Today’s sermon will be brief, considering the many other elements of our Earth Day celebration. The Scripture passage read by Leslie is also brief. In fact, the 23rd Psalm has been committed to memory by so many people precisely because it is brief as well as being beautifully poetic. The fourth Sunday after Easter is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” with Lectionary readings each year from the Gospel of John (“I am the Good Shepherd”) as well as the Hebrew scripture counterpart from Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
Two years ago this week, Leroy and I visited the ancient St. George’s monastery near Jericho in Israel. We parked our rental car at a dusty turnoff on a narrow dirt road. The expansive view was of the Judean wilderness in one direction and the distant monastery in the other as we descended a steep downward path. The monastery clung to the wall of a cliff on the far side of a canyon that is known as “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.” For many centuries, it has been the geographical reference point for that part of the 23rd Psalm. Many believe that David hid from King Saul and feared for his life in that very canyon.
We encountered some surprises along the trail. First, we were amazed by a large group of Ethiopian pilgrims dressed in colorful, flowing garments that fluttered in the breeze. Next, we were surprised to find a pool of clear, cool water where a stream ran through the canyon. An Ethiopian woman dipped her water bottle into the pool and poured the water over the parched limbs of her children. The pool signaled the presence of an oasis. Further along, trees and grass and flowers flourished on either side of the rocky trail. Before long, the sixth century monastery loomed above us, and we climbed what seemed like an endless stairway to enter the complex. From a balcony outside the chapel, we could look down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death and see the green oasis and the pool of clear water.
There are powerful word pictures in the 23rd Psalm, including the images of green pastures and still waters. Plant life and water are therefore the environment that contains the message of God’s unfailing care for all who have loved these particular words of the Psalmist. Today we hear the water flowing from a fountain and we see many images around us of God’s green and good earth created by the members of our congregation of all ages.
A few weeks ago, the youth of our church were asked to share their ideas about Earth Day and what the world and their place in it as human beings means to them. A really interesting conversation followed. They are very cognizant of the fact that growing up in Boulder is a rare experience in regard to environmental awareness. One said, “I’ve been composting since I was three years old!” The message I heard from them is that they didn’t want our Earth Day celebration this year to be preachy; to be lecture about why we need to save the earth. They will continue in many ways to learn about how to protect this beautiful planet, they will recycle and become more aware of global practices and policies, but they wanted us to focus on the earth itself and find ways to celebrate the amazing world that God has made.
Have you been in a green pasture lately? They’re all around us now. Did you lower yourself into the fresh unmown blades of grass? Did you pick dandelions and regard them as something other than a nuisance? Did you smell the earth as it pushed the blades and flowers upward?
I’ve noticed that there’s not a lot of still water in Colorado unless it’s contained in a reservoir. By why does water have to be still to be enjoyed? Sheep are skittish creatures, and still water is important to them. It’s the water itself that matters to us. Yesterday I drove through Left Hand Canyon and was amazed, as I am each time I pass through, at the wonder of water tumbling over boulders on its downward journey.
There is much contained in the Scriptures that celebrates the earth. Passages like this:
“You, O God, visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.”
Pastures, hills, meadows, valleys shouting and singing for joy! There is the sense in several places in Scripture that creation has a personality and expresses emotions. One writer says that if we, as the human expressions of creation will not give our praise to God, then the rocks themselves will cry out. To me, that speaks of the exceeding great worth and the dignity of the created world.
Our earth is one thing that unites us with others: other nations, other races, other religious traditions. The earth is what we share, and it is potentially what unites us as we work together to preserve its beauty, to preserve our own lives, and to assure that future generations can enjoy this big round complex home that we love. Uh oh, I slipped over into preaching. It’s hard not to be preachy, when you’re a preacher.
Take a moment to look at all of the images in the front of the sanctuary today: Leaves, birds, flowers, butterflies; all surrounding the globe and all lovingly fashioned by God’s human creatures from ages 3 to 85. God has created all of this, and all of it is good beyond our ability to describe.
Thanks be to God today for green pastures and still waters and every other evidence that God has placed us in an unimaginably beautiful world.
For our earth with thanksgiving
For those we know and love
For those in need of prayer throughout our world