April 22, 2018

4th Sunday of Easter, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen

As part of their Earth Day focus on water this month[i], Mike Edgerly interviewed Cristina Mittermeier on Minnesota Public Radio[ii]. Mittermeier is a marine biologist who actually makes her living by taking photos. They appear in places like National Geographic and similar publications, and help her bring attention to the crisis of climate change and environmental risks.

You may have seen Mittermeier’s now famous video of an emaciated polar bear, which she and a colleague acquired in the Artic. It’s a heartbreaking depiction of an animal searching for its last meal on an iceless island too warm for the seals that should have been the bear’s diet.

As a scientist, Mittermeier tried to tell others about the risks of climate change, using all kinds of charts and graphs and scientific data, but when she started simply showing photos, she was finally able to communicate her concern in ways that caught people’s attention.

A picture paints a thousand words, it tells a story that the statistics alone don’t seem to be able to communicate. Through her photography, Mittermeier is able to help warn us of the dangers she sees in the earth, and encourage us to take steps to save the planet.

Today in our gospel lesson, Jesus paints a picture of a Shepherd, and through it, communicates love with us in a way that he desperately wants us to understand. He uses an Earth Day image, too; perhaps he senses that it might be a more effective way for us to grasp his message. The Good Shepherd, he tells us, would go to any extreme, even laying down his life, if doing so would save his flock.

We’ve normally discussed this text as an image for the church, where Jesus describes God’s ultimate love for the community, a love so strong, that even death cannot deter it. I certainly trust that interpretation. Our Good Shepherd loves his flock and will never let it be destroyed.

But what if we took seriously the fact that Jesus so frequently uses images of the earth and its health in his parables? What if we recognized that God not only worries about the condition of the beloved community, but of the whole creation in which it lives? Could our Good Shepherd be concerned not only about his metaphorical flock, but of the planet’s actual animals, the literal flocks of its pastures? Don’t we trust that our Creator isn’t only invested in the life of the church, but in the very green pastures and still waters on which it depends?

Living Lutheran is a magazine published by our denomination, and this month’s issue focuses on Earth Day and Climate change[iii]. I encourage you to find a copy in Gloria Dei’s library, or on line.

The issues paints pictures of where the church faces damage through climate change. One of the articles describes how because of stress in their natural environments, modern shepherds in Tanzania have been moving their flocks into new areas as they search for adequate grass and water for their animals. This increased migration puts them in competition with farmers and land owners, causing conflict between long-time neighbors and friends.

Another picture described takes place in Alaska; as rising ocean levels encroach on their land,  whole communities on small coastal islands have elected to abandon their seaside neighborhoods to move further inland. Their long-term relationships to the land on which they and their families have lived for generations are being destroyed, and as they move away, long term relationships are lost. In one town, they have just one church, a small Lutheran church, which is struggling with the decisions their town needs to make to relocate.

Jesus’ parable warns us of the hired hands who look for a quick profit from their work, without long-term investments or concerns for the sheep of the fold. It would be convenient for us to point the finger at some culprits who benefit from the quick return of business that damages the environment, and blame them for the issues facing us.

But we won’t get very far before we realize that we are part of the chain of quick access to cheap goods, overuse of natural resources, overdependence on fossil fuels, and a willingness to shut our ears and eyes to the costs on the earth for our lifestyle choices. A hired hand is a cheaper option than an enduring, fully committed shepherd, and we’ve all contributed to the desire for cheaper, more convenient products.

And those wolves are intent on destroying the well-being of the flock. Increased levels of CO2 and greenhouse gases, rising ocean levels, cumulative pressures from overpopulation and increased migration of people and animals put us all at risk. What’s worse is those forces most often threaten the most vulnerable lambs—those who are poor, young, and unprotected.

We often are stirred to action when someone we know or love is in danger, but Jesus reminds us that there are other sheep, people we have never met, for whom he is equally concerned. Issues facing people across the globe, crises for those we have never considered, and problems of which we have no understanding, are all part of the dangers we are called to address.

The welfare of God’s pasture–not just the church, but God’s whole creation, is at risk. And our shepherd is intent on bringing it back to life.

It’s both Earth Day and Good Shepherd Sunday today. We are reminded of Jesus’ promise to us that no matter what happens, the Good Shepherd will never abandon the flock.

Though the gospel lesson we hear is from a setting before Jesus’s death, we read it through an Easter lens –hearing again the assurance that death itself won’t stop God’s intention to keep the flock in eternal goodness and mercy. We read it knowing that our Good Shepherd has been raised, bringing new life and healing and reconciliation to the whole earth. We read it in the Easter hope that death has no more dominion over us!

This weekend’s weather is a witness. After last week’s blizzard, we are greeted this morning with fresh spring air. Grass, though not quite green, is quickly emerging from the layer of snow and ice that just a few days ago seemed too deep to ever give way. Once again we are being reminded that God will not abandon us to lifeless winter forever.

But Easter isn’t just the promise of spring after an interminable winter. It is the assurance that life is being restored for more than just a season. We celebrate that God is still doing a new thing, an unprecedented restitution and renewal of the earth itself. Easter is an invitation to all of us to catch on to that restoration, to allow it to turn our own lives around to new hope and purpose.

The reading from I John reminds us how this happens. It was written for a community that had access to far fewer resources and products than we have, and yet needed to hear advice that sounds very timely to us. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.[iv]

Jesus invites us all to be caretakers of the pasture – and instructs us to start by loving our neighbors as ourselves. We love our neighbors not just in word and speech, but in truth and action. We love our neighbor when we make even small personal modifications to our routine, working to reduce our reliance on plastics and non-renewable resources, striving to reuse products that would be easy to simply replace, sacrificing convenience when options that are healthier for the environment exist.

We love our neighbor when we advocate for bigger transformations, too. calling on our financial companies to divest from ventures that threaten the environment, urging our elected officials to act in ways that promote sustainability for the earth, and sufficiency for those who face the greatest challenges of climate change. We love our neighbor when we act like Easter people, those who strive so that the whole world can celebrate life, healing and renewal.

A year ago, Zulema Lopez described the crops she was able to harvest after years of prolonged draught. Lopez, a farmer in northern Nicaragua, is benefiting by a new well, built through a partnership with her Lutheran Church, the ELCA World Hunger appeal, and a partner congregation from South Dakota. This new well, equipped with a solar-powered pump and a drip-irrigation system, is helping her community grow produce to feed their families. Lopez said, “It’s not every person for themselves here—we’re doing it together. We’re growing corn and beans, and vegetables too. And we’ll all get a share[v].” Hope is being restored in Lopez’s community, not just to her family, but to her neighbors, and even to the land itself.

A picture paints a 1000 words – so here’s our picture today: Our Good Shepherd desperately longs for the whole world to know God’s love, a love that leads us into green pastures, restores our souls, and guides us along right pathways.

Certainly, our Shepherd longs for the church to find life and wholeness, but God also longs for the sheep of the pasture, for the polar bears and the seals, for the people who live in coastal villages of Alaska, and the farmers of Nicaragua, for even the crops of corn and beans and vegetables, for all creation, to thrive and flourish. And God invites us to join in the task of tending the pasture, reminding us that goodness and mercy pursue us with compassion and commitment to care for God’s creation.

Who knows, perhaps when we care for any part of nature, we share in the power of resurrection, and God not only heals the earth, but restores us to life as well.

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!

[i] http://www.mpr.org/stories/2018/03/28/minnesota-public-radio-focuses-on-water-issues-throughout-month-of-april

[ii] http://www.mprnews.org/story/2018/04/19/nat-geo-photographer-polar-bear-photo

[iii] http://www.livinglutheran.org/tag/climate-change/

[iv] I John 3:17-18

[v] http://www.livinglutheran.org/2017/05/harvesting-hope/