Sheep and Justice

Preacher: Jeff Davidson Scripture: Psalm 23

Earth Day was a couple of days ago, and it was a day where a lot of people on Facebook posted sayings or pictures about the beauty of nature and the importance of taking care of the Earth. If you checked out the Google Doodle for that day, it was inspiring and moving. There weren’t as many public gatherings as there have been sometimes since the pandemic is still keeping us from gathering together in person in large groups, but the day got some recognition.

Earth Day was also the day after the end of Ecumenical Advocacy Days this year. You may remember that last week Nate shared an excellent sermon by The Most Reverend Bishop Michael Curry, which led into the focus of the event this year, environmental justice, and that evening Jessie led folks on a virtual gallery walk sharing from a variety of talented artists.

Justice has been on a lot of people’s minds this week after the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis, MN police officer who killed George Floyd. Our sign at the church building on North Carolina Ave SE says, “Justice for George Floyd.” I don’t know that there necessarily is such a thing in a situation like that, but we certainly pray for justice – not just for George Floyd, but for everyone – whatever justice may look like in a particular situation. 

The whole George Floyd incident raises the question of what justice is. In the context of George Floyd’s murder and the trial and conviction of Derek Chauvin, most people have used “justice” to refer to criminal justice. In this case that means the finding that Derek Chauvin was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of causing the death of George Floyd, and will be punished as the law finds appropriate for that death. Webster’s has several different definitions for justice, one of which is “the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity.”

That’s not what justice means for a Christian, though. Over at the World Vision website, the Rev. Adam Taylor says, “Biblical references to the word ‘justice’ mean ‘to make right.’ Justice is, first and foremost, a relational term — people living in right relationship with God, one another, and the natural creation.” That’s the kind of justice that the Ecumentical Advocacy Days theme of environmental justice is talking about, and the kind of justice that is modeled in our reading from the 23rd Psalm.

There are three characters, three interrelated people or things, in this Psalm. Let’s talk about each of them very briefly.

The first character mentioned is God. The Lord. The Shepherd. There are images of God and Jesus as a shepherd all over the Bible, and I’m not going to try to spell all of them out here. Among the many things in the Bible that shepherds do, good shepherds know their sheep. Good shepherds are willing to lay down their lives for their sheep. Good shepherds in our own lives sometimes help the sheep move along to keep the pasture healthy. Sheep in and of themselves aren’t necessarily destructive to pastures or farmland, but sheep being allowed to overgraze a particular field can damage the pasture. Good shepherds pay attention to this. We’ll talk about that a little later on.

We’ve already touched on the second character in the Psalm – the sheep. That’s us. We try, but we don’t always know what we need. We’ll stay too long in the same field, we won’t recognize the threats that are around us, we get scared of things that aren’t really worth worrying about and walk right up to things that might do us harm. What do you expect – we’re sheep! We need a shepherd. We need a good shepherd. We need Jesus.

There’s one additional character in the Psalm. We don’t think of it as a character, since it’s not a living person or animal like the shepherd or the sheep, but it’s there. It’s the green pastures, the still waters. It’s the environment. It’s that which we need every day, on a regular basis, to sustain our physical life.

The word “environment” means “the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives and operates.” The pastures and the water are the environment in the context of our Psalm. 

We know that God can intervene directly in our lives. Some people believe that God does that regularly and often. Others believe that God doesn’t often intervene directly. When I was in high school, the local Lutheran pastor created a bit of controversy by suggesting that God did not necessarily intervene to help our high school football team win a particular game in the last seconds.

Wherever you fall on that spectrum, it’s for sure that God lets us mess up. After all, God gave us free will. God lets us use up things that we’re going to need later. God lets us destroy things that are necessary. God allows animals and plants to go extinct if we don’t protect them, and allows farmlands or watersheds to dissipate if we don’t take care of them.

One thing that is also for sure is that God acts through us. Sometimes we do a good job of hearing and following God’s call, and sometimes not so good. Environmental justice is one of those areas where we as a whole tend not to do as well in following God’s call. There are a lot of reasons for that; a capitalist society that encourages us to accumulate more and more, a disconnect from the effects of our actions in places across the globe and even in our own communities; the fact that acting in environmentally responsible ways involves the change of habits and patterns of a lifetime; the reality that sometimes environmental justice, at least in the short term, involves more out of pocket up front costs; the truth that if I change my patterns of consumption, it might cost the job or livelihood of a friend of mine who works in coal mining areas while it benefits someone thousands of miles away who I will never meet.

We have to do better. We have to do better because that’s what the Shepherd did for us. The Shepherd sees that we have green pastures, and still waters. The Shepherd sees that we are safe, and cared for. The Shepherd sacrifices whatever he must for us. That’s what we’re supposed to do for other people.

I wanted to learn a little more about sheep and grazing, so I went to the website http://www.familyfarmlivestock.com. It gives some suggestions for grazing sheep in a sustainable way. Among them are to consider the needs of your pasture land. So Jesus, the shepherd considers the needs of the green pastures. He considers the needs of the earth, not just of the sheep. If we are to do what Jesus did, we too must consider the needs of the pasture land. We too must consider the needs of the earth. Caring for the environment isn’t a touchy-feely-tree-hugging thing; it’s a command of Christ. It’s what God does.

Another suggestion is to move the sheep when the grass is half eaten. That makes sense, and it’s related to considering the needs of the earth. If the grass is all eaten away, then of course the pasture land will be worthless. Another way to say this in our context might be to not allow resources to become depleted. Start thinking about what plan B will look like before plan A is all done. Some people say that we don’t need to worry about alternative power sources because there are plenty of fossil fuel sources of one sort or another that haven’t been fully tapped and exploited. A good shepherd says that we shouldn’t be waiting that long.

The website says you should spend time in the pasture with your sheep. Just as the Shepherd knows the sheep whom he seeks to serve, we as Christians need to know the people whose lives are impacted by our decisions. We need to know poor people. We need to know people and communities of color. We need to know indigenous peoples. We need to know people around the world. Can we literally do that with every community that suffers from environmental injustice? No, no we can’t.

But we can do it with some of those communities, and we can do it with some of those people. Remember Adam Taylor’s definition of justice. For a Christian, justice is about relationships. We can educate ourselves about what life is like in different places. We can learn about the effect our choices have on people around the world. We can gain knowledge and understanding of the sheep of other pastures, we can reach outside of our own communities of race or politics or faith or citizenship. We can know more than we do now.

We aren’t Christ, and we can’t be Christ. However we can be, and must be, Christ-like. We can consider what is best for others ahead of what is best for ourselves. We can do the things that a good shepherd does. We can work for justice, whatever that means, and wherever it can be found. Amen.

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