Sermon: “Earth Day Sunday” (Easter 4, Year B)

Easter 4, Year B

St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Lodi, CA

Acts 4:5-12

[1 John 3:16-24]

John 10:11-18

Psalm 23

This past week was a pretty exciting one for those sort of paraliturgical holidays we love to celebrate. We had Earth Day on Thursday. On Friday it was St. George’s Day, which is actually an important patriotic holiday in England, and is remembered in the Episcopal Church because our episcopal church shield is quartered by St. George’s cross.

St. George’s day is also an important agricultural holiday in England: Asparagus Day! The first day of the asparagus harvest. These days are often celebrated together in English church life with processions and symbolic offerings of produce, a physical reminder that the fruits of the earth belong to God. We might still have a few weeks before California asparagus comes into full harvest, but it is a good reminder that the world around us is filled with good growing things.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I definitely needed the reminder of plant life this spring. Over this past year we have moved so much of life inside the 4 walls of our homes. We have moved from long commutes to video meetings. From having a picnic outside with friends to eating alone inside with Netflix. It feels like we’ve been isolated from the living world as we try to preserve some bit of life for resurrecting post-pandemic. Ah, resurrection.

As we move through the season of Easter, this season of the church year where resurrection is not only in the background and foundation of our faith as easter people, but is in the foreground of our worship and liturgy, it gives me hope to see bits of…life growing and breaking free from the long winter of the pandemic. The spring flowers that cover lawns and trees. Bookstores and libraries are beginning to open up for browsing and studying. Groups of college students are gathering on lawns, a sign of not only the resurrection of spring flowers and plants and sunshine, but also of the resurrection of in person social gatherings.

Resurrection doesn’t mean everything gets reset to a point it was “before”, like a new life in a video game. I don’t know if indoor dining or airplane travel will ever be quite the same. But I am seeing a resurrection of life right now that is every bit as full of life as what we had “before”. As we venture into this new resurrected life, post-pandemic, I know I’m not going to be the same. Life is not going to be the same. Too many people are missing: killed by the pandemic or violence or just time. And I wonder what sort of society, what sort of shared life, we are going to resurrect.

The disciples in our reading from Acts were certainly not expecting things to return to “normal” – they were ushering in a new life, a new way of living in the kingdom of God. They had healed a man – had brought new life to him – and were being questioned by the authorities. The new life, the resurrection of Jesus, was so powerful that people were being healed just by invoking Jesus’s name. Things were not the same as before: now it was the disciples of Jesus who were drawing negative attention from the authorities, not jesus himself. But they were using the abundance of life from Jesus’s resurrection to do something new, to bring more life to the man that they healed, to bring good news of salvation to the very authorities who tried to ignore and dismiss it the first time. Peter and the disciples weren’t trying to return to a pre-resurrection life. They were proclaiming the power of life in the resurrection. A resurrection of society is not a half life cobbled together from what we can salvage. It’s a whole new thing that’s built on a cornerstone we thought was dead. A whole new life is growing. How can we be good builders of that life? How can we help it grow?

In our gospel reading today, Jesus gives us another metaphor: a shepherd. Jesus declares himself to be the good shepherd. The good shepherd is the one who sticks with the sheep, who saves them from the wolves. Other people might take care of the sheep when hired, but they don’t actually care for the sheep. They run away and let the sheep run away. Only the true, good shepherd sticks with the sheep through everything. Only the true good shepherd lays down his own life for the sheep. But for Jesus, and for us, laying down a life does not end in death. Jesus lays down his life in order to take it up again.

I admit that this sentence never really made all that much sense to me. But maybe the pandemic has given me an insight. Laying down our lives in order to take them up again. For Jesus, this was literally dying in order to be resurrected. For us maybe this looks like laying down all the things we thought we couldn’t live without – coffee shops and farmers markets and hugging family – in order to pick up those lives again when it’s safe. We had to lay down our pre-covid life in order for life to have a chance to continue now. And it’s not those same lives that we are picking up again. Resurrected life is not the same as before.

As I think about all the things I’ve laid down over the past year, in order to take them up again now, in a newly resurrected version, I wonder how I can continue to be a good shepherd of life on this earth. One thing I remember from early on in the pandemic, back when planes were not flying and hardly anyone was commuting to work, was how carbon emissions dropped. Eventually we needed to travel and move things around again. But there was a moment when the world laid things down and we had a chance to see what being a good shepherd of the entire world might look like. What laying down our lives so that the world might live looks like. This past week we also celebrated Earth Day. This was a reminder for me that shepherds don’t just make sure that sheep don’t wander off, shepherds also lead their flocks to green pastures and good clean water, as psalm 23 describes. A shepherd is concerned with sheep, and also with everything that the sheep need. Grass and water and space and safety. Jesus, the good shepherd, dedicated his entire life, laid down his life even, to make sure we, his sheep, have everything we need for life. Being a good shepherd means taking care of not just sheep. It means taking care of all of creation. I wonder if this is part of what Jesus is saying when he said that he has sheep who are not of this fold. I’ve heard interpretations of these sheep as everything from gentiles to literally space aliens. I think it speaks to the wider vision of the kingdom of God: it is not only the original disciples, that are being cared for: it is all the sheep, all of creation even, that Jesus lays down his life for. Aren’t we called to do the same now?

We celebrated Easter Sunday a couple weeks ago. And now we are figuring out how to celebrate that newly resurrected life in our hopes for a post-pandemic life. All the newly growing spring life is an easy reminder of resurrection, and also a reminder of how fragile new life can be. Jesus might remind us how the sheep need to be watched at all times so new wobbly lambs don’t walk off a cliff or into the path of a truck or something. I’m reminded of a friend’s picture of her asparagus plants: almost ready to harvest, but with every single tip bitten off by her toddler. Life is resilient. Those asparagus plants are still alive. Resurrection is here. And still we can watch out for the new plants and make sure they don’t get eaten before they have a chance to flourish. Our new, post-pandemic life is fragile. We need to make sure we don’t wander off into another wave of virus spread, that we protect the green pastures and still waters that make life possible.

I pray that we can shepherd a resurrection in our world. I hope that “Earth Day” is not merely a reminder to rinse out the recycling bin, but a recognition of the life of creation that we have been entrusted with. Jesus is our example of what a good shepherd caring for the lives of the sheep looks like. Not only caring for the sheep that are directly in front of him, but he is also the shepherd to the sheep outside this fold and everything they might need. As Jesus is our shepherd, we are also called to be shepherds, not only of our own fold, but also of the other sheep, and the rest of creation.

Now, I’m not sure that we can pull off the English-style solemn procession of St. George and asparagus as we commemorate spring and resurrection. And I’m not sure we need to. But I do hope that we can find some way recognize the fulness of life. That we can find some way to shepherd a resurrection of life in this season of Easter, in the hope of a post-pandemic world in which all the sheep, those of our own sheepfold and all the rest, hear the good news of a good shepherd who lays his life down for his flock in order to take it up again in resurrection.

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