Sunday: 22 July, 2012 –– 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 23:1–6 / Ephesians 2:13–18 / Mark 6:30–34
Like Sheep Without A Shepherd (or just dumb chickens)
The details of the Bible can cause it to seem far removed from the world we live in. How are the writings of the prophet Jeremiah relevant for us? And if you bother to read much of Jeremiah’s message, you will find it mostly depressing. I always heard Jeremiah called “the weeping prophet.” We want things that make us happy, so Jeremiah’s prophecy has two strikes against it.
Yet, if you stick with it so that you understand what God is saying through Jeremiah, you will find he had plenty of reasons to weep. And if we are honest with ourselves and honest about the world we live in, we know there are good reasons for us to feel some grief and pain. Some days are worse than others, but it’s not hard to find something in the news every day worthy of tears.
One way we try to “handle” that is to keep the bad things at a distance. And we can –– for a while –– as long as the grief doesn’t actually touch us or the ones we love the most. We can keep ourselves busy with work. We can keep ourselves busy with entertainment. We can even keep ourselves busy trying to help others. Those are each good things in their proper place, but we then allow ourselves to listen to voices that compel us and drive us to seek our own satisfaction and security. And when we are driven so hard that we are just running –– from ourselves and almost everything else –– then it is time to realize we are being scattered by bad “shepherds.” We may not call them that today, but our world isn’t really so different from Jeremiah’s, at least not in the context of spiritual things.
The image of the shepherd is common in the Bible. This image is extended almost everywhere if we broaden it to the language of God “leading” his people. The first biblical comparison of the people to sheep without a shepherd comes in the book of Numbers (27:17-18). It is from the prayer of Moses as he begs the Lord to appoint a leader for the people after his death. Moses knew that people need good leaders. We need good spiritual leaders.
There are biblical examples of good shepherds and bad shepherds (in the context of spiritual leadership). God commends good shepherds and warns of judgment on bad shepherds. Likewise, people who follow good shepherds are commended, and people who choose to follow bad shepherds need to know they are inviting the judgment of God. God gives warnings because he loves us.... but then he does so much more.
God promises to provide good shepherds. That is a repeated Old Testament theme. The Twenty-third Psalm is a well-known and much-loved promise of the Lord’s provision. Then God does something incredible: In the New Testament he comes into our world as one of us so that God himself becomes our Shepherd. Today’s Gospel has one of the most tender images of Jesus as God-with-us: his heart was moved with pity for [the people], for they were like sheep without a shepherd....
One way to express the Good News of Christian Faith is this: God wants to be your Shepherd. This is foundational. This is basic. This is the Good News. God has done his part; he wants to be your Shepherd.
Do you know how God can be your Shepherd? There are a number of ways to answer this question, but I want to give you one that is the point of our Scriptures for today: You can know that God is your shepherd in a personal and powerful way to the extent that you realize and confess that you need a Good Shepherd. We say that in the confession of sin, but how often do we merely say the words?
It is sometimes hard for us genuinely to sense our neediness. We live in such a comfortable and convenience-filled society. Further, part of our sinfulness is holding to a pride that does not want to admit we need help. We want to justify ourselves; we can think “I’m as good as most people, and better than many. I do okay for myself.”
I have a friend who is a genuine naturalist. She loves plants and rooting around in dirt. She loves animals and enjoys caring for them. She works on a public farm, and part of her duties is taking care of chickens. One of the reasons the Bible uses sheep as a metaphor for our relationship with God is that sheep can be so helpless and, in all honesty, quite dumb. Well, chickens are worse. My friend was reflecting on this and wrote some of her observations in an email with the observation that it might serve as a homily illustration. I think she’s right. Listen to what she says:
Lately I have been seeing people through the eyes of taking care of chickens. They bully each other, they pick on each other and sometimes are just not nice to each other at all. And here I am as their caretaker, wishing that they would stop their bickering and hurtfulness, knowing that they are well provided for and there is no need for the strained relations. Of course, they don't hear my thoughts and go about their meanness, and I think of how we often behave so much like chickens while God offers us something better.
When I enter the pen most of them run off nervously, assuming that I am out to do them harm. I've been with them day in and day out since last October and have not hurt any of them ever, and yet they still run or freeze in fear when I am near them. On the other hand, if I come with a bucket in hand they automatically assume I have something tasty for them and they'll swarm over to me, but not to see me –– just to get what they assume I have to offer them, grab it and run off with it. How like chickens we are –– afraid of knowing the God who only wants what is best for us, approaching him only for the gifts he bestows, and then going our own ways.
One evening, one of the chickens I had raised from the time they were chicks was out of her chicken yard, running around, seemingly concerned about getting back to her friends but not figuring out how. It took my husband and me quite a while to get her back into her own yard. So here again was a perfect, visible example of how much we can be like chickens when it comes to trusting Jesus. All we wanted to do was to return that poor, confused, agitated chicken to where she really wanted to be, but in her fear and stubbornness, she fought us every step of the way. Our patient perseverance finally paid off and she ran in the gate to join her flock, but how much easier on all of us it would have been if she had been able to assume that we knew what we were doing and wanted the best for her. The longer I live in this role as chicken keeper, the more I am coming to know God as a parent and savior and shepherd –– and seeing in us the same foolish behavior as in chickens.
Can you see that we need a Good Shepherd? Do you believe today’s Gospel? Jesus has pity on us and loves us because, without him, we are sheep without a shepherd.... chickens, running around on our own. Hear the Gospel –– and believe the Good News.