July 19, 2015 by jmar198013
Today’s sermon from Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. The Scriptures were 2 Samuel 7.1-14; Psalm 89.20-37; Ephesians 2.11-22; and Mark 6.30-34, 53-56. The sermon was primarily based on the Mark reading.
In our Old Testament reading today, we overheard King David lament to his court prophet Nathan, Look! I’m living in a cedar palace, but God’s chest is housed in a tent! (2 Sam. 7.2) Nathan replied, Go ahead and do whatever you are thinking, because the Lord is with you (2 Sam. 7.3). Did you notice that David didn’t actually spell out to Nathan what he wanted to do? He only pointed out something he perceived as a problem. Of course, Nathan knew what David was getting at. That night, God came to Nathan and told him to call David off his temple-building project. God said: I haven’t lived in a temple from the day I brought Israel out of Egypt until now. Instead, I have been traveling around in a tent and in a dwelling. Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple? And the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make a dynasty for you. I will raise up your descendant—one of your very own children—to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a temple for my name, and I will establish his royal throne forever (2 Sam. 7.6-7, 11b, 12b-13). Do you know what I hear in God’s response? I hear a sigh. I hear God saying, David, don’t fence me in! Until now, God has been a God on the move. A sojourner among his people. A traveling God. A free-range God. God knows what happens when people decide to go building temples. They begin to imagine that God is their private property. All too often, a temple is an attempt to domesticate God. I can’t help but think that Israel’s freedom-loving God had someone other than Solomon in mind when he promised David, I will raise up your descendant . . . to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom. That promise is finally fulfilled in Jesus, whom the broken beggars of Israel called, “Son of David” (Mark 10.45; cf. Matt. 9.27; Luke 18.38). This Jesus, who is the Word of God who became flesh and made his home among us (John 1.14). The sojourning, free-range God who lives among his people. In our Old Testament reading today, God told David: I took you . . . from following the flock, to be leader over my people Israel (2 Sam. 7.8). And in our Gospel reading, from Mark 6, we catch a glimpse of David’s shepherd instincts in Jesus. When a needy crowd flocked his way, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6.34). Jesus perfectly embodies the fierce, protective, nurturing shepherd’s heart that caused God to fall in love with David in the first place.
How did these sheep without a shepherd come flocking to Jesus? Just a couple of weeks ago, we listened to Mark tell the story of how Jesus was shooed out of his home town. The people there were scandalized by his teaching. Jesus didn’t sulk over the rejection of his neighbors and kin. He decided to expand his territory. Jesus organized his Twelve Apostles into tag-teams, and sent them out to heal the sick, cast out demons, and spread the word about God’s kingdom. Our story from Mark today picks up with the twelve missionaries returning to Jesus for a much-needed furlough. The Apostles had been so successful that people just kept streaming to them. Mark says that, Many people were coming and going, so there was no time to eat. It’s at that point that Jesus suggests a retreat. Come by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for a while, he tells them. It’s essential to our task as disciples and as the church that we hear Jesus tell his Apostles to take care of themselves. Unplug, disengage, take a nap. Go for a swim. Read a book. Take a hike. Eat a slow food meal. The sheep in need of shepherding kept flocking and bleating. But Jesus told his Apostles, You have to take care of yourselves, your souls, your needs, too. I’m sure the Apostles were uber-excited as they told Jesus everything they had done and taught. I bet they were also wore out. Exhausted. Haggard. What kinds of people need healing and exorcism? What kind of people will hear the upheaval God’s kingdom is bringing and call it good news? Is it the people who are already secure and comfortable in the current regime? Or is it broke-down, disgruntled, exploited and abused people? I suspect there wasn’t a whole lot of First World Problems in the healing line. I doubt the Apostles saw a lot of hangnails and paper cuts. Pretty sure they got the malnourished children from government housing with asthma and lead poisoning. They probably met a few homeless people with leg ulcers, and gangrene starting in their toes. They may have seen prostitutes with some interesting symptoms. Maybe more than a few veterans with PTSD. They got to see and hear and probably even smell trauma. They needed to take a rest from healing before they got sick, too.
You know, when I was a kid in Sunday school, we had these things called flannel graphs. Any of y’all grow up with flannel graphs in Sunday school? You have these paper cut outs you put up on faux Mediterranean backdrops to illustrate Bible stories. You ever noticed everyone in flannel graphs is always smiling? Like even the people on crutches coming to get healed? Look, Jesus and the Apostles didn’t really get the flannel graph people. Neither will we, you know. We’ll get disgruntled and bitter and ungrateful people. We’ll get the people who have failed a thousand times. We’ll get the people who have been failed a thousand times, too: Failed by their families. Failed by society. Failed by the system. Failed by the V.A. Failed by the church. People who have given all their money to televangelists and loan sharks and the dope man. People who’ve never had a good day in their life. That’s who sheep without a shepherd are. So the Apostles have been attending to these people for a hot minute. And Jesus tells them to come away someplace quiet and rest. And church, we’re going to need to obey those words if we’re going to be doing kingdom work. See, as you spend your time caring for all these people who have heart-wrenching stories and require a lot of extra grace, this thing called compassion fatigue sets in. Especially when you keep meeting people whose cards are just punched. Or as soon as you get one person healed and demon-free, ten more show up. You can get cynical. You can start to lose the empathy that nudged you to reach out in the first place. You get sick. Your thinking gets warped. You can’t see straight. You see a flock of sheep without a shepherd, and you convince yourself they’re really a pack of rabid wolves. Sometimes we get so bent we can’t tell a lost sheep from a hungry wolf. Jesus didn’t want that to happen to the Twelve, and he doesn’t want it happening to us. The only way to keep compassion fatigue at bay is to take a break and care for yourself, and be cared for by others. So Jesus invited the Twelve to get away and rest with him for a while. And, Mark tells us, they departed in a boat by themselves for a deserted place. Likewise, church, we need to nurture the connections between ourselves, God, and each other so that we don’t start seeing burdened people as burdens. We need these times of rest and enjoyment and contemplation in order to live the good news.
That’s precisely what Jesus and the Twelve were doing when they got on that boat. But their vacation was cut short. What Mark tells us went down would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. The people are so desperate that, when they see Jesus and the Twelve leave, they run around to the other side of the lake and get there first! You know what I’d probably do if something like that happened to me? No, wait . . . Do you know what I do when something like that happens to me? First, I whine. Then I complain. And then I get hostile, and say things I can’t unsay. Like, Why are you so needy?! Go find someone else to bother, I’m tired! You think Jesus was ever tempted to say something like that? I bet he was that day. But Mark tells us: he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. That raw, relentless, subversive emotion, compassion. I love Fred Buechner’s definition of compassion. He says: “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin.” Compassion tugs at our sleeves and grabs at our ankles and won’t let go. It doesn’t let us calculate who’s in and who’s out; who’s healthy and who’s sick; who’s native and who’s foreign. Compassion doesn’t care who’s the needy one and who’s the helper; who’s the wounded one and who’s the healer. Because compassion knows that all of us are all these things at one time or another. Compassion is what allows us to look at our enemy and call him our brother. It’s what provokes us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Compassion is the engine of God’s economy, where outreach and embrace always pay off. When Mark says Jesus looked at this flock of people and had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, he doesn’t mean that he felt sorry for them because they were lost and confused and threatened and homeless. Jesus didn’t feel for them; he felt with them. And that’s what provokes us to do something.
So compassion compels Jesus to put a much-needed and deserved family vacation on hold. What about these people ignited compassion in Jesus? They were like sheep without a shepherd. Now, that’s a pretty heart-wrenching image, isn’t it? We understand that this means they’re lost, directionless, vulnerable to attack by predators. What we might not understand is that, in the world of the Bible, the phrase sheep without a shepherd is loaded with significance. It is a politically-charged phrase, an indictment of failed leadership. Did you notice in the Old Testament reading from 2 Samuel, God referred to Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people (2 Sam. 7.7)? Or that he told David, I took you from the pasture, from following the flock, to be leader over my people Israel (2 Sam. 7.8)? The first time the phrase is used in Scripture is when Moses was praying about who would lead Israel after he died. Moses asked God for someone who will go out before them and return before them, someone who will lead them out and bring them back, so that the Lord’s community won’t be like sheep without their shepherd (Num. 27.17). You know what’s really cool? God appointed Joshua to lead the people after Moses died. And in the biblical languages, Joshua and Jesus are the same name. More foreshadowing, church. So when leadership is absent or weak or corrupt, the biblical way to describe the condition of the people is sheep without a shepherd. In fact, one of the most bitter judgments in Scripture about corrupt leadership trades exclusively in the metaphor of bad shepherds. Ezekiel 34.2ff says: Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves! You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice. Without a shepherd, my flock was scattered; and when it was scattered, it became food for all the wild animals. So when Jesus, the “Son of David”—the shepherd who became king—encountered this crowd of people at the end of their collective rope, I suspect he had an Ezekiel 34 moment. He was obviously heartbroken, but I think he was also outraged. Every framework, every structure, every safety net God had put in place to protect his people; to ensure justice and prosperity and peace; to promote the flourishing of human life—they’d all been compromised. They’d all broken down. The ones who should have been shepherds—Herod, the priests, the Sanhedrin, the synagogue leaders—had tended only to themselves. And so this flock that has run to Jesus is the result: sheep without a shepherd.
You know what I imagine they were like, in real human terms? The people who flocked to Jesus’ ancestor, the shepherd king, David. 1 Sam. 22.2 describes them like this: Everyone who was in trouble, in debt, or in desperate circumstances gathered around David, and he became their leader. Do you think Jesus attracted those same people? What do you think they were like? Were most of them unemployed, do you think? Were they sick? Were they tired? Were they afraid? Did some of them not know where their next meal was coming from? How many of them do you think could even read? These were neglected people: the temple system shut them out, the Pharisees said they were hopeless, while the Sanhedrin took their homes in the name of urban renewal. Mark tells us Jesus had compassion on this ragged flock, and that he began to teach them many things. What do you suppose he taught them? Did he teach them about tough love and personal responsibility? Do you think he taught them how to dress for success and be productive citizens in the Judean economy? Was Jesus the kind of guy to blame the victim? Did he kick people in the teeth? Would Jesus break a bruised reed or extinguish a faint wick (Isa. 42.3; cf. Matt. 12.20)? Do you maybe think he looked into the crowd and announced the good news of peace to [those] who were far away from God and to those who were near (Eph. 2.17)? Or perhaps he looked at some Samaritans and proclaimed: now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household (Eph. 2.19)? Maybe he reached out to people who had diseases or circumstances that made them “unclean” and excluded them from the temple and told them: I’ll make you into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord . . . where God lives through the Spirit (Eph. 2.21-22).
Whatever he taught them, Jesus fulfilled the vision of Ezek. 34.15 that day: I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the Lord God says. In the life and ministry of Jesus, God has been liberated from the temple. The free-range God is back, sojourning among his people. Nurturing them and giving them rest. In the person of Jesus, who will elsewhere say, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10.11). In Jesus, Son of David, God continues to travel among the scattered flock of Israel, strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, bringing back the strays, and seeking out the lost (cf. Ezek. 34.5). In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice (John 10.14, 3b-4). This is dramatically illustrated in the end of our Gospel reading for today, Mark 6.53-56: People immediately recognized Jesus and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was . . . They would place the sick in the marketplaces and beg him to allow them to touch even the hem of his clothing. Everyone who touched him was healed. The scattered flock of Israel—the poor, the sick, the dropouts, the outlaws, the tax collectors, the unclean—they recognize the good shepherd. They know his voice. Do we know his voice? The lost sheep of Israel know the Son of David. It’s always been Jesus: the good shepherd. The traveling God. The God who camps out among his people. And everyone who touches him is healed. And even as he gathered the lost sheep of Israel to himself, in John’s Gospel, Jesus made another bold claim: I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd (John 10.16). Of course, he means the Gentiles. Jesus has already broken down the barriers between the clean and unclean, the healthy and the sick. Now, even the Gentiles—the ones Jesus’ fellow Jews called pigs and dogs, but never sheep—are being brought into the fold. That’s what Paul was talking about in our New Testament reading today: Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace (Eph. 2.14‑15). One flock with one shepherd. One new humanity out of the two. This healing, reconciling, unifying work God began in Jesus continues on in his church. Church, the world is full of sheep without a shepherd. Just a thought for car conversation, now: Jesus said that his sheep hear his voice and follow him. He also said they won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice (John 10.5). Little flock, if the scattered sheep of the world aren’t flocking to the church, but running like the dickens from it, did you ever consider that maybe it’s not Jesus’ voice they’re hearing?
At the beginning of the lesson, we overheard David’s plan to build a house for God. And we heard God reply, No David—I’m going to build a house for you! I hope it’s become clear as we’ve journeyed with Jesus through Mark 6; and with Paul in Ephesians 2, that Jesus is the house that God built for David. That’s really what Paul was saying near the end of our reading today from Ephesians 2: you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit (Eph. 2.20-22). That’s what we’re gathered into through baptism. A temple without walls; a temple that doesn’t exclude; a temple that doesn’t make God private property. A place where Christ has broken down the barrier of hatred that divided us (Eph. 2.14). A living house that can travel with a free-range God. And you know what? If we believe the story we heard from Mark’s Gospel today, we’ll know we’re doing it right—that we truly are a place where God lives through the Spirit—when wherever we are, people are flocking to us with their wounds and their wounded. Grace and peace to you, church.