Today’s shepherding metaphors bring to mind summers I worked as a wilderness canoe guide. It was exhausting and rewarding to be responsible for a group of teenagers twenty-four hours a day, amid waves, weather, and their continual inclination to make unsafe decisions. It was good work and hard work to teach them and motivate them as we paddled and portaged, set up and took down camp, built and cooked over fires. It took a ton of energy to cheerfully ignore their complaining and refuse to do everything for them.
Out in the woods, we’re constantly traveling. There might be a layover day, but we have no permanent resting place. Similarly, shepherding in Israel/Palestine was and is a nomadic activity. In a dry climate, in which the “rainy season” means not much more than 4–6 inches of rain annually, finding enough grass and water for the sheep requires continual moving and searching. The locations of green pastures and still waters are constantly shifting. So our passage from Psalm 23 and its echoes in John’s Gospel are like travelogues. They guide a community that is on a journey, not at rest, a church that is seeking, rather than settled. On this day when we honor parents of the mothering type, I’m trying to think globally and holistically. I’m pondering the work we all do to guide and support and shepherd the next generations. And I’m feeling an urgent need to be on the move, to get up and follow the divine shepherd.
“Can we go green?” my daughter Eliza asked me this week. We talked about the things our family already does to be green and what else we can do. We reflected on the systemic barriers to going more green—the wrappers and packaging that come with everything we buy, the inefficient designs of our homes and businesses and cities.
“Can we go green?”
This isn’t just a question about what our family will do or not do. What our children really need to know is if it’s possible for humanity as a whole to green the way we live on this planet. Will we be able to change everything about everything in time? Will we lose or save the one million species threatened by human activity? Will we welcome a spiritual transformation that changes what we value and how we see ourselves?
We have eleven years.
I’m just going to keep saying it.
We have eleven years and thirty-seven US senators deny climate change exists or it’s a problem.
We have eleven years and the Secretary of State is insisting that the melting of polar ice is an advantage in global trade.
We have eleven years and the controversy over Bde Maka Ska is a sign that we are not yet ready to learn from indigenous communities.
We have eleven years and the trial of Mohammed Noor, which could have had no “good” or “right” outcome, shows us that we are nowhere near free from forces of white supremacy and colonialism that led us to this place of spiritual, political and ecological crisis.
We have eleven years and the wolves are at our heels.
We have eleven years and we’re thirsty and hungry and scared and tired.
We have eleven years and there’s no map for this journey.
Being a canoe guide made me very aware of my deficits and weaknesses. I had almost no experience canoe camping before I started showing others the way. And, to top it off, I have a terrible sense of direction. It took me a long time to learn how to navigate successfully. I still get confused easily. As a guide, I compensated for this problem by leaning on the group. On the pretense of testing them, I would make them look at the map and decide where to go next.
The community out of which John’s Gospel was written also lived with a lot of stress and uncertainty. Predators lurked all around in the form of a bloodthirsty empire and the religious leaders who collaborated with that empire. Beginning in the 300s, however, the church nestled comfortably into power and privilege, when Rome adopted Christianity as its official religion. Christianity settled and colonized its way through two millennia, reaching the apex of establishment in the 1950s. In the mouth of a sedentary church, Psalm 23 has sounded like a tranquil lullaby rather than a summons to get up and get behind our trailblazing God. This disconnect is apparent in the way the last line of the psalm has traditionally been translated. You might have noticed that I altered the language of that line. It usually reads: “I will live in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” A more accurate translation is: “I will continually return to God’s presence, my whole life long.”
Day after day, the shepherd guides the sheep to pasture and water. The shepherd calls and the sheep respond. They hear and know the voice of their guide. Again and again, they must consent to follow the one they love and trust. Similarly, we are called into dialogue with God. God is here. God is available. God is alive within us and within all creation. All we need to do is to turn toward that renewing presence. All that we can do is cultivate a deep awareness that from birth to death we travel on holy ground.
Jean Vanier, who died this past week at the age of ninety, was a philosopher and theologian. He was also the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities in which people with and without developmental disabilities share a common life. Vanier said this:
We feel small and weak, but we are gathered together to signify the power of God who transforms death into life. That is our hope, that God is doing the impossible: changing death to life inside of each of us, and that perhaps, through our community, each one of us can be agents in the world of this transformation of brokenness into wholeness, and of death into life.
In this terrain of disorientation and grief, frustration and fear, in this shadowed valley, let us hear the voice of Jesus, who changes death into life inside each one of us.
We have eleven years and members of congress have drafted a green new deal.
We have eleven years and our children and their children’s children are speaking to us, urging us forward.
We have eleven years and the church is reclaiming its nomadic heart.
We are leaving the ways of empire behind.
We are following the divine shepherd toward abundant life for all creation.
We have eleven years and the Minnesota House has passed a bill calling for 100% renewable energy by 2050, a bill the governor will sign.
Eliza and I will be at the capitol tomorrow evening for a rally to call on state senators to get up and move with us and with the spirit. Please join us there if you can.
Can we go green?
 (Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372
 Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community (Mahwaw, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992).