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Shepherds of the Earth

Sermon - 4/22/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 21:15-19

The text for our reflection this 'Earth Day' Sunday comes from the 21st chapter of the gospel of John.  This is an account of the last appearance of Jesus in the gospel of John:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 17He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

 

This final act of the risen Christ has several functions in the gospel of John.  First of all, it represents the redemption of Peter.  The three-fold question and response between Jesus and Peter recalls quite intentionally, I think, the three-fold denial by Peter predicted by Jesus at the last supper (and narrated by John in chapter 18).

And so Peter has come full-circle.  Called from the Sea of Galilee to follow Jesus to Jerusalem where he betrays Jesus, he is now called by the Sea of Galilee to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth where he will die as a martyr for Jesus (according to church tradition and apparently confirmed in this text).  And so the denier of Jesus becomes the martyr for Jesus

Secondly, it reinforces one of the central themes of John's gospel that love for Jesus is shown by our love for one another.  Talking to one of the folks setting up for the Church of Science this morning [their building was vandalized this week], it was interesting to hear them as Patty and I were working with them as they were getting setup, to talk about this opportunity that they now have to show love to a member of our community who obviously is quite disturbed, troubled, we're not sure why.  The police are investigating this as a hate crime because of messages he left directed against Christians.  And they see that not so much as a threat to them, as an opportunity to show their love to someone in our community.  Indeed, I think will provide a wonderful witness to that.

After the last supper, Jesus gives the disciples this new commandment, he says ". . . that you love one another.  Just as I love you, you also should love one another.  By this, everyone will know that you are my disciple if you have love for one another".  And then he repeats himself just two chapters later, not because they have short memories, but because John wants to emphasize the importance of this commandment.  And so in chapter 15, John tells us that Jesus says "This is my commandment", singular, not 10, not 5, not even 2 as reported in the other three gospels -- that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and shall love your neighbor as yourself -- here it is just one that sums it all up.  That "you love one another as I have loved you".  

And then Jesus adds this:  "No one has greater love than this that they lay down their life for their friends".

Coming back to Peter after the events of Good Friday, and asking him "Do you love me?" is a way of saying "OK, you didn't get it right the first time, so let's try again".  Now that's love.

Third, Peter here functions not as the chief disciple but as the first disciple, the prototype of discipleship.  The task he his given -- to tend to the flock of Jesus -- is the task of all disciples.  This is what it means for us to love Jesus.  As Marcus Borg is fond of saying, to believe in Jesus is to 'belove' Jesus.  That means that we must love what Jesus loved.  His flock is our flock.  His passion is our passion.

Or, to put it in different terms, the image that we have of God is often what shapes us.  If we know God primarily as a judge, condemning others, then we tend to be very judgmental and condemning.  If we view God as one filled with anger and wrath, then we tend to people who are very angry and wrathful.  If we view God as victorious conqueror, then we are Duck fans J

So, call to mind the 23rd Psalm -- 'the Lord is my shepherd'.  What kind of image does that give you of God?  'He makes me lie down beside green pastures, he restores my soul, he leads me to still waters'.  Very peaceful, calm, gentle image.  To affirm God as a shepherd is not only to say that we are part of God's flock, but that we are called to share in God's task of shepherding.

If you've ever spent much time with sheep, you know that being compared to sheep is not exactly a compliment.  There's a reason why sheep need a shepherd and sheep dogs -- it's because they're just plain dumb!  And I have a picture to prove it:

 

Notice this sheep here climbing over the fence, and the sign that says "Do Not Climb Over Fence"!  How dumb can you get?  Judy Siebert who actually took this picture (it's not her sheep but she has a neighbor with a lot of sheep, and she helps her neighbor out with the task of shepherding), she tells me that when one sheep goes off into a gully, all the other sheep just follow along.  No idea where they're going, next thing they know, they're down in this gully with no idea how to get out.  And they're trapped.

So to be a shepherd, you see, is a challenging task precisely because sheep are so clueless, and need that guidance and protection.

If we are all shepherds, then who or what are the sheep?  Typically we think of Matthew 25, and that parable of the sheep and goats, where Jesus says "I was hungry, and you fed me, I was naked, and you clothed me, I was sick in prison and you came and visited me", and we say those are the sheep of Jesus.  Or we think of Luke 4 when Jesus says "The spirit of God is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor, to set the oppressed free, to give sight to the blind", and we think those are the sheep of Jesus.  Or John 10 where Jesus says "I am the good shepherd, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep", and we think of all those for whom Christ gave his life.

But that's not quite true, is it, that a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.  Because think about that -- if the shepherd does that, he leaves the rest of the flock shepherd-less and vulnerable.  Jesus, of course, is not talking about sheep, is he?

My image of the good shepherd has been updated this week by Liviu Librescu, that 76 year-old professor, aeronautics engineer at Virginia Tech.  I know many of you have read about him and been touched by his story.  A Jew, born in Romania, survived the holocaust only to be persecuted by the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, eventually immigrated to Israel before finding his way to the United States.  For the last 20 years, has taught at Virginia Tech, well beyond retirement -- didn't have to do it, did it because of his love for teaching.  When that shooter came down that hallway, killing all who got in his way, Dr. Librescu locked the door and told his students, his flock, to jump out the window.  And the last student who did so turned to see his professor struggling to hold the door shut as the shooter tried to make his way in.  He gave his life for those students.  We don't know how many lives he saved that day, but that last student will always carry that image with him for the rest of his life, knowing that he owes his life to that Romanian Jew.  

Ironically, Monday was the holocaust day of remembrance.  May we never forget.  Liviu Librescu was indeed a good shepherd.

Few of us, I hope none of us, will ever be put in that place, will be afforded that opportunity, to make such a sacrifice.  And yet we do have such an opportunity every day.  Contrary to a few remaining nay-sayers who refuse to believe, the scientific evidence continues to mount that the earth is in serious trouble, and if changes are not made very soon, thousands if not millions of lives could be, likely will be, lost due to the effects of global warming.

The most recent evidence comes from the regions of the Arctic where the thinning of ice has made it increasingly difficult for Eskimos to fish and hunt.  It seems rather odd for us to realize that there is an entire culture that depends on extreme cold and ice for their livelihood.  And yet that lifestyle, which goes back to before the time of Christ, may cease to exist within our lifetime.

So when Jesus says "Feed my sheep", does he mean that we are to take care of those Eskimos, who like native peoples before them who depended on the buffalo, may no longer be able to support themselves?  Or could it be that tending to the sheep of Jesus may also mean caring for the earth, that the sheep will not starve?

Disciples magazine that I just saw laying out this morning is dedicated to Earth Day and the environment.  A wonderful column in here by Michal Pepper who notes that 20% of the population of Bangladesh lives 1 meter above sea level or below, and thereby is threatened by any rising of sea levels.  And he says "Jesus tells us we can't love God without loving others.  Authentic religion based on the love of God creates a community that cares for everyone, rich and poor, the greatest and the least.  Taking care of the environment is about loving others".

So think about it this way -- if we are not the shepherds of the earth, then who?  If we do not care for the earth now, then when?  Global warming seems like such an enormous problem, I mean after all, it's global.  What can we possibly do?

Kitty Piercy's "Mayor's Climate Challenge" is a bold attempt, I think, to get all of us in this community to act collectively.  That we, by combining our small little individual efforts, may make a significant difference.  And so she launched, in conjunction with Earth Day, this challenge, and she she said:  "Global warming is not something that affects the polar bears and the glaciers, it's here in Oregon, where we are experiencing reduced snow pack in the Cascades, higher temperatures, more wildfires, all as a result of climate change.  Those trends are expected to continue, especially if we follow the path we've been traveling until now.  Working together, we have solved other problems in the past, and I am optimistic that we know how to tackle global warming.  We can do our part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  It is up to each and every one of us to make a commitment to reduce our contribution to climate change".

So, just how are we to do that?  Let me show you this graph that the City of Eugene put together (with help from the University's Climate Leadership Initiative) that calculates the average contribution of residents of Eugene of how much carbon dioxide we produce per citizen:

On average, we produce 13 and a half metric tons of carbon dioxide (carbon dioxide is the chief problem that produces the greenhouse effect, causing the climate change).  To visualize that, it would take about a ton and a half of carbon dioxide to fill a hot air balloon.  So, 13.5 tons would represent about 9 hot air balloons, that each one of us produces and is released into the atmosphere.

The single largest contributor of that, just over 5 tons, comes from car travel.  Then below that is air travel, which is represented by one single flight to the Pacific southwest to get more sun J.  Food consumption is 2 tons, consumption of other goods is another 3.5 tons, space heating and cooling is 1 ton.  So you get an idea of the total production.

Obviously, vehicles are the #1 problem, and that is why purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles (or better yet, using alternative modes of transportation) is the single most important thing that any of us can do to literally save lives and possibly even save the planet as we know it.

But what if you're like that right young ruler who goes to Jesus and says "What must I do to inherit eternal life?".  And Jesus says "Keep the commandments, tithe to your church, and always, always, treat your pastor nicely J.  Then you shall have eternal life".  And you say, well, I've got my hybrid vehicle, or a vehicle that does 40 miles to the gallon or bio-diesel.  

So what else can I do?  Well, that's the beautiful thing about this initiative, they've set up a web site -- www.sustaineugene.com -- and when you go to that web site, you can click into Mayor Piercy's Climate Initiative.  And there's an opportunity for you to sign up.

But before you do that, you need to know what you're signing up for, and there's a little calculator that enables you to calculate how much carbon dioxide your household produces.  So I'm going to take the Bryant household as an example -- we have 4 people, electric heat, how many miles we drive, our average gas mileage, average heating bill, etc.  Then it asks whether we recycle newspaper, glass, plastic, aluminum, etc -- that subtracts from our carbon dioxide emissions.  Our total emission in the Bryant household is calculated at 39,000 pounds, a little less than the national average.

What can we do to reduce that further?  Well, if we bought a vehicle that gets 5 more miles to the gallon, it will save over 2,000 pounds (1 ton) of carbon dioxide annually.  If we drive 50 miles less, it will save another 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide.  If we turn down our heat at night because we're all bundled up in bed, by 5 degrees, that's 380 pounds.  If we replace our light bulbs with more efficient ones, that's another 500 pounds.  If we replace our refrigerator with something more energy efficient, that's another 500 pounds, and so on and so forth.  You get the idea.

Here's a big one -- single pane windows, if you replace those with energy star windows, that's 3,800 pounds.  And we get to the end, and we see that we have now reduced our carbon dioxide emissions by 8,800 pounds.

What else can we do?  Click on the checklist and it takes you to a list of lots of other ideas of things that you can do.  There's a list for transportation, for your home, for food, for waste, for your yard, and for each of them you have an opportunity to click whether you're already doing this, or if you'll commit to doing this, or you've started doing this, and when you complete all of that, it takes you to a results page that shows you how many people so far have clicked on that.  So you can see how many others in Eugene are doing what you are doing.

Once you have done that, you can go back to the Mayor's challenge and you say "Yep, I'm ready, sign me up", click "I Commit", and now you've sent an E-mail message to the staff who are collecting all this data.  And you say "Yeah, I heard about it at First Christian Church, where the pastor so inspired me, that I signed up for this effort J".

And that's the Mayor's Climate Challenge, and how we can participate and be part of that, and to share collectively in that effort.

Will it make a difference?  Who's lives are we really saving?

Last summer, Maureen and Scott Russell went to Peru, and brought back pictures that they shared with many of us at one of our dessert functions:

I think that's Scott in the red cap with Maureen behind him, saying "This is the last time I let you make travel arrangements!".

One of the stories that they brought back was of the glaciers that produce all of the water for the people of this region in the Andes, above the sacred valley there in Peru:

 

Thousands of people, dependent solely on the water from those glaciers, that's their only water source.  Experts say that within the lifetime of this child, if nothing changes, those glaciers will all disappear.  So think about that.  There is a very real sense that the life we save by reducing our carbon dioxide emissions may be this one.

Jesus says to us "Do you love me?  Tend my sheep".    

 

 


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