“The Good Shepherd for the Good of the Earth”
Ezekial 34:1-6,11-16; John 10:11-18
April 25, 2021 – Earth Sunday
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them…
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
‘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.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
There has been a lot going on in the news this week…
First, after languishing for over a year from the quarantine,
it was announced that over 50% of adults in the United States had been vaccinated!
That is significant and hopeful good news.
In the Derek Chauvin trial, after we witnessed the brutal video of George Floyd’s face on the pavement
as he cried out, “I can’t breathe”, we have now witnessed accountability
for an unexplainable abuse of power.
In Europe, after the announcement of a European Super League that would make a few people,
including several North Americans, a ton of money, we witnessed an uprising among the people,
people united against a change that many deemed to be based mostly upon greed.
In Russia, tens of thousands took to the streets in support of “the man Putin fears most,” Alexei Navalny,
the man who has been on a hunger strike in prison, the man who US intelligence claims
was poisoned by Russian security services.
Though nearly 2,000 Russians have been arrested, their protests over abuse of power and corruption
are being heard all over the world.
(IMAGE Atlanta cars)
In Atlanta, we heard the “State of the Air” report from the American Lung Association.
This year’s report reveals that Atlanta’s air quality has improved for ozone pollution,
and has improved for both year-round and short-term particle pollution, which is good news.
(IMAGE Atlanta pollution) Sadly, however, the report still gave the city a grade of “F”,
a poor ranking for ozone pollution. (lung.org)
In Washington, DC this week, after decades of grave concern that not enough was being done
to address the effects of climate change, forty heads of state
gathered for a two day virtual climate summit.
(IMAGE global emissions chart)
Promises were made to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50%
below the 2005 levels by 2030, and to double the U.S. spending towards international climate goals.
Also this week, we heard that Walter Fritz Mondale died, a former senator and former vice-president,
(IMAGE Mondale smiling)
a national leader who sought to address fifty years ago critical issues of civil rights and the environment.
Mondale was one of the most influential politicians in the passing of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,
which was signed into law in 1968.
(IMAGE Wild Rivers 2)
Mondale said he was inspired by the St. Croix River that flowed in his own backyard.
“(The St. Croix River is) sort of a spiritual center for me,” Mondale said.
(IMAGE Wild Rivers logo)
What does all of this have to do with Jesus the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep?
Our Old Testament reading from Ezekiel, as well as our New Testament text from John,
remind us that God, as our Shepherd, cares about the well-being of common sheep, of common people.
In Holy Scripture, God acknowledges the real dangers in this world,
danger from wild animals, danger from lack of resources, danger from neglect of self-centered leaders.
And Holy Scripture makes it clear that God hears, God cares, and God will act.
In the Exodus story, God heard the cries of suffering from a vulnerable people,
from those who were enslaved, from those who were being abused,
and God delivered them from their distress.
God led them to a land flowing with milk and honey.
As Psalm 23 proclaims, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”
When we examine conditions of the most vulnerable people of the earth,
we become aware that their suffering is often closely related to the condition of the environment
in which they live. All of us, ultimately, are dependent upon the condition of the environment
in which we live.
(IMAGE water source)
When the condition of the earth itself suffers, everything suffers with it – humans, animals, plant life.
Issues related to the environment and sustainability have become too politicized.
These are not so much political issues, as they are scientific issues.
Care for the creation is not so much a political issue as it is a theological issue.
The idea that anyone could misuse the earth and its creatures, including human creatures,
for the sake of short term gain or pleasure, is bad theology.
Bad theology leads to much suffering.
The poor theology of those who would allow the oppression and abuse of human beings,
such as the oppressive slavery of Egypt or the internet child trafficking of today,
is closely related to the poor theology of those who would allow the misuse and abuse of the earth.
If fields are overgrazed and water sources are spoiled, the sheep will suffer.
(IMAGE sheep 2)
If human negligence leads to polluted rivers and toxic seas,
and human greed destroys the soil which one day will no longer produce wheat,
then human beings will suffer and eventually die.
The gospel of John holds two central ideas: who is Jesus and who are we because of who Jesus is.
Jesus is the good shepherd, the one sent from God who has the best interest of the sheep in mind.
Jesus will provide for, nurture, protect, and even lay down his life for the sheep.
(IMAGE shepherd 2)
Because of who Jesus is, the sheep no longer have to wander or face hunger.
Because of who Jesus is, the sheep need no longer be alone or afraid or insecure.
Because of who Jesus is, the sheep can find green pastures and drink deeply from still waters.
(IMAGE shepherd 1)
Because of who Jesus is, though the sheep may walk in the valley of the shadow of death,
the sheep need not be afraid, for the Good Shepherd will be with them.
He will comfort them with his rod and his staff.
Yes, Jesus is interested in the salvation of our souls beyond death,
but Jesus is also interested in this life, in our earthly salvation.
Yes, Jesus is interested in what happens after we suffer in this life and then die,
but Jesus is also interested in our thriving upon this good earth.
Unfortunately, there seems to have been an unbalanced emphasis of the Church
in many places throughout the world on salvation as mostly related to what happens after we die.
There has been too little an emphasis, in many Christian circles,
on what is happening here and now, on the condition of the earth and its peoples.
The earth itself is the subject of God’s salvation, and we, as human beings,
are the pinnacle of that creation.
God cares about this earth, and God cares about the condition of every human being upon this earth.
If any human life on this planet is in danger, God sees, God knows, God cares.
If there is any human being who is suffering on this earth, God hears, God sees, God knows.
On one hand, some will say that human beings have little control over the condition of the planet.
Ice ages come and go. Our sun could have a “blow out” any second,
which our little earth would not survive.
Some meteorite could tear through the earth’s atmosphere,
like one of those Hollywood movies, and we would all be doomed.
These things are not within our control, and should not be worried about.
On the other hand, we have become aware, through verifiable scientific studies,
that human beings are making a measurable impact upon the condition of our environment.
Carbon emissions are eroding the ozone layer.
Plastics are disrupting marine life.
(IMAGE plastics 2 turtle)
Clear cutting is destroying forest canopies across the earth.
Our habits are eroding not only the condition of the earth, but the ability of human beings to live upon it.
Our misuse of the earth’s resources is causing irreparable damage.
Failing to lower carbon emissions is leading to rises in the sea-level,
more natural disasters, less reliable agricultural production, and a greater burden of disease.
A large percentage of the human population lives within 3 feet of the sea level. In Florida,
one third of all current housing sits less than ten feet above the high tide line. (climatecentral.org)
Can you imagine the great disruptions, the great population shifts if the seas were to rise even a few feet?
Can you imagine the human suffering that would occur from warming oceans?
There would be tremendous disruption in economies, in massive migrations, in agricultural production.
I became aware of environmental concerns in elementary school.
(IMAGE Noses creek 2 waterfall)
At age 9, the creek that I played in every week, Noses Creek,
just below Kennesaw Mountain, was polluted by the North Chemical Company,
which sat less than a mile upstream from our neighborhood.
(IMAGE Noses creek 3)
We were not allowed to play in the creek for almost a year.
When we were finally allowed to return, the water and plants looked different, less pristine.
We soon discovered that there were no more crawfish to be found
under the rocks by the small waterfall.
We were nervous when we noticed our dogs drinking the water.
Someone reminded me this week Earth Day is not just one day of the year. Every day is Earth Day.
The website earthday.org lists 51 ways that you and I can make a difference for the sake our earth.
One of the first items on the list was to use more plant based recipes.
For over a year, Melanie and I have been eating mostly plant-based meals.
To be honest, personal health, including cholesterol levels, is the primary reason,
but another important reason is genuine concern for the environment.
On earthday.org, there is a foodprint calculator to determine how your meals
affect the condition of the planet. Is this something Christians consider or pray about every day?
You can also calculate your personal plastic consumption.
(IMAGE plastics 1)
Plastics, including packaging, and shopping bags, and water bottles,
are having a huge impact upon the condition of our environment.
I heard a report last week that if we stopped today producing any more plastics, anywhere in the world,
the ocean would still be in terrible condition for generations to come.
One study not long ago discovered a shocking amount of plastics found in air collection boxes
on top of a mountain in the Himalayas.
These are not silly, unimportant studies,
especially not for anyone who has suffered from an unexplained cause of cancer.
Our grandchildren will look back on our early 21st century habits and diets
somewhat like we look back upon those 1960 movies in which everybody in the room
was smoking a cigarette.
There is hopeful news.
General Motors has announced that it will produce exclusively zero-emissions vehicles by 2035.
A New Zealand company called LanzaTech is turning CO2 emissions into ethanol.
They started with a microbe that they found eating the gas in rabbit poop.
They began using that same microbe to ferment carbon pollution into fuel
that be used in combustion engines.
Virgin Atlantic airline then hosted a special flight to London
using this special ethanol made from carbon pollution. (cnbc.com; PBS special report April 20, 2021)
When we take to heart that we have been granted stewardship over the earth and its creatures,
and we begin to work carefully and wisely with God as co-creators,
as those who respect and care for and seek to sustain the vast resources of the earth,
then amazing, incredible, hopeful projects can arise.
But when we abuse the earth, when we do as we please for short term gain
or simply for convenience, all of creation will ultimately suffer.
The sheep of the fields will suffer; humankind will suffer.
The Good Shepherd desires that his sheep would thrive upon this good earth.
Jesus came that all may have life and have it abundantly.
(IMAGE shepherd 3 – sheep on shoulders)
The Good Shepherd came to lay down his life for us and for the sake of the world,
so more and more, may we learn to set aside short term convenience and short term gain
for the sake of the earthly thriving of all creation, all human beings,
including our own grandchildren and their children after them.
To God be the glory on this good and green earth. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church