Grace Presbyterian Church
April 22, 2018, Easter 4B
The fourth Sunday of Easter, every year, offers in the lectionary Psalm 23. That psalm, the extremely well-known “shepherd psalm,” is always paired with some part of John 10, the chapter in which Jesus delivers up one of his “I am” sayings, in this case “I am the good shepherd.”
Today is also Earth Day, the annual celebration/commemoration, begun in 1970, in support of measures to protect and preserve the natural environment, already showing signs of damage even those 48 years ago.
It might seem that the two don’t mix. Psalm 23 is, well, Psalm 23. It is probably the most familiar chapter of scripture ever (in terms of recognizing the whole chapter, not just a verse like John 3:16). It is in some ways so familiar as to be un-preachable or un-teachable; folks hear the chapter and almost check out before the words “The Lord is my shepherd” have stopped ringing in the air, maybe checking in just in time for that part about dwelling in the house of the Lord. Earth Day, on the other hand, raises a serious concern about a climate changing too fast to keep up with, earth damaged by human activity, species going extinct or becoming endangered at a more rapid pace than we’ve seen before; all in all, not a terribly uplifting or pastoral effect.
But then again, maybe there is more to the connection than we think. If we can manage not to check out on the psalm, we might be reminded that virtually all of the imagery in that beloved psalm is grounded thoroughly in God’s creation. Sheep, those creatures cared for by the shepherd, are of course part of creation. Those green pastures and still waters are nature itself. Even an image found in verse 5 – “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” — has its roots in that natural relationship; the shepherd was at times charged to go ahead of the flock and “prepare” a safe place, with plenty of grass, so that the sheep could safely graze when it was time.
A sheep is at risk if it doesn’t follow the leadership of the shepherd; there are plenty of predators that would love to take advantage of an unprotected flock, but the sheep can also find trouble itself. A patch of grass only lasts so long, especially if the shepherd doesn’t move the sheep along to a new patch before it’s ground out. Those waters can be hazardous if they aren’t still. There are risks.
John’s gospel, in which Jesus speaks to what constitutes a good shepherd, also introduces another risk; a “bad” shepherd, referred to there as the “hired hand.” In this telling the “hired hand” is not in fact concerned with the welfare of the sheep, or is only so as much as necessary to get paid. At the first sign of danger he’s off, covering his own hide. He’s not going to fish an errant sheep out of a rushing stream, or fight off a predator, or rescue an errant sheep from a precipice.
Maybe these things are relatable to our wounded creation after all.
We humans, maybe, overgraze fertile places until they aren’t fertile anymore, or exploit and extract resources that can’t be replenished.
We humans, maybe, foul those still waters, rendering them undrinkable, useless for human consumption.
We humans, maybe, aren’t always good at following the shepherd.
In fact, maybe one of our biggest problems with our destructiveness of creation is that we’ve quit following the Good Shepherd altogether. Maybe we’ve put too much of our trust and faith in the “hired hands,” the ones who are only there for what profit they can extract, the ones who are going to make darned sure that if anybody is going to face danger or suffer the consequences of our damaged earth, it’s not going to be them. And yet that’s who we’ve left in charge of, well, pretty much everything, creation included.
The prophet Ezekiel, in chapter 34 of that book, uses the contrast of fat and lean sheep to make the same point; the fat sheep get that way by treading down the grass and fouling the water, so that the other sheep have nothing to eat or drink. Whether hired hand or fat sheep, it’s an inescapable conclusion that some part of humanity is contributing to the degradation of the basic livability of others in an increasingly damaged world, one where the damage somehow seems to land almost universally on the ones Jesus would call “the least of these” in Matthew 25 (another chapter in which sheep are major characters).
At some point, if we’re going to call ourselves followers of Christ, the Good Shepherd, we have to stop treading down the grass and fouling the water, and maybe even (like that Good Shepherd) “prepare” and restore what he have already damaged, so that all the sheep, all of God’s people, have that plentiful grass to eat and water to drink. The “green pastures” and “still waters” need our help, or at the very minimum they need us to stop damaging them. And without those, what is Psalm 23 but a sad, distant memory?
For the call and opportunity to repair creation, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #370, This Is My Father’s World; #803, My Shepherd Shall Supply My Need; #713, Touch the Earth Lightly; #187, Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us