April 29, 2012
Acts 4: 5-12
1 John 3: 16-24
John 10: 11-18
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).
The image of the Good Shepherd as a symbol for Jesus Christ is an ancient and beloved one. In the earliest still-surviving Christian artwork – the wall paintings in the underground catacombs of Rome – Jesus can be seen as a shepherd, “carrying a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus” (Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. 2008. Saving Paradise. Boston: Beacon Press). In the fifth Century mausoleum of the Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy, Jesus is depicted in a mosaic, gently touching one of His sheep with his right hand and holding His shepherd’s staff with His left (ibid., 87). What is it about the Good Shepherd that was so endearing to early Christians?
Shepherding as a job – in the time of Jesus – was a highly demanding one, if done properly. Really good shepherds were completely in tune with their sheep. They could sense when the flock was uneasy about something. They could know when a sheep was sick before the sickness became irreversible. They knew how and when to pasture sheep, give them water and even help them give birth. Good shepherds were also in tune with everything outside of the flock, having to sense when danger was near in the form of wolves or bandits, and being ready to defend their sheep.
In this week’s Gospel reading, the parable of the Good Shepherd, Jesus contrasts the hired hand – who runs away from the sheep when wolves attack and leaves them defenseless – with the Good Shepherd “who lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). While the hired hand may talk a good talk to get the job, he ultimately “does not care for the sheep” (vv.13). The Good Shepherd shows us love “in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). We see the Good Shepherd in the Hebrew Bible as well, as the prophet Ezekiel foretells in a vision from YHWH: “My servant David shall be king over [Israel]; and they shall all have one shepherd … My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (37:24, 27). If we go further back in the Hebrew Bible to Genesis, we see that “The Lord God took the [original] man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15); and later, ha adama (“the man,” also “the mud”) names all the animals that YHWH places in the garden. So the place of humans in the created world is that of caretakers who know creation intimately and watch over it – much like the Good Shepherd.
While the world’s oceans are not usually associated with the image of the Good Shepherd, they certainly comprise the majority of
Creation. And if oceans are the majority of the planet’s surface, then coral reefs are their “rainforests,” hosting up to 25% of all marine species. The coral reefs of the Florida Keys are the only surviving barrier reef in North America – but we are not being Good Shepherds of them. Every year, 700 tons of nutrients are discharged into Keys waters from agricultural run-off from the Everglades. Another 33 tons of land-based sources of pollution are discharged from the land-base in the Keys, primarily from inadequately treated sewage and stormwater. Harmful algal blooms result in eutrophication, when oxygen levels become so low that fish and other marine life (particularly coral) cannot survive (Reef Relief Founders). In the past 20 years, 25% of the world’s coral reefs have died off due to a combination of rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution, development, and other human-influenced factors, and another 1/5 are endangered. The staghorn and elkhorn coral reefs of the Florida keys have shrunk to a tiny fraction of their 1970s range.
A tiny non-profit in Key Largo, Florida called the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), partnering with the Blue Planet SCUBA, LLC, has taken up the task of being Good Shepherds of the sea. CRF has been cultivating the depleted staghorn and elkhorn coral in its one-acre undersea nursery for the past ten years. This week, Blue Planet brought a group of 15 SCUBA divers all the way down from the Washington, DC area to the Florida Keys to help replant staghorn coral on the reef. SCUBA divers have to be very attentive to their task in order to avoid breaking the delicate coral as it is being attached to clear patches of limestone on the reef with epoxy. The result: 300 staghorn coral were propagated to the reef – the largest single propagation effort in CRF’s history.
While there are certainly more than enough “sheep” on land that need tending, the ocean does not have a voice other than ours. We don’t have to lay down our lives. We can all be Good Shepherds of the seas by supporting limits on waste dumping in the oceans, not polluting and – where possible – cleaning up. The Lord gave us Paradise to be Good Shepherds over “in the beginning” – let’s make sure that we don’t witness its End.