Sunday, July 19, 2015
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
How many of you have been around sheep recently? How about seen a shepherd walking around with sheep lately? Today we hear how Jesus has compassion for us because we’re like “sheep without a shepherd,” but I wonder sometimes whether that image connects with many of us much anymore. Certainly the image of Jesus or God as a shepherd appears multiple times in scripture, most famously in our psalm for today, Psalm 23. Jesus is often depicted in art as a shepherd, as in our central window here at Bethel. Jesus was able to connect to people coming from rural, agricultural backgrounds around Galilee by comparing himself to a shepherd. In Old Testament times, kings were often referred to as shepherds of their people, but corrupt kings, as we hear in Jeremiah, did not remain faithful or serve adequately as shepherds. So Jesus also is connecting to Jews who know the Hebrew scriptures and know these verses like in Jeremiah and the Psalms about God being a better shepherd than any earthly king. Jesus is letting these Jewish Galileans know that HE is the promised shepherd they’ve been looking for – the gentle ruler who will use his power to give life for the sake of the people.
What about us, though? For those of us who aren’t routinely around shepherds and sheep, what does it mean for us to place our trust in Jesus, the good shepherd? Do we recognize that we STILL need Jesus to lead us and guide us along life’s way? In our study of the book, Soul Feast, author Marjorie Thompson reminds us that Jesus wants to lead us like a shepherd when in our fast-paced modern society we are more likely to be driven like cattle by all the demands in our lives. Just look at the self-help or even religion section of the book store, “management-driven, excellence-driven, purpose-driven.” We like being action-oriented, fast-paced, getting stuff done. What’s more, we’d probably prefer to be the cattle-drivers, the ones doing the driving, rather than letting Jesus be in charge. Thompson reminds us that the Bible never calls us cattle, but sheep, and sheep are led, not driven. In today’s gospel, Jesus leads the disciples to rest, because they have been working so hard that they haven’t even had time to eat. Jesus provides the people with what they need and leads them to greater understanding and healing. Mark gives us a very different description of what we need than we might imagine. In a culture of drivenness, Jesus calls us to follow him, to rest, to receive what we need from him rather than worrying too much about what we NEED to do. Are we willing to admit we need Jesus to lead us in this way?
I was fortunate to have the same college roommate for all four years, and on vacation we were able to stay with her and her family at their home in San Diego. She and her husband have two boys – ages 3 and a half and 2. They’re a handful! The older one, Caleb, is very much at the stage of wanting to do everything himself and be a helpful brother for Logan. Getting dressed – “I can do it myself, mom!” Some of his color combination choices were interesting, and a shirt might have been on backwards, but he got it done. Drinking from a real glass instead of from his sippy cup — “I can do it, mom! “– he didn’t break or drop the glass, even though half of the water would end up on his shirt instead of in his mouth. Helping load the dishwasher – “I’ll get it, mom,” spilling a bit more dish detergent into the compartment than was necessary, but still, he got the job done. Caleb’s at the stage where he probably doesn’t like to think too much about how he still very much needs his mom and dad to get daily tasks done in life, but we as adults know he sure does. His parents don’t get too much thanks for all they do for him every single day, but they patiently let him try things on his own and guide him when he fails nonetheless.
It struck me as I watched Caleb’s drive for independence that in a way, a lot of us haven’t grown up much beyond the toddler years in our relationship with Jesus. We kind of go through life most of the time thinking we’re just fine on our own – we’ve got it figured out, we can handle it. We value independence and self-reliance. We don’t see the need for Jesus. Just the other day, I overheard a woman at the hospital exclaim to her friend, “What do I need God for? What’s he ever done for me?!” Of course, I am probably preaching to the choir, and we would see this woman’s response as a bit extreme – I had to bite my tongue from coming over and saying, “What’s God done for you? How about giving you life, for starters?” We live in a world where people increasingly do not identify as Christian but as religious “nones,” where weekly worship is optional, and conversation about God is taboo. So perhaps it’s not just a problem that people don’t connect to Jesus as a shepherd – not only do people not know what shepherds are and do, they don’t even see how Jesus is relevant at all for their lives. How do we help people see that we’re more like a little boy pouring dishwashing detergent all over the kitchen floor to “help” mom out than the responsible, put-together, got-it-all figured out people we pretend to be? We may need a different image than a shepherd to connect to Jesus, but we certainly still need Jesus.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend an ELCA Latin American consultation with Lutherans from all over Latin America and the U.S. One of the keynote speakers, a pastor from Puerto Rico, shocked us all when she started her talk by saying, “Self-sufficiency is heresy.” One of the goals of the consultation was to talk about sustainability of ministries and how we could help congregations in the U.S. and in Latin America be more financially independent, self-sufficient. This speaker called to our attention that whenever we proudly proclaim we are self-sufficient, we take our need for Jesus completely out of the equation. We pretend we’ve done all the work of building the church up ourselves. We deny the fact that everything we have and all that we need comes from God, and that God provides way more for us than we often realize. We talk about what to do with OUR money, with OUR church as if we’ve forgotten that there would be no church at all were it not for Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we can never be self-sufficient. In our letter from Ephesians this morning, we hear it this way, that we are members of the household of God with Jesus as the cornerstone. Without the cornerstone, there is no stable structure or building. Without Jesus, we crumble and fall. And without other people working together as the church, there is no body of Christ!
Jesus has compassion on the crowds because he sees they are “like sheep without a shepherd.” He sees our need, even if we don’t. Not only does Jesus see our needs, he responds to them. The people are tired, so he leads them to rest. The people are hungry, so he feeds them. The people are sick, so he heals them. The people don’t understand, so he teaches them. Jesus gives us what we need, even before we ask for it. We simply respond, with gratitude and as much humility as we can muster, for all that we are given, for Jesus’ leadership.
Some of the most rewarding moments for me as a pastor are not necessarily the “successes” of a particular program or ministry, but when people start asking good questions – “How can I help raise my child in the faith, or be a better parent?” “I’d like to be more comfortable praying aloud.” “I want to share my faith with others, but I’m not sure what to say or how to do it.” When we admit we don’t have all the answers, that we don’t have this faith thing all figured out, THAT’S when we’re ready to start letting Jesus take the lead. We’ve found the humility to realize that we need Jesus. Then we’re ready to follow. Amen.