The Good Shepherd
by Fr. Blake
The following sermon was preached at 8am, 10am, and 5:30pm on Sunday July 19, at St. Michael & St. George.
Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion, we beseech thee, upon our infirmities, and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, mercifully give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
“Woe to the shepherds, who scatter and destroy the sheep of my pasture!” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
In seminary many of us knew about Jeremiah 23, and frankly we were all just a little bit terrified. Jeremiah is talking about priests and prophets, religious leaders who in his day had sold out to the idols of Egypt, Phoenicia, and Aram. They had set up images of those gods in the towns and villages, even in the temple itself; and they took the people’s offerings and made sacrifices to these other gods. Whatever was left they kept for themselves.
Why did they do it? It’s hard to say for sure, but likely it was a combination of all sorts of things. Like all people at all times, they needed allies, and adopting foreign religious practices is an effective way to prove good faith to potential friends. The people themselves may have been enticed by the novelty of multiple deities, and no doubt there was a market for importing exotic religion into daily life.
By Jeremiah’s day, many centuries had passed since Moses had led the people out of Egypt, and it was even a few hundred years after David and Solomon. It would have been easy to forget the urgency of those shepherds’ devotion to God, and the significance of a whole people devoted to his service. What did it matter if the priests sacrificed to Asherah, if the royal prophets counseled alliances at any cost, if fraud and deceit and corruption were the order of the day rather than accountability to the Law?
However it all happened, Jeremiah holds the shepherds accountable. They are the ones to whom it had been given to look after the people, and keep them in the service and love of God. For anyone who is called “pastor,” or anyone else whose responsibilities include leading people, Jeremiah’s words today are very harsh. It’s a good thing the prophet offers an alternative, in one of the most famous and well-beloved images in the Bible. God says, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock . . . and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” God declares himself his people’s shepherd.
It’s fitting we also heard the 23rd Psalm this morning, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” We love this image, of the Lord being our shepherd. For my part, it’s a welcome relief to consider that even pastors have a pastor, the same One who is shepherd to us all. It’s no surprise that Jesus makes extensive use of the same image to describe his own ministry, and the Gospel writers continually make the same point.
In our Gospel today, Jesus looks with compassion on the crowd because they are “like sheep without a shepherd.” And even though he was on his way to escape the crowd for a bit, he tends to their needs instead. The theme of Jesus the Good Shepherd was so beloved by the early church that it was among the first things they painted in the Catacombs, an inspiring image even while they faced persecution.
But what does it mean for all of us to be under the care of the Good Shepherd? It’s not always as bucolic as it might seem. First of all it means our lives are fundamentally nomadic. No matter how much we might be at home in a particular pasture, we will always need to leave it before too long. Shepherds move their sheep constantly, in order to bring the flock to fresh pasture, and also in order not to overgraze the land.
On this earth you and I are always guests and sojourners, being led by our Shepherd finally to our true and lasting home in heaven. Heaven always stretches before us. And even when we depart this life for that one, we will continue in our pilgrimage, never stopping but traveling further into the mysteries of the grace of God.
Even our church services imitate this constant movement: along this long nave here at St. Michael and St. George, every week we start at the back and move forwards, towards the altar, finally receiving a foretaste of the heavenly banquet before returning to our lives in the world.
Second of all, following the Good Shepherd on our nomadic track means recognizing we do so with lots of other sheep. Sheep get a bad rap because they often blindly follow one another, which can get them into trouble. But another way to look at it is to see that sheep trust each other implicitly, and rely on each other to get where they need to go. When one makes an error, many others are affected — not because they are stupid (though why might be!) — but because they would rather be led into error than break the bonds of fellowship and trust which unite the flock.
If you and I are to be reliable guides for our fellow members in the flock of God, we must do everything in our power always to be listening for the voice of the Shepherd. Only when the whole flock listens for his voice with one accord will we be led in safety to the place where we are going. In other words, we have a responsibility to one another to listen carefully to Jesus’ voice, and to do everything in our power to remain within earshot. Come to the Daily Office and the weekday Eucharist; attend each other’s events, participate in our outreach ministries. Look after one another, and pray together. The whole church is strengthened by each individual’s devotion, and the integrity of the whole Body is built up by each member acting in concert with one another, under the Shepherd’s direction.
Finally, the third point I want to highlight about living under a common Shepherd: the metaphor is about sheep and their Shepherd, but it doesn’t stop there. Our Good Shepherd is not only a shepherd, but is also the perfect Lamb of God. What does that mean? He is himself the final sacrifice which takes away the sin of the world. And while he comes from the courts of heaven to all the dustbins of earth, to your heart and mine, he does not come as a condescending lord, but as a brother, a lamb among sheep, to make us members of his own household for ever.
There are very few things in religion more wonderful than considering the Good Shepherd, how he calls to each of us and how we might respond to his voice. But it is a risky life! There is no final security in homes or possessions, but a nomadic journey from earth to heaven. There is no striking out on our own paths, but accountability to the rest of our Shepherd’s flock, and a responsibility to be reliable guides for one another as we listen to his voice. We follow him not to fulfill our own designs but to be forgiven where we have gone astray from his designs, and to share his kingdom, his power, his glory, forever.
Let us be careful, then, of trying to be our own shepherds. Let us pay attention to the voice of Him who is the Good Shepherd of us all.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.