18 July 2021
Readings Jeremiah 23:1-6, Mark 6:30-34, 53-end
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A couple of years ago Vivienne and I arrived home at the Vicarage and parked in the drive. One of the flowerbeds at the front was a bit less full of plants than it is now and we noticed that there was something a bit odd about it. There was a rather large sheep standing on it. You can’t pull the wool over our eyes.
I guessed that the poor thing must belong to the people who keep sheep just behind the pond and, sure enough, they came over with a van and with some good shepherding and some dumb luck we managed to get her in the van and home.
Pope Francis once said that he wanted priests who smelled like their sheep, well I certainly smelt of sheep that day.
Although there are plenty of sheep in this part of Kent, and we see lots at the College too, I served my curacy on the edge of Romney Marsh which is sheep-central, and even has it’s own breed of sheep named after it. In places like Ivychurch and Fairfield the churches stand in the middle of the pasture and the flocks graze amongst the headstones and will wander into church if allowed.
Dotted across the marsh you will see small, 10ft square, brick-built structures, called Lookers Huts. There are only 20 left now but, at one time there were up to 350. They were used as primitive shelters by the Lookers whose job it was to look after numerous herds of sheep over a large area. They would spend a long time living on the marsh with their flocks and the huts would double as their shelter and their tool sheds. They were hardy men who dedicated their lives to looking after their flocks, and I suspect that they also smelled, quite strongly, of their sheep. Although before we get carried away and elevate them to Christ-like status as good shepherds of their flock I was also intrigued to read that the Romney Sheep were bred not to jump over the ditches and drains but if you got a feisty one that was causing trouble then the Lookers were not averse to having lamb chops that night, so the analogy only goes so far.
This week’s readings both use the imagery of the people of God being his flock who need to be cared for by good shepherds.
Jeremiah says that the people charged with looking after God’s people in his time, both the political and the religious leaders, have gone astray and, therefore, the flock has also gone astray:
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.”
God promises to punish those who have led the flock astray and then he makes three further promises – firstly to gather the scattered flock back together:
“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold”
secondly to raise up new shepherds:
“I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”
And last, but by no means least, God promises to raise up a new ruler from the House of David:
“I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
Jeremiah lived and was prophesying at around the year 650 BC and, in referencing King David, he is looking back about 400 years to the time when Israel had been a united, strong and proud nation and straight after David was his son Solomon who was wise and wealthy and Israel was at its height of power and influence.
But by the time of Jeremiah things had gone badly wrong – Israel and Judah were separate nations, they had suffered a series of ineffectual rulers and the stronger nations around saw them as a weak target. The Babylonians carried many away from Jerusalem as slaves and Jeremiah himself is believed to have died in exile in Egypt. The ‘flock’ was not regathered again for over 100 years and was gradually regaining its status when the Roman Empire invaded from the other direction. We are familiar with hearing about the uneasy peace between the Roman and Jewish leaders from the New Testament but, very shortly after the close of the New Testament period, that uneasy peace broke down into rebellion by the occupied people and suppression by the Romans which resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the razing to the ground of much of Jerusalem.
Today, the 18th July, is the Festival of Tisha B’Ev in Judaism which is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar when they remember that destruction of the Temple, but they also remember all the other calamities which have fallen the Hebrews, up to and including the Holocaust.
Following the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, once again the flock of Israel were scattered and this time the diaspora did not last 100 years but almost 2000 years, but from 1948 that flock has once again been re-gathered. Interestingly some Jews also regard Tisha B’Ev as the time when the Messiah will be born – the righteous branch from the line of David – as an antidote to the calamities of Israel.
Which, of course, brings us to Jesus. Although it is clear that Jesus did not drive out the Romans or act as King and Shepherd over his flock in his lifetime, in fact we just saw that things got worse for Israel only a few decades after the crucifixion, as Christians we are working with a longer time-scale – the coming again of Jesus – and with a bigger flock – not just the Jewish people but all those who are joined to that flock because of our call by Jesus.
In our reading from Mark the apostles had previously been sent out by Jesus to preach and teach and heal, and now they were returning to him and telling him everything they had been doing. One could see here the apostles both as the new trainee shepherds who had been out and about learning how to care for the flock, but one could also see them as Jesus’ flock coming back to gather around the good shepherd.
Jesus’ first concern is for the pastoral well-being of the apostles:
“He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”
The apostles may be the trainee shepherds but here they are Jesus’ inner flock, and he can see that they are worn out by their first taste of ministry, they need some rest and recuperation, even just some time to eat. So they went off on a boat. Don’t worry, I am not going to talk about boats again.
But the needs of the people for healing, for comfort, for hope, to have a new Shepherd, are so great that they run around the lake and get to the landing spot before Jesus and the apostles.
Although Jesus loves his inner-flock and wants to be pastoral to the apostles, when he sees the crowd he sees a larger flock who also need him:
“…he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
We sometimes talk about the passion of Christ, which means his suffering. To feel compassion for someone doesn’t just mean to feel a little bit sorry for them, it means to enter into their suffering with them. Real compassion is the ultimate form of empathy. God in Jesus is never dispassionate about the suffering of others but is always compassionate, which found its ultimate expression in his passion on the cross.
You may have noticed that there has been a great deal of sheep and shepherd imagery in this sermon. It wasn’t that subtle. When I was at theological college I was taught to avoid this if possible as I was told that it is terribly insulting to modern people to compare them with sheep, for all sorts of reasons.
Nonetheless, our bishops have croziers which are shaped like shepherd’s crooks and we do think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. I know I have shown you this picture before but this the icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd, which I made at college, and it is made up of 3000 smaller pictures, including some of Annabelle as a baby. They are all individual people with their own lives and personalities but as we zoom out the bigger picture is that they find a greater identity as part of the flock of the Good Shepherd.
So, let’s never feel insulted at this pastoral and ovine imagery but let’s rejoice that we are part of Christ’s flock here, let us listen out for the voice of our Good Shepherd as he seeks to regather us into a greater fold and let us always know that no matter how far off we are scattered, and no matter how much we suffer, Jesus the Good Shepherd has compassion for us and calls us home.