Pastor Michael Frye:
In our first lesson today, Jeremiah is warning the leaders of Israel (who were often referred to as shepherds of the nation) that God was displeased with their lack of attention to God’s precious sheep, the people:
“It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.
“So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.
“Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they will be fruitful and multiply.”
These were distressing words to those ineffectual leaders, but they were words of encouragement to the people who had been neglected and ostracized for so long.
Christian theologians have interpreted Jeremiah’s final words in this passage to mean that Jesus would be the branch of David who would be the great shepherd of the sheep who would execute justice and righteousness in the land so that he might create in himself “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”
And Jeremiah goes on to say, “And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, you can’t get much plainer than that.
In the eyes of God, there is only one people, one flock, and one Shepherd to tend, lead, and protect the flock.
Saint Paul picks up on that theme in today’s reading to the Ephesians, speaking to both the Gentiles and the Jews with these words:
“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
“He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it….”
“Making peace” and “Putting to death” hostility.
These are things that Jesus worked so hard on as he traveled from place to place preaching and healing, training his followers to follow in his footsteps, encouraging the laws of loving God and loving one another over adherence to laws which separate and divide us as one people, one flock of Christ, the Good Shepherd.
The Gospel of Mark shows us two aspects of Christ’s ministry.
First, although Jesus was pleased with his disciples’ successes after having gone into villages preaching and healing, he was also concerned about their well-being.
Jesus showed that care and concern by suggesting that they go on retreat to a deserted place by themselves to rest and enjoy a meal together.
It shows that Jesus does care about the whole person – physically, emotionally, spiritually.
Although Jesus desires to see that the work of the kingdom is done, he is also mindful that the welfare and well-being of those doing ministry is vital to the success of that mission.
This is one good reason Christians seek out sabbath rest for worship, prayer, and a holy meal at Christ’s table.
Karen Yust reminds us that gathering as a faith community to rest from our labors and partake of a common meal together is an important part of our life together as a family of faith.
However, the second aspect of Mark’s message today has to do with Jesus’ compassion for those whose needs were so great that they called for immediate action and attention, even as he and his disciples were pursuing a time for self-care.
In Mark’s words: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a Shepherd….”
How do we, as Christ’s disciples honor both of these teachings?
We must learn to trust God to provide for all our needs, whether through times of spiritual retreat or through actively ministering to the needs of others.
While we understand that God renews us in worship, the celebration of Holy Communion, and theological reflection, we know that God also sustains us when the needs of others unexpectedly interrupt our plans for retreat and reflection.
An ethics professor at Princeton Seminary asked for volunteers for an extra assignment.
About half the class met him at the library to receive their assignments.
The professor divided them into three groups.
He gave the first group envelopes telling them to proceed immediately across campus to Stewart Hall, telling them that they had fifteen minutes to get there.
Minutes later the professor gave the second group envelopes telling them that they had 45 minutes to get to Stewart Hall.
The third group of students got the same directions, but they were given three hours to get to Stewart Hall.
The students were unaware of it, but the professor had directed three drama student to meet each group along the way.
As each group approached the first drama student, he bent over and held his hand on his head moaning as if in great pain.
Further along the students came upon a man lying face down on the chapel steps as if he were unconscious.
Finally, on the steps of Stewart Hall, the students encountered the third drama student who appeared to be having a seizure.
In the first group of students that only had fifteen minutes to reach their destination, no one stopped to help any of the three apparent victims.
In the second group, two out of five students stopped to help at least one person. Out of the third group that had three hours, each of the students stopped to help people in apparent distress.
The professor’s point was that hurrying can hinder ministry, and that one must take the time to be present for those in need.
Jesus always took time, whether it was convenient or not.
Jesus took time, even if those to whom he ministered were strangers or people that the Jews considered to be unworthy or their enemies.
Jesus loved all his neighbors even when to do so would bring him into conflict with strict religious interpretations of law which Jesus felt unfairly kept him from doing what he knew to be God’s will.
And he taught those who followed him to do the same.
Karen Yust observes that the people in today’s gospel recognized Jesus as a healer.
If the church today is unrecognizable as a place of healing, then we need to reflect on what our mission and purpose is in the world and how we communicate that good news of healing grace.
We, the church, belong in the world rather than being cloistered in buildings set apart from that world.
Jesus did not wait in one place for the people to come to him; he actively sought them out.
Just as people come to the church seeking the grace of God, We as the body of Christ go into the brokenness of the world offering the healing hands of Christ to those who are reaching out to touch the fringe of Christ’s robe; because, in this world today, we are the fringe of Christ’s robe.
At the same time, we willingly accept Christ’s rest and peace to soothe our own hearts, minds, and souls.
As I was walking through the dairy section of the store the other day I walked past a father who was placing a gallon of milk into the cart where his young daughter sat.
She looked up at him, and with this sweet little voice said, “Daddy, I need cookies and milk.”
Her father smiled and responded: “Honey, you’ll get your cookies and milk; but first, we have things to do.”
We will receive the rest and peace that Jesus promises; but first, we have things to do….
That, sisters and brothers, is why we care.
In Christ’s name, and for his sake.