So, how are God’s sheep feeling today? Is it just me…or are you feeling a little bit scattered? A little bit “harassed and helpless” like Matthew’s description of the crowds who gathered around Jesus? Is it just me or are you feeling a little bit weary? A little bit fearful of the predators who seek to destroy us; who delight in robbing us of our joy, our compassion, our sense of safety; who have obliterated the values we once held in common that made us feel like we were one flock, but we know in our hearts that we are one flock no more.
How are God’s sheep feeling today? I don’t have to tell you we live in crazy times. I don’t have to tell you we have bad shepherds in Washington DC and bad shepherds on Wall Street. I don’t have to tell you we have bad shepherds who are leading people of faith to believe in a Jesus who looks nothing like the Jesus we read about in the gospels.
I don’t have to tell you any of this. You know it already! No matter where we get our news, it feels like every five seconds there is something being posted that makes us feel anxious and afraid; that causes our blood pressure to rise as we watch a nation that is so deeply divided it may very well tear itself in two; a nation where civil conversation is as extinct as a dinosaur.
So when I ask you “How are God’s sheep feeling today?” I want you to answer that question honestly. Don’t give me one of those fake church smiles and tell me “Everything’s fine.” Be honest with me, and with each other. Let us name the things that cause us to feel scattered, harassed and helpless. Let us baa loudly, as we vent our fears, our fatigue, our dismay that the sheep have been scattered and a decent shepherd is nowhere to be found.
Friends in Christ, this kind of lament is appropriate for God’s people. The Psalms are full of it. So is the book of Job and most of the prophets. Even Jesus wept when he looked from the Mount of Olives toward the city of Jerusalem before he rode into it on Palm Sunday. Lament is an appropriate response when we find ourselves living in crazy, uncertain times. So give yourself permission to lament a little. It will do your soul good.
But before we get all high and mighty, judging the bad shepherds all around us, we need to turn our attention inward and consider the ways we’ve been bad shepherds to others. We need to think of the ways we’ve fueled the flames of anger and hatred that exist between us and those whose viewpoints are vastly different from ours. We need to think of the ways we’ve treated others that have been less than kind and loving. We need to think of the ways we’ve built walls and burned bridges between us and those we perceive as our enemies. We need to think of the ways we’ve ignored the cries of those who are hungry, who suffer injustice, who are the victims of violence and bullying, because we’re simply too tired, too emotionally exhausted to care.
Make no mistake about it, we’re all guilty of being bad shepherds. So let’s be careful who we’re pointing at because three other fingers [demonstrate] are pointing back at us.
But, I didn’t come here today to bring you bad news. I think you’ve heard enough of that already. So, lets switch gears and look at the good news the prophet Jeremiah proclaims. After speaking powerfully and prophetically about bad shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep, Jeremiah does some dreaming! He has a vision of a world where the bad shepherds have all been given pink lips and find themselves unemployed. He has a vision of a new world where God, the Good Shepherd, is in charge.
This saving and reconciling God declares “I myself will gather the few remaining sheep from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will place over them shepherds who care for them. Then they will no longer be afraid or dread harm, nor will any be missing, declares the Lord.” [CEB]
God, the Good Shepherd, promises the people that the days of bad shepherding will come to an end. God will raise up better shepherds who will help the lost to be found, who will gather together what has been scattered, who will be healers and restorers that will lead ALL people to those green pastures and still waters Psalm 23 talks about.
This was an important, life-saving word for the people of Israel who found themselves in exile in Babylon when these words were spoken. For historical reasons I won’t get into they were the victims of bad shepherding. They now found themselves in a strange land with strange customs, languages, and worship practices. They had seen their cities reduced to rubble. They had lost basically everything they owned. Their beloved place of worship, the temple in Jerusalem, was reduced to rubble.
It’s hard to imagine living like this, but there are people all over our globe who live like this on a daily basis in 2018. We look the other way, either because we don’t care or because it’s just too painful to see their suffering and misery. It’s another case of bad shepherding where we ignore the cries of the lost sheep, because it’s just too comfortable for us to remain in the safety of the sheep pen. God, have mercy on us!
Hopefully, you know the rest of Israel’s story. God did not leave the Israelites in this place of desperation and desolation. God delivered them by the hand of King Cyrus and his mighty Persian Army. They defeated the Babylonians, set the Israelites free from their captivity, and helped them to rebuild their communities back home.
Most of the time, we only see Jesus in this text. Jeremiah speaks of a time when God “Will raise up a righteous descendant from David’s line, and he will rule as a wise king. He will do what is just and right in the land. During his lifetime, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And his name will be The Lord Is Our Righteousness.”
While this is a valid interpretation, I would argue that Jeremiah is not telling us we should wait passively waiting for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd and fix what is broken. We should be like King Cyrus, roll up our sleeves, and begin the work of gathering the lost sheep who are scattered; of healing the wounds of our nation, of restoring that which is broken.
We are the living body of Christ! We are the good shepherds the people are waiting for! The question we need to answer is “Are we too scared and traumatized to be of any use to others, OR will we summon the courage and strength to do the healing and reconciling work our nation so desperately needs?
You don’t have to answer that question right this very instant. But take the time to think about it this week. If you discover that you still have an ounce of courage and strength left in you, let me give you the battle plan, the strategy for how we can be the good shepherds our nation so desperately needs in these crazy times.
Not surprisingly, we find the battle plan in our gospel lesson where we see the strategy Jesus used to be a good shepherd to the people. The first thing we see is that Jesus invited his disciples to go with him to a “deserted place.” In other words they needed a retreat, a place apart to recharge their spiritual and emotional batteries, to restore their bodies and spirits, in order to accomplish the good shepherding work Jesus wanted them to do.
How you create this “deserted place” for yourself is up to you. I found it this past weekend among 4,000 sweaty but enthusiastic Progressive Christians, who gathered at the Wild Goose Festival. I’ll tell you more about it in another sermon, but it was the place where I found my flock and gathered strength for the work that lies ahead of us. So if you are feeling scattered, harassed and helpless, the first thing you need to is give yourself permission to rest and recharge because you will never be a good shepherd without doing this.
The second element in Jesus’ strategy is seen in Mark’s observation that when Jesus saw a great crowd, he “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Compassion is the chief characteristic we need in oder to be good shepherds. Compassion means more than feeling sorry for someone. It’s the ability to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and, to put it bluntly, this means we need to shut up and listen.
We also need to ask questions that build bridges instead of destroying them. Questions like those that were proposed by Alexia Salvatierra at The Wild Goose Festival. She’s an ELCA Pastor and life-long justice warrior. The three questions she proposes to help foster healing and understanding in a broken and divided society, are as follows:
- What breaks your heart?
- What would it look like if the problem that breaks your heart was magnificently solved?
- Do we know a word of authority from God that tells us these dreams come true?
Answering these questions makes us listen to one another. So the next time you’re in a conversation with someone, either on Facebook or in person, don’t get all self-righteous and argumentative. Instead, ask questions like these. Find out why people feel the way they feel instead of judging them instantly. Our nation desperately needs people of compassion. It is an essential skill for those who wish to be the good shepherds our nation needs.
The third element is actually omitted from our gospel lesson for some strange reason. We get the beginning and the end of the story but never hear what’s in-between these two points. After Jesus and his disciples spend time in a deserted place, after Jesus has compassion on the crowds, he feeds them.
He sets a table for over 5,000 people. He doesn’t ask who is Jewish or foreign born. He doesn’t ask for their immigration or socio-economic status. He doesn’t inquire about their sexual orientation or gender identity. He doesn’t discriminate based on the color of their skin. People are hungry and Jesus feeds them. It’s as simple as that.
And guess what? He calls us to do the same. And so we set the Table that is before us, week after week. I make sure everyone knows they are welcome there. We set the table in Pritchard Park and feed everyone who accepts our invitation to come and dine. These tables are relatively easy to set up. But the hardest table is found in Psalm 23 where God sets a table for us “in the presence of our enemies.”
C’mon, Jesus, you can’t expect us to do that. Do I really have to dine with those whose political party is different than mine? Do I really have to dine with those I cross the street in order to avoid? Do I really have to dine with those who drive me absolutely crazy, and I have no idea on earth why they believe what they believe?
The answer, of course is “Yes!” That’s exactly what Jesus has in mind for those who are called to be good shepherds. And in an nation where we seem to take delight in calling each other names and demonizing those who disagree with us, setting the biggest table possible may be the most difficult thing we are called to do as good shepherds. And if we doubt that we are capable of doing this kind of reconciling and healing work, remember this: all it took was five loaves and two fish to feed a multitude.
My dear friends, let us leave this place with hope in our hearts. We are the good shepherds our nation needs in these crazy times. So let us strengthen our resolve to be the compassionate caregivers and “big table setters” Christ has called us to be. Amen and Amen!
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck