Trinity 7, 2021 – Sermon

(Modified 2021-07-18: Added audio recording of this sermon.)

Sermon for St. Mary’s Anglican – by Henry Friesen July 18, 2021

Scriptures Lessons: Jermiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22 and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Audio recording of this sermon

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Caring for the Scattered

            When I read our Old Testament lesson earlier this week I was struck with the word “scattered” which Jeremiah uses to describe the actions of some of Israel’s shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord.” I looked up the word “scatter” and found that it can also mean dispersed, dissolved or spread. In English we use the word to mean objects randomly lying around as in leaves scattered on the ground or clothes scattered all over the laundry room floor.

            God, through Jeremiah the prophet uses the word to describe a group of people who are spread apart or dispersed and I think it is the opposite of a group of people who are united in both body and spirit; a group that feels comfortable and safe in the place where they live. 

            This morning I want to us to think about this word together. Even if we do not consider ourselves to be shepherds or leaders perhaps there are ways in which we contribute to a kind of “scattering” and more importantly, perhaps there are ways in which we can work to alleviate those who feel as if they have been scattered, dispersed or simply lost and uncertain.

            Our Scripture lessons for this morning talk about shepherds and shepherding. It is a common image in the Bible and if you are someone who grew up learning Bible stories you will be well familiar with the idea of shepherds and sheep. You probably memorized Psalm 23 somewhere along the way:  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters…” You are probably also familiar with the parable that Jesus told about the shepherd who looks for his one lost sheep even though he has 99 in his shelter. And perhaps you know that Jesus himself says “I am the good shepherd and I care for my sheep.”

            I do recognize that this is an agricultural image and is not one that most of us have experienced personally; some, like me, were perhaps raised on a farm for at least part of your childhood but I suspect very few of you had any experience with sheep – I certainly did not.

            But I do think we have heard enough and read enough to know that sheep are the kind of animal that seems to need the care of a human person – they tend to scatter or at least wander, they are easily frightened and they respond well to good leadership.

            Jeremiah 23:1-6 has a sharp and incisive message directed at the kings and leaders of the people of Israel who are responsible for the well-being of the people in their community. Comparing them to shepherds he criticizes their leadership role in the community saying that instead of providing a safe and comfortable environment they have literally scattered the community. The people are either already dispersed or soon to be so. The sense is that if they are not scattered physically, they certainly are so emotionally and spiritually.

            In verses 1 and 2 of chapter 23 Jeremiah spells it out: bad shepherds or bad leaders destroy and scatter the people. In fact twice he mentions that they scatter the group and then adds that they drive them away and do not attend to them or their needs. These are “evil doings” in the words of Jeremiah which I think demonstrates that poor and careless leadership is no trifling matter. Shepherds are held accountable in God’s kingdom.

            But the prophet does not leave the matter there. Well in fact it is God who now speaks through the prophet and indicates what a good shepherd does:

“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock… I will bring them back.” Both these actions stand in sharp contrast to the work of the poor shepherds who scatter the flock. Then rather than being left alone and feeling as if they will be destroyed, God says they will be fruitful and multiply. And rather than being afraid or lost, they will live in the comfort of a place where there is justice and righteousness. They will live in safety.

            As with most Old Testament prophecies, these words have to do with the nation of Israel and given that it is Jeremiah speaking we recognize that he is talking about the exile to Babylon which is on the horizon for the people. The shepherds or the leaders of the community are responsible for this huge scattering of God’s people which had already begun to take place and was only going to be more pronounced; this is no small matter.

            But this morning I want to talk about shepherding in a more general and practical way and for that I draw your attention to the Gospel Lesson that was read earlier and which is found in Mark chapter 6. 

            Mark tells us that the disciples of Jesus were returning from a ministry tour – they have met with many people and had many and various experiences of meeting people’s needs, teaching them and bringing healing and hope. But they appear to be a little burned out and perhaps even feeling a little scattered in their minds and now they have come back to Jesus. 

            The first thing Jesus does then is to have them go on a short retreat, an opportunity to rebuild their resources and process all that has gone on.  This is what a good shepherds do, they recognize the needs of those under them and lead them to quiet waters where they can be refreshed.  And most important, the Good shepherd goes with them to this deserted place – he does not send them off or else they might become even more scattered in their minds and spirits.

            Meanwhile the crowds figure out where Jesus and the disciples are going and get there ahead of them. So now, what to do? What does Jesus the good shepherd do now?  

            Mark tells us he had great compassion on them and recognized them as a lost people, as ones who did not have a shepherd.  Those leaders and people from their religious community who should have been caring for them, have either scattered them intentionally or simply neglected them so that they are unsure and afraid. Jesus demonstrates, to his disciples, what a good shepherd does: a good shepherd recognizes the needs and cares for the sick and the dying. The negligent shepherds were those who did not attend to the needs of their flock – in sharp contrast Jesus does care for the scattered, the wounded and the lost.

            There is this fascinating comment in Mark 6:54 which says that when Jesus and the disciples had crossed over to the deserted place and got out of the boat, “people at once recognized him.”  It reminded me of the parable of Jesus in which he says “the sheep know the voice of the shepherd.”  In my mind it is not just a physical recognition but it is the recognition that this is the one who cares for them, the one who brings hope and health and welcome: “they recognized Him.”

            Later in the story Jesus feeds this same crowd with the five loaves and two fish that are brought to him and then finally dismisses them and sends the disciples across the lake where once more he comes to them, this time walking on the water. In every case, Jesus attends to the needs of those under his care.

            What we have then in Jeremiah and in the Gospel Lesson is this vivid description and demonstration about what a good shepherd does and how that stands in stark contrast to what bad shepherds do or fail to provide. The bad shepherd confuses those whom he or she is leading; they scatter them in various directions.  And in pushing them away like this, they leave them confused, uncertain, afraid and without a sense of purpose or direction. Jeremiah says the bad shepherds did not attend to the sheep – in other words they did not visit them or assist them.

            So what do these ideas from Jeremiah and the gospel have to do with us today? Probably we don’t think of ourselves as shepherds but I do think we need to recognize that all of us are responsible for someone in our lives whether that is our children, our grandchildren, our partners, or friends or our neighbours.  True we are not in always in a position to actually give direction but we are in a position to care for them, to attend to their needs and to treat them in such a way that they feel both comfort and support. On the other hand our actions or our inactions and careless regard for them can leave them confused and even scatter them away from places of refuge.

            These past few weeks we have encountered a dramatic illustration of bad shepherds for we have been reminded that there were leaders who acted horribly in how they treated indigenous children in the Residential Schools all across Canada. In a very real sense many of those who survived these schools were left “scattered” and not just geographically; they were scattered in terms of knowing who they were and where they belonged. They were left scattered in the sense of not knowing what to do with their painful and often traumatic experiences. They were driven from living normal lives, they were not attended to and now they are in deep pain, a pain that has intensified because of the discovery of unmarked graves that demonstrate one more way in which they were not attended to.

            Personally I have wondered what I might do and wondered how I could respond to the pain that many in the Indigenous community feel deeply. One thing that I came across and found helpful was something written by a Cree leader by the name of Edmund Metatawabin who wrote this:

“There is no concept of justice in Cree culture. The nearest word is kintohpatatin, which loosely translates to “you’ve been listened to.” But kintohpatatin is richer than justice – really it means you’ve been listened to by someone compassionate and fair, and your needs will be taken seriously.”
― Edmund MetatawabinUp Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History

            Personally I find it painful to hear the stories of survivors but listen to them I must; it is one thing I can do. I cannot heal the pain of all those who have suffered. I cannot bring back all those who have been scattered and bring them into a safe and comfortable place. 

            But I can do something that demonstrates the kind of compassion that Jesus demonstrated by listening to the stories. Directly or indirectly I can sit not just with the Indigenous People whose pain we have been so sharply reminded of these past few weeks, but with all those who are wounded and lonely and suffering whether they are members of my family or those who are my friends or my neighbours.

            In the Gospel lesson Jesus extends grace and mercy to all who come to him – some he teaches, some he heals and some he simply pays attention to. We can do the same. By our presence and with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, these seemingly small actions will be part of something that Jesus, the great shepherd does in the hearts of those who are scattered in mind and spirit. Amen.