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A WORD FOR TODAY, July 14, 2021
Scriptures for July 18, 2021, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-44
“‘I will set up shepherds over them, who will feed them. They will no longer be afraid or dismayed, neither will any be lacking,’ says Yahweh.” Jeremiah 23:4, WEB
What is leadership? This is a question for all time, but it seems to be particularly pertinent for our time. We have watched corporations fall apart because of poor leadership. Politicians of every stripe are questioned about their decisions in their public and private lives. It even happens in churches and families. What is the right way to lead a group of people? What is the best thing to do for the sake of the group and for those group serves or encounters? How many leaders are concerned about their people? Unfortunately, too many are actually most concerned about power and position.
Jeremiah passed on a word of warning to the leaders in Israel: they had failed to care for God’s people and God was ready to take over. He would take care of everyone, including the leaders. Unfortunately for them, God would take care of them by calling them to account. They would experience the same measure of care they gave to those who were given to them. What if the leaders had to live according to the same expectations as they place as burdens on their people? It seems that many leaders lived, and still live, by the adage, “Do as I say, not as I do.” What if they had to live according to their own words? Would things be any different?
Many leaders forget that they are not the king of the hill or they don’t realize that there is always someone who is working to push them off. Then what happens? What happens when the abusive father becomes old and unable to care for himself? Does he receive the same mercy he gave to his children? Does the corporate CEO stay in power by stepping on the little people who make the company work? The good leader is the one who realizes that the burden is on his or her shoulder. When the leaders take care of those people who are in their care, then those people will do everything they can to make the leader successful.
We have all had experiences in the church that have been disappointing and hurtful. We all know a council president who was focused more on his power than on God’s will or what was right for the church. We all know the committee chair who has lots of ideas but who does not want to do any of the hard work. We all know a pastor who is so busy with the business of church that he has forgotten to be a shepherd to his sheep. We also know that none of us are perfect. It is important for us to remember that we are all sinners in need of a Savior.
We live in a world where individuals will always have differences of opinion, even when it comes to God’s grace. An orphan will understand the idea of our Father in a much different way than someone who grew up in a strong family or someone who experienced abuse. That doesn’t change God at all. God is God. He is I AM. We see Him through the eyes of our own experiences and our own little corner of the world, but our common denominator Jesus Christ gives us new eyes and a new attitude. We love those imperfect leaders and fellow workers because that is God’s will for us. We can’t see God through their eyes and we can’t expect that they will see Him through ours. We can only dwell together and love each other as children of the God who is big enough to reach us all.
The healthiest Christian congregations are those who have a good leader and people who can live together despite any differences. We don’t all agree on politics. Not everyone will like a certain hymn. Pot lucks will be filled with food from many different traditions, some of which might not satisfy every palate. We may even have disagreements about certain doctrines, but the healthy community learns to find unity in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the One who can break down all the barriers between us. We don’t have to be the same to belong to God and to do His work in the world. We need others to share their experiences so that we know that God is truly greater than we can ever imagine. Do we really want to worship a God who fits into our tiny little boxes?
The passage from Ephesians specifically talks about the difference between Gentile and Jew, but we have our own borders and walls that can be broken down by the love of Christ. We separate ourselves for a multitude of reasons like age, gender, race, nationality, intelligence, class, ideology, politics... We also separate ourselves based on petty or trivial reasons. How many congregations live in tension between groups that disagree about the insignificant aspects of church life? How many congregations are made up of different groups that can’t seem to work together? Some folk think the mission of the church is to feed the poor and that we should focus on social justice and political issues. Others think that our mission is to take God’s Word into the world. Yet others think church is to feed and care for the believers. To embrace one and ignore the others is to reject the full measure of God’s calling for our lives. Jesus took care of the physical, mental and spiritual needs of His disciples even while caring for the physical, mental and spiritual needs of others. In just a few short lines in today’s Gospel story, Jesus did it all.
There must be a hundred sermons found in this week’s lectionary texts and I am certain that if you went to a hundred different churches you would hear them all. These topics or themes touch our lives very deeply; they reach us right where we are in this day. Are we confused? There is hope. Are we mourning? There is hope. Do we need to be challenged to reach beyond ourselves? There is hope. Are we afraid that there is no hope? By God's grace, there is always hope. There is hope even when we seem to be so fiercely divided because we have a common bond: Jesus Christ. Jesus is the promised Shepherd who would lead God’s people according to His good and perfect will.
While there are those who might not be able to relate to the idea of God as Father, we can see in today's psalm that God is everything a Father is meant to be. He is the One who provides everything we need: food, water, shelter, guidance, protection and love. Did God hand us the keys to our home or do the grocery shopping? Of course not. However we can trust that through good times and bad, God will be by our side. The ultimate fear is death, but we all walk through different types of valleys as we live in this world. We walk through the valleys of illness, broken relationships, and financial insecurity. We walk through the valleys of doubt, confusion, and pain. We walk through the valleys of anger, hatred and fear. We experience difficult times, things that affect our understanding of our neighbors, of the world and of our God.
Rabbi Harold Kushner was once interviewed by Bob Abernathy about his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” He said, “The twenty-third Psalm is the answer to the question ‘How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?’ People who have been hurt by life get stuck in ‘the valley of the shadow,’ and they don’t know how to find their way out. And that’s the role of God. The role of God is not to explain and justify but to comfort, to find people when they are living in darkness, take them by the hand, and show them how to find their way into the sunlight again.” The sheep know they are safe when the shepherd is nearby. The crowds knew they had hope when they saw Jesus. This is the key to life: living in faith, trusting in the God who is never far away, whether He is like a Father or a Shepherd or a King. He is all of those and so much more.
Jesus never worried about His power and position. As a matter of fact, He often hid from the crowd that wanted to make Him an earthly king. His concern was for the people, to ensure that they received the kind of care that God desired for them. He was in a right relationship with both His people and His Father in Heaven. What makes good leadership is an understanding that although He is the Master, He is also the Servant. We could use more leaders like that in our world today, in corporate leadership and politics and the church and our homes.
There are always times of upheaval, however. Take, for instance, the period of time after a pastor leaves. If the pastor leaves on good terms, it is likely that the church will move on and be able to call a new pastor to take his or her place. I’ve been in churches like that. Though the call process is always difficult, a good leader will prepare the people to make a healthy transition to someone new. I’ve also been in churches where the pastor did not leave on good terms. The frustration and anger that was already building within that body of Christ became even worse. There was no agreement on the future of those congregations, which made it even harder to choose someone to lead.
Most circumstances are mixed. A time of transition in any organization is a time to discover the problems that exist. I was in a congregation where a beloved pastor retired. He did as was proper, separating from the community for a time so that the new pastor could establish his own leadership. Unfortunately, the new pastor did not meld well with some of the staff. Changes were necessary. Some people left the church because of those changes; they were angry about those decisions. In the end everything turned out well and some of those that left returned. The retired pastor eventually came back to fellowship with us again as a member, but he gave the community enough time to overcome the challenges, to establish relationships with new staff and to figure out the vision for our future. He allowed the congregation to move forward without him as those tough decisions were made.
It took a humble man, a good leader, to step aside to give room for another to establish his own ministry in our congregation. Former pastors often refuse to let go; they fight to keep the status quo, making it impossible for a new pastor to do what he or she is called to do. Christians are human. We make mistakes. We feel emotions. We get angry, hurt, and frustrated. We are opinionated. We think we know best. Christian leaders are as human as the rest of us.
Yet, there are many examples of leaders who do what is right. The pastor who retired knew his time was finished and he stepped away. George Washington was offered the title of king, but he refused, knowing that his time as president was only temporary. Even Jesus trained others to follow His ministry, to do His work when He was gone. These good Shepherds were more concerned about the welfare of those to whom they were charged to lead, and because they had this attitude the people who surrounded them loved them and worked for the best interest of all. That’s the way of a good shepherd.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we see that particularly in the Gospel passage for today. In this story, Jesus greeted the returning apostles who had been out in the world sharing the grace of God. They saw amazing things. They did amazing things. They were exhilarated, but also exhausted. Jesus knew they needed to rest.
I am making plans for a vacation in a month. The trip is mostly about going home, seeing family, and attending my class reunion. I am have enough time that I’m trying to find something touristy to do. I have been searching the Internet, trying to find a hike I might enjoy or an attraction that would be fun. I’ve thought about bird watching, chasing waterfalls, visiting a zoo or a show. I really like to find activities where I can use my camera, like parks with beautiful scenery. My favorite vacations are those when I come home with a visual diary of God’s beautiful world. I also need to remember that this vacation is a chance to rest.
A few years ago we went to West Texas. We stayed in Alpine and traveled to places like Fort Davis and Big Bend to enjoy the history and the nature. That region of Texas, particularly in Big Bend National Park, is one of the most diverse landscapes in the world. It is mountainous and desert. We spent time along the Rio Grande. Every turn or rise of a hill brought us to a brand new scene, each more incredible than the last.
Texas mountains might not be as tall as those in other states, but they rise to impressive heights none the less. These desert mountains are covered with flora and fauna that thrive in arid climates. We saw coyote, snakes, lizards, road runners, buzzards and a peregrine falcon. Since the mountains were built by volcanic activity, many were covered with great rock clusters and with layers of different colored rock. The mountains that rise south of the Rio Grande in Mexico are as beautiful as those on the U.S. side, reminding us that God’s creativity knows no borders.
The Rio Grande in many places is not a terribly impressive river. It was not very wide; an average baseball player could easily throw a ball across the water in some places. It is very long, of course, creating a natural border between Texas and Mexico. It cuts through some of the most beautiful canyons in the world, with walls that tower a thousand feet above the surface of the water. The river can get a little muddy after rain showers, but it still shimmers in the sunshine and reminds us of the continuity of God’s grace, taking life giving waters where they will be used to sustain God’s living creatures along the way.
Vacations like the one from a few years ago and the one I’m planning to take can help us see that God is never far from us. We see Him in the stars, mountains, desert, and river. We see how much He loves His creation in birds, waterfalls, and gardens filled with flowers. We will trust in the Good Shepherd that we know is near, and as we trust in Him, we can find rest even when we are walking through the valleys of life, whatever they might be for us.
Imagine how incredible it must have been for the disciples. They had seen the power of God at work through their lives. They were excited when they returned to Jesus, telling Him everything they had done. I can almost see the chaos as James and John wouldn’t let the either get a word in edgewise before interrupting with his own version, Andrew praising God for the lives changed and Peter trying to get things organized in some way. What about Judas? He must have cast out demons and healed the sick just like the rest of them.
They didn’t even have time to rest before the people came looking for them. They weren’t just seeking Jesus now because they knew that the disciples also had this power to change lives. Jesus was concerned for their health: physical as well as emotional and spiritual. He took them away so that they could rest and eat, but they also needed time away from the admiration of the crowd. It would have been so easy to become proud of their accomplishments and to forget that it was God’s power that made the good things happen.
They slipped away by boat, but the people saw where they were headed and ran to meet them on the shore. Jesus saw the people, who needed so much, and He had mercy on them. They were like the sheep that had been scattered and they needed shepherds who could meet their needs. All their needs.
If you were Jesus, what would you do? He was faced with a difficult decision. The apostles needed to rest, but the people chasing them needed a shepherd. It might seem like Jesus is shirking His duties as their shepherd by turning to help the crowds. In this text, however, we see how Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise in Jeremiah. He was the shepherd who would care for the flock that the leaders ignored. He stepped in where He was needed and did what He needed to do. He took care of the sheep who were desperate to find a shepherd. Wherever Jesus went the people needed Him, not just to do the miracles but to be the fulfillment of the promise. They needed the Messiah.
Of course, we know that not everyone believed that He was the Messiah. Not everyone followed Him. Some ran to Him on these occasions just to get what they could out of Him, but Jesus served for the sake of the Father. Whether they understood or not, Jesus had to do what He’d been sent to do, and that was give the Kingdom to the people. Since many of the Jews rejected Jesus, the message was given to others. Many Gentiles heard and believed. Because Jesus became the shepherd of Psalm 23, we have the forgiveness and grace that we need to be part of that Kingdom.
He had compassion on the crowds and began to teach. The day ended much too quickly and the people were far from home. Jesus was preaching to the people and the disciples came to Him. “This place is deserted, and it is late in the day. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages, and buy themselves bread, for they have nothing to eat.” Jesus answered, “You give them something to eat.”
These guys just came home from the most amazing “revival tour” where they had been doing the work of God in extraordinary ways. Yet, when Jesus told them to feed the people, they answered in a huff, “Where are we supposed to get food? Even if it were available, we don’t have the money to feed so many!” Jesus told them to find some bread and they found five loaves and two fish. Jesus blessed it and they fed the people, with baskets full of leftovers.
Our leaders will fail. We will still get thirsty, hungry, tired, lost, hurt and lonely, but we can rest in the knowledge that Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He is the fulfillment of the promise. He is the Messiah. He has given us the forgiveness and made us part of the Kingdom so we can walk in faith and do the work He has called us to do. As we trust Him, and walk by faith, we will see that He can do extraordinary things in the world and He will do them through us.
We won’t like everyone with whom we are called to work for God’s kingdom. Sometimes our disagreements will be impossible to overcome. Our hope is not found in the earthly decisions we have to make together, but in the reality that we are gathered together to worship God. I suppose one day the lessons will be learned and the people will be united by more than just the blood of Christ. But even when there is no agreement, there is unity because God is with us in the midst of it all.
This week’s texts are filled with so many wonderful images. There is the Old Testament promise that though the shepherds abandon their flock, God will provide a Good Shepherd. We are comforted by Psalm 23, especially when we are dealing with the valleys of our lives. We see the community of believers through the eyes of Paul who notes that all believers were once far from God, but God draws us together. The Gospel lesson show us the compassion of Christ as found in His love for the disciples and the crowds. The Word of God was drawing people to the community of believers that Jesus created. He is the center, but He was building the disciples into one body, and He continues to build us into that Temple, His Temple. In Christ we are bound together as one.
It is not always easy living in that temple. Unfortunately, the differences that separate us often lead us into places we would rather not go. There are dark valleys even in the heart of the church, as the differences between people are magnified by the passions of those called to serve. Sometimes it seems impossible to find rest. We are reminded of something in today’s texts, though. God is with us through it all. He has never promised to make it easy, but He has promised to be there.
Our neighbor on the church pew or in the congregation down the street is no less or no more a Christian than us even if they see God and our mission differently. We were all once far away and now we are one, dwelling in the temple of God. Jesus did not come to accomplish the things that we have on our checklist or in our agenda. He didn’t come just for the body or the mind or the spirit. He came to bring wholeness to each of us and to the world. He feeds us physically, mentally and spiritually. He heals our body, our mind and our spirit. He makes us whole as individuals and as the body of Christ.
We can’t do the work of the Kingdom alone. That is why God calls us into community; we are one body made up of people from all sorts of different backgrounds with different gifts and passions. We can’t do what we are called to do it if we hold each other and our idea of mission against one another. We have a common bond: Jesus Christ. It is by His blood that we are reconciled to God and drawn together as one body. Most of all, we need to follow the greatest leader, our Good Shepherd, who will always lead us in the right path. With Him we can be the shepherds who continue His work, doing the amazing things He has called and sent us into the world to do.
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