluate politics, and it is in this spirit that I offer these words today.
Because, actually, the Bible is chock full of politics. Not representative democracy as we know it today, but full of the grappling of human beings around how to govern themselves, what or who to give allegiance to, and how to act, or how not to act, when they are in power. And the Bible has a quite lot to say about what kind of behavior best supports the communal project of human beings living together in this world. This is what politics really is at its philosophical core: the question of how human beings might make the best of this world we are living in together, the question of how we might all work together for the common good.
In a democracy, our leaders are chosen by the people. For the sake of efficiency and efficacy, we choose proxies to act on our behalf, and the work that they do is called government. By virtue of the faith that is given by us to those we choose to represent our interests and our livelihoods, our leaders have power, not just to enact policy but also to model the type of behavior that ensures the respect, integrity and basic enfranchisement upon which our system of government depends.
And I think that this is where faith can powerfully speak in the political realm, not in a moralizing way, but by lifting up the most prevalent metaphor that the bible provides for leadership: the good shepherd.
In the book of Ezekiel, as we heard in our reading today, when God needed to call Israel’s leadership to account, and to communicate about what kind of better leadership was required, God used the image of a shepherd and their flock. Ezekiel writes:
“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?” (Ez 34:2)
Yes, of course they must! The most important aspect of being a good shepherd is that they do not put their own needs above those of the sheep. The entire job is to prioritize the needs and the safety of the sheep. It seems so ridiculously simple that I almost cannot believe it needs to be said. I mean, I like a fresh and interesting theological take as much as the next person, but some things are just very simple. The moment the shepherd puts their own needs above those of the sheep, they have abdicated the one thing that makes them a shepherd at all.
So the words of the prophet here are telling us that the most important quality in a leader is being willing to sacrifice self-interest. There are lots of other things that the Ezekiel text tells us should be done by a good shepherd: strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, searching for the lost and rescuing them from all the places they have been scattered, as well as gathering, pasturing, and tending. But of course, the main thrust is that when a shepherd tends to their own self-interest first, they cannot actually do any of the other things in an effective way.
What we have seen the political realm is a President not willing to sacrifice self-interest. We have seen him lying about the election results in order to preserve his own ego and further his own benefit. We have seen members of congress choose to perpetuate those same lies in order to bolster their own political prospects. The culmination of this prioritization of self-interest, was an insurrection against the people’s house, and the endangerment of the people’s representatives. It was an affront to the social contract that makes democracy possible, and it was deeply deeply self-centered. It was exactly the kind of thing that the prophet Ezekiel decried.
Swedenborg wrote about leadership several decades before the American experiment would give the world its brand of (imperfect but hopeful) representative democracy. So when he talks about leadership, he refers to priests, magistrates and kings. But the principles remain the same then as now. We heard in our reading about how a king who considers the law above him, and not himself above the law, is a wise king. He writes as well:
The law which is justice ought to be passed by the wise and God-fearing lawyers of the kingdom, and therefore both the king and his subjects ought to live in accordance with it. A king who lives in accordance with a law that has been passed, and in this sets his subjects an example, is truly king.(1)
The true nature of kingship, of just and good leadership, in parallel to the true nature of good shepherding, is ultimately self-sacrifice, a surrender to the greater good. Real leadership is actually servant leadership.
And we see that Jesus would extend and employ the shepherd metaphor during his ministry, as well. He spoke of the joy in finding lost sheep (Luke 15), he spoke a shepherd separating sheep and goats as a way to describe how important it is to take care of the suffering among us (Matt 25), he spoke of the “good shepherd” as a way to express protection and intimacy and inclusion (John 10). The gospel of Mark speaks of Jesus having compassion on us, as shepherd would have for scattered sheep. (Mark 6)
Jesus would embody the good shepherd, just as God has always done. What did this look like? Interestingly, not necessarily about being “nice.” Servant leadership is not simply about always being polite or well-mannered. Jesus spoke the truth when it needed to be spoken, and he did so clearly. But all his ministry, he did for others and not for himself. He allowed his desire to love and serve others lead him, instead of a desire to be famous or idolized or powerful or even safe. In the end, his love for others led him to do something he would have done anything to avoid. He prayed: “Father if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
The sacrifice of self-interest often feels very painful to the ego, and to our sense of self-identity. We all know it is hard. But it is an essential part of the agreement that comes with taking on political leadership, it is an essential part of the social contract in which we confer upon our representatives the power to act on our behalf. It can be tricky work representing any vast and disagreeing constituency, that much is sure. Faults in judgment will necessarily come from all positions on the political spectrum, for leaders will above all, always be human beings. The best of us will never be able to prevent that completely. But each of our leaders, and each of us, are indeed in control of our intent. We are in control of our guiding motivations. And we must not allow clear and corrupt motivations to stand.
Jesus said “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #323.
1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. 7 “ ‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 10 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #322
Royalty consists in governing in accordance with the kingdom's laws, and in judging justly in accordance with them. A king who looks upon the laws as above him is wise; one who looks upon himself as above the laws is not. A king who looks upon the laws as above him attributes royalty to the law, and the law is his master. For he knows that law is justice, and all justice which is truly justice is Divine. One, however, who regards himself as above the laws, attributes royalty to himself and either believes himself to be the law or the law which is justice to be from himself. Thus he claims for himself what is God's, when he ought to be subject to it.