Rest for sheep

This sermon was preached by Helen Kennedy while Jamie was away at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville Minnesota.

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Todays Gospel section of lectionary is a cut and splice piece. It comes
right on the heels of the death of John the Baptist, imprisoned for speaking out his prophetic voice, then beheaded because of the wishes of a vindictive woman. He serves as a warning that when you speak truth into a situation often you will not be welcomed with open arms, more often than not you will loose your head. Without even a pause we then hear about the apostles coming back from their first mission trip, sent to speak truth of the kingdom. They had been sent in twos, told to carry nothing but the clothes they stood up in. They had been hard at work. It was the first recorded instance of them going out alone without Jesus, doing ministry in his name—something we as later disciples are accustomed to. They preached, they cast out demons, they anointed with oil those who were sick, they called people to wake up to God’s call and purpose for their lives. On their return they were excited to tell all, share what they had done, there was lots of coming and going, not even time to eat says the text.
Jesus apparently saw tiredness written all over their faces and responded. Come away for a while, he said, and rest. Take a break and have a bit of time alone. They are invited to go away alone to a deserted place. I can only imagine that it was for a time to reflect a bit about what has been done, what had been taught. It may have been a time for Jesus to explain about John, to warn them that they have struggles ahead. We can never know because the crowds recognise him and gather round.

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The piece that follows which is cut from the lectionary reading is the
feeding of the 5000, I think it is a mistake to separate a story like this from
its context. This story is central to the writing of Mark; it is pure gospel.
The episode of feeding those people reveals the person and work of Jesus
more overtly than any other gospel story. Also it’s place within the
overarching story is not insignificant. The importance of food and
community cannot be overstated as a primary function of first century life
in the Mediterranean. You do get to hear the story but from John’s
perspective next week. What we do miss is Mark’s rich theology expressed
in his two feeding stories. The first one, in a Jewish region, reconciles Jews.
The second one, the feeding of the 4000, on gentile territory, reconciles
gentiles.

So sticking with the text. Jesus and the disciples get in their boat and
head over to the other side of the lake. The crowd were waiting on the
other side when the boat docked. Jesus has compassion on the crowd who
looked a bit lost, maybe even a bit desperate. This phrase “sheep without a
shepherd” is not new and was used in biblical scenes where God stands
over and against abusive shepherds, such as the likes of Herod, those who
no longer care for their sheep. It is a common image going as far back as
captivity in Egypt.

In light of his own failing Moses requested God to appoint someone
over the congregation, someone “who shall go out before them and come in
before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the
congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd,” a
quote from Numbers. To this request God responds by suggesting Joshua
yeshua, in Hebrew, the same name as Jesus, a coincidence that, I’m sure
Mark fully intends. It was Joshua who lead the people to the promised
land.

The prophet Ezekiel speaks on behalf of God when he says, “Behold,
I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares
for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care
for my sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were
scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the
peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own
land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in
all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and
their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they
will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the
mountains of Israel. I will feed my flock and I will lead them to rest,”
declares the Lord God. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind
up the broken and strengthen the sick.” Zechariah also draws from this
prophetic tradition of “sheep without a shepherd,” he sees it as a critique of
the ruling religious class who do not care about the people.

So Jesus is the Shepherd and we are the sheep. I did a bit of research on
sheep, they are not the most resourceful of creatures, sheep are timid and
easily frightened. Fear prevents them from doing things that are good for
them. They have a mob mentality, doing what every other sheep is doing.
If one gets spooked and runs, the others will run. They follow the same
trail, and can ruin the land because they will not go and find better grass,
because it is what they know. They fight and butt each other, if left on their
own. When the shepherd shows up they stop behaving so badly towards
each other. All kinds of flying insects head straight for their nose, if these
pests get inside, this can lead to diseases, laying of eggs and other
disgusting things inside their body. A sheep will beat its head against a
tree trying to get these bugs out, or shake its head for hours on end. When
the shepherd sees this happening, he puts oil on the nose to prevent the
flies going in there. They have to have a good water supply, they are too
frightened to drink from fast flowing streams and so will die of thirst rather
than take the risk of drinking. A sheep will not lie down and rest unless it
is fed, watered, and feels safe with the shepherd whose voice it knows. If
those things are not taken care of, the sheep will continue walking until
they drop. The life expectancy of a flock then, depends very much on the
ability of the shepherd to look after them.

I see many similarities, our culture runs on fear, our news is full of it.
One person gets spooked so we all run. We forget how to treat people
without a constant reminder, and we let annoying little things get up our
nose and drive us crazy, sometimes to the point of self destruction. We are
not alone in these sheepish traits. The Hebrews were too afraid to keep
believing that God was a good shepherd. They were skittish, unsure of
their own identity, seduced by the surrounding culture, and so wandered
off. They frequently ended up in slavery, sheep without a shepherd. Today
our slavery is self-constructed, self-imposed, and therefore far more
difficult to detect. We are enslaved to notions of success, and therefore put
few limits on work. We are enslaved to the belief that the only thing that
will bring contentment is more. In light of all this, listen again to Jesus’
simple invitation to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and
rest awhile.” This is an invitation to be counter cultural and step back and
away from all the things that usually drive and consume us. But that’s
hard to do. In Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd, we are not simply
invited to rest but instructed, “he makes me lie down in green pastures.”
We are a people that desperately need rest yet resists it and so end up
having to be commanded to do so. An example of a good shepherds in our
lives are people who insist that we understand the importance of time and
space for pure and simple rest. We will meet the crowds again and again in
the gospels. There will always be someone who wants something from
you. Always! Jesus teaches what he has learned from old, all the way back
to the teachings of Moses and the Sabbath commandment.

Invited by Jesus to simply rest. A break from all the bustle and
activity. Rest. A chance to renew, to stop, to slow. Rest. An end of work, if
only for a little while. Rest. We are not sheep without a shepherd, we have
an invitation, opportunity, and even commandment to stop doing the
slavish, sheepish thing, so that we can simply be. Rest. What a beautiful
word! As our shepherd tells us we should try it sometime.

AMEN

One Response to Rest for sheep

  1. Byronmodonnell says:

    Terrific sermon!

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