A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 18, 2021
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you, bring the nations into your fold, pour out your Spirit upon all flesh, and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Our readings are full of imagery about Shepherds today. If we heard these words, only in a superficial way, our minds might be full of lovely images of sheep grazing in green fields with the occasional wildflower for desert—with fluffy clouds floating far above their heads. It might almost be a scene from “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” And for anyone who has seen it, what an amazingly beautiful film that was!
Sheep, though, and those who would shepherd them, are far more complicated. Left to their own devices, sheep have a tendency to get into trouble—and rarely the good kind! It is not that they are stupid, or malicious, or even difficult. It is rather that they are designed for community—for life together. But, they appear to lack the ability to work together, unaided. They are in need of a Shepherd. Without the love, guidance, and compassionate care of a shepherd, they will fail to achieve the potential-and they will quickly devolve into chaos.
For instance, I remember one of the very first passages of Scripture which I memorized as a Southern Missionary Baptist Child, some fifty years ago at Vacation Bible School, “All we like sheep have gone astray, turning each to his own way.” Talk about herding cats—sheep could give them a run for their money any day of the week.
There are also those heart-rending images in the Gospels of the lost sheep who just wonders off one day, and quickly finds that they are in serious trouble. An old hymn, “The Ninety and Nine,” speaks powerfully of the difficulty which the shepherd finds in rescuing the piteously bleating lost sheep:
But the Shepherd made answer: “This Of Mine
Has wandered away from Me.
And although the road be rough and Steep,
I go to the desert to find My sheep.”
But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed;
Nor how dark was the night the Lord Passed through
Ere He found His sheep that was lost.
Out in the desert He heard its cry;
‘Twas sick and helpless and ready to Die.
Sadly, not all the sheep even have a shepherd. That line from the Gospel according to Saint Mark pierces our heart with sadness, “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd,” Jesus, we are told, had compassion on these poor hungry sheep. Compassion—a word which literally means “to suffer with.” Jesus did not have sympathy, nor did he experience concern. He suffered with those lost sheep. He entered into their suffering in unity. He understood their pain, their hurt, their hunger, But more than that, he joined with them. He united their suffering with his own. And that made all the difference.
Reflecting on the metaphor of Sheep, and of Shepherds, we begin to understand it in a new way. No wonder our Sacred Scriptures, Hebrew and Christian, chose to use this imagery. It is not only that they raised sheep—and thus new from personal experience the difficulties which that vocation entails. It is rather that they had the wisdom to see in the reality of the sheepfold echoes of their own experience with each other and with God.
It is no accident that the greatest King of Israel, Daivd, was a shepherd. He had already proven his ability with sling and stone by chasing away or slaying bears and wolves long before he challenged Goliath. And yet, he was a flawed shepherd, who, as the prophet Nathan told him point blank, had slaughtered the sheep entrusted to his care—Uriah the Hittite—and then taken his partner in adultery, Bathsheba, to be his wife.
The Prophet Jeremiah too speaks of the evil of bad shepherds who fail in their responsibility to love, care for, and to protect the sheep entrusted to their care: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 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.”
I do find it interesting that we have not seemed to take the metaphor of the Good Shepherd to a logical place which it seems to lead us. The proclamation of our belief in the Incarnation could be expressed in a powerful and engaging way. What if we spoke of Jesus, not exclusively as a Shepherd, but first and primarily as a sheep. What might John have meant when he referred to Jesus as the Lamb of God. Lay aside, for a moment the focus on “taking away the sin of the world.” If we are sheep, and Scripture seems to suggest that, at least metaphorically, we are, what does in mean for God to become a sheep with us? What does it mean to have a shepherd who has lived as a sheep? A shepherd who understands the complexity, the beauty, and the pain of that life. Not just someone who has a theoretical knowledge of sheep, but one who, from his own experience “gets it.”
This Shepherd, though, is filled with compassion. This Shepherd will not allow the sheep of his flock to wonder off on their own, uncared for, unprotected, unloved. As the Prophet Jereimah goes on to instruct us, this Good Shepherd will follow the very example of the loving God who created the sheep in the first place: “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. 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. The days are surely coming, says wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.”
In the Gospel of Mark that is exactly what we find. What does Shepherd Jesus do? “When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he 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; and all who touched it were healed.”
It would be easy to end there, with our hearts filled with loving images of Jesus as Good Shepherd. That would certainly let us off the hook. But Mark reminds us that Jesus also chose others to go out and to assist him in shepherding the sheepfold. Among them he chose Apostles—and today we hear of their returning from their first mission to tell Jesus what had happened. In speaking of them collectively, we sometimes use the Greek word for “overseer,” episkopos—bishop. Remember that we are a Catholic Church (of the English variety). We have Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. As a symbol of their authority—and of their responsibility, our Bishops (of any gender and gender-identity) use a shepherd’s staff, or a crook. It is these shepherds who provide the visible unity which keeps us together as a flock. It is not a question of bureaucracy or of an annual assessment, but rather of bonds of affection, unity, love and service which truly make possible the reality of Beloved Community.
Once again, if we stopped there, that would be comforting and would let us off the hook. Oh, we might say, “Shepherding is something that the ordained do.” It has nothing to do with me! But, if we pause for just a moment, where do those ordinands come from? They come from families. Anyone who is a mother, father, sister, or bother knows what it is to shepherd! They also understand the complexity of the sheep-fold. They know what it is like to struggle to find and rescue lost sheep. Who know, at some point they may have been a lost sheep too! They might be one even now!
In Baptism, we are all called to share in the ministry of Christ: Priest, Prophet, King—and yes, Shepherd. So, as we go on our way, let us listen attentively to the cries, all around us, of sheep in need of compassion, love, and healing. If we can not care for them ourselves, we can at least bring them to the safe shelter of the fold where other shepherds will be able to meet their needs,