“Shepherding the Earth”
1 John 3: 16-26 & John 10:11-18 ~
Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ April 18, 2021
We have had a glorious week of sunny summer-like weather on the West Coast. And as we were gazing out through blue skies upon the snow-capped mountains, I am wondering what popped into your mind? For me, the words from Psalm 8 sung out to me: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Those ancient words, likely sung by King David could have equally been composed by an environmentalist like David Suzuki, couldn’t they? And, here we are, several thousand years later trying to catch up. Here we are, still humbled by God’s creation, considering how amazing God’s handiwork is! On ‘Earth Sunday’, we ask: what place does faith have amidst considerations for the planet? We wonder, why does the church encourage us to focus the Sunday prior to Earth Day on environmental considerations? What truth does the church have to share on this day?
Faith & the Environment?
A generation ago, many church gatherings might draw a blank to this question. The church and the environment were quite frankly…separated. Yet over the past few decades, there has been a growing convergence towards how Christian ethics should inform environmental practice. There has been a shift from merely an adoration of God’s presence, from merely seeing God’s revelation through Creation. And more recently, there has been a shift towards finding a deeper understanding of our role as responsible stewards over God’s creation; and a movement towards an adoption of an ecological theology. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” And so, we consider what it means to be Christian and also have a responsibility to care for the earth.
The Story of Quesnel Lake
A difficult story to hear, as we move further into our conversation…Just about 700 kilometres north of us, 26 billion litres of waste-water containing dangerous chemicals was poured into the local waterways of one of the world’s deepest freshwater lakes about 7 years ago. It occurred in Quesnel Lake, the birthing waters of salmon and an important tributary of the Fraser River watershed. This spill irreparably changed these precious waters when the dam at the Mount Polley Mine broke in the middle of the night. Jacinda Mack, the coordinator of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining said: “for as long as I can remember, the waters of Quesnel Lake played an important role in my community. We fished for trout and swam in its depths, camped along its shores and picked berries and medicines in the surrounding Cariboo Mountains and shared our language and culture with our children.” Jacinda’s community was devastated by the mine waste spill and ongoing contamination of the water through mining activities continues. Despite calls from affected communities, church groups, and environmental organizations, the United Church have learned that there has been no accountability or justice for the people, for the animals, for all life living near Quesnel Lake. As we come up to Earth Day, we come up to a day to remember our responsibility to, not just adore creation, but also to care for the earth. And as we wade a little further into the waters of creation, we consider what a faithful ecological theology might look like.
Sheep & Shepherds
Listening to the texts that Rev. Cindy offered earlier, we find ourselves transported into the unfamiliar world of sheep and shepherds. And unless we have travelled to places like Ireland or Scotland, few of us have met many sheep or shepherds. So, these metaphors Jesus offers are in danger of falling flat as we hear them today. So, what does this metaphor mean to you? Well…to be honest, at first hearing, shepherds are often thought of us adorable children dressed up in bath robes holding walking sticks in a nativity play. But we all know that there is more than that. When it comes to sheep…at best, we think of sheep as adorable children dressed in fluffy white costumes. And, at worst, we think of being called “a sheep” as an offensive word given to mindless followers. Yet, if we stay with these texts and plumb their depths, I believe that Jesus used them with a deep intention and we will discover that they have much to offer us in forming an environmental ethic. To dispel a few myths as we move into the sheep fields…Shepherds are hard-working people who tirelessly care for their livestock. They have callouses on their hands and love in their hearts. They oversee the sheep grazing the fields by day and they build sheep pens where the sheep can safely rest and be guarded for the night. The shepherds are fiercely committed to the sheep’s welfare and will protect them from the predators who lurk at the edges of the field. Some shepherds even have names for all the individual sheep. And the sheep know the sound of the voice of their committed caretakers. They look up and see the guiding crook of the shepherd’s staff. There is a caring relationship that bonds them together over time. An interesting thing about sheep is that, contrary to popular opinion, they are not dumb. Sheep are loving, communal animals who thrive when they are together. Conversely, sheep do poorly in isolation. Sheep prefer to be led, rather than pushed. Contrary to cattle, sheep will not respond to being pushed in a proper direction. Sheep must be led by a trusted shepherd who has gone ahead to assure that they are heading in a safe direction. They say that you can get behind a sheep and push, but you will never be effective in moving it ahead. However, if the sheep hears the shepherd’s trusted voice, and views their guiding staff ahead, they will follow knowing that the shepherd has scouted out a safe path for them. And so, a trusting relationship between sheep and shepherd is forged over time.
Our Role as ‘Shepherd’
And on this Earth Sunday, we hear the call to consider our relationship with the earth from the perspective of sheep and shepherd. I believe, more than ever before, that we must view ourselves in the role of ‘shepherd’ as we are called to care for the earth. If the industrial revolution of the last century has taught us anything, it has shown the immense power that humankind has over creation. We have the power to create or destroy; the power to harm or to heal. We can choose to shepherd the earth in ways that are sustainable. Or, we can choose to shepherd the earth towards its ultimate demise. In the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd, they rely upon one another for survival. It is not one-sided. The sheep rely on the shepherd for their protection and their care. But, as I mentioned, the relationship between the two is mutual. The shepherd also relies on the sheep for their survival, for their livelihood, for their future. The shepherd need the sheep! The sheep need the shepherd! They need each other! We are now being taught humility as we realize how truly reliant we are upon the earth for our survival. We need clean, fresh water flowing with fish; we need the forests to burst forth with flora and fauna; we need for that forest to run with animals and breathe oxygen ~ our earth’s lungs ~ into the air. We have been given the responsibility of shepherd in our hands, to lead God’s creation in the way of life. We are called, on Earth Sunday, and on every day to shepherd God’s creation in the way of life!
Avoiding the Temptation of the ‘Hired Hand’
Apart from the sheep and the shepherd, the text presents another character in the drama… “the hired hand.” The hired hand is the one who runs away at the first signs of danger. In the past, scholars tell us that this likely referred to how the Old Testament prophets railed against the religious leaders who were neglecting the broader community, and served only the needs of the few. Who are the ‘hired hands’ as we ponder the environmental considerations that come from faith? An environmental theology calls us to think beyond our immediate needs and think about our tomorrows. We need to be thinking of the impact of our actions upon the generations to come! We need to think about the impact of our actions beyond our communities, beyond our province, and beyond our country. If the Covid pandemic has taught us anything it has been how interconnected, we all are! There are no separations between countries or between 1st world and 3rd. We are all deeply connected! That has been one of the real problems with the Industrial Revolution. It has served to separate us from those essential things we need to survive. Few of us farm, or hunt or fish or even see the remains of our trash after garbage day. We have all become islands, isolated from the needs we have of the earth and unaware of how deeply she is hurting.
The Sacrificial Shepherd
The call to be the responsible shepherd, rather than the hired hand who runs away, is to take on the deep covenant of care. The text goes on to speak of the language of the sacrifices that one must make… “laying down one’s life for the sheep”. This is an acknowledgement that shepherding the earth in the ways of life will take sacrifices. The easy way is to run away from this call. Doing the right thing will come with costs and sacrifices. This was summarized so beautifully in the 1st John passage that Cindy read. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Quaker author, Parker Palmer's book entitled To Know as We are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey describes both knowing and being known as emanating from love. Palmer notes that love is not composed of soft, sentimental virtue, or fuzzy feelings of romance. Love “is the connective tissue of reality. It makes a bold claim on our lives. It implicates us in the web of life and wraps both the knower and the known in compassion.” To love is to shepherd and care for God’s creation.
You Can Change the World
So, where is the hope for us this day? The hope is in the person on the other side of this screen and his or her call to be a shepherd of God’s creation! The hope is in you! American anthropologist, Margaret Mead, is famous for saying: “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And the many small things that we all take part in supporting, creating, protesting, and celebrating will make the difference in the shepherding of God’s precious creation we love called ‘Earth.’ During the Music for Reflection time, I wanted share a number of initiatives that you might consider following up with. With computers, we have the world at our fingertips and we have the tools to empower our call to shepherd God’s creation towards abundant life.