July 18, 2021 Eighth Sunday After Pentecost The text is 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.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The second lesson for this morning, which wasn’t read is taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the second chapter. It is a quite wonderful letter in which Paul speaks to the saving work of Christ and that those who believe in him are saved through God’s grace, without the need for works. An integral part of our Christian doctrine, so why did I choose not to have it read this morning? You may think it might have something to do with deep theological issues or perhaps there was some reference to unorthodox Lutheran doctrine. No, nothing nearly that complicated; it’s just that, unlike the other readings that were chosen for this morning, the letter to the Ephesians doesn’t mention “shepherds”.
And shepherds and sheep are going to be the topic of our conversation this morning; we can delve into Paul’s discussion about circumcision some other time if you like. If this is a topic you feel strongly about, you are welcome to read Ephesians 2:11-22 when you have a free moment. But for the purpose of our time together this morning it’s probably best if we stick to the sheep and shepherd theme of the day. “Shepherd” appears over 200 times in the bible.
We won’t be able to examine all of these, but we can review what is said about the shepherds we encounter in this morning’s readings. We begin with the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who spoke the message of God to the Israelites about 600 years before the time of Christ. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the Lord”. In ancient times rulers; kings and the like were often referred to as “shepherds” of their people. It was understood that they had certain responsibilities for those they ruled over; to provide for them, protect them, and guide them in order that they might live full, productive lives. It’s quite obvious that Jeremiah felt that the kings of his day were not handling their responsibilities as they should; they were “bad” shepherds, allowing the destruction and scattering of God’s people.
Which brings us to the sheep; a species known for being somewhat disorganized. If sheep are not closely watched over, they tend to wander off; they can be easily led astray, and can lose their way and be scattered from the flock. Sheep are in desperate need of a “good” shepherd; one who will guide, protect, and provide for them. Without a caring shepherd, sheep left to their own devices might quite possibly perish.
There were limited supplies of readily available sources of fresh water in Jeremiah’s time, and in Jesus’, and today in the hardscrabble areas of the Middle East where shepherds still tend their flocks. Predatory animals and robbers would be quick to dispatch any sheep of the flock that were not under the constant protection of the shepherd. And appropriately grassy areas for grazing are generally found quite some distance from where the flock would normally be kept. Thus, the truly caring “good” shepherd recognizes his responsibility for the provision, protection, and guidance that his flock needs.
Let’s move on to what is probably the most well-known piece of Scripture, the 23rd Psalm. It is thought that Jesus’ ancestor David wrote many of these songs of lamentation, praise, thanksgiving, and requests for God’s help. The 23rd Psalm is considered to be one attributed to David, who before he was king of Israel was, in fact a shepherd. And, although David the shepherd is the one who composed this Psalm, the first verses are written from the point of view of an actual sheep. It’s only in the second half that we find ourselves represented as people, as the sheep of God. This is the version of the 23rd Psalm from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”. You’ve heard me quote from this paraphrasing of the bible before. In many cases this rather modern language speaks somewhat more clearly to today’s people. While I generally feel more at ease with the more traditional bible translations, I think Pastor Eugene does a wonderful job of imaging the intended perspective of this psalm; that is, by keeping true to the theme of the shepherd David. Especially when we examine the more familiar verses of Scripture, it’s good to occasionally revisit them with an ear toward anything we may have otherwise overlooked.
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows; you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk by my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure. You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.
The sheep in David’s song of praise is completely cared for; a safe place to lie down and rest, fresh water in the arid places of the Middle East, and support and accompaniment in times of trial. Here are the provision, protection, and guidance that a “good” shepherd is expected to provide for the flock. David sings his thanksgiving to God for all that God provides; for humankind, these include the abundance of God’s blessing, beauty, and love; and eternal rest in God’s house. David sings, “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.”
So far, we’ve met the shepherd-kings that Jeremiah rebukes for their destruction of God’s people and David’s shepherd-God, who promises a lifetime of blessing. In Mark’s Gospel we encounter the shepherd whom God sends to rescue the people who have lost their way, the sheep who have been scattered and whom only the true “Good Shepherd” may bring back to the fold. And in this morning’s verses we find the example of the perfect shepherd, one who places the provision, protection, and guidance of his sheep before his very life. Jesus recognizes that the crowd of people rushing to him for healing are lost, wandering, scattered; and who have forgotten the promises of God that his ancestor David sang of.
The need of the people for healing impacted Jesus and his concern for them was like that of a shepherd who can’t bear to see suffering in his flock. The Greek word that’s translated as the “compassion” that Christ feels for the crowd is a bit more earthy than the English equivalent we read. It speaks to being “moved in the inner organs”; a better translation would be “sick to one’s stomach”. This is how Jesus felt when he found the people crowding around him. Note that he knows the needs of the crowds and, like a good shepherd ensures that they receive what they need. In the first instance he taught them many things, presumably he reminded them of God’s promises and reassured them of their place in God’s house. The second group consisted of many who were suffering from sickness; Jesus provided healing to all of them, some only through the touch of the fringe of his coat.
This same Jesus is the One who remains the Good Shepherd for each of us, for we who call ourselves followers of the Way of Christ. Just like the sheep in David’s Psalm, we too are in continual need of a shepherd who grants for us provision, protection, and guidance. Without Jesus as our shepherd, we would quickly scatter and lose ourselves to the distractions of the world. With the Good Shepherd as our guide, we are constantly rounded up and brought back into the fold, into the flock that makes us children of God. We are granted green pastures, still waters, right pathways, prepared tables, and overflowing cups of blessing. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd invites us to follow him to dwell eternally in the house of the Lord.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God you have sent to your people your Son, to provide, protect, and guide us in the world you have made. Grant us open hearts and minds to trust and follow him wherever he leads. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who loves your flock so much that he gave up his life so that we might come to dwell in your eternal house. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.