by The Youth and Youth Mentors of Trinity Episcopal Church, Santa Barbara, CA
As this month’s CCT in Context is being sent to you a Synod of Catholic Bishops is meeting in Rome to consider the youth (or lack thereof) of the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps they would do well to consider the wisdom and concerns of youth. Here is a sample: a sermon prepared by the Youth of Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara CA for Good Shepherd Sunday/Earth Day last spring. For catechists, it’s encouraging to see how far-reaching our little sheepfolds can be in the hearts of the children we serve. Enjoy!
If you’re a long-time Episcopalian like me, you know that every Sunday our lectionary gives us four different readings: a first reading, which is usually from the Old Testament, but which today was from Acts. A psalm, that we read or sing together. A second reading, which is usually taken from an epistle—a letter in the New Testament written to someone in the early church. And we always get a Gospel reading, a story about the life of Jesus.
Two of our readings today are ones that those of us who have gone through our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program here at Trinity are very, very familiar with.
We start hearing the opening words of Psalm 23 when we are just three years old. And we start working with materials that show us the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep when we are just three years old as well.
We listen to the words Jesus said, and then we place the wooden sheep in the little stone sheepfold. We open and close the gate. And we move the Good Shepherd out to lead his sheep around a very beat up old green felt disc that represents the green pastures. From our earliest days in the Level 1 atrium, we are hearing about this Shepherd and these sheep.
And, one day, it starts to dawn on us who those sheep really are. One day we realize, “hey—I’m one of those sheep!”
Recognizing ourselves in these passages, seeing that God is our shepherd and we God’s sheep, is immensely reassuring. The words of Psalm 23 make such beautiful promises: “I shall not be in want”; “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”; “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
The words of the psalm remind us that no matter what troubles come, God sees these troubles and offers comfort. Even when we are tired and weary, and not knowing how to cope with the challenges of life, God is present. We are not alone.
And knowing that we are not alone is tremendously encouraging. The beautiful images of Psalm 23 allow us to say to ourselves, “I am cared for. I am seen and understood. I am safe.”
Interestingly, the words of the passage say that the Shepherd MAKES me lie in green pastures.
Makes me. It’s less of an invitation than a command.
And the shepherd LEADS me beside the still waters. Again, this is a direction that the shepherd is insisting on.
The revival of our souls depends upon heeding that command to lie in the green pasture and to follow God beside the still waters. Left to our own devices, we might not choose this place of beauty. But God insists upon it, MAKING us rest, and LEADING us to refreshment.
And so what we see in Psalm 23 is that there is work to do, but in the psalm that work is God’s work. The Shepherd has the task of looking after me, and it’s my job just to trust in the Shepherd.
Our lectionary doesn’t let us get away with thinking it’s ALL God’s work to do, though.
The epistle today from 1st John makes it very clear that in order for God’s love to abide in us, we need to do more than just talk the talk; we need to walk the walk.
John’s letter is offering an answer to a very big question: how should I behave as a Christian?
And the answer is both very straightforward and very hard to hear: “we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
How are we supposed to do this? According to John, by LOVING, not just “in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And John makes it very clear what sort of action he’s talking about. He’s talking about sharing what we have with those who need help. In fact, he goes so far as to doubt whether “God’s love can abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help.”
Now, on the one hand, this is actually a wonderful piece of Good News. If we abide in God’s love and obey God, God will abide in us. This is a wonderful promise.
On the other hand, it’s pretty heavy stuff. “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?” This starts to make it sound like God’s love for us is conditional. This starts to make it sound like I have to do something for God to give me love.
But looking at the words carefully suggests that this isn’t what John meant. And the meaning lies in the difference between giving and receiving. I don’t have to actively share my goods with those in need in order for God to love me. God’s love is freely given, and is on offer at all times. But there is a difference between the words “to give” and “to receive.” Receiving requires action on the part of the receiver. God’s love is freely given, but if we want God’s love abiding in us, reassuring our hearts, we have to accept the gift. It requires action on our part. That’s really what it means to have God’s love abiding in us. It means we’ve made the active choice to receive God’s love.
And John says that what that looks like in real life is putting that abiding love into action.
In fact, both 1st John and John’s gospel make it really clear that Jesus put God’s love into action. The words of the epistle reading echo the words of the Gospel reading. 1st John says, “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” And Jesus repeatedly says in our Gospel reading for the day “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
In the atrium, we were reminded over and over that this is what real love looks like—the Good Shepherd giving up everything for the sheep.
And there is so much Good News in this passage. There is the good news that we are protected—that Jesus is looking out for us always. There’s the good news of Jesus’ faithfulness, and the good news of the peace of mind that we can feel because we are being watched over. And there’s the good news that Jesus’ love empowers us with the knowledge that we are so special that the Shepherd chose to lay down his own life for us.
But now that we’re older, we also notice how the passage really emphasizes the fact that the Shepherd is actively making the choice to lay down his life. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus says, “I lay down my life of my own accord” and “I have power to lay it down and power to take it up again,” he is really emphasizing his own independence. Regardless of what catastrophes may be swirling around, Jesus retains his power to lay down his life for the sheep.
And this independence of Jesus is emphasized in another way in the passage. When Jesus says that “he has other sheep that do not belong to this fold” and he “must bring them, too,” he’s saying that even though you might be different, or be an outsider, or belong to a different group, you’re still cared for. You’re still one of the sheep of the Good Shepherd. Those “other sheep” are only “other” because society says they are other.
So even if you’re different, you aren’t excluded by Jesus. All sheep are treated as equally worthy in the passage. All sheep are loved, and everybody is connected through God.
But on this Earth Day, we also need to remember that we are also all connected through our world. We should remind ourselves that we are all in the same sheepfold. We are all residents of the same one planet—the one and only planet we have.
We see the beauty of that planet in the green pastures and still waters of the psalm, and we see the beauty of our planet in our own encounters with the natural world.
And we need to have more of those encounters.
Going backpacking and being in nature can show you the divinity in dirt. God’s presence sometimes can best be experienced by leaving the interior space of the vast cathedral and by stepping into the greater vastness of the wilderness. Indeed, it was in preparation for entering the holy city of Jerusalem that Jesus himself headed to the wilderness. We need that wilderness as a place of coming to know ourselves better.
That’s part of the divinity in dirt—we see ourselves more clearly. The Perez family, for instance, was recently in Yosemite. They hiked Nevada Falls and Yosemite Falls. They saw the magnificence of those vistas and the power of those waterfalls. The hikes were long and challenging, but the views were spectacular.
The hard work of walking those trails is something of a metaphor for the hard work of caring for the earth. Being in touch with the natural world isn’t always something that comes easily.
But troublingly for the Perez family, though, on the Mist Trail that climbs alongside those waterfalls, they saw that trash was strewn around in shocking quantities. Trash, all over a trail in Yosemite. The disregard for nature, even one of the most beautiful places on the planet, in a space set aside for the preservation of the riches of our earth, was heartbreaking.
God made the earth for us, and all too often we aren’t honoring that gift. As a species, we have evolved into a mode of living that often hurts the earth. Now we need to evolve into a mode that helps. We need to keep evolving.
We need to take care of the gift of our earth, because we don’t want to get evicted. This is where we live. Earth is our home, and we need to pay the rent.
Now, sometimes our parents say to us, “you can do anything and I’ll still love you.” This is also something that the Gospel for today tells us—the Good Shepherd always loves the sheep. And despite what we have done to the planet, God still loves us. The earth still sustains us. The planet still takes care of us. But while we can never push Jesus to the point where he no longer loves us, we can push our planet to the point where it might not be able to sustain us.
And why are doing this? Well, for an answer to that we need to go back to the Gospel and look at the wolf. In Jesus’ account of the Good Shepherd, we vividly see the threat of the wolf. And what the wolf does is scatters the sheep.
Now, we’re NOT told that the wolf kills the sheep. And this is interesting. We all will die someday. But the wolf isn’t death in Jesus’ story. The wolf is division.
The Gospel story says that the wolf comes in amongst the sheep, and “snatches them and scatters them.” The wolf doesn’t kill. The wolf pushes the sheep apart.
And we think about all the ways in which we are pushed apart: racism and homophobia and transphobia and stigmas about mental illness and all sorts of things separate us.
But if we are focused on the ways in which we are separate, we won’t see ourselves as citizens of the planet. We’ll focus on ourselves as members of small groups, rather than all members of a single group: humankind on this planet.
In fact, since we will all one day return to the earth—dust to dust—we should really consider that we are earth stuff, and so care for our earth is really care for ourselves. Really, it’s just logical.
Sadly, though, right now, our earth is laying down its life for us. But unlike Jesus, it’s not doing it of its own accord. The earth doesn’t have the independent power of choice that Jesus talks about in laying down his life for the sheep. The earth doesn’t get to choose.
But we can choose. We can choose to see ourselves not just as the sheep, but also as shepherds. We can choose to lay down aspects of our own lives for our world.
And it doesn’t matter who caused the problem. After all, Jesus didn’t cause the wrongdoing that led to his own death. So whether or not we have personally caused the problems that our earth is facing—global warming, pollution, the build-up of trash—we all still have a responsibility to try and help. Instead of focusing on who’s most to blame for the problem, we should focus on seeking solutions.
So today, we the youth of Trinity, ask you to be conscious of your use of resources. We ask you to actively work to reduce your carbon footprint.
Get solar panels. Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Support Trinity’s new garden.
And, on this Earth Day, remember that God made the earth, and gave us the gift of taking care of it. We need to honor that gift.
We must show gratitude for this gift of life on this beautiful planet by actively caring for God’s world. We must treat it well in order to live well.
And so our prayer today is that we will take our knowledge from the Gospel that we are loved, we will take our knowledge from the epistle that we show love through action, and that, along with the psalmist, that we will be MADE to lie down in those green pastures. They revive our souls.