Text: Mark 6:30-34
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
A vicar was talking to the children about the 23rd Psalm. He told them about sheep, that they’re not very clever and need lots of guidance, and that a shepherd’s job is to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering off and doing stupid things that would get them hurt or killed.
He pointed to the little children in the room and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance.
Then the vicar put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, “If you are the sheep then who is the shepherd?” He was pretty obviously indicating himself.
A silence of a few seconds followed. Then a young visitor said, “Jesus: Jesus is the shepherd.”
The vicar, obviously caught by surprise, said to the young visitor, “Well then, who am I?”
The visitor frowned thoughtfully and then said with a shrug, “I guess you must be a sheep dog.”
You will have noticed that there is a strong theme of the shepherd running through our readings today, an image which runs throughout the scriptures.
The psalms are effectively the worship manual of the Children of Israel, their book of hymns and prayers. They are the hymns and prayers that Jesus himself would have been familiar with, and used in daiy worship. They still form the great core of Jewish and Christian daily prayer today, as anyone who has joined in Morning prayer on a Monday will know. The 23rd psalm is possibly the best known psalm in the book, most familiar in the old King James translation
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
It was written by King David, and has been used in the worship of God ever since. I certainly remember learning it by heart as a ten year old at summer holiday club, and perhaps some of you have special memories of it as well, sung at weddings, recited at a loved one’s funeral, or simply as the theme tune to the Vicar of Dibley.
The image is of God as leader of his people, yet as intimately involved with them as a shepherd is with his sheep, desiring all that enables them to grow, and enjoy life in all it’s abundant pleasure, and accompanying and protecting them through darker and difficult times.
In the final week of last term I had a conversation, at college, with my friend Lizzie, who is spending the next nine months volunteering in a community which serves and lives alongside homeless people in London. She had been thinking about what the shepherd’s care for his sheep actually meant. She reflected that, in the days before intensive farming, the shepherd doesn’t actively feed the sheep, in the same way that you put out a bowl of dog or cat food. The shepherd is the one that knows the terrain, knows where the good, nourishing grass is, with freshwater nearby, knows where and when to move from the high to the low pastures, before the weather turns nasty, and leads the sheep accordingly, so that they can live and grow in comfort.
Jeremiah, the prophet describes how those appointed by God as shepherds of his people have gone terribly wrong. At the time Jeremiah is writing the leaders have disobeyed God’s clear instructions, sent through his prophets, to wait faithfully for God to act. They have tried to work out their own political solutions to the country’s problems and it has all gone horribly wrong. This has led to a situation in which they were under seige and paying vast amounts in protection to Babylon, the bullies on the block, which meant that the people were taxed to the point of starvation, and exile is imminent. Think about the sort of political shenanigans that went on before the second world war. The people are living in fear. Jeremiah has two messages for the people of Israel, one for the leadership and one for the flock or ‘remnant’. The leadership are to be held to account for their evil acts. The appalling situation in which the people are now living is their fault, and they will not go unpunished. The scattered flock, however, will be gathered up by God, and brought back to safety where they will flourish. God will provide them with new leaders, who will take proper care of them, and they will have no fears. Eventually a particular Shepherd-King will be born, a descendent of David, the greatest King of Israel’s golden age, who will rule with justice and righteousness, and the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah will be restored and live in peace.
Nearly 600 years after Jeremiah prophesied, Jesus, this Shepherd King descendant of David is on the scene. The disciples are beginning to understand just how rich life is under his loving leadership. They were sent out, as we heard last week, in pairs to cast out demons, heal the sick, and preach the good news that the kingdom of God is near. They have discovered a fulfillment and purpose in their lives that they never believed was possible. Now they have returned, and you can almost picture the excitement as they gather around Jesus jostling to tell him, and one another, all that they’ve seen and done. Catching fish or collecting taxes was never this exciting. The sick are healed, and demons driven out in the name of Jesus, the shepherd king. But it has been an exhausting time for the disciples, working to proclaim the Kingdom. They have been so busy they haven’t even had time to eat properly. As a caring shepherd Jesus first words to them are ‘Come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while’. In our increasingly hectic and stressful lives we need to listen to his voice. ‘Come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while’. It is an invitation issued, as all of Jesus invitations are, for our own good. His words are “Come away” not “Go away”. The gospel makes it clear that Jesus goes with the disciples in the boat. He is not sending us away, punishing us for all that we have failed to do, withdrawing privileges by cutting us off from all of our frantic activity, but rather he is seeking to meet our deeper needs, not of busyness, especially that busyness that we create to hide from our failings, but of rest with him, with him where we can be most truly ourselves. Any relationship can flounder if we are so busy doing stuff for the other person, that we barely have time to spend with them. We need to listen to his voice, ‘Come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while’, with him, in his presence, where we have the time and space to recapture our first love. One of the most rewarding ways to respond to this invitation is to spend time on pilgrimage, setting aside time especially for prayer and worship, bible study, and relaxation, in the company of others seeking to know more of Jesus, and encounter him afresh. (If you are interested in exploring this further see Fr Simon after the service for details of the parish pilgrimage to Walsingham…)
But when he sees the great crowds that do not know him, Jesus has compassion on them, for they are like sheep without a shepherd, and so he begins to teach them, to provide them with the nourishment that they need. This great Shepherd King, the descendant of King David, is different from all other shepherds. He does actively feed his flock. Today as we gather here, in a quiet place, away from the rest of the world, He issues us with another invitation for our own good. As bread is broken and wine is poured out, he invites us to gather around his table and feed on him.