A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California
July 18, 2021
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The Lectionary cycle this year has given us lots of bible stories about sheep and shepherds. I was going to say “more stories than we wanted” about sheep and shepherds, but then it occurred to me that maybe we can never get enough reminders about what it is to be the sheep of God’s flock.
Sheep may be seen as cute and cuddly, but they aren’t really known for being ‘self directed learners’ or brilliant geniuses. They are prey for predators. They need shepherding. They need guidance.
Our story from Mark’s gospel picks up right after last week’s account of the death of John the Baptist. Jesus’ disciples have returned and are recounting all the stories of their successes, which may not be the point of discipleship—ahem—but we recognize the tendency we all have to celebrate a good win.
“We are great shepherds, Jesus! Healing people is SO COOL! What a rush! I love being a shepherd!”
And Jesus says “come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.
We may get the opportunity to be shepherds, at times, helping other sheep of the flock, but Jesus’ instructions to the disciples reminds us that we are always still sheep in need of a shepherd.
Jesus calls his flock to lie down in green pastures and rest beside still waters.
Do you hear Jesus’ call to rest by still waters or are you as busy as you used to be and wearing it as a badge of honor? As we emerge from this pandemic—what are we returning to? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about being together with people again, but I can also remember weeks pre-pandemic where I had meetings most nights and missed dinners with my family.
American culture rewards bad boundaries and overwork. Our economy demands it of some people—if you can’t earn a living wage in one job, you have to work two.
Pay attention to stories in scripture like this one because it is an important corrective to our addiction to, and pride in, overworking. Even Jesus, the savior of the world, took a day off and called his disciples to do so as well. They walked away from the crowds to rest. “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat”.
“You prepare a table before me….”
This story reminds us of the disconnect between our proclamation that God prepares a table for us and the reality that “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”
Jesus calls the sheep of his flock away from the crowds, but the crowds follow them. They don’t just follow them in downtown Jerusalem. They follow them out to the deserted place where they’ve gone to escape the crowds.
It’s a frantic scene. 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, in need of help.
I noticed this week as I was working on this sermon the part about all the sick people. They brought the sick on mats to wherever they heard Jesus was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak.
On one level, it is great that Jesus could heal all those people. On another level, if you have this many sick people desperate to be healed, it means your healthcare system is completely broken.
Suddenly this ancient story seems relevant to our modern world, doesn’t it?
This past week, the distraction in the news was about Billionaires In Space. And a few memes were posted that said, “wouldn’t it be great if instead of spending all that money to go to space, the billionaires would have fed all the hungry people”. And sure, why not. That would be great. They could probably do both things, in truth.
But the solution to such an extreme wealth gap is not to expect the insanely rich to fix our problems. The solution is to change the system so we don’t need to rely on the largess of billionaires.
Here’s a fun fact. If you earned $200,000 every day from the day Jesus was born until right now, you’d still need to work 700 more years to earn as much as Jeff Bezos, who is worth $214 billion. Granted, that doesn’t include the power of compound interest, but the point remains. We can applaud his success and still wonder why any human being needs that much money.
Some of the sheep of our human flock are holding onto staggering amounts of resources, while others of us are being laid in the marketplaces in hopes that maybe Jesus will walk by and heal us. We are sheep in need of better shepherding.
I heard a definition of faith the other day that may be helpful for us as we consider why we are called to shepherd other sheep. Simon Sinek said “Faith is knowing you’re on a team, even if you don’t know who the other players are”.
Are we willing to live lives of concern for people we don’t know, trusting that we are all on the same team, trusting that their well being is as important as ours?
Which leads us to Jeremiah’s passage, which reminds us 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, are as easy to see today as they were in Jeremiah’s day. I’m not really a “woe to you” sort of gal, in truth. I’d rather be invitational than judgmental. But “woe to you” is appropriate for people who tell people, “follow me! I’ll keep you safe and be a great shepherd (president, congress woman, pastor, etc)” but then intentionally lead them astray and into danger. I have opinions, for example, about people spreading lies and misinformation about the danger of covid, discouraging people from taking it seriously and from getting vaccinated. “Woe to you who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture…..”
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. And it is easy to be upset about the way other people are bad shepherds. I’ve given a few illustrations, but Insert your favorite bad guy here.
It is harder to focus on the way we may not always be the best shepherds we could be for our fellow sheep.
I look at the pain in the world and see us running around as proverbial sheep without shepherds, and we seem silent in the face of injustice and passive in the face of great need. 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”, how different are we than 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 power. It is being present with people and standing with them in the midst of the worries and troubles of their lives.
When God dreamed of a leader for God’s people, he sent someone who could heal them. People came from all over the countryside and set their sick friends and family members in the market place hoping Jesus would come close enough to them that they might be healed.
Jesus is the place we can safely bring our brokenness. Jesus is the person to whom we can bring the parts of our lives that need healing.
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 our fellow sheep?
think about the times in my life where I was needed healing and I realize the people who were shepherds to me in my distress were active in their caring.
They were shepherds who stood next to me with their rod and their staff to comfort me and keep me safe.
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 big or public, they were powerful. 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.
Congressman John Lewis died a year ago this weekend, and not long before his death, a reporter asked him “what he would say to people who feel as though they have already been giving it their all but nothing seems to change.” Lewis answered: “You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more. We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it, and now that need is greater than ever before.”
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair,” Lewis tweeted almost exactly a year before his death. “Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.”
John Lewis was a good sheep who took seriously his call to be a good shepherd too.
Friends, it is a gift to be back together, where we can come to Jesus with the brokenness of our lives and of our world and work for healing and wholeness for ourselves and for the rest of God’s flock.
Where do you recognize yourself in these stories today?
You may be a sheep safe and happy to gambole about on the hillside, without a worry or care. You may feel lost, or at risk from the big bad wolves of the world. You may feel more like a shepherd, able to stand witness and protect. You may have been carried here today on the prayers of other people, hoping Jesus will come close enough to heal you.
However you see yourself in God’s flock, I pray you will know in the depths of your soul, that there is room for you in this pasture. The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. We are not sheep without a shepherd. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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