July 18, 2021 /8th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
First Reading Jeremiah 23:1-16 Second Reading Ephesians 12:11-22 / Gospel Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Sheep Without a Shepherd
As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them;
because they were like sheep without a shepherd. (Mark 6:34).
What becomes of sheep who don’t have a shepherd? With no one to lead them and keep them together, sheep tend to wander and go astray. The flock doesn’t hang together. They can also get hungry and thirsty because there is no one to guide them to fresh pasture and still waters. Worst of all, without the protection of the shepherd and the security of the flock, stray sheep are vulnerable to predators. Without a shepherd sheep can get lost, get hungry, and perhaps even get eaten.
Of course you and I are not helpless, dull-witted sheep. We are able to fend for ourselves. We’re independent and self-reliant. We have our own homes, well stocked with food. We have health care and good insurance. We have the means to provide for all our personal needs. So we like to think.
Yet what happens to people in the absence of the Good Shepherd? Humans are quite capable of going astray and getting lost. We are vulnerable to temptations and various addictions. Greed and lust, alcohol and drugs can lead to dejection, loneliness and despair. Choosing to go our own way can lead us away from a life of goodness and health, away from those we love, away from God.
We can have plenty of food, and yet still be spiritually unfed – famished for wisdom, truth and meaning. We are not able to revive our own parched and thirsty souls. We don’t always know the right way to go.
We may be secure in many ways, but we are not free from anxiety and fear. We live in an uncertain and sometimes threatening world. We worry about circumstances beyond our control (and there are many). There is always an available source for anxiety, whether a pandemic, the economy, climate change or your own health. We may even have enemies to contend with.
Furthermore, there are some essential things which we are not capable of providing for ourselves: such as goodness, mercy and love. And on our own, we certainly have no access to anything like an eternal home.
So it is that sheep are not the only ones in need of a good and faithful shepherd. It’s no surprise that Psalm 23 is the most beloved of all the psalms.
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What I invite you to ponder with me is what it is that draws you to Jesus. Jesus did not need to go door to door to recruit followers. People found Jesus, they were drawn to him. Today we hear how Jesus and his disciples were hoping to take a break, get away for a time of rest and refreshment. So they crossed the Sea of Galilee to a deserted place where they could be alone. But people saw where they were going, and they hurried to get there before Jesus came ashore. These are the ones whom Jesus recognized as sheep without a shepherd. Some were in need of healing. Many were struggling with poverty. Most felt overlooked, neglected and anxious. All were in need of hope. Jesus was moved by deep compassion for them all.
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So, what draws you to Jesus? What do you need that only he can provide? What is it that brought you here today? Such questions are well worth pondering on your own. While we are together, allow me to offer some food for reflection:
When Jesus arrived on that shore and was moved to compassion for them by all their needs – what did he do first? He didn’t feed them (although that would soon happen – these are those 5,000 who, in their rush to see Jesus, forgot to pack a lunch). He didn’t start by healing them, though he would soon be healing many of them. Mark tells us that first of all, “Jesus began to teach them many things.” He doesn’t offer any details about the teaching. There is no Sermon on the Mount in Mark’s Gospel. But we know that Jesus was a great and devoted teacher, and they all had a lot to learn. The question is: What do you need to learn? What can Jesus teach you?
Can his parables point you in the direction of gratitude and humility?
Can Jesus remind you how you are deeply loved and cherished by God?
Can you be tutored regarding the necessity for and the liberating power of forgiveness?
Can Jesus open your eyes and your heart to the presence of grace in this world?
Can you learn again what it means to know yourself as a sinner – and that you are able to repent?
Can he show you how to live in hope, one day at a time?
What does Jesus know that can draw you to come and learn from him? H. George Anderson, a past presiding bishop of the ELCA, made an observation on what people need that I have always remembered. He wrote:
“What people want is comfort, security, and to be left alone. What people
need is service, sacrifice, and being brought together.”
Let’s focus on that last item: being brought together. Certainly, the isolation imposed on us by the pandemic has made us realize how much we gain by coming together. From the very start, when Adam was all by himself, God saw that it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Loneliness is detrimental to people emotionally, physically and spiritually.
When Jesus draws us to himself, he also draws us all together. After all, a primary function of a shepherd is to keep the flock together. You and I need Jesus to be that inspiring , gravitational force that pulls us together and keeps us together. At Holy Communion, the Good Shepherd graciously feeds his flock. We commune with Christ – and, blessedly, with one another.
Today’s reading from Ephesians speaks eloquently of the togetherness made possible by Jesus. Hear these as words addressed to you: “ . . . you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints, and also members of the household of God . . . in Christ you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
As we are drawn together by Jesus, we actually become God’s home, God’s dwelling place. This building, lovely as it is, is not God’s house – it is in all of us together that God is pleased to dwell. We are a church built of living stones. Especially these days, we who have been separated and isolated need to come back together to literally be who we are called to be: the Body of Christ. You can’t be a Christian all by yourself. We don’t do well as sheep without a shepherd – or as sheep without the rest of the flock.
How blessed are those who know their need for Jesus.
Thanks be to God.