by Rev Dr Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Missioner for Creation Care (Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and Southern New England Conference, UCC) and Creation Care Advisor (Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts)
Good Shepherd, Good Earth
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. On the Fourth Sunday of Easter our Gospel reading is always drawn from Chapter Ten of John’s Gospel, where Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. This is a good morning to reflect on our call to care for God’s creation, a good morning to see if we can listen more deeply to the Good Shepherd’s voice.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus “walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon,” but in many Gospel stories, we find him outdoors. Jesus evidently lived close to the Earth, and we often find him outside – praying in the desert, climbing a mountain, riding a boat across a lake, walking along a seashore or down a dusty road. Jesus’ parables and stories are filled with images of nature: vines and seeds, lilies, sparrows, and hens, weeds and rocks. Of course, today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, we’ve got sheep!
Here, in the very heart of Easter Season, let’s recall that our Easter liturgies make it clear that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is good news not only for human beings but also for the whole of creation – for rivers and mountains, forests and fields, hawks, whales, and bees. At the Great Vigil of Easter, when we mark Jesus’ passing from death to life, we start by lighting a fire in the darkness and by listening to someone chant these ancient words:
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth! Christ is risen!
Too often our liturgies limit the good news of Christ to human beings, and we push to the margins all the other creatures and natural elements with whom we share this planet, as if Homo sapiens were the only species of any interest to God. But Easter gives us a chance to remember the larger truth: according to Scripture, God loved the whole world into being, sustains all things through the Holy Spirit, and through Christ redeemed and reconciled all things in heaven and on earth “by making peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:19). What’s more, our Christian faith looks ahead to the renewal of all things (Matthew 19:28), to the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), to the day when humans live in peace with God, with each other, and with the whole of God’s creation. Folks, the good news of God in Christ is not just for us – it’s for all the round Earth!
That’s one reason I cherish Easter season: we have a chance to highlight the deep ecological meaning of faith in Christ. Cherishing and protecting the natural world is not just an “add-on,” a sideline hobby for a few Christians who call themselves “environmentalists.” In fact, protecting the Earth that God entrusted to our care is central to being Christian. It’s a faithful response to the very first task given to humans at the very beginning of Genesis – to “till and keep” the Earth (Gen. 2:15), to be stewards and caregivers. Prophets and sages throughout the Bible, culminating in Jesus himself, cajole us and urge us to participate with God in creating a beloved community in which people and the land live together in balance and harmony, in a shalom of justice, wholeness, and peace. Mystics of every faith tradition tell us that human beings are not separate from – much less “above” – the rest of the created order but are siblings of wind and water, of porcupine and tree – all of us, every living being, every element of the natural world, created and cherished by the same almighty God.
We need this good news now more than ever, for to some extent all of us are aware that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. As Bill McKibben wrote a while back, “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.” News of the natural world is often grim. We’ve all heard about the steady rise in global temperatures, driven by the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. Maybe we heard about the recent collapse of a massive ice shelf as an extreme heat wave blasted Antarctica with some areas reaching temperatures 70º Fahrenheit above normal. We’ve heard about the wildfires and drought out West, the hurricanes down South. We’ve heard about the sweeping new report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announcing that it’s now or never if we’re going to limit global heating to 1.5º Celsius, the uppermost limit to keep Earth reasonably protected from catastrophic climate change.
It turns out that 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….” 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,” and to find ways to live more “lightly, carefully, and gracefully” in this new world.
Honestly, I’m stopped in my tracks when I consider the damage that we humans have afflicted on the rest of God’s creation. The fossil fuels we’ve burned cannot be unburned. The carbon emissions we’ve poured into the sky cannot be un-poured. What we’ve done, we’ve done; we have changed the earth forever. And my response, and maybe yours, too, is one of sadness, guilt, anger, and regret.
That’s why I treasure the worlds of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who witnessed at close hand what he called “the cruelties, hurts, and hatreds” of the world. In his book, Made for Goodness, he writes:
“The pain cannot be unmade,
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.”
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” (Isaiah 53:6). We come home when we turn again to the divine love that 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” (Revelation 7: 17).
In an unsettled 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,” 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 can attune ourselves again to its call.
We also trust that God’s love can move through us – through our words and hands, our choices and decisions. We trust that the Good Shepherd will guide us to actions that heal and set free. We may not think we have the miraculous power of Peter, who apparently raised the disciple Tabitha from the dead (Acts 9:36-43), but we dare to believe that the power of God can flow through us and can accomplish infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
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 pick up trash from a neglected corner of your neighborhood. Maybe you want to plant a pollinator garden or a community garden. Maybe you want to start a compost pile or to check out a farmer’s market. Maybe you can donate to a local land trust that is preserving farms and forests. Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we have to confront the unjust powers-that-be. So, maybe you’ll join the campaign to push the four biggest banks that finance fossil fuels (Chase, CitiBank, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America) to quit propping up the oil and gas industry.
Or maybe you’d simply like to invite a neighbor you’ve never met before to come over for a cup of tea. We need to build up local communities, to live in ways that are closer to the earth, 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.
There is joy in living like that, a joy that springs up simply from being true to the basic goodness that God has planted in us. The Good Shepherd is calling us by name. What invitation is he whispering in your heart?
by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Massachusetts
 Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010), p. xiii and book jacket.
 Ibid., p. 2.
 McKibben interview, op. cit.
 McKibben, Eaarth, p. 151.
 Ibid., p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 137.
 Ibid., p. 77.