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Earth Shepherds

Date:4/25/21

Passage: Ezekiel 34:2-5

Speaker: Rev. Sarah Macias

Grace to you and peace on this 4th Sunday of Easter. Welcome to our home; more specifically welcome to our pasture. We live along the east prong of Sister Grove Creek so that is the name of this place we now call Sister Grove Farm.  We live on land where others have lived – as people always do. Tenant farmers who came behind early settlers who were searching for fertile land. They of course displaced families of the Wichita and Caddo tribes who had called this home for centuries. The soil has been dampened by the blood, sweat, and tears of others from earlier times. The truth is, each one of us leaves our own fingerprints and footprints on the places where we now live. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are planting our own unique stakes in the ground that will say, “we were here.”

Since Rodney and I began calling this home, every few months or so, we get surprise visitors. A pickup will pull into the gate. Usually, it is an older person in the passenger seat, being driven around by their daughter or grandson. We greet them. They always apologize for being nosy. A woman named Betty came just last week (with her daughter). You see, Betty and her late husband Jesse used to live down the road on the Milam place. She happened to be in the area and wondered who was living here now. We got to know each other, exchanged stories, and found we had much more in common than we could have ever realized. It turns out they had also lived on the other side of my hometown when I was a kid. We remembered a lot of the same people. Had fond memories of the same places. We had been members of the same community but did not even know it.

Other times, people pull in because, well…we are a curiosity. Our farming practices are considered by some to be a little different than the norm. We have chickens and we have cows, but we move them pretty much every day. Cows graze the grass. Chickens scratch the ground and eat the bugs behind the cows. Farmer and friends eat the eggs. We see it as a win – win – win relationship. And the pasture wins as organic matter is laid down, sequestering carbon, improving the climate, soil health, water, and mineral cycles. This curious approach is called regenerative agriculture. Now, sustainable agriculture always sounded pretty good to me. But to sustain something simply means to maintain the current conditions. But, what if the soil and climate conditions are depleted through industrial agriculture’s practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land; otherwise known as monocropping? What if the normal industrial agriculture approach only works by extracting the life out of the soil along with the people, plants, and animals who are a part of it? What I have learned from my friend Rev. Betsy Sowers, who serves with me in the Alliance of Baptist Creation Justice Community, is that “practicing sustainability” is a term created and supported - by industry. It could be that this appealing term is a mere distraction from the fact, through corporate consolidations and mergers, there are now less than ten companies that control every aspect of our food system.

It doesn’t take long to hear echoes of Ezekiel’s warning of false shepherds in this industrial food system. But we cannot expect corporations to be who they are not. By definition, a corporation’s target is not so much concerned with the health or hunger needs of a community than it is with their bottom line. Consequently, these corporations are growing fat while sheep in the pasture are starving. They are allowed (with tax subsidies) to decide what food to grow resulting in less variety which leads to higher food allergies and disease. They decide how to grow it (through concentrated animal feeding operations and genetically modified crops). They decide where it is grown and by whom (goodbye, family farm); and ultimately, they decide who gets to eat it. In 2019, before the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that over 35 million people were “food insecure,” meaning they did not have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. Now food banks are struggling to feed people who have lost jobs and income thanks to COVID-19.

If sustainability is maintaining the existing state of things, that may be fine for some of us but not for most of us.

 Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, is inspired by a man who was born a slave. His name was George Washington Carver. Carver overcame obstacles that I cannot even imagine. He got an education, became a botanist, and felt a sense of call from God to help poor black (and white) southern farmers in the wake of the Civil War. Where the soil had become severely depleted from years of planting the same monoculture of cotton, he recognized the benefits to the health of the soil in planting a polyculture – a variety of species. Dr. Carver would say, “A poor soil produces only a poor people.”    Likewise, another scientist named E.O. Wilson, in his classic text The Diversity of Life, states that, “…the more species living in an ecosystem, the higher its productivity and the greater its ability to withstand drought and other kinds of environmental stress.”[1] This is true in all types of communities on Earth.

 Here at Sister Grove Farm, we have been trying to take baby steps towards a more regenerative approach. We started with a diverse flock of chickens (they lay different colored eggs) and a few cows. But we also were aware that to really regenerate this soil that had been depleted through monocropping, there would need to be more biodiversity. So, we added five sheep and two livestock guardian dogs to help. Immediately, the level of attention and care required by us increased dramatically.  Before, we had time for frequent social media posts and blogging. That fell to the wayside. Feeding schedules became the structure of our day. In fact, our running joke became – “Jesus says, ‘Feed my sheep – at 10am and 4pm.’” Then we learned that feed mixtures change depending on a sheep’s stage in life. For expectant mothers, they get a mixture of pellets, cracked corn, and molasses. Then when she has a lamb, her feed mixture is adjusted to only feed, no corn or molasses. But at feeding times you better keep her separate from the others or they will get in each other’s food. In fact, sheep will get into whatever they are able to get into. Then there are the dogs, and the chickens and the cows. Oh my! There are lots of moving parts. Suddenly it dawned on us. We are no longer just farmers, but we are beginning to feel like - shepherds.

We still sleep in the house and Rodney has not taken up the harp yet, so we are not taking the biblical metaphor too literally. But even at a small scale we are learning quickly that the vocation of shepherding is not a part-time, occasional activity. It is a day in, day out commitment – certainly to an individual animal. If a mama ewe is having a difficult birth, we will serve as a midwife. But there is also the navigation of this integrative dance of multi-species grazing – this interaction of biodiversity which is critical for regeneration. There is a level of care and attention that any menagerie requires. A good shepherd listens and responds – and the flock or herd – actually, it is called a flerd when the sheep and cattle are together - they listen and respond as well. There is an interdependent, mutually beneficial relationship - between shepherd, animals – and the pasture called Earth on which they all live. When it comes to the pasture and its ability to be called home by all who live here, the shepherd is willing to lay down and sacrifice everything in order to realize that possibility. 

The word shepherd is one of those words that can be both a noun and a verb. A shepherd is a shepherd because she shepherds. Just like God is Love because God loves. A pastor is a pastor because she pastors. I am a parent because I parent. We are farmers because we farm. What we do is who we are. The Lord is our good shepherd. We are trying to be good shepherds on this farm. But does Earth shepherd us as well? Think about it. Our very lives and sustenance are possible only because of Earth. As Leonardo Boff says in his book, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, Earth is “the Great Mother who nourishes us and bears us.”[2]  Like the Celtic Christian prayer says of Christ, Earth is always with us, before us, behind us, in us, beneath us, above us, on our right, and on our left.

When we think of our shared home in this way, as a relationship which connects us to other relationships, it may no longer feel quite right to say “the earth” as if she were merely an object or a thing.  “Earth” is her name – a feminine name in both Hebrew and Greek translations. But given her diversity of expressions, perhaps the pronouns of they/them/theirs would be a more accurate reference to our home. Anyhow, in considering this lifelong relationship with Earth as our shepherd, it is hard to say whether Earth listens (maybe?) but there is no doubt that Earth responds. Earth speaks. There is much we can learn from listening to Earth’s voice. We hear their wisdom in the parables of Jesus as our Lord teaches us how to live together in beloved community - not in a way that maintains the existing state of things but in a way that restores and regenerates what and who have been depleted. Earth not only responds – and speaks in ways that cannot be ignored. Earth knows us. Earth remembers all who have lived where we live now.  Even as we come and go, even after our fingerprints and footprints are covered up and the blood, sweat, and tears have dried, Earth will remember the stakes that we are planting now in the ground. The stakes which will say, “We were here.”  

Day in and day out, the voice of our good shepherd cries out to us. But we may need to put our ears closer to the ground to really hear. Listen closely. There are the muffled voices of both our human and more-than-human kin – those not given the chance for their full expression - voices of abandoned, forsaken sheep, given up on being found. They are voices of our fellow members of this shared Earth community, yet we do not know they are here.  These are the voices of 35 million food insecure people in this country who suffer as others are applauded for maintaining the existing state of things. Listen for these voices and surely, we will be hearing the voice of God.  

But if we do not even try to listen, like the hired hand who runs away when the sheep in his care are threatened, then an even louder cry will be heard as Earth utters their own lema sabachthani – my God, my God, why have you forsaken us?For both Earth and Christ are forsaken when oppression, exploitation, extinction, and genocide of others rules the day. Both Earth and Christ are forsaken when we contribute either mindlessly or with lack of any concern to systems of racial, social, economic, and environmental injustice. Both Earth and Christ are forsaken when normal everyday practices privilege some while excluding others. Both Earth and Christ are forsaken when one’s category of species, gender, sexual, racial, or ethnic identity is the determination for whether or not one matters.
Royal Lane Baptist Church, we have been listening to our shepherd’s call together for almost 70 years. In the last five years, with Mike Gregg as our pastor, that listening has led us to create a Social Justice Team so that we might work toward meaningful and significant change in the areas of racial justice, immigration reform, and healthcare access.

As “a diverse people, united in Christ,” listening to that call will continue. We will be led to become shepherds – to each other and all who share this pasture we call home. On this Earth Day, may we commit to continue listening, hearing, and responding to those who have gone unnoticed and unheard by us – both our human and more-than-human kin. We do this in full awareness that this will lead to our being a curiosity but also in the assurance that the stake we are called to drive into this ground is one that says “while we were here, we worked towards the regeneration of God’s beloved community and holy communion.

Amen.

[1] Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life, new ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), xxiii.

[2] Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997), 12.