Easter 4B: Good Shepherd Sunday and Earth Day

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is part of John chapter 10–Jesus discourse on himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18).

Wendell Berry distinguishes between farmers who are married to the land and others who rape the land.

I see the latter as of the Present Age, and heirs of an old American tradition of thinking the earth’s resources endless and its geography amenable to exploitation followed by moving on.

The former—those who are married to the land—are agents of the Coming Age. They have, as their patron saint, our Lord, Jesus Christ. They have as their example the good shepherds of all time.

Jesus says the difference between him and the “hired hand” is that he cares for the sheep. The rent-a-shepherd is like the mercenary—a person who has no lasting allegiance to any employer, or concern for the lasting effects of his or her labor.

This Sunday is Earth Day, a day when we think of the virtues of being ecologically “woke.” Such folk care for soil, water, climate, and the whole shebang. But let us not forget how easy it is for us to “be into” the environment. It is so easy to join the personality cult of Greta Thunberg. But, while Greta has paid her dues in a long-lasting commitment to climate concerns, we who coruscate on the thin ice of fashionable environmentalism will make scarcely a dent in the armament or the walls erected by the captains of industry who are devoted to preserving their systematic rape of God’s creation.

Wendell Berry complains that many so-called environmentalists don’t know how to grow a potato. They don’t know the practical implications of what they are advocating, and so they can’t possibly contend with those “captains of industry” who at least know how to make things, even if they don’t count the costs to the whole life-support system. That’s why these environmentalists so often rail against farming and farmers and those who raise livestock in a blind and unproductive  way.

Christ the Good Shepherd, as well as good shepherds through the ages, are married to the environment. They care that all God’s creatures are sheltered and fed, and for the Creation that makes it all happen. Thus they have much to teach us.

Sheila Chamberlain, the wife of such a good shepherd in Shropshire England, told me once how she could not abide the smell of brandy because it reminded her of critically ill young lambs. Her shepherding parents would take such lambs into the kitchen and nurse them back to health with the aid of a teaspoon of brandy along with the mother’s colostrum, milked by hand from the mother’s udder. Sheila’s husband, Jack, had a thousand sheep to tend, yet he would work through the night to save any single sick one that he had the power to save. Though a shepherd, and not a farmer who owned the land, Jack was not a flash in the pan, rent-a-shepherd. He cared for the sheep to his dying day. Sheila’s way of putting it was that, “Jack takes it personally when a lamb dies.”

Let us all, this Earth Day, care for the Earth in the same way; not as members of a cult of personality, not as those who flit between fashionable “causes,” and certainly not as those who rape this good land by carelessly pouring on chemicals, killing off all life that does not profit us, and fouling the air that is breathed by neighbors near and far. Let us care because we are married to this beautiful world God has given us. Let us learn from good shepherds and farmers through the ages. Let us take Earth day, and our stewardship of the life around us, personally.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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