Today is commonly called “Little Good Shepherd Sunday”, a week that echoes Good Shepherd Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Easter. On this day we
- Consider the nature of God in Christ as the One who is our Good Shepherd
- And we contrast God’s nature to our own flawed nature, as we are less reflective of that nature than we probably ought to be as God’s people living in the world.
- Still, in Christ Jesus, God is revealed as the One who meets us where we are, understands our needs, and brings compassionate healing to bear in our lives, and in all the world…
Sheep and shepherds are not a common daily reality in our part of the world, but still, we cling to the rich tradition of imaging God in this way, and to the things that it can teach us about God.
On this Sunday, in particular, we get a few different glimpses into this image – viewing it from different perspectives in and through our appointed readings.
One is the beautiful and familiar words of the 23rd Psalm, wherein God is imaged as the one who provides for all that we need: “I shall not be in want” the Psalmist sings. This Divine Shepherd makes me to lie down in green pastures and leads me to still waters. This is no small thing to claim considering that the Psalmist lives in what is basically a desert climate. The Divine Shepherd knows how to provide pasture and water in good measure. And note that the waters are still. These are not the threatening waters of chaos, and floods, and destruction.
This Divine Shepherd restores my soul, and guides me to where I need, and to where I ought to go for the sake of the Divine Name.
And it’s at this point that the Psalmist takes a strange turn in his song, claiming that the Good Shepherd walks with me through the valley of the shadow of death and prepares a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. Which makes me want to ask: “But if it’s the Shepherd who’s leading me where I should go, then why am I in the valley? And why am I in the presence of my enemies in the first place? Shouldn’t the Shepherd avoid such places?”
But I’m glad the Psalmist takes this turn, because it’s real. Death is a hard and sad reality, and we will all walk that valley, probably with loved ones first, and then when we come to the end of our own earthly pilgrimage, and this promise of the Shepherd’s presence with us is a strong comfort and a sure promise that we receive in this psalm: Though I walk through this valley, and though I find myself facing life’s enemies, including death, the last and greatest enemy, I do not walk this way alone.
The Lord goes with me, comforting me with his rod and staff, anointing my head with oil, and continually filling my cup to overflowing. God’s goodness and mercy knows no end as this Divine Shepherd loves us with a love that is stronger than death – a love that carries me into eternity, so that I might dwell in God’s presence forever…
This is the vision, or image, of God as our Good Shepherd from the perspective of the Psalmist, possibly David, the shepherd boy who became the greatest earthly King Israel would ever know. But it’s not the only time the image of shepherds is used. We see it in God’s words through the prophet, Jeremiah, as well, only, this time, through a very different lens. Here the shepherd isn’t God, but those that God has placed in authority – the king and the priests.
Those who are in positions of religious and civil authority are placed there by the Great Shepherd of the Sheep and are to serve as “under-shepherds”, as it were. In fact, each of us, as those named and claimed by God in Holy Baptism, share a part in this role and need to hear these words of warning and promise through Jeremiah.
Having just considered the nature of our Good Shepherd, we now consider the description of some very bad shepherds. They destroy and scatter the flock. They drive the sheep away, and do not attend to their needs. They cause them to fear, to be dismayed, and to go missing.
These images, obviously, stand in stark contrast to the image of the Divine Shepherd presented in Psalm 23, who, as we prayed in today’s Prayer of the Day, faithfully feeds and protects us, heals us, and makes us a people who embody, together, God’s justice and peace.
And sadly, there are many opportunities for us to embody God’s justice and peace in the world
- From poverty
- To hunger
- To preventable diseases
- To the appalling differences in educational opportunities made available to our fellow citizens based on what state they live in and, often, what part of that state they live in
- To racism and it’s many and varied manifestations in our culture, not least of which is found in our criminal justice system
- To sexism and gender inequality, including, but not limited to wage inequality between the sexes
- To the care of creation and God’s precious gifts of resources – things as basic and necessary as simple access to clean water, or, as may soon be the case in places like California, any water at all
- To global and international concerns like
- Decisions and discernment regarding wars and diplomacy
- Wide-spread and often long-term health concerns, as we witnessed recently in the Ebola crisis that still lingers in places like Liberia, where there is still a large Lutheran presence
- And economic realities on the other side of the planet that can now threaten nations near and far in our global marketplace
There is, seemingly, no end to the list of such opportunities for God’s people to embody the justice and peace of Jesus – to act as good under-shepherds of the Good Shepherd of the Sheep, our Lord Jesus…
Now, we can always make excuses, and find reasons why we can’t, or shouldn’t, get too involved in some problem or another. But check out what happens in Mark Chapter 6, both the parts we read, and the parts we skipped over today, to see what sort of example Jesus sets for us.
Here’s the context of what Mark chapter 6.
The 12 have been sent out, 2 by 2, with authority to do miracles, and they return with stories of all the things they’ve done in Jesus’ name, things like healings and casting out demons. And Jesus, understanding the need for rest (I mean, keeping of Sabbath rest is one of the 10 Commandments, after all) tries to take them apart for some much needed rest. But the crowd notices where they’re headed and is waiting for them when they reach shore. And it’s here that Mark tells us that Jesus “had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Then Jesus teaches them, and, as it gets late in the day, and they’re in a deserted place, Jesus feeds them all with a few loaves and fish, providing for the temporal and the spiritual needs of this pitifully needy crowd.
Jesus then tries, again, to send the 12 away to rest, while he dismisses the crowd and goes off by himself to pray, perhaps wanting some alone time to mourn the loss of his cousin, John the Baptist, who had recently been beheaded by Herod.
At evening, Jesus spots the 12 out on the water, struggling to row against the wind, and he walks out onto the water, and he gets into the boat with them, and they cross over to the other side.
And that’s where our Gospel reading picks up again, in verse 53, as they reach the other side and find themselves confronted by great need again. Wherever need arises, whatever the needs is, and whatever the source of the need may be, Jesus is true to his nature as the Good Shepherd…
Jesus has compassion for those who are like sheep without a shepherd. Whether on the Jewish side of the lake, or over in Gennesaret, which is decidedly non-Jewish, Jesus meets the needs of the crowd, and he does so with great compassion.
In Holy Baptism, we promise, among other things, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and I believe such service and such following must include compassion.
The roots of the word: “Com”, meaning “together” or “along with”, and “passion”, meaning “to suffer”, spell it all out for us. Jesus is the One who came to suffer along with us, to walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death as the One who, by his death, destroyed death once and for all. And, in this promise in Holy Baptism, through which we join with Christ Jesus in death and resurrection, we are promising, in effect, to suffer along with all the needy world, in the name of the One whose suffering has redeemed the whole world, our Good Shepherd, Jesus.