Ordinary 16, Year B | Ps. 23 & Mk. 6:30-34 & 53-56

PSALM 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

MARK 6

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 
31 He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."
    For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 
32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.
33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 
34 As he 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.

53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.
54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.
56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

SERMON

There sure is a lot of coming and going in this passage. Jesus invites the disciples to come away to an unpopulated place; the crowds were coming and going so that the disciples had to skip lunch and attend to these constantly coming and going crowds, until Jesus finally says ‘Enough already!’ And at his instruction, the disciples go away with Jesus in a boat to get some rest. 

But the crowd sees them going and so they come too, uninvited though they may be. 

By common social standards the crowd is being a bit rude here … but the scene may be helpful for us to think about those conditions which cause people to come uninvited to a place where they know their presence is not wanted. In the gospel, it is not that the crowd intends harm to Jesus and his disciples, as some today posit about our country’s uninvited visitors—but that they are in need of healing, which is not available to them through any other means in the world from which they come. According to the gospel, Jesus—even though he is the one who has instructed his disciples to come away to a deserted place—to get some self-care space away from these folks—when the needy crowds arrive in that space as well, and I imagine the disciples all being deep into a state of hangry-ness—Jesus does not send the crowd away, but, the text says that he has compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. 

Sheep without a shepherd. 

This is a familiar biblical idea, and even if it may seem to us like a bit of an insult to refer to people as sheep, the metaphor suggests, quite rightly, that to some significant degree, leaders (that is, shepherds) create the conditions in which the whole community must live, and so good leadership is good for the whole community, bad leadership is bad for the whole community, inequitable leadership is good for some and bad for others … this is not rocket science, and we need not take offense on the part of the masses here. When Jesus says that the people were like sheep without a shepherd, he is saying at a minimum that this group of people who are following him around—chasing him around the lake and keeping his disciples from eating lunch—these people are in relentless pursuit of a source of healing, Jesus suggests, because they are being neglected by the leaders—the shepherds—of their community. 

It’s not that there were no shepherds in the holy land to tend their needs—priests and high priests and governors all bear this shepherding responsibility—but it would seem that these credentialed folks had, to a large extent, neglected shepherding in favor of ruling and judging, or as Jesus says in another passage, ‘Lording it over them.’

These appear to be the causes behind all of the coming and going in the passage: There are people whose basic needs are not being met by the individuals and institutions which have been set up to meet those needs, and then there is this community of people who though it is not technically their responsibility to do so, have given themselves to the service of the neglected. And so the neglected go from the VA to Jesus and the disciples; they go from the Emergency Room to Jesus and his disciples; from the courthouse to Jesus and the disciples … and they go from the church office to Jesus and his disciples—because the former would not help them, but the latter surely will. 

As I take my leave from this community of faith, having only come nine short months ago, what stands out to me is not so much what the text say about the sheep, as what it says about shepherds. It is the sheep in this passage who are described as coming and going, but the designated shepherds come and go too, don’t they? This is just the reality of worldly leadership, even when that leadership bears the presumptuous degree ‘Masters of Divinity.’ Rev. Lori came in 2007 and went in 2017. Rev. Lew came in ____ and went in 2004. Rev. Scott came in ___ and went in ___. And on back. Many of you have sat in these pews or their predecessors in Oak Park through lots of shepherds coming and going. And you probably had opinions as to how good or bad or negligent or equitable each of these shepherds has been. You’ve sat through seasons when Jesus’ words about being without a shepherd hit a little too close to home, and seasons in which your called and installed shepherds have satisfied every conscious desire you had for a pastor. But even in those good times, earthly shepherds go as quickly as they came. Which is, perhaps, why they Psalmist begins his confession of faith insistent that the Lord is my shepherd. Sure, there are kings and priests and high priests, and ministers of word and sacrament around, but all these will come and go, and all these are at best imperfect representations of the only One who is trustworthy to lead the people of God through dark valleys, and beside still waters—to bring them at last to the banquet table, where nourishment, peace and joy are given in abundance.

In the passage from Mark, Christ becomes the fulfillment of the 23rd Psalm. He becomes the shepherd of all who come and go, and go and come in search of leadership, guidance along the pathway, basic care, and the assurance of salvation. 

It matters not that the disciples are worn out by this time, for they too find themselves shepherded by their Lord—“come away and rest a while.” The text says that Jesus has compassion on them, and that Jesus taught them many things—all singular pronouns, suggesting either that the disciples are resting by themselves, per Jesus’ original invitation, or—what I think may be the better reading—that the disciples are included in the ‘them’ for whom Jesus has compassion—the disciples and the crowd in need of good and righteous care are one in the unquenchable love of the divine shepherd, the Christ, who is Lord of all.

It is true that as the community of Jesus followers, you are called to join him in the work and witness of compassion—of embodying an alternate world in which people are cared for irrespective of any human made ideas about cultural standing—this is what it means to be the church: that you join Jesus in the work of shepherding, just as the disciples had been doing at the beginning of our gospel reading. 

And you are. You live into this calling faithfully and admirably and you have, so far as I can tell, for 104 years now!

But to be the the church also means—because it is the church of Jesus Christ, and not the church of Will, or Lorie, or Lew, or Scott—that the Lord is YOUR Shepherd too. That you are invited, in the midst of any anxiety, to rest and be restored in the compassion of the Christ.

I am aware that as a pastor leaves—even an interim pastor—there is always going to be at least some anxiety among the members of the congregation. The gospels show us that this too is a kind of universal reality, when Jesus is crucified, and again, when he ascends to heaven. The marked difference, of course, is that in Christ death does not separate the shepherd from his sheep; neither does his departure to be with the Father. But instead Jesus’ resurrection destroys that most terrorizing earthly barrier, and his ascension universalizes what on earth had appeared to be particular to a few. Even the grave cannot keep this shepherd from his sheep, and just as Jesus walked around as the shepherd of the disciples, and of those who came to him for healing, so as he ascends to the right hand of the Father it is revealed that he is shepherd of the whole cosmos—that what he has been for a few, he has been for all, and even more so, for eternity.

As I take my leave from the role of temporary shepherd here at Bethany, I do so with absolute certainty that I will remember this season and each of you with fondness and gratitude for the gift of sharing with you in Christ’s ministry of compassion. And we can be at rest in the assurance that it is and always has been Christ’s ministry; it does not belong to me or to us, but is our blessing to take part in it. My final pastoral encouragement to you is that in these coming weeks and months and years you would continue to look first and foremost to the resurrected and glorified one—the Eternal Shepherd—to supply your need; to still your soul; and at the last, to lead you home.