EIGHTH SUNDY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, powerful and compassionate, you shepherd your people, faithfully feeding and protecting us. Heal each of us, and make us a whole people, that we may embody the justice and peace of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“…they were like sheep without a shepherd…” Mark 6:34.
The greatest difficulty with this metaphor is our inability and/or unwillingness to see ourselves as sheep. I would prefer to think of myself less as a heard animal and more like a common house cat. I go where I choose, hang around as long as I get fed and leave for better digs when the opportunity presents itself. My own life story, as I frequently narrate it, contains more than a few first person singular pronouns. This is “my” story of the choices “I” made that make “me” who “I” am.
The truth is, I am a product of a mother who was reading Bible stories and praying with me from as far back as I can remember. I was shaped by the elder siblings I sought to emulate. I was indoctrinated by the hymns I sang in my home church year after year and, though probably in a subliminal way, by hundreds of sermons preached in my hearing. Though the church of my childhood was less than prophetic in naming the sin of racism, it was nevertheless a community in which racial slurs and demeaning stereotypes were not tolerated. It was a place where a kid my age who in those days was labeled “retarded” could find full acceptance and a refuge from the merciless teasing and bulling he faced every day at school. Though far from perfect, my church was enough like the Body of Christ to form in my heart a belief in Christ and a vision the reign of God he proclaims. It was a flock of the Good Shepherd.
Of course, there were other forces shaping me as well. I had peers whose influence drew me in ways contrary to the reign of Christ. I listened to music that glorified drug abuse, promiscuous sex and violence. I attended schools where athletic achievement was celebrated more than learning, popularity more than character and physical beauty more than virtue. Nationalism/Patriotism elevated the flag over the cross, often confusing and conflating faithful discipleship with good citizenship. Furthermore, for all the talk about how political discourse has become so angry, polarized and uncivil in our day, I can’t say that it’s any worse than in my own youth back in the sixties when politicians called each other communists and the generations mutually excoriated each other with dehumanizing caricatures. There were plenty of shepherds out there besides the Good Shepherd seeking to direct me, promising to lead me to the good pastures and quiet waters along easier paths eschewing the cross. That I have remained within the flock of the Good Shepherd is more a testimony to the might of the Spirit of that Good Shepherd working through the means of grace and the care of a faithful community than any decision I have ever made in my life.
I try to keep that in mind when I preach to a people whose televisions and radios broadcast hate speech almost 24/7 into their homes. I try to remember that when I confront a confirmation class that finds Katy Perry infinitely more interesting and inspiring than a 60 year old bald guy with a seminary education. I try remember how the Spirit continues to work through the church with all its faults as I critically examine my own life and realize that, if Christianity ever became an outlawed religion, the prosecutor might have a difficult time amassing evidence sufficient to convict me. I will also work too keep before me the testimonies of faith I heard last week by children, teenagers and young adults at the Ekklesia Project Gathering discussed further below. They are proof enough that the Good Shepherd knows his own and calls, gathers and enlightens them. The Church is in Jesus’ care and it’s going to be just fine.
The prophet Jeremiah’s ministry took place during the last dark days of the Kingdom of Judah-as did that of Ezekiel (see my post for Sunday, July 5, 2015). The little kingdom emerged from Assyrian domination around 640 B.C.E. under the able leadership of King Josiah, who gained a large measure of power and independence for his country. Under his reign Judah’s territorial control spread beyond even the borders of the united Kingdom of David and Solomon. See Bright, John, A History of Israel, Second Edition (c. 1972 by Westminster Press) pp. 321-322. But that good fortune was not to last. Egypt and Babylonia soon rose up to fill the power vacuum left after Assyria’s fall. Josiah was slain in a fruitless battle with Egyptian forces on their way to join the remnant of the Assyrian army in a last desperate stand against Babylon. The victorious Pharaoh Neco placed one of Josiah’s sons, Jehoiakim, on the throne as his vassal. Ibid 324-325. Shortly thereafter, in 605 B.C.E., the Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzer soundly defeated Egypt in the battle of Carchemish and began advancing into Palestine. Ibid. Seeing the impressive string of victories won by the Babylonian army against Judah’s neighbbors, Jehoiakim reluctantly switched his allegiance to Nebuchadnezzer.
Jehoiakim’s allegiance to Babylon was not to last. A victory of sorts by the retreating Egypt army against the Babylonian forces late in 601 B.C.E. led Jehoiakim to believe that the Babylonian invasion had reached its high water mark and would soon run out of steam. The future, he felt, lay with Egypt. So Jehoiakim switched sides once again, rebelling against Babylon. Ibid 326. This rash decision sealed Judah’s fate. Babylon was far from out of steam. Nebuchadnezzer advanced against Judah in 597. Jehoiakim had the good sense to die before Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem. His eighteen year old son, Jehoiachin ascended to the throne and ruled all of three months before the Babylonians forced Judah’s surrender and placed an uncle of the king, Zedekiah, on the throne. Ibid.
Zedekiah, was a weak and indecisive ruler easily swayed by his advisors who were intent on restoring Judah to its former glory under King David. Under their influence, the king engaged in a diplomatic strategy of playing his Babylonian master off against Egypt. This was a dangerous game that Zedekiah ultimately lost. In reliance upon a promise of support from Egypt, Zedekiah led his nation in revolt against Babylonian domination. Egyptian support never came and Jerusalem was surrounded and subjected to a brutal siege that ended with its destruction in 587 B.C.E. Ibid 328-321.
This is the context in which we read Jeremiah’s criticism of the “shepherds” of Israel, that is, her rulers. Jeremiah’s critique rests upon a tradition that saw the Davidic monarchy as the champion of justice, the protector of the poor and oppressed. E.g. Psalm 72. Yet in a hopeless effort to achieve national glory, the king and his minions disregarded the covenant at the heart of Judah’s existence. Judah’s kings took to worshiping the gods of other nations and relying upon international military alliances rather than on the Lord their God. The people of Judah suffered the horrific consequences of Judah’s misguided and self-serving political agendas. They were killed in the crossfire of war, driven into exile and impoverished as a result of the Babylonian reprisals. Rather than protecting and caring for the sheep, the leaders disregarded their welfare, exploited and scattered them among the nations. Yet the prophecy ends with a word of promise. God finally will raise up from the line of David a “righteous branch.” Vs. 5. Jeremiah continues to hope for a faithful descendent of David who, like David himself, will rule Judah with an eye toward caring for the sheep.
This lesson comes to us at the dawn of yet another a presidential contest promising to be contentious and divisive. It is appropriate to ask what our would be “shepherds” are doing to unite and care for the flock. Does winning the election trump leadership? Is purely selfish political ambition driving those who would be our shepherds? Judah’s rulers were intent on restoring the former glory of Judah under David and Solomon. That vision was entirely unrealistic under the current political circumstances. Moreover, Jeremiah would have his people know that what they regarded as the “good old days,” were in God’s view a dismal failure in terms of covenant faithfulness. Therefore, Jeremiah had the task of telling his people that God would not support the nationalistic aspirations of its faithless rulers and their diplomatic duplicity. God sought faithfulness, trust and obedience-qualities for which Judah’s rulers with their realpolitik had little use.
Ultimately, Judah’s shepherds were responsible for misleading the people with a false hope. They promised glory without obedience; greatness without faithfulness; prosperity without sacrifice. I might be on dangerous ground here, but I am convinced that all the presidential hopefuls thus far are guilty of the same sin. I also feel compelled to add that we, the people, share responsibility for their propagation of false hope. What we need are leaders that tell us the truth: that we face a crisis of malnutrition, poor schools and declining public infrastructure; that the gap between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate; that more and more of our citizens are falling below the poverty line; that our disproportionate consumption of the earth’s resources is not sustainable. Further we need leaders who tell us that all of these problems are difficult and complex. Addressing them effectively will require sacrifice, hard work and profound changes in our lifestyles.
But that is a message nobody wants to hear and we are not likely to elect a leader who brings us such unwelcome tidings. Instead, we elect leaders who tell us what we want to hear: that the solutions are simple and require nothing from us. We vote for people who tell us that we can have prosperity, security and peace without paying a penny more in taxes, without enduring any risk and without sacrificing an ounce of comfort. Of course, soon after putting these people in office it becomes clear to us that we have not elected the messiah, but another human being who cannot possibly keep the promises that had to be made to win the election. So when the next election rolls around, we angrily kick the false god we have made off the pedestal on which we placed it and set up another one in its place. I don’t see this deadly cycle ending until we finally face up to the truth. Our problems cannot be regulated out of existence nor will they miraculously disappear if only we let the free hand of the market economy do its magic. As long as we continue to believe in lies, we will continue to elect liars.
I don’t have any suggestions for fixing the political system in Washington (or Bergen County either, for that matter). All I can do is point to the righteous branch Jeremiah spoke of. He does not come to us with promises of easy fixes and miraculous cures. Rather, he calls us to the slow work of witnessing to God’s Kingdom and following him in a common life of service to one another. I have always been convinced that the one and only thing the church has to offer the world is a vision of God’s alternative for living together. Jesus did not preach easy solutions. To the contrary, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Mark 10:25. “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” Luke 13:24. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34. I doubt Jesus could ever get himself elected to public office, but that is not a thing to which Jesus aspired. The reign of God is made known not in the seats of empire or the halls of congress, but in communities that spring from the righteous branch where “the least” of all people are valued the most, where the truth is spoken in love, where daily bread is enough and where the offer of hospitality is made to all people all the time. That is where the truth that sets us free is enacted. That is where the light from God’s future breaks into the darkness of the present age.
Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. That has not stopped me from trying, however. Nonetheless, given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything I have to say at my posts for Sunday, April 26, 2015, Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 and Sunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion at Northwestern College, Orange City, IA and the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, both on workingpreacher.org. I would also recommend The Shepherd Who Feeds Us by Debra Dean Murphy at ekklesiaproject.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rd Psalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary are well worth rereading.
I will say that my thinking about this psalm has been influenced by my participation last week in the Ekklesia Project Gathering in Chicago at which believers of all Christian traditions came together to reflect on faith formation for young people in our respective communities. We heard some very moving testimony from young people whose lives have been meaningfully shaped by learning the art of discipleship in their churches. We were also made painfully aware of how our church is, to a very large degree, failing in that crucial task. What I took away from this gathering is the conviction that we seem to have a problem reaching younger people because Jesus has so much difficulty reaching us. We are called to a life of radical discipleship reflecting the countercultural claims of God’s reign of justice and peace in a violent and oppressive world. But young people (all people for that matter) have a difficult time seeing among us anything different from the rest of the world. To a large degree, we are still operating as though the nation depended upon us to provide religious grounding and ideological support for the American way of life. We have yet to digest the fact that the Empire no longer needs or wants our services. Once we get that new reality into our heads, we will be free to do what Jesus has always urged us to do: become and make disciples shaped by a desire for God’s reign.
This text is a poignant reminder that we in the church are, as St. Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans, “wild olive shoots” that were grafted into the cultivated olive garden of Israel. Romans 11:17-24. This reminder is important because historically there has been a lot of bad theology out there suggesting that somehow the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. This understanding is further exacerbated by our reference to the Hebrew Scriptures as the “Old Testament.” This might suggest that the covenant with Israel is obsolete, that Old Testament history is a story of failure that had to be corrected and replaced by the New Testament. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The God who raised Jesus from death is the same God that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt and into the promised land. The covenant, it must be emphasized, was with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. We gentiles come into the picture for one reason and one reason only: Jesus, the messiah of Israel, invites us in. As Paul makes very clear in his letter to the Romans, God has not revoked the covenant promises made to Israel. Israel still is God’s people and no less so merely because in God’s mercy the benefits of those promises have been extended to us gentiles through Jesus.
Of course, this passage also emphasizes once again that the flesh and blood church, the communion of saints, is the place where God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is made manifest. It is in the church that the mystery of God’s intent for all creation is revealed. Paul places great significance upon the church in this letter. As one very profound observation has it, “Paul’s revolutionary idea in Ephesians is the central idea not just of Ephesians but of the whole New Testament-in fact, of the whole of the Bible. The idea is that God is gathering together groups of people to love God, to love one another, to die to self, to become one. When you think about it, the Bible is about little more than God’s gathering a loving, united people to himself.” Alexander, John F., Being Church, (c. 2012 by John Alexander, pub. by Cascade Books) pp. 19-20. But it is also important to add that “These groups don’t exist for themselves, so they can feel warm and fuzzy. They have a purpose. And that purpose is to gather the whole world into groups that are in unity with God and therefore one another.” Ibid 20. And the purpose of that is to “make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 3:9-10.
Nothing infuriates me more than when the lectionary people take their unholy pruning shears to the scriptures and begin cutting and pasting together a reading made up of selective verses. That is exactly what has been done here. Between verses 34 and 53 we have Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand and his appearing to the disciples in the midst of the Sea of Galilee walking on the water. I suppose this was done because we will be hearing John’s account of the feeding in next week’s gospel. I can understand why one would not want to place these two parallel stories back to back. Still, it seems to me that it would have been better to select another Markan reading that would not have required such brutal surgery. That said, the lesson is what it is. So I will take it as it comes, though I cannot ignore the feeding of the five thousand or the encounter on the Sea of Galilee as they both have an impact on the meaning of the text.
It is highly significant that the sixth chapter of Mark begins with Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth and is followed by his sending out the Twelve to preach and heal. This mission activity appears to have alerted Herod Antipas to the Jesus movement and he is convinced that his old nemesis, John the Baptizer, has been raised. Our text for Sunday begins with the disciples returning from their mission and what appears to be a retreat for debriefing. Jesus and his disciples go out to a “lonely place” only to find that the crowds have gotten there ahead of them. Jesus finds the people much the way Jeremiah found them six centuries earlier-like sheep without a shepherd. It is significant that, just as the disciples relied upon the hospitality of the towns they visited in their mission, so now the crowd is hungry and in need of hospitality. The disciples suggest sending the people away to fend for themselves, but Jesus insists that they be shown the same hospitality the disciples were shown on their mission trip. Five loaves and two fish seem inadequate for such an undertaking but, when placed in Jesus’ hands, they turn out to be more than enough. The reading ends as it began-with crowds of people seeking Jesus.
More than anything else, these verses illustrate for us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. At the very center of discipleship is hospitality-the willingness to make space, share necessities and take time for the neighbor. That is not so difficult when it comes to welcoming neighbors I know and love. I always enjoy having people from my congregation drop in and see me when I am in the office. I look forward to visiting the people to whom I am pastor. I am less sanguine about the fellow in the ragged, stinking clothes who shows up ten minutes before Easter Sunday Eucharist is about to begin with a problem that needs my immediate attention and, of course, it is a problem that only cold, hard cash can solve. So, too, there are times when I am just not up to hospitality. Spending weeks on the road meeting, greeting, healing, exorcising demons from, caring for and lodging with people all over Galilee has got to take its toll. After all that, having to confront a hungry, needy crowd of thousands pushes the envelope to the limit. This is a poor introvert’s nightmare. Left to themselves, the disciples would have been overwhelmed. But they were not left to themselves. Just as a few loaves and fish in the hands of Jesus feeds over five thousand, so Jesus enables his disciples to stand with him as shepherd to this crowd of lost and directionless people.
In small churches like my own, radical hospitality is a challenge. We seem ill equipped to meet the very big challenges in our community. We fear that, if we were to take the steps we need to take in order to make all people feel welcome, we would be crushed under the weight of their need. Yet I think that behind this fear lies a dangerous misperception. We tend to think of ourselves as the helpers, saviors, givers. On the other side of the counter are the needy, the receivers, the “helped.” In fact, we are in as much need as those we invite and those we would “help” have gifts of their own to offer. Moreover, we are not hosts to a sea of demanding guests. Jesus is the host. Like the disciples, we are household servants as dependent upon Jesus as the guests. Our confidence arises from the conviction that Jesus always has matters well in hand, however chaotic they might seem.