Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

The Shepherd’s Other Sheep

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fourth Sunday of Easter & Earth Day (April 22, 2018)
Psalm 23, John 10:11-18 – “Other Sheep”

The Lord is my shepherd.
I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
he leads me to restful waters;
He guides me in proper paths
for the sake of his good name.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
they protect me.
You set a table for me
right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the Lord’s house
as long as I live.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.

“This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.”

The 14th-Century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote this:

If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature —
even a caterpillar —
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God
is every creature

So go find a caterpillar. My job is done here!

Not so fast…

Today on the secular calendar is Earth Day. Today on the liturgical calendar is the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Because the lectionary editors tend to include these readings about the Good Shepherd on this date, in some circles today is also called “Shepherd Sunday.” Meister Eckhart was right: even the tiniest creature is saturated with the presence, knowledge, and experience of God and we can learn something about God in these creatures… if we’re paying attention. And while I don’t have a caterpillar in my hand, we have these sheep and this Shepherd from Psalm 23 and the gospel according to John.

Ponder with me sheep and shepherds…

The Bible is chock-full of shepherd and sheep imagery. That makes sense because of the time and places in which these texts were written. Because we read or hear these Scriptures out of their original context, we bring our own associations to them. So, a lot depends on what you know about sheep, which, in my case, is next to nothing. Growing up in a large town in middle Georgia, the only time I encountered sheep was at the petting zoo at the county fair. My takeaway was that they stink. Well, that and the fact that they’re herd animals. And that we make scratchy sweaters out of their wool. I’ve heard they’re stubborn and not that bright, which, incidentally, is one reason I’m hesitant to use flock language when referring to the church!

Wanting to know more about them, though, I asked a colleague who spent a lot of time in northern Arizona around the Navajo reservation. Steve knew some shepherds personally, so was as close to an authority as I could find on a Tuesday morning.

“Help me understand,” I said to Steve, “something redeemable about sheep.” I said, “I know the Bible writers lived in a nomadic, livestock herding society and that sheep were vital to many people’s livelihoods and such, but seriously, what’s so interesting about sheep? God cares for us like a shepherd, guiding and providing and protecting, and whatnot, but what else?”

“They have personalities,” he said. “The shepherd knows each sheep’s quirks and habits. That’s how the shepherd can guide the sheep through canyons. That’s why the shepherd defends the sheep from wolves, because he knows them so well. It’s an intimate relationship.”

I’m on board with that. That’s why Psalm 23 is read at memorial services and other difficult times. That’s why so many churches, inspired by this passage from John, have stained glass windows depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We have that sense as individuals and as a community that God knows us so deeply, so thoroughly… and loves us anyway. We want to rely on God’s provision and care. We want to believe that God guides our paths and protects us from danger. That’s a core experience of the life of faith, to sense that, know that, and trust that.

But Steve told me something else. The shepherds he knew were not only connected to the sheep individually and as a herd, but they also shared a deep connection to the land itself. A shepherd knows the land as much as she knows the sheep. We focus on the sheep, but listen to the land, too, especially in Psalm 23: grassy meadows, restful waters, dark valleys. Those dark valleys in Israel/Palestine—this may be of interest to those of you who’ve also spent time in northern Arizona—are similar the slot canyons around Page. Those dark valleys are treacherous: sheep can fall in them and bandits can hide in them! Shepherds know where to graze, where not to graze, when to stop grazing. They’re familiar with water sources. They’re tuned into the seasons.

The shepherd is in relationship with the land as well as the sheep.

What a necessary reminder this Earth Day!

These symbols are meant to unite us in kinship with one another, but also with the wider creation. God loves us (“us” being human beings created in God’s image) so, so much. We heard Jesus a few minutes ago, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I know my own sheep and they know me.” It’s an age-old tendency for human beings to make the Creator’s relationship with the creation only about us, who are but one part of the whole. “Anthropocentrism” is the word. It’s a form of self-idolatry.

Have you ever contemplated how late we humans have come to the “creation party”? How long have the galaxies been in existence? And with the planet we’re on, how many generations of fish in the sea and animals and plants on the land has God known and watched and loved over millions of years? If the history of earth was plotted on a 24-hour clock, the origin of life around 4:00am and jellyfish emerging around 8:28pm. Humans? 11:58pm and 43 seconds.

When we put ourselves at the center, we tend to view other creatures and the land as existing for our benefit alone. It’s a destructive, corrosive mentality. We’d be here way past lunch today if we catalogued all the ways our inherent belief that we are the only objects of the Shepherd’s love and care plays out. Our over-consumption and exploitation of the environment knows virtually no limit. There’s climate change and its legions of demons: melting polar ice caps; the exponential extinction of species; increased natural disasters; water shortage and famine; and on and on…

Jesus said, “So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them.” Sometimes, we’re not the sheep. Sometimes, we’re the wolves!

“So then what can we do about it?” we may be asking ourselves.
Here are a few things that come to mind…

  • Fossil fuel divestment is something our friends at the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship are working on.
  • The reduction in single-use plastics, like drinking straws and Keurig cups, is one approach.
  • Thinking about our knowledge or lack of knowledge about the land we live on is another topic. Did you know there’s an EPA website through which you can look up what watershed you live in by zip code? This website can tell you about the health of the water, who’s working on water quality, the height of the creeks around you that day, etc.
  • As for the role we can play in creation care as a congregation, I’m excited to announce that at its April meeting, the Session voted to draw up plans for solar panels at St. Mark’s. The particulars are still being worked out, but know that we will be having a series of conversations about the plans over the coming months. The point is that, as a church, we believe God calls us to be good stewards of creation. It’s important that all the wonderful ministry we do in these buildings be done in a sustainable way.

The point is that, as is the case with any approach to a gargantuan problem, we have to start small with specific, actionable steps.

The Lord is our shepherd… but not just ours. Christ, our Good Shepherd, also said, “I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.” Who (and what) are those other “sheep”? How expansive is the Creator’s “sheep pen”?

The future of our planet is uncertain, for sure. We as a species need to make a 180-degree turn. The good news is that the grace of God goes with us, always offering second chances. As the psalmist wrote, “Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life.” Me, you, all God’s and diverse and complex and beautiful creation.

Featured image: “Jesus Mafa – The good shepherd,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.