~ Mark 6:30-34, 53-56/ Jeremiah 23:1-6 ~
Who knew that sheep could be weaponized? Oh, I’m not talking about marauding armed gangs of rogue sheep terrorizing the hinterland. I’m talking about the ‘culture wars’ for which just about anything can be used as a weapon. Mocking, disparaging, supposedly insulting terms used as cudgels against the other side. And these days, ‘sheep’ is one of those weaponized words.
‘Sheep’ is used by those engaged in the culture wars to disparage people who follow protocols, like CDC and state health department guidelines for wearing masks and social distancing and, well, getting vaccinated. Just blindly following the authorities – like sheep – giving up your individual God-given freedoms! They’ve weaponized ‘sheep’! Sometimes morphed into ‘sheeple’, they’ll decry all those libs who obediently comply with, well, the doctors and scientists who actually know a thing or two. It’s as if being a ‘sheep’ is a bad thing.
Which makes for an awkward conflict with our scripture lesson today. Because if we’re talking about Jesus being the shepherd, that means that we who follow the shepherd are sheep, right? And that’s a good thing, right? Jesus the shepherd; we the sheep. So, assuming for our purposes here today that being a sheep is not a bad thing, my question I’d like to put forward to you is: What kind of shepherd are we following? In the past I’ve preached about the Kind Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, and just last year on Zoom, the Compassionate Shepherd. All very good shepherd themes. Today, however, I’d like to talk about the Justice Shepherd.
I have believed for many years that following Jesus has social consequences. Indeed, my entire adult life has been characterized by a struggle of how to apply and live out the justice of God in a very unjust world. I grew up in a small Colorado town (Fort Collins) and, although it was a university town (Colorado State University), I did not experience much diversity or have to confront the issues of poverty and racism at all. True, the university basketball team did have some black players. But since it was an agricultural school, the vast majority of students were farmers. Mine was a typical small-town experience.
I certainly did not get any encouragement from my church in dealing with social justice issues. In fact, the teaching I got from my church was to do everything possible to avoid such issues. Peace and justice concerns were considered communist plots inspired by the devil. And I had no reason to question such teachings. Until I went away to school in Chicago.
There diversity, poverty, and racism were rampant, overwhelming me in their complexity and desperateness. My small-town experience and the simplistic teachings of my fundamentalist church were no match. I decided I had to come to grips with how my faith in Jesus could work in that place. I realized I had to question the assumptions I brought to my faith. I went back to scripture to find out if I had missed something. And indeed, I discovered I had missed a lot. I discovered that scripture over and over declared that God has a concern for the poor and the oppressed and stands with them over against the rich and the powerful. I began the process of adjusting my faith and theology to accommodate God’s compassion for the needy. I became, if you will, a radical. Linda and I threw ourselves into church ministries that confronted the issues of poverty, racism, and oppression daily in the most difficult and needy of neighborhoods. We lived daily with the chaos and despair of people who had few or no resources in solving their problems. There would be nights when Linda and I would lay awake trying to think of some solution to a particular family’s current crisis. When we’d go to them the next day with an idea, we found out that yesterday’s crisis was just that–yesterday’s. Today was a whole new and different crisis. It tended to be quite frustrating. But that is the nature of seeking to apply one’s faith in such situations. It was not easy, in fact it was incredibly complex, to bring a sense of God’s justice to a very unjust world. The social consequences of practicing our faith in these political, social, and economic arenas tended to be more discouraging than not. It often seemed like a lost cause. The challenges were daunting.
Given my experience, I thought I had a pretty good read on what the Bible has to say about the justice of God. But then I encountered Mark’s Gospel. As I’ve dug into this gospel over the years, I learned anew just how utterly radical it is. Jesus literally confronts the social, political, and economic powers at every turn. Jesus asks his followers to seriously consider the same, to follow him on the same path. And where did that path take him—it took him to the cross. Daunting stuff! We, the church, over the centuries have tried our best to soften the impact of this message. We’ve tended to make faith in Christ a private, individual spiritual matter. But for the reader of Mark the challenge is to take that spiritual experience of faith in Christ and apply it in the world, in socially relevant ways.
Take our text for today. We see Jesus with his disciples, after they have returned from their mission to the villages, trying to get away from the crowds for a respite. But the crowds are relentless and seek them out. The crowds run ahead and are waiting for Jesus and his crew when they arrive to the shore. Upon seeing them, Mark says, Jesus had compassion for them, for he realized they were like sheep without a shepherd. I want to zero in on this phrase: “like sheep without a shepherd.” Despite the attempt to weaponize sheep in the culture wars, we probably have a rather romantic idea of we being sheep and Jesus being our shepherd. It is comforting and reassuring notion that Jesus watches over us. Well and good. But here in Mark when Jesus says these words, he is applying a very deliberate criticism of the current political and economic situation. It is a deliberate statement about the exploitation of the current leadership of Israel.
The Gospel of Mark is infused with the Old Testament. Virtually, every incident, every story, every teaching has some Old Testament reference or allusion. So, as was true of those 1st century readers of Mark, knowing the Old Testament thoroughly helps to get the full implications of Mark’s message. Thus this phrase, “sheep without a shepherd,” has very definite Old Testament references. Specifically, they come from the likes of Jeremiah which we heard Chris read. A scathing criticism and condemnation of the leaders of Israel, “the shepherds who shepherd the people,” who have not attended to the flock, indeed, who have destroyed the flock.
Likewise, the prophets Zechariah and Ezekiel do the same. Zechariah 11 laments the plight of the flock of Israel because it has been abandonment by the worthless shepherds. These worthless leaders of Israel, these pitiless shepherds, buy and kill their own people and even go unpunished. Then they say to themselves, “Blessed be the Lord, for I have become rich.”
In Ezekiel 34 it is even more explicit. Ezekiel blasts the leaders of Israel because they take care to feed themselves but do not feed the sheep. They have not strengthened the weak, nor healed the sick, nor sought the lost. Rather these shepherds have ruled the sheep of Israel harshly. And so, the sheep were scattered because there was no shepherd. Ezekiel proceeds to pronounce judgment on these shepherds and declares God’s intent: “I, myself, will search for my sheep, and I will feed them with good pasture. I myself will be the shepherd.” In doing so God will bind up the injured, strengthen the week and will feed them with justice. So, when we see this phrase, “sheep without a shepherd,” Mark very intentionally applies these prophetic traditions to the current injustices of Jesus’ day. Jesus sees the serious exploitation of the people by the leaders of Israel and feels compassion for their plight.
Thus, Jesus teaches them late into the day. And then he acts on that compassion. Now for some reason the lectionary skips Mark’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. That story is told in next Sunday’s gospel lesson from John. Here in Mark, it is obvious that Jesus’ feeding of the crowd is meant as a deliberate contrast to the leaders of Israel. Jesus, the one who attends to the hunger of the crowds, quite literally puts into action his compassion, a demonstration of the justice of God.
According to Mark, to follow Jesus is to challenge, literally, the political, social, and economic structures of the world. Mark’s gospel is relentless with this discipleship challenge. Every Marken text for the rest of the year will call on us, his disciples, his ‘sheep’, to question our assumptions about what it means to follow Jesus. They will make us feel uncomfortable. They will challenge us. Trying to figure out how to practice this Gospel’s radical agenda will be challenging. Believe me, I know personally. But I think it is incumbent upon us to seriously consider Jesus’ challenge to our faith and how we live it out.
That is why I think it is very important that we balance out the challenge of Jesus’ message with his compassion. Whenever we wrestle with the challenge of living out our faith, we must realize that we do it out of the grace of God. The challenge of faith is thoroughly embedded in the grace and acceptance of God for us. Christ has come to us with deep compassion and holds on to us with his dear life. We must always remember that.
One of the ways we remember that is in worship. We remember God’s grace to us in the ebb and flow of our liturgy. In our weekly liturgy we are reminded of God’s worthiness in praise and adoration. We are reminded of God’s forgiveness even as we confess our own unworthiness. We are reminded of God’s gifts to us as we give the offerings of our lives. We are reminded of God’s care for us as we pray. And it is my charge to bring the word of grace even as I bring the word of challenge in preaching. Every aspect of the liturgy of worship reminds us of the grace of God.
It is my hope that out of the consistency of the liturgy of grace we can deal with the challenges presented in the preaching of Mark’s radical Gospel. There is this interplay of acceptance and challenge in the flow of worship. In doing so, may we always know we are firmly grounded in the grace of God and are loved by a love that will not let us go. And so, in Jesus we meet the Justice Shepherd. As presented by Mark, he is the shepherd who confronts the political, social and economic injustices of the world in the living out of faith. But he is also the Compassionate Shepherd who gathers us into his bosom and holds on to us for dear life. With that let us venture forth. Amen.