Let us live into a vision of sustainability for the whole Earth community. – Leah Schade reflects on the Good Shepherd.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)
1 Peter 2:19-25
Good Shepherd Sunday, as this day is sometimes called, provides multiple points of entry for an eco-theological perspective. In John 10:1-10 Jesus refers to himself both as a “good shepherd” and also as the gate by which the sheep enter into safe pasture. 1 Peter 2:25 compares those who follow Christ to sheep who had gone astray but are now safely in the care of the shepherd Jesus, “the guardian of your souls.” Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd . . . .” One only has to say those first five words, and almost everyone in church can join in reciting this most precious psalm.
We are no longer an agrarian nation. Most of us don’t know any sheep herders personally. But at the time when this psalm and the other passages were written, herding sheep was a common profession. Sheep are not the brightest animals on the farm. They have to be led where you want them to go. It is up to the shepherd to find suitable pasture for the sheep to graze. And the shepherd must find water for them. Not just any water—but still water, so that the sheep won’t be swept away by currents that are too fast for them. When we think of this image of water, as Christians, we can’t help but think of the baptismal waters when we hear these words. In the still waters of our mother’s wombs we were created. In the still waters of the font we were baptized Children of God. And this water sustains us all our lives.
For those of us with a Type A personality driven to hard work, we actually have to be led to places that replenish our spirit. Green meadows and still waters are ideal places to do just that. Only by reconnecting with nature can our souls be restored. God knows that, and leads us down those paths.
But as the psalmist reminds us, there will be difficult times in life. This psalm does not shy away from that fact. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” What exactly are the rod and staff? A shepherd always carries a long stick to beat away any predators that may attack the sheep. And the staff is the crook, a long hook used to reach out and pull back the sheep that are wandering close to danger. The psalmist is saying that just the sight of the rod and the staff are a comfort to him, assuring him of God’s attentiveness and protection.
Then the imagery of God in the psalm changes from a shepherd to that of a host in a welcoming household. God lays out a banquet before us, even with enemies lurking around. Here the sacrament of communion may be evoked. At the Eucharistic table we come to partake of the bread and the wine. A whole world of worry awaits us beyond the meal. But for this moment of kairos time we’re invited to the banquet of Jesus Christ to feed on the spiritual food of forgiveness.
Then we hear the promise of abundance, oil running down our cheeks, smoothing out the rough spots. Cups are overflowing with goodness and mercy. The community of believers in Acts 2 is a heartening portrayal of this kind of abundance. Wonders and signs are performed by the apostles, rich and poor share resources in common so that there is plenty for all. In what today’s terms might be called a “sustainable community,” no one goes hungry and all are filled with praise of God, so much so that their community grows by the day with people drawn to a way of life that is countercultural and life-giving.
Given the reality of our present situation where the gap between economic classes is so grotesquely huge, and the strain on Earth’s capacity to sustain life is so severe, we may wonder if an Acts 2 community could ever be possible. Theologian Margaret Swedish has pondered this very question, noting that the concept of “sustainability” is actually not enough. “[W]e are still largely ignoring that other elephant in the room—the crisis of ecological overshoot. We need not only to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in order to save the planet for future generations, but also to consume less, a lot less. And we cannot ask this of the poor” (Margaret Swedish, Living Beyond the End of the World: A Spirituality of Hope, Maryknoll: Orbis, p. 171). She cites Sven Burmeister’s work for guidance:
Burmeister gave us a golden rule for how to approach this challenge: ‘per capita resource use should not exceed the level the globe can sustain for all the world’s people’; [Burmeister, “Can the Twilight of the Gods Be Prevented?” Friday Morning Reflections at the World Bank: Essays on Values and Development (Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press, 1991)] that is, our per capita consumption must shrink to a level that the globe can sustain for all people. But more, far more, per capita consumption in wealthy countries must shrink enough so that the per capita consumption of the poor can rise while keeping consumption overall at a level the globe can sustain (Swedish, p. 85).
Here, then, is another way to think of the rod and staff from Psalm 23. We need God’s rod to beat back the predators of greed, self-centeredness, global financialization, and mindless consumerism. God’s staff is needed to pull us back from the cliff’s edge of global ecological disaster and set us on a path that is life-giving for all Earth’s creatures, including humanity, as well as Earth itself. Says Swedish: “The Earth can heal, if we get out of the way, if we learn to live within the limits of our creation, but the balance will be new, and one of the questions is what of life as we know it will remain in that new balance” (p. 137).
Psalm 23 ends with the image of living in God’s house for eternity, making it a favorite for funerals. But it can also be read as “returning” or “coming home” to this very planet which has been the source of abundance throughout the collective life of the human race. A sermon that helps a congregation creatively imagine an Acts 2 community that includes all our Earth-kin can help the hearers live into the eschatological vision of God—“the restoration of soul, the protection from death, the gifts of abundant and unending life, and the meal in God’s presence,” (John Eaton, The Psalms, Continuum: New York, 2005, p. 123). It is the psalm of the sacraments—baptism and communion. It is the psalm of life and death—the dark valley and the house of the Lord. This psalm touches on every important aspect of our lives. And it is the psalm that each of us should know by heart.
Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/