Resurrection and Justification Eastertide 2018
"The Sacrament of Creation"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
April 22, 2018 Native American Ministries Sunday
Romans 8:14-27; Psalm 23
Every year, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, the prescribed lectionary passages are filled with images of sheep and shepherds. The imagery and implications of the flock and its keeper, guide, protector, and watcher were meaningful to the agrarian subsistence economy of the first century Mediterranean. And those images and metaphors stretched back beyond the beginnings of the Hebrew covenant texts. The shepherd is in some way always depicted as God’s favored one – the steward of God’s creation and God’s intentions – the guide and protector of God’s creatures. The first biblical example, of course, was Abel, who became a shepherd and kept flocks. His elder brother Cain tilled the soil. Abel was the second son, and yet, was God’s favorite. God preferred Abel’s offering. Could it also be that God preferred Abel’s means of procuring a sacrifice – Abel did not alter the landscape of creation, but tended God’s creatures upon it. The feud between ranching and farming goes way back.
Abraham and Sarah were shepherds, as were their descendants for generations. And after more than a generation in the alluvial farming culture of Egypt, Moses married into a family of shepherds and reclaimed the life of a shepherd as he shepherded his people out of bondage to the hierarchy, oppression, and bondage of the empire. Of course, he only turned his life around after becoming a murderer. Still, God favored and watched over the shepherd.
The little shepherd David also became God’s favorite, despite his violent, manipulative, and murderous ways. He was not such a good shepherd – at least not in the sense that good means “ideal.” The importance of David in the arc of salvation history is probably more to observe and celebrate the goodness of God rather than the goodness of a wayward king. It is meant to illustrate God’s mercy and ability to work toward the good or the ideal in all things, rather than to condone David’s lechery and murderousness.
The Hebrew prophets take up this theme of the shepherd and flock relationship between God and creation in their critique of David’s royal descendants. In particular, Ezekiel 34 employs this metaphor. “Human shepherds are proven to be ignoble, self-serving, and no shepherds at all. God promises both to be the model shepherd – ‘Then they will know that I, YHWH, am their God, and that they, the House of Israel, are my people, says Sovereign YHWH. You are my sheep, the flock that I tend, and I am your God, says Sovereign YHWH.’ – and to set a model shepherd over the creation – ‘I will save my flock and they will be ravaged no longer. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will set up over them one shepherd to care for them….’ The clear definition of a shepherd’s task is to nurture, tend, gather, and putting the well-being of the community ahead of the self – to serve – while knowing and being known by each member of the community.”[i]
In Jesus’ time, the shepherd remained a salient metaphor for God. However, the actual shepherd had become suspect within the cultural milieu. Shepherds were necessarily country folk. They were loners, probably smelly and dirty, living on the margins, unsettled and unreliable – to everyone except their flocks. To their charge they were God-like. They guided, protected, rescued, and accompanied. As steeped as he was in the Law and the Prophets, Jesus probably reminded his listeners often of the goodness of that outsider image of God and drove it home by keeping company with outsiders as often as possible, and retreating to the realm of the shepherd – the wilderness – when he needed to refresh and refocus his mission.
When John dwells on the imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, he does not use the word avgaqo,j – meaning perfect or beneficial – but the word kalo,j – meaning beautiful or exemplary. Jesus is the beautiful or exemplary tender of creation. And when he “lays down his life for the flock” it is clearly as a model, an example, and a guide for us to follow the life – the path that he lays down. Perhaps the metaphor of the Good Shepherd has become a little distant for us. It’s perilously close to the quaint image of a tanned, blue-eyed guy in a pristine white robe, smiling benevolently on a handful of happy sheep. Instead, it should call to mind for us someone willing to get down to earth, to confront the evils that lurk or even threaten openly. The ideal shepherd does not alter the shape of creation or set herself above the flock.
Today, in our world, there is a reemergent Good Shepherd that has arisen from a people who are closer to the earth – closer to creation than most of us are. The Lakota of North Dakota have identified themselves as shepherds of creation. They are the water protectors. They are willing to get down to earth, to confront the evils that lurk in shadows or even threaten openly. They seek to preserve the shape of creation – not to set themselves above the flock. I don’t mean to wax nostalgic about Native Americans. It is just as unfair to idealize them as it is to demonize them. At the very least, though, they are also sheep who belong to the Beautiful Shepherd who lays down a path on which we can join together to rejoice in creation.
According to Timothy Greene, a local Native American leader – a model shepherd of sorts:
“Indigenous peoples have lived in our particular locations for many generations, and we define ourselves in relation to our home environment. Our deep and long-standing relationships with the environment are unique; our very existence depends on our ability to conserve and maintain our lands and waters for future generations. Today, tribes, First Nations, indigenous peoples, and Aboriginals are sounding a loud alarm about the impacts of climate change. Rising sea levels, broken natural systems, and increasing fire and flooding are apparent and documented. While others debate the causes of climate change, we who live close to the land are experiencing major impacts from our changing climate and call for immediate and strong action to protect the resources on which we all rely. We can’t afford to disregard indigenous knowledge about climate change.”[ii]
This is Earth Day, a coincidence of the calendar. But there are those who have proposed that Earth Day is as important a focus of our Christian faith as is Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. In a recent Earth Day sermon, the Rev. Dr. Steven Koski noted that: “God created an amazing creation and left us as stewards, caretakers...asked us to treat the earth as a sacred Thou...to care for and value and love the Holy Earth. Have you ever considered in the Divine design of things that is why we are here in the first place...to love creation as much as God loves creation? Perhaps that’s our first calling and our holiest vocation as people of faith...to be good stewards and care for God’s Holy Earth. Caring for the Earth is not an option for people of faith. It’s not an elective course we might consider if it interests us. Maybe God is suggesting it is one of the very reasons we are here in the first place. Caring for the earth is not some radical “green” thing for tree huggers – it’s the responsibility and privilege of every single one of us as people of faith. God loves the world and asks us to love the world as well. I am convinced that in order to save and heal the planet, we must first love it!”[iii]
I would go to far as to say that creation is a sacrament. The definition of sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” As such, creation is most certainly the first sacrament – the universal sacrament which makes possible all other sacraments. Creation is the manifestation of the Divine impulse to give completely, to love unconditionally, to seek the welfare of the community before the Divine self. Creation is the universal sacrament that belongs to all – that precedes all – that inaugurates the possibility of relationship, community, and salvation. Creation is the sacrament that belongs to no single tradition, but which belongs to the entire community – the entire flock – even to the not so good shepherds.
As we meet today on land occupied for centuries by the Salish people before we took it from them, let us remember the wise words apocryphally attributed to Chief Sealth, a good shepherd of his people: “Teach your children what we have taught our children – that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves. This we know. The earth doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We do not weave the web of life, We are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Beloved, let us follow the life laid down by our Good Shepherd, to care for creation – the commons in which all life unfolds.
[i] Sarah S Henrich, loosely paraphrased from Feasting on the Word, Year B, V. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 453.
[ii] Timothy J. Greene, “Indigenous Knowledge Is Critical to Understanding Climate Change.” Seattle Times, April 10, 2018. https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/indigenous-knowledge-is-critical-to-understanding-climate-change/
[iii] Rev. Dr. Steven H. Koski, “Earth Day: As Big As Christmas and Easter.” April 25, 2010. http://www.emoregon.org/pdfs/OIPL/Sermon_Koski.pdf