Earth Day & Good Shepherd Sunday: why have we not seen these two together?

(This message was offered by Charis Weathers at Echoes on April 16, 2018, and St John's Lutheran on April 22, 2018)

Today is what is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The three passages we have work together really well in a shepherd-y way. In Psalm 23 and in the John 10 passage God is called a shepherd.

- In Psalm 23 we read “God is my shepherd…”, [1]

Photo by  joseph d'mello  on  Unsplash

- In John 10:11-18 Jesus says that he is a good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.[2]

- The 1 John:3:16-24 passage uses the exact same words that Jesus’ uses by saying that followers of Jesus ought to lay their lives down for one another.[3]

So these three texts are very well connected – two passages describe God as shepherd, and the third recommends that God’s followers to imitate the shepherd’s call by laying down one’s life down for others, which reveals a strong love for others.

Today is also Earth Day. It seems to me that there is some great connection with these two observances.

When I got to digging around, though, I found a disappointing lack of available material that ties together shepherding with stewardship of the planet. In looking up environmentalism and “Good Shepherd” most of the few articles I could find were distressing.  They bashed efforts by Christians to advocate for the environment, and referred to this parable in ways that I had not considered.

A few suggested that ownership was the key to saving the planet. Because the Good Shepherd protects his stuff while the hired hand runs away, then the answer to protecting the earth is for more people to own pieces of the earth. Essentially, for these authors, this parable highlights a free market environmentalism, supporting capitalism and consumerism.[4] James Watt, Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration, was quoted in another, “The earth was put here by the Lord for His people to subdue and to use for profitable purposes on the way to the hereafter.”[5]

So this Good Shepherd passage has been used in some odd ways that I had not considered before. And these are not articles from kooky fundamentalist websites. They are sites that are primarily reporting on policy, investigating non-profits, and even in the Case Western Reserve Law Review.

Truth be told, there are probably a whole lotta people in the world who will think that the connections that I see so clearly between Good Shepherd Sunday and Earth Day are very strange indeed as well. Feel free to keep that in mind.

It’s very interesting that the early church very, very frequently used depictions of Jesus as a shepherd in art. He is depicted in simple clothing (a white tunic, usually), with a staff, amidst some sheep. It was super common.

Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire in the year 380 CE. Soon after, these shepherd images began to give way to depictions of Jesus as a teacher, or as a King, in a more royal setting. Christianity had become the religion of the Empire, and it was now on top.  No longer did they need a humble, protective Savior who could identify with the meager and offer protection for the vulnerable, a caring shepherd over the religion of the oppressed. Instead, artists showed a Jesus who looked fit to be a king.

Boniface Ramsey writes in the Harvard Theological Review,

Good Shepherd mosaic in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna

Good Shepherd mosaic in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna

 “…the early fifth-century mosaic of the Good Shepherd in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, which is the last of its kind, does not at all picture a Good Shepherd in the traditional sense. In his gold tunic, sewn with blue bands, and with a purple mantle draped over one shoulder, Christ has become a royal or imperial personage: he is the king of his sheep, rather than their shepherd.”[6]

While we don’t particularly understand how the early church interpreted the image of Jesus as a shepherd, and it’s too simplistic to say it was ONLY due to the rise of the power of Christianity, it is telling that this representation fell out of fashion. Jesus wasn’t needed as a shepherd anymore. People weren’t being martyred or jailed or pushed to the margins for their faith. The Christian religion was on top, and it became beneficial to profess faith in Christ – you’d never gain traction politically if you didn’t swear allegiance to the church.

This power motif bleeds into a lot of our faith.

I don’t want to bash Christianity today, and yet we need to be honest that the sense of Lordship extended into the assumed right of humans to dominate the rest of the planet.

Genesis speaks of our need to care for the rest of life on this planet, and yet it became all too predictable to interpret the beginning Genesis passage as humanity’s God-given right to “have dominion” over the earth. The earlier statement by James Watt clearly illustrates this, “The earth was put here by the Lord for His people to subdue and to use for profitable purposes on the way to the hereafter.”

It’s almost like this shift from shepherd to king parallels the movement of Christians who ignored the original role of Adam and Eve as gardeners carefully tending a plot of land, and instead opted for the “Lord over” motif by running with the dominion theme. The thought that “God placed humans over this creation, so let’s beat it into submission and get as much out of it as possible for our own pleasure and gain,” is a sad legacy of a lot of Christendom.

Add to that the belief that we are only on this planet until Jesus comes back so we can deplete it as much as we want, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

This posture tosses aside Jesus as a shepherd.

But what, exactly, is being tossed out? What does it mean to be a shepherd, and what is lost by moving toward this king-ship, or dominion model?

Photo by Charis Weathers; photo taken by permission

Photo by Charis Weathers; photo taken by permission

Shepherds watch, guard, guide, protect, feed, shear, nurture, and LOVE the sheep. A shepherd cares for and works on behalf of their flock. Sheep don’t typically do well on their own, so it’s up to shepherds to make sure they thrive.

As the John 10 passage says, the shepherd lays down their very life for the sheep.

In our discussion about this in Echoes someone asked, “But isn’t this the same thing as being concerned for what you own? The shepherd is going to risk their life because it’s their livelihood.”

This is true.

The hired hand does the same bullet points as the shepherd, so maybe it does come down to ownership and this parable is really teaching us that capitalistic consumerism is the way to save our planet.

But no, that can’t be right.

Ownership certainly does NOT necessarily equate compassionate caretaking – look at mountain top removal mining, or deforestation, or aggressive fracking, or drilling for oil in fragile backcountry. Many of these locations are owned and yet the owners could care less about how their caretaking affects the well-being of the landscape or the wildlife.

However, if it was in the owner’s backyard – well, then you’d have something different.

There’s a reason why the Dakota Access Pipeline was slated to go through the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation instead of the original plan of Bismarck. There’s a reason Flint, MI, has been subjected to lethal water. These are people who are “over there,” and don’t have as much voice or power.  Owners and caretakers in these cases and many others don’t have a vested interest in the well-being of the life that is on or adjacent to what they own, when what they own can be reaped for profit.

So what’s the difference here between a profit-driven owner and shepherd?

I’m not entirely sure.

But I *think* it has something to do with an understanding of the inter-connectedness of life.

Yes, the shepherd makes a living from the wool, and maybe the milk, and maybe even the meat of the flock. Yes, there is self-interest. But there is also some kind of mutuality – the shepherd relies on the sheep for money for food and a home, and the sheep rely on the shepherd for food and a home. The shepherd knows that they are intricately connected with the sheep – their well-being is bound up together.

And it goes beyond this: the well-being of the land and the well-being of the water sources is vital for the health of the sheep and the shepherd. The well-being of the water table or the mountains is vital for the water.

   Alessandro Galantucci, flickr creative commons


Alessandro Galantucci, flickr creative commons

And it goes on and on. Ask a permaculture farmer what they do, how and why they do it, and you’ll be aghast at how all of life is so interdependent.

A loving shepherd probably has a sense of this. In order for the whole thing to keep going, the shepherd has to do their part, even if that part means laying down their life for their flock. It’s all-in commitment, all-in community with a bunch of smelly, stubborn, and dim-witted creatures that directly provide life and sustenance to others through wool, and milk.

We are interconnected to all of life on this planet. Maybe even in this galaxy and universe. My well-being is bound up with the well-being of all the other life.

This is the basis for racial justice, for peace, for sustainable progress.

And yes, for Earth Day.

We ARE called to be shepherds. 1 John uses the exact same language as John 10, “Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

And it is love that brings us here:

1 John 3:18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 

23 And this is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as we have been commanded.

Love is not word or speech (or, “thoughts and prayers”), like this sermon. Instead, love is truth and action, and yes, laying down our lives for the sake of other life.

In this week’s clergy discussion group for the texts of the week someone said essentially, “we KNOW what we need to do in regard to being better stewards of this earth, and if I’m not doing it, then who am I to tell others what we already know to do and collectively aren’t doing?”

Well, because following Jesus sometimes isn’t easy. Just because we’re not doing something now doesn’t mean we don’t’ change.

Reducing our carbon emissions WILL require inconveniences and even hardships on our part.

It WILL mean using less fossil fuels.

It might very well mean giving money to alternative energy projects.

It might mean volunteering to collect signatures to get policies like ground-breaking initiative 1631 on the ballot for November.

Jason Karn, flickr, creative commons

Jason Karn, flickr, creative commons

It might mean imparting severe restrictions on plastic in your home, or committing to ecological restoration projects, or never buying another [“insert very strong expletive”] plastic bottle of water ever again, or getting a bus pass, or not flying, or learning to ride a bike in the rain, or joining the political sphere to advocate for better policies that will have a substantial effect on the health of our land, our flora and fauna, and our world.

We can’t just focus on our own little slice of life here in whatever home you have, in whatever neighborhood you live in. We NEED to focus on that, believe me, we do, but this mandate to lay our lives down for one another goes as far as making significant enough changes and personal hardships so that the non-westernized, non-industrialized people on low-lying islands aren’t consumed by rising tides, so that the plastic and acidification in our oceans that is killing them, KILLING them, is slowed and eventually reversed,

When we see that we are shepherds, when we see that we are intricately bound up with all life on this planet, when we see that we have agency and power in the current and future well-being of other life on this earth, then maybe we can begin to understand and to move toward laying down our lives for one another.

Laying our lives down for the life with which we are intricately bound. Which means laying our lives down for ALL life.

For all the keystone species across the world, like salmon and eel grass is here, like all the trees that keep us breathing, and the soil and water that keeps them growing, like the species on the verge of extinction, like refugees who are displaced due to severe weather events. Our actions here, from day to day, and year to year, has an affect on life near and far.

How will we use this life to do what we are called to do, to love one another?

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s also Earth Day.

We have power, we have agency, and WE HAVE the Good Shepherd who has endless love, and endless compassion, and who gives of these unceasingly.

May we know this love. May we live it.

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down their life for the sheep. 


[1] 1 John 3:16-24   We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a sibling in need and yet refuses help?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from God whatever we ask, because we obey the commandments and do what pleases God.

23 And this is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as we have been commanded.24All who obey the commandments abide in God, and God abides in them. And by this we know that God abides in us, by the Spirit that has been given to us.

[2] John 10:11-18  ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down their life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as God in heaven knows me and I know God. And I lay down my life for the sheep.16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason God loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from God.’

[3] Psalm 23  A Psalm of David.
1 God is my shepherd, I shall not want.  2 I have the freedom to lie down in green pastures; I am guided to still waters; 3 my soul is restored.
For God’s own sake am I led on right paths. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of God my whole life long.


[5], from the original source, Watt, James. Ours Is the Earth. Saturday Evening Post (January/February 1982): 74-75.

[6] Ramsey, Boniface. Source: Harvard Theological Review, 76 no 3 Jul 1983, p 376