A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
July 19, 2015
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
How often do you consider that you are sheep?
I’m guessing not that often. But in the lectionary passages today, shepherd and sheep imagery are the theme. From the Psalm we used to call us to worship, we heard the familiar refrain of “The Lord is our Shepherd” and we are reminded of how God’s shepherding of us is restorative. It is corrective. It involves justice and reconciliation. It is ever present and never departing.
(Here’s the video with which we started worship today.)
Jeremiah’s passage reminds us, however, that when we shepherd each other, we do a less than perfect job of it. While God does and will continue to raise up good shepherds for the flock, there will always be the shepherds who are being addressed here.
“Woe to you who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture….”
Bad shepherds who are entrusted with the care of God’s children and end up hurting them, dividing them, and leaving them victim to the predators who lurk on the hillsides of our lives, will sadly always be around.
But Jeremiah is not just a grouchy person who likes to pass judgment on God’s behalf, although he is that … he is also the bearer of good news. And he promises that God will raise up shepherds who will deal justly with the people so they will not have to fear, and will not be dismayed, and will not get lost.
We’re thousands of years removed from Jeremiah’s prophecy, and I am saddened by the number of bad shepherds still around. It is not hard to find them on the news—there was a pastor, a shepherd, this week with an assault rifle, telling his followers that in response to the Supreme Court decision, it was time for violence on behalf of the gospel. Ugh. That’s an obviously bad shepherd.
And I’m leery of giving too much attention to the obviously bad shepherds, because I think the bad shepherds are more subtle that assault rifles most of the time.
I read Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set A Watchman, yesterday. I know some of you don’t want to read it because of the racism, or questions about Ms Lee’s agency in its publishing, etc. And that’s fine. But it is a good read and I enjoyed the book.
And I noticed the absence of “good shepherds” in this book, and truly—their absence from To Kill a Mockingbird as well.
As Will Wilimon wrote:
“While biblical allusions are scattered throughout “Go Set a Watchman,” one is impressed by the irrelevance of the church. When push comes to shove in Maycomb (and the whole town is being pushed by the nascent civil rights movement), no one seems to recall anything of help or challenge from their Christian faith”.
I know that in the actual civil rights movement, religious leaders and people of faith were an important part of the success of the movement. The image of religiously garbed people crossing the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma, for example, was important. Nuns, pastors, rabbis, orthodox and catholic priests were all there letting the world know God was watching. As I read this new novel, where “good Christian people” are silent (or worse) in the face of systemic racism, I realize how silence in the face of injustice can almost be worse than overt hatred. With overt hatred, you know who to avoid, at least. When I saw people waving the Confederate flag as the President of the United States’ motorcade drove through Oklahoma City this week, I thought, sadly, ‘well at least we know where they stand’. Silence, though. That’s a trickier thing to navigate.
Sometimes silence is our response because we don’t know what to do.
Sometimes it is our response because we don’t think it is our issue to address.
Sometimes it is our response because we are busy, and tired, and distracted by other things.
But then I think about sheep, and how the biblical stories continue to compare us to them. And I look at the pain in the world and see us running around as proverbial sheep without shepherds, and I suspect our silence contributes to the problem. When we see sheep in need of help, and we sit there on the hillside, thinking “well, those sheep are in another flock. Not my problem”, are we being like Jeremiah’s bad shepherds?
We see the ultimate shepherd, of course, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We hear the end of Jeremiah’s verses and think of Jesus:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
In Jesus, we see how God was dreaming for a leader for God’s people. And it does not look like we expected it to look. It is not military strength or political posturing. It is being present with people and standing with them in the midst of the worries and troubles of their lives.
This text is a case in point. As Jesus and the disciples head to a deserted place, the crowds follow them. They don’t just follow them in downtown Jerusalem. They follow them to a deserted place. Even the description of the crowd in Mark’s story reminds me of sheep. People recognizing Jesus and the disciples, scurrying all over the countryside on foot to meet their boat on the deserted side of the shore. Baaah, Baaah, Baaah… Jesus recognizes them as the sheep they are and has compassion on them and teaches them many things.
Our passage this morning skips over a minor little story of when Jesus feeds 5,000 men, plus women and children. And as soon as that feeding of the flock is done, Jesus and the disciples get back in the boat and cross back to the other side, where they are mobbed again by the sheep from the other corner of the pasture. Every place they go, they find more sheep in need of feeding, in need of healing, in need of teaching and help. In Jesus, we recognize the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy and in his life we see how not to be bad shepherds, but faithful ones.
How can we be helpful shepherds, filled with compassion for God’s flock? And I mean that quite literally. How are we going to care for the sheep?
And it can’t just be silent prayer from the sidelines, although that is important too. I think about the times in my life where I was facing struggle and I never knew what people meant when they said, “I’m praying for you”. That can mean a lot of things. And when prayer happens in silence, you never know where you stand.
When prayer happens in conjunction with action, though, you feel the love and support of the prayer.
The people who were shepherds to me in my distress were not silent people.
They were shepherds who stood next to me with their rod and their staff to comfort me.
They were shepherds who prepared a feast for me, or at least took me out to lunch.
They were shepherds who made me lie down in green pastures when I was overwhelmed and exhausted.
They were shepherds who advocated on my behalf and called me back to right paths for his name’s sake.
While their actions were not always loud, they were never silent. I knew they were with me, and for me, and that I was not alone.
As Jesus came ashore that day, he had compassion on the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd. We can never be Jesus level shepherds. I want to be clear that our role in this story, when we aren’t being the scattered sheep, is to be the part of the flock who get called up to help the shepherd. He is “capital S” Shepherd. We are merely understudies, “lower case s” shepherds.
But even when we feel weary, when the job seems to never end, when the needs of the community seem like a bottomless well that we can never fill, we are still called to have compassion on the crowd, because they are like sheep without a shepherd. And they need to know we are with them and for them and that they are not alone.
And I’d like us to take a moment this morning and actually discuss which deserted places, or crowded places, in our community, where you think we should be responding.
(At this point in the service, I invite people to turn to their neighbors and answer the following question: Where in the community, in the world, should Southminster be offering compassion on the sheep in need of shepherding? )
Here are some of the answers people shared when we gathered back together:
families dealing with Alzheimers
elementary school next door to church
families of service members who are deployed
people who do not live near extended family
people with chronic food shortage
homebound church members
Next week, our Mental Health House Church will be sharing in Sabbath worship about their experience this year, learning about caring for God’s flock who deal with mental health concerns. I hope this list you have generated, and worship this coming week will help us discern where God is calling us to go be present with God’s sheep in our community.
Magdalena Garcia wrote this prayer in response to this passage in Mark’s gospel:
others can do it,
let’s get away;
we can do it,
let’s get involved
there is a shortage,
let us save;
there is enough,
let us share
there are dangers,
let us be cautious;
there are risks,
let us be vulnerable
live and let die,
alone they can survive;
live and let live,
together we can thrive
I invite you to be a good sheep, and be led by the still waters to have your soul restored. And then we’ll come back together to be good shepherds and have compassion on the crowd. Because friends, the good news is that no matter how crazy this world is, we are not sheep without a shepherd. We have a shepherd in Jesus who will never forsake his flock and who is with us through it all.
Thanks be to God. Amen