Woeful Shepherds & Good Shepherd

A Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23


Grace and Peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Good Shepherd. Amen.

There were two men, one wealthy and with many flocks, and one who had a only one small ewe – not so much a piece of livestock but a pet. “Like a daughter to him.” A traveler called upon the rich man – who, hesitant to part with one of his own sheep, stole the poor man’s ewe, butchered it, and served it to his guest.

Upon hearing this story, King David – himself a former shepherd – grew angry, condemning the hypothetical rich thief. “The man who has done this deserves to die!” the king raged. “He shall restore the lamb fourfold because he did this thing, and because he has no pity.”

And it’s at this point that the prophet Nathan pulled the narrative rug out from under him. “You are the man!” he says. For at this point, David had already had his way with Bathsheba, impregnated her, and sent her husband, Uriah, to his death.

Such is the story of the Kings of Israel and Judah. Some of them we know for their ruthless cruelty – Saul, Manasseh, and Ahab – and others we neglect (here’s looking at you, Jehoahaz). It’s something of a trope – the monarchs turn their backs on the Lord, worship idols, steal land and vineyards, murder their opponents, and leave the hungry to starve while oppressing the poor, neglecting the widow and the orphan. These rulers, called to be shepherds of the people, turn out to be wolves. It’s such a common story that almost every single king’s reign is summed up simply: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

And while we remember David for his righteousness and Solomon for his wisdom, the official court historians made sure to record their myriad sins: we’ve already mentioned the episode with Bathsheba and Uriah, and I Kings notes of Solomon: “his heart was not true to the Lord his God…” before listing off the various pagan gods Solomon worshiped, concluding “So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord….” (And this is to say nothing of Solomon’s use of forced labor among the people of Israel. When the northern kingdom split off from Judah, King Rehoboam accused his southern counterpart of employing taskmasters like the Egyptians of old.)

These are the shepherds who have destroyed and scattered the sheep of the Lord’s pasture. Woe to them, says Jeremiah.

Just before today’s reading, Jeremiah presents the specific charges that have brought such woe. How is it that the kings have scattered the flock and brought such judgment upon themselves?

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms’,
…paneling it with cedar…
Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?|
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord.
But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.

Where is the good shepherd?

Or even a decent one, just kinda ok?

Where is the one who will feed the sheep and guide them to safe places?

Where is the one who will protect the flock from thieves and predators rather than steel and prey upon the lambs?

Human kings, presidents, and prime ministers will always fail – those who intentionally do what is wicked in the sight of the Lord and those who strive to do what is pleasing before God, from the White House and Downing Street to city halls, in the academy and on Wall Street, and yes, even in pulpits and cathedrals, we find powers unable to gather the remnant of the flock and bring them back to the fold. Woe to us!

Woe to us because we are not the heroes of the story. Try as we might, no mere mortal could bear the weight of such glory.

But there is hope for redemption – even though the flocks have been scattered. For the Lord God will gather the remnant of the flock, to a place where the sheep can be fruitful and multiply – just as in Eden. A Good Shepherd shall be raised up – one who will protect the flock that we might not fear any longer, or be dismayed. Not one member of the flock shall be missing.

This is how much the Lord loves us: not just to watch over us from afar but to seek after us as a shepherd tending their flock. Shepherds smell like the sheep – they spend days out in the countryside, facing many dangers, toils, and snares in order to lead the flock safely home.

Our God loves us so much as to become one of us, entering into the violent chaos of this world, putting on fleshy mortality – and not as a noble born in a palace but as one lowly born and placed in feed trough. The Lord yearns for us so deeply that he will wrestle with wolves and thieves, powers and principalities, to protect us. There is no primordial chaos of swift water that he would not forge its swift water to rescue us. He will lead us safely through the valley of the shadow of death, even if it costs him his life. He will gather the flock even if he must enter the gates of hell to redeem the departed who have died.

Today, as we mourn the death of one of our own, we remember the words prayed over Chris yesterday and over faithful Christians throughout the ages:

Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.

And we trust that the Great Shepherd of the Sheep will raise her and all the departed to life everlasting because Christ our Lord has faced down death and emerged victorious. Because the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep and was able to take his life back up, we know that

neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

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