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Modern Day Shepherds: It’s About More than the Sheep

What does it mean to live generationally?

Ezekiel 34:1-10; 25-31 and Excerpt from “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” by Wendell Berry

November 26th, 2023

By Bry Brannan


Good morning! Thank you for the invitation to share a message with those of you gathered in person and online. Will you join me in a centering prayer?


Holy One, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your presence. We are rooted in you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.


Back in Seattle where I used to live, I visited Rev. Catherine Foote’s farm for one of her annual Lamb Days. On Lamb Day as she describes in her book, her two flocks have a chance to meet in this spring ritual and she trusts that the “seeds of the sacred” are present.(1) When I visited, it was during the pandemic, so it was extra delightful to hold that baby lamb, born around Easter, the soft wool and loud bleating making me temporarily forget about the worries of the pandemic. Even though the day was about the sheep, I could see how much Catherine’s life revolved around taking care of her entire Earth Community which included the people from her congregation, the pasture, forest and fruit trees, many other animals like her sheep dogs, chickens, and her neighbor’s horse. There was also an area where a fellow UCC minister was laying the foundation for her future home that would be built from salvaged materials.


Looking back, I think the sheep that day reminded me of my belonging in Earth Community, something that is sometimes more difficult for me to fully notice in the city. And I think this is the case with the non-human animals in our lives like dogs, cats, and horses that remind us that we humans aren’t the center of everything and that our relationships with them can remind us of this belonging.


Based on today’s readings, I am curious what the ancient shepherds in Ezekiel and the modern day shepherds like Rev. Catherine and her sheep teach us about living generationally as part of Earth Community?


The reading from Ezekiel takes place more than 2,500 years ago, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire. (2) Many of the surviving Israelite population, including Ezekiel were deported to Babylonia (which today is in southern Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). (3)In exile, he started receiving visions from God that he would communicate to his people. Chapter 34 in the last third of the Book of Ezekiel that contains the prophecies that speak to Israel’s future restoration. (4)


However, even when Ezekiel’s message takes a more hopeful note, he “never loses sight of the people’s culpability” in breaking their covenant with Yahweh. (5) In this case, as it is throughout much of the Hebrew Bible, God is holding the current generation accountable not only for their actions, but also the actions of their ancestors. (6)


Ezekiel reminds his people that when they fail to uphold their covenant with God, they are not the only ones who suffer. Others in Earth Community also are impacted - in this case the sheep are scattered and eaten by wild animals (34:5) and the Land can longer produce enough food, bringing about famine (34:29). (7) God is angry with the shepherds for not taking care of the sheep, especially those who were sick, weak or lost because they became greedy and too focused on their own needs. In our context today, we can think about the shepherd’s vocation to care for the sheep as the ways that each of us and our congregation is entrusted with the care of people and the planet.


We are reminded in the passage we read from Wendell Berry, who many of us are familiar with, who is a white male writer, farmer and environmental activist, that we are made from “God’s dust and God’s breath” just like every other creature. We are created to play a part in our local ecosystem, as one among many Earth creatures. We are not to be over and above other creatures but among them. He reminds us that the work we do, the ways we make a living matters in the here and now and will matter for generations to come.


Wendell Berry quotes Mother Ann Lee, who was the founder of a Christian group called the Shakers who lived in communal villages in the Northeast while trying to practice gender and racial equality in the 1800s. (8) Mother Ann’s quote reminds us that our relationship with God can be reflected in the details of our daily living and that we should do our work as though we would live for many generations to experience its impact.


The reason why I uplift modern day white, European American shepherds like Rev. Catherine and farmers like Wendell Berry are because I believe they offer some glimpses of what white people have lost and forgotten in the aftermath of centuries of European colonialism: that we can move beyond our human and eurocentric focus by remembering that we belong to Earth Community and that we have a responsibility to the Places we live and work.


For those of us who are descended from European Christian settlers, this passage of Ezekiel is a candid reminder that we and our ancestors have not always upheld our covenants. In a similar way our treaties, or relational agreements with American Indian Nations have not been upheld.


This week in particular, after many of us have shared a Thanksgiving meal with our loved ones, which in itself is a reason to give thanks, we are also reminded that this holiday is tied to the nation-building myth of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. As the story goes, the Pilgrims (who are some of our UCC Congregationalist ancestors) landed at a place they called Plymouth Rock. They almost didn’t survive the winter but thanks to the Wampanoag Indians who taught them how to grow food, they made it through. So the next harvest season they held a banquet to give thanks. As the story goes, Pilgrims and Indians shared a meal and all got along. The end.


As we unpack the eurocentric history that many of us learned growing up, we can start to see how this Thanksgiving myth erases the history of European settler and American Indian relations that were to follow. (9) The impacts of nearly four centuries of policies and practices of extermination, removal, and assimilation of American Indian Nations continues to have devastating impacts on Native peoples and their ancestral homelands today in 2023. (10)


As Dina Gilio Whitaker, who is a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, and an American Indian scholar says in her recently published, As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock, the work of environmental justice must also include the work of decolonizing the impact of settler colonialism. “Indigenizing” environmental justice, as she says, means centering Native issues and learning how to partner with Tribes and Indigenous Organizations in ways that respect their sovereignty. This must go beyond land acknowledgments and tribal consultation. (11)


For those of us gathered today as part of Community UCC, a congregation that is committed to “building a world with justice for all creation,” and alongside other congregations in the Rocky Mountain Conference who have Care for Creation ministries, I am curious how we can start to consider ways to connect our environmental justice efforts with movements to decolonize the Land and our relationships with American Indian Nations? How do we begin to see our climate resilience work as connected to decolonizing work? I hope you will begin to consider these questions.


As we return to Ezekiel, the chapter ends with God eventually calming down after being angry with the shepherds. God reminds them, just as God reminds us this morning, “you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God.” According to God’s vision, God “will make a covenant of peace with them” and with us and “the people will be secure in their land” where “trees will yield their fruit” and the land will be “renowned for its crops” putting an end to famines and hunger. God promises that “there will be showers of blessing” for the Land and peoples.


In this Covenant of Shalom, we must uphold our part of the covenant which means living in right relationships with our fellow humans and honoring treaties that were made with the Ute, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and dozens of other tribes with connections to this landscape. How can those of us who live here, along the Foothills of this beautiful Valley, in the Boulder Creek watershed, (12) (or nearby) live in ways that will allow those who follow us to flourish?


When we learn about the ways that our ancestors did not uphold their part of the Covenant with God or the treaties with American Indians, we are given an opportunity to lament, reckon with this history, and engage in collective actions of repair. While we may not live to see the impact of our actions in this generation, we have faith that our actions can contribute to the healing and wholeness of Earth Community for generations to come.


We’re now going to pause and take a few minutes to reflect in conversation with each other before concluding:

  • What does it mean to you to live generationally?

  • How can you be part of CUCC’s commitment to “build a world with justice for all creation” both now and for generations to come?

Thank you for taking some time to reflect on this morning’s message on what it means to live generationally.


As we begin the Advent season next week where we prepare for the Christ child’s birth, the one we know as Jesus, who becomes known as the Good Shepherd, we are reminded that the Earth and her Creatures are continuously experiencing new cycles of life. These beginnings bring the possibility to live into more right relationships with our Earth Community and to uphold our responsibility to our ancestors and to future generations.


For the reminders from these ancient and modern day shepherds… and the sheep, we give thanks. Amen.




Endnotes:

1- Catherine Foote, “Shepherding the Seasons: Stories from Life with Two Flocks,” Pilgrim Press, 97. https:// www.thepilgrimpress.com/products/shepherding-the-seasons-stories-from-a-life-with-two-flocks-foote.

2- Britannica, “Ezekiel,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ezekiel-Hebrew-prophet. Prior to being deported, he was a priest and part of the Jerusalem Temple leaders, so someone with stature.

3- Britannica, “Babylonia,” https://www.britannica.com/place/Babylonia. Destroyed around 586 BCE.

4- The Book of Ezekiel can be thematically divided into 3 sections: the oracles of condemnation (chapters 1-24), the oracles against foreign nations (chapters 25-32), and the oracles concerning Israel's future restoration (chapters 33-48).

5- Katheryn Pfisterer Darr (Hebrew Bible professor at Boston University School of Theology), Ezekiel-Malachi, Volume 8, Journey Through the Bible, 1996, 29.

6-According to Bible Gateway, in the NSRVUE, “ancestor” is mentioned 340 times in the Hebrew Bible and only 64 times in the New Testament. Ancestor appears 10 times in Ezekiel. These Ezekiel verses demonstrate how the current people are responsible for the actions of their ancestors:2:4-5 & 20:36-37

7- Katheryn Pfisterer Darr (Hebrew Bible professor at Boston University School of Theology), Ezekiel-Malachi, Volume 8, Journey Through the Bible Leader’s Guide, 1996, 22.

8- PBS, “About the Shakers,” https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-shakers/about-the-shakers.

9- Zimra Chickering “What Art Reveals and Conceals,” Wendy Red Star’s “The Last Thanks,” 2021, https://emorywheel.com/what-art-reveals-and-conceals-a-thanksgiving-story/

10- Claire Bugos, Smithsonian, “The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue,” November 26, 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/thanksgiving-myth-and-what-we-should-be- teaching-kids-180973655/.

11- Dina Gilio-Whitaker, As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock, (Beacon Press: Boston), 2019, 26.




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