Readings for proper 11: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
“Woe to the shepherds”. What is the role of the shepherd, what do they do?
They look after the sheep, providing them with food, water and health care. Hopefully there is empathetic care such that shepherds see them not as any old sheep, but as their sheep. Shepherd as provide security, protection from danger: wild animals, thieves, bad weather. Shepherds hopefully plan ahead, ensuring that when they move their flock they will be moving them to new pasture with plenty of grass, or in the winter plenty of shelter and in the summer plenty of shade. Shepherds need to pre-empt situations requiring extra input: lambing time, shearing, the rut. Shepherds need to keep their flocks together, not letting the sheep stray apart, becoming lost or isolated.
Good shepherds do all this with love and willing self-sacrifice (because it is their raison d’etre). Bad shepherds on the other hand are uncommitted to their flock, distracted by self-interest and easily loose the plot. The message that Jeremiah preaches is that God sees the short-comings, the wickedness of the bad shepherds and their treatment of God’s flocks. And in response God will raise up new, good shepherds and God’s flocks will be revived and will flourish.
In the next paragraph, Jeremiah’s words speak of the coming messiah, the one we know as Jesus who is the ultimate good shepherd. This image of good shepherding is reprieved in today’s psalm.
But what does good shepherding look like today? Who are our shepherds? What if our shepherds were our political leaders?
Do our political leaders ensure that everyone has enough food and healthy food? Or do they let some people go hungry and malnourished? Why are there so many food banks? What standards of nutrition are provided in schools, hospitals, prisons etc?
Do they ensure we all have access to clean water and do they ensure safe disposal of sewage (even if they have contracted this out to the private sector)?
Do they ensure everyone who is ill, whether physically or mentally, receives prompt treatment? Do they provide preventative treatments and programmes to promote well being?
Do they ensure the security of their ‘flock’? Do they have resources in place to prevent race and hate crime, to prevent traffic accidents, house fires – and fires in tower blocks? Do they maintain a properly funded system of law and order that offers everyone the right to justice?
Do they plan for the future? For the knowns such as climate change, and the unknowns such as pandemics?
Are they motivated by self interest or by a desire to care for their flock? What is the source of their motivation, their vocation?
Maybe it is not just politicians that are our shepherds, what about our business leaders, our civil servants, diplomats? The police and emergency services, the armed forces, medics and Carers, GPs? What if they are our farmers, environmentalists, teachers, researchers and scientists? What if they are our neighbours – and if so are we their ‘shepherds?
I rather suspect that God must look on us with dismay. If in Jeremiah’s day, God called out prophets to speak the truth, to expose the shortcomings of those in power, I am sure that God is today calling out to those willing to become prophets. Those prophets maybe you and me, for even if onl9y in small ways, we can call out the short comings of those in leadership roles, we can sign petitions, join marches, we can create prophetic actions in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and in the tradition of the actions of Jesus – who fed the hungry, healed the sick, questioned the authorities and challenged unjust interpretations of the law.
If in Jeremiah’s day, God was promising to raise up new, good shepherds, ones who would be in due time be followers of the Son of David, then I am even more sure that today God is still seeking out and raising up new leaders who will follow the example of Jesus, who are willing to commit body and soul to the well being of their fellow beings – both humans and creatures, flora and fauna. And it may well be that you and I are being called to be such leaders or shepherds, even if only in small ways. A Shepherd is perhaps the better image as it links us back to the calling that God gave Adam in Genesis 2, to tend and care for the earth and all that it contains.
The passage to the Ephesians reminds us of the importance of inclusivity. Jeremiah talks of God bringing together disparate, scattered flocks to create one unified whole. When we look around us, we see the damage caused by separating people into them and us groups, of pushing people into haves and and have-not groups, of working against each other rather than cooperating, of seeking self interest rather than the common good. So it is good to be reminded that it is by working together that we create God’s dwelling place on earth.
The passage from Mark’s gospel records how the disciples returned, having completed their mission to preach and bring healing to the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns and villages – of which we heard a couple of weeks ago, when they went out in pairs with neither purse nor spare clothes. It would seem that they return tired but perhaps also with lots of stories and questions that they want to share with Jesus. So Jesus takes them away to a quiet place – admittedly they don’t get long there before their rest is interrupted – as however much we want to be good shepherds, good missioners, good disciples, we are not superhuman, we need time to rest and recharge, to unload our burdens and to be refreshed.
Take time to unburden yourself with God – as in today’s psalm, God wishes to let you rest in green places and walk by quiet waters.