A Homily for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Mark 6:30-34
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Good Shepherd. Amen.
When we last saw the twelve apostles, they had been sent out two by two on their second mission trip. After a rough trip to Jesus’ hometown, he sent them out to do exactly what he had not been able to do among his own kin. And immediately after they went out, we heard about John the Baptist’s violent end at Herod’s hand. The apostles’ mission was perilous and by no means a guaranteed success. They were sent out with no food, no money, no change of clothes: only each other and a (difficult) message. Failure was a very real option.
Today, we join them on their return. By all accounts and despite all odds, things went well. Verse 13, which we read two weeks ago, tells us that the Twelve “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” And verse 30, at the outset of today’s Gospel, depicts their reunion with the Lord: they “gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.”
Imagine their excitement; the twelve just worked wonders! They’ve glimpsed the Kingdom of God erupting into this world! They’ve received a foretaste of the Feast to come! How would you feel? I think I’d probably ramble on and on. When Saint Mark says they told Jesus all they had done, I relate to that. We’ve all known the child who can happily spend an hour detailing a list of her favorite dinosaurs. In reality, I was that kid; I still am that kid. Any of you who have asked me a question about the liturgy have probably noticed, I often get carried away by my own train of thoughts.
That’s how I understand Saint Mark’s depiction: with an emphasis on the “all.”
If I were in Saint Andrew’s sandals, the conversation would have gone something like this:
“We set out towards Tiberias, but we spent the night on this ridgeline looking out towards Mount Tabor. And as the sunset hit the mountain, the whole country side was transfigured. Which reminds me, you know, I’d almost forgotten about the last time we were there, when Peter, James, and John went up the mountain with you, Lord? Anyway, where was I going with this? Um…Right. We got to Tiberias, and it was just amazing. I didn’t realize it was only a few years old. You hear about Tiberias, but I never really realized it’s younger than I am. But it has these amazing hot springs in the area. And the architecture is just great! You really feel like you’ve stepped into a centuries-old metropolis. I mean, the city was kind of crowded (which I could take or leave), but once we got sort of settled and started preaching, things really took off. The crowds weren’t very receptive, but the ones who had ears to hear – they were transformed. They had that same look Simon did the first day we heard you, Jesus. And they brought us into their homes and made sure we were taken care of. Remind me to tell you about Sarah and Jacob and the amazing bread they made. Oh, and the healings. I don’t think I was prepared for the tangible energy I would feel laying hands on a blind person, almost as though a weight was pushing down on me and flowing through my arms. I’m rambling again, I know. I’ll stop now.”
Picture something kind of like that, but in Aramaic and multiply it by twelve people who had just seen the Kingdom of God at work.
With the apostles still in the state of spiritual ecstasy and eagerly sharing every last detail, Christ takes them away on a retreat – a chance to get a way from the ever-present crowds, to unwind and recharge, to pray in silence and receive more divine teaching. And as so many time before, once more onto the boat they go, over the sea – and what should be waiting from them but another crowd. Every time Jesus has tried to go anywhere or do anything, it seems a crowd has beat him there first. This week, all he wanted was some time away, a much-needed rest with his disciples, a break from the constant pressures of teaching and healing. Remember, even his Sabbath days have been filled with trips to the synagogue, healings, and arguments with religious leaders.
Of course, most of us would have at least tried to send the crowds away. “Sorry folks. Not today. Give us a chance to rest. Come back tomorrow afternoon.”
But Jesus has mercy on this crowd – “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
How important shepherds are. Some of you may recall from the early service on Christmas Eve, I read a sermon written by my father back when I was a child, the story of Eliezer the Unreliable, a shepherd present in Bethlehem that holy night. Eliezer tells us an important truth about being a shepherd: “Sheep are stupid.” And so the number one rule of being a shepherd is “Never, ever leave the sheep.” The flock needs protection from thieves and wild predators. Sheep need a guide to lead them to fresh water and green grass lest a lamb wander off a cliff or get stuck in a ravine. That’s why a shepherd should never, ever, EVER leave the sheep.
The flock of Israel has a long history of bad shepherds – guardians and leaders who “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and “caused [the nation] to sin.” Some of them we know well – wicked kings like Ahab and Herod – and others are more obscure – like the oft-neglected Jehoahaz. But time and time and time again, reading through the Prophets and the historical writings of the Old Testament, we see kings who worship other gods, who steal land and vineyards, who ruthlessly murder their opponents, who leave the hungry to starve and oppress the poor, who neglect the widow and orphan. These evil shepherds led the flock astray and failed to protect them from predators like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Rome.
“Woe to [these] shepherds,” says the prophet Jeremiah, “who destroy and scatter the flock of [the Lord’s] pasture.”
Even David, that great king, warrior, and poet, and yes, literal shepherd, murdered a man to cover up adultery.
Where is a decent shepherd – even a mediocre one? Who would feed the sheep and guide them to safe places and protect the flock from thieves and predators?
Dear ones, Christ is raising us up as shepherds. Ministers and bishops, those who have a pastoral role, yes – but not only those in holy orders. In Baptism, when we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, we – all of us – are brought into his mission. Like the apostles before us, we are being sent out to shepherd the people. We are sent to find the lost sheep and lead them back to the fold. We are being sent out to those in distress, the injured and those surrounded by thieves and wild animals. We are called to proclaim a liberating Gospel to the oppressed, to love even our enemies, to care for the widow and the orphan. Like the apostles before us, we are being sent out to heal the sick, cast out demons, to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins. We are sent to be a foretaste of the Kingdom of God and tell the world all that Jesus has done. And like Simon Peter, Jesus is sending us out with a simple directive: “Feed my sheep.”
Who are we to do such things, to work mighty deeds? In the words of Jesus’ kin, what wisdom has been given to us? Simply this: we follow the example of the one who sends us, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.
Thus says the Lord to Jeremiah:
Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing….
The Lord is our Shepherd; we shall not want. Almighty God will lead us along straight paths to green pastures, comforting us with rod and staff to protect us and care for us.
The Lord is our Good Shepherd, and Saint Mark is gradually revealing what that looks like as we see Jesus heal the sick, cast out demons, and lead us in the ways of righteousness. Christ our Good Shepherd is facing down the thieves that would steal us away, the wild animals that would prey upon us, and will even lay down his own life for the sheep of his fold.
Our Lord is leading us to green pastures beside still water where our needs will be met. And the Good Shepherd will feed his sheep.