Fourth Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 4:5-12 | Psalm 23 | 1 John 3:16-24 | John 10:11-18
Today is Earth Day for people worldwide who are part of the environmental movement. And for the church, it’s the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Easter is a season where the church is reminded of the resurrection of Jesus. Our texts this season include readings from the book of Acts about the birth of the church, and of the new life – the Easter life – that God promises for the whole cosmos.
On this Earth Day 2018, environmentalists remind us that since last year, plastic waste has continued to kill ocean life, our planet’s ice is melting even faster than we thought, climate change is bringing more and more disasters that find humanity unprepared, and species from snails to bats to lizards have been declared extinct, never to be seen on Earth again.
This is an important day for the church to proclaim the promise of Easter. Today the scriptures give us the image of a shepherd God, a God whose vocation is to take care of the creatures, and to protect them from all harm.
Check out this version of Psalm 23, written by jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin and dedicated to his mother:
The Lord is my shepherd
I have all I need
She makes me lie down in green meadows
Beside the still waters she will lead
She restores my soul
She rights my wrongs
She leads me in a path of good things
And fills my heart with songs
Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land
There is nothing that can shake me
She has said she won’t forsake me,
I’m in her hand
She sets a table before me
In the presence of my foes
She anoints my head with oil
And my cup overflows
Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me
All the days of my life
And I will live in her house forever
Forever and ever.
I hear in this psalm promises of green earth and clean water, the promise of abundant food and wine and oil, and the promise that this planet is made for goodness, and for mercy, and for home.
The psalmist writes famously “The Lord is my shepherd.” And centuries later, the writer of the gospel of John attributes the same imagery to Jesus, “I am the good shepherd.” These images of shepherd and sheep show up a lot in the Bible, and the imagery can be complicated.
It’s complicated in part because most of us don’t have a ton of direct experience with the practice of sheep-keeping. But more than that, shepherding can get sentimentalized into this sort of mushy idea of a Jesus who’s just super wise and gentle, with soft hair flowing in the breeze and a gentle beam of sunlight on his white skin.
We know that actually, Jesus is many things. Jesus is not only gentle but also fierce, and bold, and at times offensive. Jesus says “I am the good shepherd” but we also call Jesus the “Lamb.” The imagery is messy and complex.
And we’re not the first ones to idealize shepherding – by the time Jesus lived on earth, shepherding was actually no longer the central economic practice. But there was this collective memory of a time when nomadic ancestors roamed the countryside and kept sheep as a source of life. The ancestral connection to sheep and shepherding carried over so that when the people wanted to talk about leadership, someone responsible for the well-being of a group – it made sense to talk about shepherds. Throughout the ancient near east, kings and deities are compared to shepherds, and the royal scepter is said to have evolved from the shepherd’s crook.
But Jesus reminds us there are many different kinds of shepherds. It wouldn’t have been hard for the hearers of John’s gospel to imagine what Jesus meant when he talked about the hired hand. A quasi-leader who sort of acts like they care for the flock, but then as soon as things get serious, it becomes clear that they were actually only in it for the money? A leader who doesn’t have any sense of care or common belonging with the flock, but leaves them to be hurt by the forces of evil and death? That kind of leadership isn’t hard to imagine because we’ve experienced it.
It is harder to imagine what it would look like for world leaders, or people in positions of authority, to be good. So the gospel of John provides us this image of the model shepherd: Someone who would risk personal harm for the sake of the group’s well-being. Someone who belongs to the flock, and the flock belong to them. Someone who loves and takes care of the sheep. Who notices the other sheep also, and is always gathering them in. The good shepherd is good not because they have some special skills that the hired hand doesn’t, but because of relationship. The reason the good shepherd doesn’t sell out is because they are connected by this deep mutual knowledge, creature to creature, that each one’s life only makes sense when we’re all safe.
When I was up at Holden Village in Washington this January, I met a woman for whom wilderness solitude was a spiritual practice. She would go off camping or hiking on her own for several days at a time, and being alone in the wild became really important to her. She told the story of an encounter one day with a mountain goat. She was sitting out in a field alone, and the mountain goat wandered over, grazing. At one point, it looked up from the grass and saw her, still chewing. The mountain goat looked at her, right in the eyes, and just held her gaze.
This went on for minutes she said, not exactly even sure how long. Just staring at each other. She describes it as such an intimate and awesome moment. Here is this creature, a hundred pounds bigger than I am, whose life has gone on for many years before this moment and will continue after. This is a wild creature, she doesn’t depend on me. But she sees me as a creature, and I see her. We just see each other, and both marvel at the other one’s beauty in our own unique creatureliness.
Make no mistake; God is not only the shepherd of the human earth-creatures. God is also shepherd of the literal sheep! And of the mountain goats, and of the snails, bats, and lizards, and God is shepherd of the green pastures, and of the still waters and all their insects, and of the ice caps and the atmosphere. That is the way that God relates to each created thing in the cosmos, with deep knowledge of our wild creatureliness, and deep care for our well-being, with no creature left out.
This Easter, we the church are learning more each day what it means to trust in God’s abundant new life. Proclaiming that Easter life is not easy. It’s not simply idealism. It doesn’t mean pretending like the forces of cross and grave aren’t as real and harsh as we know they still are. Instead, its a fierce clinging to God’s promise. Proclaiming Easter is insisting week after week that God’s future will not be just a far-off dream, God’s love will not be imprisoned to the realm of word or speech, but will be made real in truth and action.
In an era of scarred countrysides and lead-poisoned water, Easter is green pastures and still waters that feed the body and soul. In midst of individualism and violent enforcement of the status quo, Easter is pointing to restoration, mercy, and the way of good things. And when it becomes difficult to imagine that we might ever emerge alive from the depths of shadow and despair, God shows us a future – not without valleys or wolves – but a future in which we are not alone, never abandoned by the one who is good.
God teaches us that we are beloved, cherished, invited to God’s cosmic party table overflowing with food and drink. We begin to notice that we’re not alone anymore, but part of a much bigger flock that stretches out beyond borders and across species to the whole creation. In Easter, no longer is abundant life obscured. Now we can perceive clearly the one who is leading us always towards our home, which is abundant life. Alleluia.