Jeremiah 23.1-6; Psalm 23; Mark 6.30-34, 53-56
+ We’re going to see how closely you paid attention to the scripture readings this morning. Don’t you just love it when your priest starts out the sermon like this? OK, so without looking at your bulletin: if there was a theme to our scripture reading what would it be? And there is, most definitely, a theme.
Shepherding is the theme.
Today we are getting our share of Shepherd imagery in the Liturgy of the Word. In the reading from the Hebrew Bible, we get Jeremiah giving a warning to the shepherds who destroy and scatter, and on the other, a promise of shepherds who will truly shepherd, without fear or dismay.
In our psalm, we have the old standard, Psalm 23, that has consoled us and upheld us through countless funerals and other difficult times in our lives.
Finally, we have our Gospel reading, in which Jesus has compassion on the people who were like sheep without a shepherd.
Certainly shepherds are one of the most prevalent occupations throughout scripture. And because we hear about them so often, I think we often take the occupation for granted. We don’t always fully take into account the meaning shepherds had for the writers of these books or even for ourselves. Shepherds have been there from almost the beginning.
The first shepherd is, of course, Adam and Eve’s son, Abel. And throughout scripture, the shepherd has been held up as an example—both good and bad. Certainly the reason shepherds were used as examples as they were was because it was a profession most people of that time and in that place would have understood. People would have understood the importance of the shepherd in sustaining the flock, in caring for the flock and leading and helping the flock. And when it came time for a King among the Hebrew people, the ideal was always as a kind of shepherd. In fact, the first truly God-anointed King was not the arrogant and jealous Saul, but the humble shepherd David. And always a good king was always referred to as a shepherd of the people. Even God was referred to the Shepherd of Israel.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus again uses the image of a shepherd because he knows that his hearers will understand this important image. He refers to himself as the Good Shepherd and he commends his followers to be good shepherds to those they serve. So, shepherding is not something taken lightly in scripture.
But, shepherds in our day don’t mean what they did in those days. Most of us have probably never even met a shepherd and, to be honest, I am not even certain there are shepherds anymore in this industrialized age of electric tagging of animals and night-vision monitoring. So, how does the image of the shepherd have meaning for us—citified people that we are? For us, we find that Jesus shares his presence with us here in our liturgy—in how we worship—as a shepherd would share with his flock.
The great Anglican theologian Reginald Fuller said “Christ still performs the function of shepherding in the liturgy.”
I love that. And I think that’s very true.
In the first part of the liturgy—in the liturgy of the word in which we hear the scriptures—Jesus teaches the flock through his word, “which Mark emphasizes as an essential function of the shepherd.”
In the second half of the liturgy—the Eucharist, the celebration of partaking of the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Bread and Wine—Jesus “prepares a banquet for the flock” (which reminds us what we find in our Psalm). To take this image one step further, the Shepherd not only feeds the flock bread and wine. In our case, with Jesus, he actually feeds us with himself. He feeds us his own Body and his own Blood, knowing that anything else will not sustains us, will not keep us going for long. The Good Shepherd cares just that much for us—that he feeds us with his very self—with his Body and with his Blood.
So, essentially Jesus is the host at this dazzling, amazing banquet that we celebrate here on Sundays. And ultimately what happens in our Eucharistic liturgy is that we find Jesus the Shepherd feeding us and sustaining us so that we can go from here fed and sustain to feed and sustain others. Here, in what we are partaking of, we are experiencing the Shepherd in a beautiful and wonderful way. We are receiving all that the Shepherd promises, so that w can go out be shepherds ourselves to those who need us. He sets the example for us.
What we do here on Sundays is not some insular, private, secret little ceremony done just for our own personal sake. Yes, we are sustained personally here. But it’s not all about just us. What happens here in this banquet is an event that has the potential to bring about that very Kingdom of God in our midst. It opens the world up so that the Kingdom can break through.
Fed, we feed.
Sustained, we sustain.
Served, we can then serve.
Dazzled by this incredible event in our lives, we then, bearing within us a bit of that dazzling presence, can dazzle others.
I am often very fond of telling people that the Eucharist is the one things that sustains me more than any other in my life. People who do not particulate in this incredible event don’t understand. But for those of us who do partake, who do come every Sunday (and on Wednesdays, here at St. Stephen’s), know exactly what that means. When we are weak, when we are beaten down, when we are pursued by the wolves of our lives, we find sustenance here at the altar, in this dazzling Presence of Jesus. When are wearied by the strain and exhaustion of our everyday worlds, we have the opportunity to come to the dazzling, over-the-top celebration of all our senses in the liturgy that sustains each of us and delights our senses.
And when we return to those worlds, we still have work to do. We too will have to leave the joy we find our worship and face all that we have to face in the world. We have to go out face our jobs, our broken relationships, our ungrateful families, the prejudice and homophobia and sexism and racism and fundamentalism and violence of that seemingly at-times unpleasant world.
But we do so with this experience we have here within us. We face the unshepherded world shepherded.
“I will raise up shepherds,” The Lord says in our reading from Jeremiah today. “and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.” That hope is what we carry with us as we go forward from here. We are the shepherds that are raised us. And we, and those we serve, shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any of us be missing because of our Great Shepherd. Amen.