Proper 11, Year B
It isn’t Good Shepherd Sunday, and yet it sort of feels that way upon reflection of the readings appointed for Sunday, July 18. All of our readings resound with flock language and shepherd imagery, hopefully causing us to pause and wonder what makes a healthy flock and effective shepherds? They also sing peace and imagination, a place to wonder where we stand in God’s continual promise of renewal and reconciliation.
Jeremiah 23 1-6
Jeremiah’s arguably eschatological prophecy gives us a vision of God’s rule. WOE to you! begins the reading, but Jeremiah goes on to prophesy on the breaking of the human way of shepherding which includes greed for power and wealth at the expense of the populace, i.e. sheep
As humans we may long for God to arrive with an army of winged creatures to break what is evil in this world through force and dominance and to establish an unquestionable reign held through power and violence. However, I believe this would be a misunderstanding of how God rules and how God shepherds. God DID in fact arrive, and so Jesus is the example of God’s power and of the way that God rules. Jesus did not come bearing an army replete with standard bearers and drums, but instead in the form of a child, utterly without power and wealth. The life of Jesus reflects a ministry rooted in the outcast, poor, alien and other. It is certainly not rooted in established government or military might.
If we flip back a wee bit in Jeremiah we read of how the kings and rulers have failed God’s people, not choosing justice or righteousness, but choosing greed and corruption. This text not only offers an indictment of those rulers, but also a promise of God’s mercy, protection and the ultimate redemption of God’s people.
We can also preach about how God has expectations for those who have power, and I’m not referring to elected leaders. Way back in Genesis God instructs God’s first creatures to steward the new creation, to be fruitful and multiply. It is a fact that all of us have a measure of power in our daily lives, and so a measure of responsibility to mete out the sort of creation and leadership expected and modeled by God.
The theme of divine power possessed by all continues, along with the charge of accountability. Paul says that no longer are there aliens and strangers but that all are citizens, held together under the banner of Jesus Christ and God’s redemption of God’s people. Once again, as followers of Jesus we are given the power that accompanies the invitation to create with God. Do not mistake or gloss over God’s word in this passage, but think instead of who our current aliens and strangers are and the ways that we have received them, individually, as churches, or as entire countries; or sent them packing.
Christ proclaims peace to those who are far off and those who are near, to those in our own churches who may feel alien and other as well as to those fleeing poverty and violence in South and Central America only to wade through the waters of the Rio Grande and enter the United States. God, through Paul, charges all people to be aware of, and to manage well, the power they have to welcome, to proclaim peace and inclusion to God’s people near and far away.
To me this is an example of how the gospels are not political tools, but rather litmus tests, barometers for truth. It feels uncomfortable to sit with God’s word and realize that we have closed our doors in the faces of flocks without shepherds, and, possibly, to realize that we each have the responsibility of a shepherd to gather and care for our flocks, who in turn have a responsibility to work cooperatively and carefully with one another.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
In verse 34 the theme of shepherding continues as Jesus “had compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
God, through the person and ministry of Jesus, models compassion and justice through leadership grounded in service and compassion. God cares what happens to God’s people, God never pronounces a judgement without offering a new reality or promise, not even in the Samuel or Jeremiah readings. God does not simply command and then expect obedience, but literally comes among us to model for us what love of other and love of neighbor looks like.
As Jesus and the “sent ones” long for rest and seek sabbath they are confronted with a world of need. They continue on then, trusting that God will provide the rest and sustenance they so long for even as they continue to care for God’s people. One could take a different track and explore whether or not, and why, our myriad churches are no longer considered places of healing. In his Feasting on the Word essay, Robert A Bryant asks: if people do not think of the church as a place of healing any longer ought we to ask why? The people in the Mark text recognize that Jesus is a healer and when they hear Jesus is coming to town they come running with family members suspended on cots or carried in their arms to beg Jesus to heal them, to even allow them touch the hem of his garment. I’m not sure that churches are considered such places any longer, and yet many of us have found deep and profound healing in the church. How can we share that testimony? How do we condition and disciple the flocks we are charged with to be healers and to invite others into our healing places, all the while trusting that God will care for us and meet our needs of sanctuary and rest?
The world is a tremendous and hurting place; and to me the message this week is all about encouragement. We are encouraged to be good shepherds, encouraged to become communities of healing, encouraged to not be complicit in systems of power that exclude and oppress, and encouraged to keep working even though we are so tired. God keeps promising, in every text this week, to do a new thing, to usher in a greater kingdom, and to provide consolation and redemption for all people. We are invited into that, to place our faith in those promises and to create with God until that eschatological dream is realized.
Alicia Hager resides in West Michigan and is a Postulant to the Sacred Order of Priests in the Episcopal Church. Alicia enjoys spending time with her daughters and her husband, is bonkers about her cats, and blogs at astrawberrypointe.wordpress.com.
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