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Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 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; and all who touched it were healed.
1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. 5 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. 6 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.”
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
The Lord is my shepherd. This Lord is my shepherd. So begins one of the most famous passages in Scripture – Psalm 23. It is a text that many churchgoers and non-church goers know quite well. The Lord is my shepherd.
I don’t know any shepherds. Never have. But there is something comforting about that phrase. Which is why it is used at almost every funeral. It seems all one has to do is utter those five words and so many of us sink into the soft, pillowy comfort of a familiar word from God that holds and heals a grieving heart or gives courage for a new day.
But as I have lived with and wrestled with these scripture lessons for this week, what struck me was how simply declaring our God as like a shepherd is not enough. You can’t simply describe God as a shepherd and assume that everyone will understand what that means. Because as we heard in the Jeremiah reading, not all shepherds are alike. Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.
It is not enough to simply say the God is like a shepherd – because the question that follows is what kind of shepherd.
Or perhaps another example of this is that you can’t simply describe God as being like a Father, because not everyone has had a positive experience with their father.
There is this teenager that I know. And her relationship with her father is quite complicated. You see, he has been in jail most of her life. And so she has never really gotten to know her father or rarely hears from him. He has never been present in her life. And you can feel the bitterness and anger, and ultimately heartache that she feels over it. And she had this love hate relationship with the church. She loved church, she loved God. She hated church, she hated God. And on those dark days when she didn’t know if God was real, she would ask all of these hard questions: If God is with me, then how come I can’t see him? Why does God let all of these awful things happen? How come God never speaks to me? And if you listened closely, she used all the same words to describe God that she would use to describe her relationship with her father. Absent. Mean. Silent. I imagine it was hard for her to speak the Lord’s prayer – Our Father… But then there was a moment when someone said, “Maybe God is not like your father” and immediately tears began to stream down her face. And a light began to shine. God is like a father, but maybe God is not like your father.
So to simply describe God as like a shepherd is not enough. The Lord is my shepherd…I imagine the psalmist pausing after writing that line and asking the question – yeah, but what kind of shepherd? Is God like the shepherds of Israel that we’ve seen – one who scatters and destroys? Is that the kind of shepherd that God is – one who scatters and one who drives them from himself? No. But the truth is some of us have been taught that God is a shepherd who scatters the people – between heaven and hell. Sounds like destroying and scattering the sheep to me. But that’s not what God our shepherd is like. In fact, that is the exact opposite of who God is and what God is like. As God says through Jeremiah – “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. God is one who gathers the people. God is one who calms our fears, rather than ignite them, God is one who will not let any go missing. God will unite us, not scatter us apart.
Or as Psalm 23 puts it – The Lord is my shepherd. I will not want for anything. I shall have all I need. I will be lead by God, not abandoned by God, even through the darkest valley. God will comfort me and protect me. And God will restore my soul.
That’s the kind of shepherd God is.
The Lord is my shepherd – one who gathers us together. But did you hear? God is a shepherd who creates shepherds. I will raise up shepherds over them the Lord says through Jeremiah.
And so we learn one more thing – God is a shepherd who is not interested in being the only shepherd. God is not interested in being the only one with power. God wants to share power, to share the leadership. God wants partners not puppets. And so God is a shepherd who creates more shepherds. Who will help God in the work of gathering together the flock. Who will make sure that not one goes missing.
Or as Paul puts it in Ephesians – God in Christ is at work making two groups into one and breaking down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. God is gathering us together and God is raising up fellow shepherds to help with that work.
And if we look close enough we can see that kind of God embodied in Jesus in our gospel story for today. Watch how Jesus –the revelation of God in a human life – is also a shepherd who creates more shepherds. I didn’t see it at first, but then someone pointed out what I had overlooked.
Jesus has just sent his disciples out on their internship year – their time of training and learning on their own and now they are back and in need of some rest and time for reflection. But before that happens, another large crowd shows up – a whole flock of people in need.
They were like sheep without a shepherd it says. And here stands Jesus – the shepherd and his disciples, shepherds in training. But anytime we come across someone in need, there is always an imbalance of power. The one in need, who feels powerless, and the one who can help who feels powerful. And that is the perfect equation for pity. And when we pity someone we put ourselves above them as the more powerful. But Jesus doesn’t pity them. It says he has compassion for them. And the very word compassion means “to suffer with someone.” Jesus has compassion for them – he feels with them. He is a co-sufferer with them.
And then, notice what he does next– he teaches them. Which isn’t exactly what I expected from Jesus. When someone comes to you in need, teaching them doesn’t exactly feel like the proper response. But think about, Jesus is with his disciples, whom he has been teaching all along. And now he turns to this crowd in need and he teaches them.
Might it be, that Jesus teaches them so as to gather them into the fold of fellow disciples? Jesus teaches them so that there would not be this divisive dynamic of the helpers and the needy – the haves and the have nots – the powerful and the powerless. But rather Jesus tears down that wall between them and teaches them so as to raise them up to disciple status. He makes them into co-shepherds with him.
I will raise up shepherds, the Lord says.
He saw that they were like sheep without a shepherd and so he teaches them, and as a result is creating more shepherds. More shepherds who will gather and not scatter. More shepherds who will feed people, not feed on the people. I imagine that was a very empowering moment for those people. To be seen as worthy of teaching. I imagine that that was a humbling moment for the disciples. To see that they aren’t the only ones with access to Jesus’ knowledge. And as a result the crowd learns that they are not inferior and the disciples learn that they are not superior. Just because we are disciples of Jesus doesn’t make us special or any more loved by God. It doesn’t mean we have more access to Jesus’.
What we can learn is that some of us need to be humbled and some of us need to be lifted up. Because sometimes people who are seen as sheep are really shepherds in waiting. Are those of you who have always seen yourselves as sheep willing to become shepherds – because we need your voice. And are those of you who have always seen yourselves as shepherds willing to become sheep and learn from the voice of others. Maybe that’s one way God can tear down the dividing wall between us. By humbling some of us and lifting others of us up. By making the mountains low and filling up the valleys.
The Lord is our shepherd. What kind of shepherd? One who gathers together and feeds the sheep. Not one who scatters and destroys. We are the sheep in God’s flock. But remember God is also raising us into shepherds. To be ones who partner with God in the work of uniting the people of the world. And we need that more than ever don’t we? As we turn on the TV or log onto to facebook or wherever it is you get your news, it is not hard to see that we are pretty good at turning on each other and scattering to our corners of comfort. As we fight over issues of race, and sexuality, and guns and flags. And as we constantly point fingers at who is to blame for the violence we inflict on each other. More than ever do we need the Lord who is our shepherd to make us into shepherds.
Last week, Pastor Pam reminded us that every promise needs something physical to go with it. The promise of baptism has water. The promise of communion has bread and wine. Well, the Lord is our shepherd is also a promise. A promise that God is at work gathering us together and breaking down the dividing walls between us and that God is inviting us to partner with God in that work. That is a promise and every promise needs something physical to go with it. So I want to invite you to do something. So often we can live as if we are scattered. Even in worship, we can appear scattered. I spoke with a man this week who regretted the fact that when he is here, he just fills out the welcome folder and tosses it down the row without ever introducing himself or speaking to the others in the pew. So I invite you to look at the people in your row and slide together, so that you are seated next to each other. So that you are gathered together with your shoulders touching. Can you feel the shoulders of the people next to you? Because that is your physical reminder of the promise that the Lord is your shepherd. One who has gathered us into the fold. And who is teaching us how to do just the same.
I know this feels a bit uncomfortable for some of you and you won’t like it. And that’s okay. But know that this is the hard work that we are being called into – to be shoulder-to-shoulder with one another in this life. Gathered together as one by the Lord who is our shepherd and who is making us into shepherds. May it be so. Amen.