July 22, 2018
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Always on the 4th Sunday of the Easter season, we have what is called, “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We read the 23rd Psalm, and other texts about how Jesus is a good shepherd. Well today is sometimes jokingly called “Bad Shepherd Sunday.” In Jeremiah, we hear about the string of bad kings (aka bad shepherds) who have scattered the flock of Israel, and caused them to go into exile. He prophesizes about a future king, who will not scatter the flock, but will bring them in. In Psalm 23, we remember that God is and always has been our own true shepherd. And then in Mark’s story, Jesus looks at the people in need and sees in them a people who are suffering, who are like sheep without a shepherd, who need someone to care for them. And, of course, he steps in to be that shepherd, not only for the scores of people who follow him around begging for healing, but also for the disciples, who have already begun to take some of the ministry mantel.
As we listen to these shepherd texts, it would do us well to think about what makes a good shepherd, as compared to a bad one. Jeremiah lays it out well for us, in the chapter immediately preceding the one we are about to hear from: a good shepherd (or king) rules with justice and righteousness, which seen and expressed in the treatment of the alien, the orphan and the widow. A bad shepherd is one who seeks his own fortune, and who expands his wealth on the backs of the poor, and such rulers will be held accountable. In the previous chapter, Jeremiah calls out the rulers of the day for breaking of God’s covenant, and assures them that God will lift up a true shepherd. Psalm 23 begins to tell us what that true shepherd will look like, and of course the passage from Mark shows us how Jesus fills that role for us.
As you listen, notice what makes a good shepherd, and recall when God has been that shepherd for you in those times of life when you needed what the good shepherd has to offer.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Seven years ago, almost exactly, I sat before the joint council of these congregations as a part of the call process. This was the council’s opportunity to ask me questions to discern if I would be a good fit here. I don’t remember every question that was asked, but there are a few I do remember. One of them was, “Describe your prayer life.” What a wonderful question to ask your potential pastor! I loved that I was asked this… and I also hated it, because my prayer life is something I have always struggled with. I don’t mean that I don’t pray – I most certainly do pray! What I mean is that, especially as an extrovert, I find it terribly difficult to sit down, be quiet, and just be with God. My mind wanders, I keep thinking about my to-do list, I get distracted… and that’s just what happens when I actually find the time to sit down and be still! Sometimes the hardest part of all is committing to take that time in the first place, to set aside all distractions, and to not only talk to God, but also to listen to what God has to say to us. All the best intentions quickly get brushed aside by needy children, or wanting to actually spend time with my husband, or getting chores done, or getting a few more blessed minutes of sleep.
And then along comes Jesus. Along comes Jesus, saying, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourself and rest a while.” There are times in my life when I hear this as good news, as a gift, as an assurance that it is okay, Johanna, to take a break! I think we all need to receive that gift sometimes, right? We are so prone to work ourselves to the bone, to over-commit, to keep busy every second of the day, either by necessity, or because we enjoy everything we are doing and don’t want to miss out. And when I can hear this as a gift, it is, truly, a gift.
But there are other times when the possibility of being in a deserted place all by myself to rest a while is anything but gift. In fact, for this extrovert, it can be torturous. Because normally, I am a willing participant in the rat race of life, running around doing this and that, making sure my kids are signed up for any number of enriching activities, wanting to serve in this or that volunteer capacity, not to mention being a full time pastor, full time wife, and full time parent of two full time toddlers! Those are all good things, that bring me much life and fulfillment!
But here’s the flip side: as long as I’m keeping very busy, I don’t ever have a moment alone with my thoughts… and those moments alone can be challenging. You know the moments – the ones when all of the contrary voices start to creep in, telling you all your worst fears, dragging you down. Or, the ones that make you realize, finally, that something you have gotten used to doing is not, in fact, what is in your best interest, but you are too afraid to change it. When we’re in a deserted place all by ourselves, talking to God, that’s when we start to recognize the work we have to do on our own hearts – that we know we have to do, but we also know is going to be so hard and maybe even painful, and it is easier to just keep moving and ignore it, than it is to finally face it.
Oh, friends, those deserted places… they can be tough spots. They were for Jesus, too. Do you remember another time in Mark that he talks about a deserted place? Back at the beginning, after Jesus was baptized, he was driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness, into a deserted place, and there he was tempted by the devil himself. Deserted places are not always a respite. As necessary as they are, sometimes they are precisely the place from which we want to escape.
So this week, I actually find more comfort in this other thing Jesus does: “[Jesus] had compassion on them,” Mark says, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he taught them many things.”
I love that word, compassion. Oh man, what the world needs now is more compassion, right? Everywhere we look we see self-absorbed, self-serving behavior that disregards or actively harms the other. The world is full of bad shepherds! Yet our God is a compassionate God… who calls us to be the same.
So then, what is compassion, and how is it enacted? Look at what that word actually means. Com-passion means, “to suffer with.” It’s beyond caring for someone; it is a willingness to suffer with another, to hear and to know their plight – sort of how our compassionate God became one of us to know our pains and sorrows. And so if Jesus sees one in need – and I’m going to count myself as one in need, as well as all of you, because Lord knows we all have a need! – if Jesus sees us in need and has compassion, he must also see whatever it is we are suffering from. He sees the suffering, and walks alongside us in it. He suffers-with us. That is the work of a very good shepherd. And so, we also know, that we can look for him there: in our suffering, walking alongside us. That is where we can find Jesus.
Here I am brought back once again to that deserted place. Maybe there’s a reason Jesus mentions that part first: because it is those deserted places, away from the rush of the world, that force us, finally, to face some hard truths and acknowledge where we are broken, where we need healing, where we are, indeed, suffering. This is so important because, I don’t know about you, but I’m sometimes not exactly sure what I’m suffering from. I mean, I know I’m suffering, but I misidentify it. I think it is one thing, but really, it is really something else entirely. Or, I think it is a person causing my suffering, when really their actions are just bringing something up in me, which is really what is driving me crazy. And part of me doesn’t even want to know what the real suffering is, because if I name it, that means I also have to face it and claim it… and sometimes, I really don’t want to.
And yet it is here, in these very dark valleys, these places where we are suffering, that Jesus walks with us, suffers-with us, has compassion for us. When we can face our suffering, our brokenness, the places where we most need healing, we can also turn to see the very face of Christ right there along with us, being the good shepherd.
I love that after Mark identifies the broken people as “like sheep without a shepherd,” he says that Jesus had compassion on them… and then taught them many things. They had much to learn! I, too, have a lot to learn, friends. I have a lot to learn about prayer, about myself and the struggles of my heart, and about the needs of my neighbor. I have a lot to learn about how to make space in my life to learn those things – by going to a deserted place with Jesus, or for an extrovert like me, perhaps by talking to a trusted and faithful friend. I have a lot to learn about trusting that God will always, every time, take all that is broken in me, in us, and turn it into new life – maybe in a way I didn’t expect, maybe in exactly in the way I had hoped, but whatever way, exactly the right way.
I have a lot to learn, and I know you do, too. Let us then follow our good shepherd to a deserted place, to breathe in the Spirit, and rest in the knowledge of God-with-us, and the promise of new life.
Let us pray… Good Shepherd, we are like sheep without a shepherd, and we crave your presence, your guidance, and your wisdom. Lead us along right paths for your name’s sake, help us to find a quiet, deserted place, and assure us that you are there with us in our suffering, guiding us toward new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.