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The Healing Shepherd



Today’s Gospel reading is only a piece of a bigger puzzle.  Just before the part we read today, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly[1].”  What is abundant life?  What would it look like?  Would it look like the images in Psalm 23—green pastures, and still waters, the comfort and assurance of God’s protective and powerful presence, your head anointed with oil, your cup overflowing? 

 

Creation Justice Ministries made a resource especially for today, the Sunday before Earth Day, titled “Plastic Jesus: Real Faith in a Synthetic World.”  Of course plastic is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible, but since plastic is so present in our daily lives now, how can we, as people of faith, think deeply and act in response to our faith?  What does abundant life look like in the world we live in now?  This teaching resource comments on how we understand abundance:

“Unfortunately, we seem to have confused “abundance” with “excess,” and nowhere is that more obvious than in the ways we produce, use and discard plastics. The pervasiveness of single-use plastics has trained us to believe that the things around us are disposable and not to be cherished or preserved. The use of plastics to make things more portable, convenient and comfortable obscures the ways in which those same plastics have made the world less inhabitable.”[2]

 

Certainly plastic has made our lives convenient, and considering how plastic is used in medical settings to prevent infection, in some ways we are safer.  But there are negative effects of plastic that we don’t always see, though the evidence is all around. 

 

The same Mississippi River that runs right past us here in St. Louis continues on to the lower Mississippi through a 130-mile stretch known to environmental justice organizations as “cancer alley.”  This is where over 200 industrial facilities are refining oil and creating plastic and other chemicals that pollute the air and the water and threaten the health of the people who live in the area, who are disproportionately Black.[3]  A clean river should be a vision of abundance and plenty—but instead, people are getting sick. 

 

Sure, we recycle what we can, and we absolutely should, but most plastic is not recycled, maybe only 14%.[4]  Some plastic is not able to be recycled, and it takes anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose, depending on the structure of the material.  The most common plastic pollutants are cigarette butts (the filters contain tiny plastic fibers), food wrappers, plastic bottles and caps, plastic grocery bags, and plastic straws and stirrers. 

 

And when these items break down, they become microplastics, which are any plastic pieces under 5 millimeters in length.  And microplastics create new problems, clogging water sources, ending up in oceans, and in our food supply.  Here’s the grossest thing I learned:

“Some studies estimate that the total mass of microplastic particles consumed by adults corresponds to 50 plastic bags per year or one credit card per week.”[5]

And when this says “consume,” it means EAT.  We EAT the equivalent of a credit card worth of microplastics every WEEK? 

 

Where’s this abundant life that Jesus speaks about?  How can we possibly approach the abundant life that is God’s desire for all creation?  We probably can’t just avoid plastic, as if that could cure the damage that has been done.  We might just need some kind of miracle, some miraculous healing, that won’t merely fix the damage that has been done to the earth, but in a bigger sense will restore our relationship with God and all of God’s creation. 

 

This is what happens in the miraculous healing stories we encounter in Scripture: Jesus doesn’t cure a person just to fix whatever is broken with that person individually; Jesus heals their bodies and then returns people to their communities.  The one who is healed becomes an agent of healing, with ripple effects moving outward. 

 

And you may be asking, why are we suddenly talking about healing?  I thought we were talking about the earth and the Good Shepherd.  Well, I’m glad you asked, because the whole story in John’s Gospel about the Good Shepherd comes immediately after the story of the healing of a man who was born blind. 

 

When the story begins, Jesus sees the man born blind, and as for the man born blind, all he knew of Jesus was his voice.  Jesus restores the man’s sight—but this then creates a problem for that man when he’s kicked out of the synagogue for saying, “I don’t know how, but I know this man healed me—if this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 

 

This is when Jesus recovers his lost sheep, bringing another sheep into his fold.  He explains that he’s the Good Shepherd, not sending away sheep or abandoning them, but calling them “my own.”  Listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd isn’t just a comforting idea to make you feel better: it’s the way toward healing. 

 

These stories of the man born blind and the Good Shepherd get separated in the lectionary—the lectionary is like the schedule that tells us what parts of the Bible to read on which Sundays.  We don’t always hear a whole story all at once because it takes a long time to read the whole thing.  But sometimes that means we might miss the bigger picture.  The story itself must be healed so that we can see more of the picture. 

 

It would be like trying to put together a puzzle with only half the pieces.  It would be as incorrect as saying “The Sound of Music” is about a family escaping the Nazis—like, yeah that’s part of the story but it’s definitely not the whole story. 

 

Karoline Lewis, preaching professor at Luther Seminary, explains that in John’s Gospel, there is a narrative pattern where Jesus heals someone, then other people dialogue or ask questions about that healing, and then Jesus explains the meaning of that healing.[6]  She writes, “Jesus’ signs have the potential to be misunderstood as only demonstrations of his authority, power, and glory when, in fact, they point to the abundant life he offers through the relationship with him and the Father.”[7]

 

This isn’t just about holding the correct belief—known as orthodoxy—nor just about taking the correct action—‘correct action’ is orthopraxy.  Karoline Lewis, puts it this way:

“Abundant life for the man born blind is more than being healed. He is now a sheep of Jesus’ own fold, own flock. Without the man born blind, [the image of] Jesus as the Good Shepherd falls flat…[trying to be] relevant for 21st-century listeners. Without Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the healing of the man born blind is reduced to spiritual sight alone. They need each other. Otherwise, both become mere metaphors for the sake of our christological commitments.”[8]

 

Jesus is more than just a miracle-worker and more than just a spiritual guide.  We need the practicality of the action of healing, and we need the rootedness and groundedness of the commitment to faith in God’s grace to provide abundant life.  We have a God who cares about the physical world and our physical life now and who also cares about the future

 

How are we listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd so that our own sight may be restored?  Where are we missing the full vision, the complete expression of God’s goodness?  How will we experience healing of our own understanding of God, our own part in tending God’s precious creation? 

 

The miraculous healing we need isn’t just about cleaning up the Earth and fixing the messes humans have made—we also need a healing of our understanding that creation is precious, not disposable.  In the words of Creation Justice Ministries, “We need to move from consumption to connections with people, creation, and God in our own lives, and in our economy, we need to stop putting profits over people and planet.”[9] 

 

From consumption to connection.  Wouldn’t that be a miracle?  Wouldn’t that be abundant life?  The Good Shepherd is calling out to us even now. 


Amen. 

Pastor Cheryl

 


[1] John 10:10b

[2] “Plastic Jesus: Real Faith in a Synthetic World,” produced by Creation Justice Ministries, https://www.creationjustice.org/plasticjesus.html

[3] Ibid

[4] Seen in “Plastic Jesus”: Palmer, Brian. “The Blue (Plastic) Planet,” Oct. 15, 2015. nrdc. org/stories/blue-plastic-planet.

[5] Seen in “Plastic Jesus”: Pletz, Martin. “Ingested Microplastics: Do Humans Eat One Credit Card per Week?” Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters Volume 3 (Nov. 1, 2022): 100071. doi.org/10.1016/j. hazl.2022.100071.

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] “Plastic Jesus.”


 


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