by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Missioner for Creation Care for both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Mass. Conference, United Church of Chris
Good Shepherd, Good Earth
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. On the Fourth Sunday of Easter our Gospel reading is always taken from chapter ten of John’s Gospel, where Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. So it is a good morning to reflect on our call to care for Creation, a good morning to see if we can listen more deeply to the Good Shepherd’s voice.
The Good Shepherd cares for his sheep. A good shepherd makes sure that his flock has clean water, clean air, fresh grass, and a safe place to sleep. A good shepherd knows that the only way to care for the sheep is to protect the web of life that sustains them.
We need our Good Shepherd today more than ever, for the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. All the sheep – and everything we love – is at risk. Unless we change course fast, civilization itself may not endure. The title of Bill McKibben’s new book, Falter, carries a sub-title that says it all: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? McKibben is one of our clearest thinkers and writers about climate change. A few years back he wrote Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, in which he made it clear that global warming is not just a future threat. It is, he writes, “no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality. We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”1 “We’ve undermined the basic physical stability of this planet,” he says. “The atmosphere holds about five percent more water vapor than it did forty years ago…[which] explains all those deluges and downpours. The ocean is 30 percent more acidic, as it absorbs all that carbon from the atmosphere..”2
And there is no going back. Human beings have irrevocably altered the earth into which you and I were born. As Bill McKibben puts it, “The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has….”3 Our task now is not to stop global warming, because that is impossible. Our task is to “keep it from getting any worse than it has to get,”4 and to find ways to live more “lightly, carefully, and gracefully”5 in this new world.
The starting point for every shepherd who wants to care for his or her sheep is to understand the landscape and to recognize the risks: sheep can’t drink from a stream that is polluted, and they can’t eat from a meadow that is filled with poisonous plants. Sheep can’t survive unless they are protected from wolves.
So our starting point must be to face the reality of climate change and to underscore the facts of science. As McKibben explains, global warming is basically not a debate between China and the U.S., or between Democrats and Republicans. Basically “it’s a debate between human beings and physics and chemistry.”6 Physics and chemistry are not going to back down.
But climate change is not only a scientific issue — it is also a spiritual and ethical issue, as well. People of all faiths the world over are rising up and speaking out about the moral imperative to stabilize the climate and to protect low-income and historically marginalized communities, the people who are least responsible for global warming and yet most vulnerable to its effects. Science and religion are coming together to speak to this issue with a single voice: the world is precious and the world is in peril. Now is the time to stop burning coal, gas, and oil, to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and to make a swift and just transition to a clean energy economy built on renewable energy, like sunshine and wind.
The task before us is urgent, but it is one that can bring great joy. Just think of that famous line from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God so loves the world that he gives his only Son. God loves the world, and we who are made in the image and likeness of God – we love it, too. If God created us to love each other and our brother-sister beings — if deep in our guts, our bones, our genes, is a God-given affection for the rest of the created world – then rising up to protect that world is an act of love, an act of faithfulness to God. The face of the Good Shepherd, the face of the Risen Christ, shines out in every leaf and blossom, in every chickadee and butterfly, in every worm and wren. The actions we take to protect God’s Creation and to re-weave the fabric of life that is so swiftly unraveling — these actions are an act of reverence to the Creator.
The love of the Good Shepherd is also a balm to my anxious and guilty heart. It seems to me that when it comes to the very first task that God gave human beings — the responsibility to care for the earth, to be good stewards of its bio-diversity and bounty — right now we are doing a pretty poor job of it. The fossil fuels that we have burned cannot be unburned. The carbon emissions that we have poured into the sky cannot be un-poured. What we have done, we have done; we have changed the earth forever. And my response, and perhaps yours, too, is one of deep sorrow, guilt, anger, and regret.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner who has witnessed at close hand what he calls “the cruelties, hurts, and hatreds”7 of the world, writes about guilt and failure in his book, Made for Goodness:
“The pain cannot be unmade,” he writes,
“The life cannot be un-lived,
The time will not run backward,
You cannot un-choose your choice.”
And yet, Bishop Tutu goes on, “…the pain can be healed,
Your choices can be redeemed,
Your life can be blessed,
And love can bring you home.”8
We come home whenever we listen again to the Good Shepherd, whose voice is always speaking in our heart. We come home whenever we face the fact, as Isaiah says, that: “all we like sheep have gone astray” (Is 53:6). We come home when we turn again to the divine love that always dwells within us and in whose image we are made, the divine love that longs to guide us “to springs of the water of life, and … [to] wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev 7: 17).
In an unsettled and unsettling time, prayer is the staff on which we lean when we need the guidance and loving care of the Good Shepherd. Bishop Tutu calls prayer “the staff that supported me during the darkest periods of our history,”9 and his words echo the 23rd Psalm, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). Jesus assures us in today’s Gospel, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (John 10: 27). So we trust that in prayer we can listen deeply to the inner voice of divine love, and attune ourselves again to its call.
We also trust that God’s love can move through us — through our words and hands, our thoughts and decisions. We trust that the Good Shepherd will guide us to take actions that can heal and set free. In every moment, we can make a choice for love. In every moment, we can make a choice to reach beyond narrow self-interest, and to encounter and embrace those most in need of care. We may not perceive ourselves as having the miraculous power of St. Peter, who apparently raised the disciple Tabitha from the dead (Acts 9:36-43). But we dare to claim that the power of God can flow through us, and accomplish infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Eph 3:20) — although we may know nothing about it.
I invite you to think of one way you can listen more deeply to the land and to learn from it. Maybe you want to start up a compost pile or to check out a farmer’s market; maybe you want to make a donation to a local land trust, or invite the neighbor you’ve never met before to come over for a cup of tea. We need to build up our local communities, to live in ways that are closer to the earth, more life enhancing, more about sharing than about consuming, more about self-restraint than about self-aggrandizement, more about generosity than about fearful survivalism, so that we can take care of each other when the hard times come. Maybe there is more you will feel led to do – maybe you will drive less or look into getting an electric car; maybe you will fly less or buy carbon offsets if you have to fly; maybe you will divest from fossil fuels and push your college alma mater to divest; maybe you will join the grassroots climate action group, 350.org, and join the worldwide movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Maybe you will become one of the countless people of faith who feel called to carry out peaceful civil disobedience to stop new pipelines and to disrupt fossil fuel companies’ ongoing assault on the Earth.
There is joy that comes in living like this, a joy that has nothing to do with proving anything or deserving anything, but which springs up simply from being true to the basic goodness that God has planted in us. God created us in love and sent us into the world to bear witness to that love in everything we do.
The Good Shepherd is calling us by name. How will you answer his call?
by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Massachusetts