Last week an advisory council I’m part of gave the Obama administration a report on human trafficking. It has ten major recommendations on how government, faith groups, and non-profits can work together to end modern forms of slavery. As the Council finished its meeting, we thanked the young woman who guided us through the work as the administration’s liaison. We thanked her for her good shepherding. That’s precisely what this 30-something aide offered a group of strong-minded religious leaders and non-profit CEOs. She kept us on task, set deadlines, organized conference calls and in-person meetings, gathered experts in the field to teach and interact with us, challenged us to write and edit the report, and then produced it in time for publication. And after our meeting, she left for a much-needed and well-deserved vacation!
Most of us in this part of the world don’t see real, live sheep-keepers very often, but we do have abundant examples of shepherding around us. The 23rd psalm may seem like a romantic idyll, but it’s profoundly about what sheep need – food, water, rest, and the ability to fend off predators. The psalmist describes behavior that is just as essential to human thriving as it is for sheep or goats. In order for any human community to be effective or live in productive harmony, it needs leadership. When we start to talk about godly leadership, or shepherds like Jesus, we mean guidance toward what will nurture the life of the community as well as away from what will threaten or end the project. Good shepherding is life-giving and sustaining, and in the kind of language we use around here, it’s eternal. It is about what is ultimate, gracious, and abundantly life-giving. It seeks the welfare of the whole community, not simply the desires of an individual.
That’s the kind of leadership Jesus is claiming. It’s also the kind of leadership that he challenges his followers to exercise – he’s telling his disciples to go and do likewise: ‘Do you want to find that kind of ultimate, life-giving, gracious generosity? Well, then, gather ‘round and get with the program – because we’re going thataway, toward LIFE!’
This kind of holy shepherding is meant for all of us, in all our variety. We aren’t meant to march in lockstep, but to use the varied gifts of our creation and circumstances to gather others and move toward that kind of abundant life. That’s why we’re here this morning – to be fed and challenged to exercise a shepherd’s leadership wherever we live and move and have our being.
We’re using a particular lens to focus that sort of leadership this Earth Day. How do we guide and shepherd our communities to tend the pasture? Ultimately we all depend on the same pasture for our earthly living – the springs of the water of life sustain us all, and the air breathed into us is rebreathed by other parts of this planetary garden. How we use and tend the pasture will either give life or limit it for those around us and those who will follow us.
Think with me a bit more about sheep. Flocks of sheep, particularly undomesticated ones, have internal shepherds – shared leadership by wise elders who warn of danger and guide the flock along trustworthy paths to ancient pastures and water holes. But the capricious young also have a role – they give warning of what may or may not be approaching danger, and they can help discover new grazing in unfamiliar places as they flit about. The adolescent bucks usually wander off in search of territory with greater possibility and some of them develop into leaders of new flocks in the process. In healthy human communities, effective shepherds understand themselves as part of the flock, and use their native gifts to collaborate with other sorts of leaders.
That great dream of Revelation is an image of the flock of humanity gathered around their shepherd. Their wool is clean and white, not just because they’ve had a dip in the creek to wash the dirt off, but because all the burrs and thorns and parasites have been picked out. It’s immensely troublesome work to get a sheep looking like that – it’s not just a matter of a bath. And this isn’t just a single animal, like a country fair champion. An entire flock of sheep has been individually groomed until they reflect the sun like the top of a cloudbank. This great good shepherd cares for each part of creation as precious – beloved, even. These sheep are gathered, confident that one of their number will keep them in good grazing, and clean water, and away from the wolves. The lamb has become shepherd of all by shifting his concern from self to the whole. It is a cosmic image of the ancient challenge to care for the whole community rather than only one’s individual being.
That’s the kind of shepherding we’re in for – recognizing the preciousness of the whole flock of creation. Not just the human ones, or the mammals, or the local pasture, but the vast web of interconnected matter we call creation. Every family, language, tribe, and nation of insect, woodland, coral reef, water vapor, and the rock below. Why do you suppose those sheep are waving palm branches? This cosmic act of salvation is about all creation, not simply a few human beings.
Globally, awareness is growing that caring for the earth is an essential part of the human vocation. The sheep are beginning to become more conscious stewards of the pasture. It’s an aberration that has separated us from knowing that stewarding and reverencing the rest of creation is essential to human life – that aberration about eating an apple of self-centeredness and leaving the primordial garden pasture.
There won’t be green pastures and still waters for all until we become effective shepherds and pasture tenders for the whole creation. This work is about consciousness of our connection to the whole, and tender care of the other parts of that whole. It is simply another form of loving our neighbor as ourselves, for the neighbor is actually part of each one of us.
A very local example. Human beings live in relationship with lots of different bacteria and other microbes. Each of us has about ten times as many microbial cells as human cells, and most of the time that human-microbe ecosystem functions in ways that keep all parties healthy. The bacteria help us digest food, train our immune systems, make vitamins, affect our blood pressure, regulate metabolism, fend off pathogens, and perform a myriad of other functions. We in turn feed, house, and distribute those microbes. We are at the very early stages of understanding these interrelationships and what keeps them healthy. We do know that modern American germ-phobia is actually making a lot of us sick, and making it harder to cure people who are acutely ill. The antibiotics we use so profligately for minor colds or to make livestock gain weight faster only breed resistance. Bacterial populations quickly respond to their use by sharing resistance genes that have been around for eons longer than human beings. We can’t simply target one part of the bacterial ecosystem for extinction – it doesn’t work. Yes, a few are pathogenic, but most of the time, illness or infection is a matter of an imbalance in the system. Microbes are part of us, in a very real sense our intimate neighbors or members, and the task is to learn how to manage the system for better health as a whole and in all its parts.
Good and effective shepherds learn to recognize that we are all part of a far larger and more complex neighborhood than we have imagined. Loving our neighbor, and caring for the garden in which we’re planted, means cultivating respect and compassion for every part of creation. Go tend the sheep – even the ones you can’t see – and care for the pasture that supports us all – and don’t fuss about the dirt and germs – we need almost every single one of them!
 President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/advisory_council_humantrafficking_report.pdf
 Beet This: More Evidence of BP-Lowering Effects of Dietary Nitrate. Medscape. Apr 16, 2013.