EIGHTH SUNAY AFTER PETECOST
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.
“As [Jesus] 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.” Mark 6:34.
“Like sheep.” That is hardly a complement. Sheep are dependent creatures, having lived under domestication for millennia. They are so helpless that they cannot even right themselves should they happen to get turned on their backs. If all the world’s sheep were released into the wild today, they would surely be on the endangered species list tomorrow. Moreover, sheep are herd animals. They are bred to follow a leader and lost when they have none. That is not how we self made, independent and free thinking Americans like to think of ourselves.
Yet in spite of our assertions of independence, there are times when we appear incredibly sheep like. The Qanon phenomenon is but the most recent illustration of how even people of considerable intelligence can be led down a rabbit hole into a universe of “alternative facts” having absolutely no relationship to reality. According to a Monmouth University poll, one in three Americans still believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that his victory was stolen by fraud-notwithstanding the certification of that election by all fifty states, sixty court decisions rejecting allegations of fraud and a substantial margin of victory for Joe Biden in both the electoral and popular vote. At a recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a large crowed cheered when a prominent “antivaxxer” jeered the Biden administration’s efforts to promote vaccination against Covid-19. How can thinking people be drawn to accept as facts assertions contradicted by the findings of multiple courts, scientific consensus and plain common sense?
People who are frightened, threatened and lack the conceptual tools to figure out why are low hanging fruit for the unscrupulous “shepherds” described by the prophet Jeremiah in Sunday’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. These shepherds offer feckless sheep exactly what they want-a strong leader with easy solutions to complex problems and, frequently, offering up someone or something to blame for their unhappiness. They put a face on the sheeps’ fears and a target, albeit the wrong one, on which to vent their rage. Of course, these shepherds have no interest in the wellbeing of the sheep. They don’t care that, once they have gotten what they need, the flock is scattered and left vulnerable to predators-or to infection by Covid-19. For them, the sheep are tools to be courted for their votes, fleeced for donations and abandoned. Such is the pitiful condition in which Jesus finds the crowd in Sunday’s gospel lesson. Jesus embraces this crowd and begins “to teach them many things.”
How does Jesus go about that? How does he ween the sheep off their delusions? I think the problem here goes far deeper than the much discussed phenomenon of “fake news.” Although I believe that, on the whole, “main stream” media tend to get the facts right far more often than the so-called news outlets of “conservative” media, this is not just a matter of getting the facts right. It has to do with which facts matter, who is relating them and the audience to which they are presented. Those of us who consume mainstream news (and yes, news from all sources these days is packaged as entertainment for popular consumption) ought to be asking whether Britany Spears’ personal legal, medical and financial woes deserve more attention than the fate of millions of Afghan women who may soon be living under the oppressive rule of the Taliban. Should the world care about the outer space joyride of two aged billionaires? Should the harangues of a defeated former president be given any air space at all? Who decides what gets into the news and the prominence it is given? Who is telling us what is news? Should we be accepting at face value the decisions made about what we see on the screen of our chosen news source?
I believe that we are all more sheep like than we care to admit. With the ability to get the news (or what we are told is news) in real time, the ability to get immediate weather forecasts and the capacity to keep a minute by minute watch on financial markets, we have become slaves to the font of all this data, our digital devices. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that we need to be connected 24/7, that we must be available at all times of day or night and that we need to be informed of every breaking development as it transpires. In the process of being on top of everything, we are losing the ability to focus on anything. We have lost the capacity to distinguish between the urgent and the important. We are the people the James the Apostle characterizes as “a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” James 1:6.
The gospel does not tell us specifically the “many things” Jesus taught the people that day. But we know that Jesus taught with an authority grounded in the example of the life he lived, making his the “voice of authority.” We know that Jesus unmasked the hypocrisy of religion that practices piety without pity, judgement without justice and morality without compassion. We know that Jesus called people to share his life shaped by the contours of God’s gentle reign of justice and peace to be lived under the shadow of imperial injustice, violence and cruelty. Everything Jesus ever said flowed from who he was. That is what drew people to him and lent authority to his words. Jesus’ teaching did not consist in the transmission of information, indoctrination or ethical instruction. To be taught by Jesus is to know him, to follow him, to be influenced by friendship with him and shaped by the community of faith in which his Spirit dwells.
Not every significant event is deemed important or newsworthy. Where would CNN and Fox News have been at the dawn of the first century C.E.? I suspect that they might have been in what is now Germany covering Rome’s campaign to expand its empire into northern Europe. Or perhaps they would have been reporting on the massive temple refurbishment project launched by Augustus Caesar in Rome. There was certainly no lack of contentious issues under debate in the imperial senate meriting press scrutiny. But I seriously doubt any news organization would have bothered to report on the birth of a baby to a homeless couple in a Bethlehem barn. Such events are hardly considered newsworthy, but to a mind that has been taught to seek the outbreak of God’s reign in every corner of creation, their true significance becomes visible. What we desperately need and what Jesus offers: “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” If you want to find the good news, you need to look beyond the headlines.
Here is a poem showcasing a different lens through which we might view the world. It is perhaps similar to the way a mind taught by Jesus might view it.
In Search of Prime Residential Real Estate
I’d like to live in a place
Where you can get a cup of coffee
Without having to specify,
Large, very large, jumbo,
Mocha, Columbian or Java.
Let me make my home
In a place so far from
The nearest metropolis
That you can’t get reception
For network stations
Without a computer
And that with difficulty
As there’s no broadband access.
Let history’s great moments
Make their way to me
Through the lens of local news
And humbly take their place
Beneath those truths
That are timeless,
Real and unchanging.
I want to live on open land
Where nothing obstructs my view
Except the sky.
And let that sky be so wide
And so chuck full of stars at night
That nobody looking up into the heavens
Will ever be able to imagine
That he’s any more important
Than a Spring tulip that’s long gone
Before the end of May.
I want to live among simple folk
Who, like that tulip,
Grow strong and beautiful in their season,
Toil at honest labor till it ends,
Fade with grace when it passes,
And expect nothing in return.