Jeremiah 23:1-6. Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then 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, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 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. The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when 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. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
Ephesians 2:11-22. So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called: the circumcision: —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of god, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56. The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 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. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringed of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer (Ps 19:14).
As I opened today’s Gospel reading for the first time at the beginning of the week, I noticed that our reading from Mark is redacted. We seem to have left out all the action in those nineteen verses where Jesus feeds five thousand men and who knows how many women and children with them, and even the story of when Jesus walks on the top of the waters. Last week’s reading had the excitement of John the Baptist’s beheading at the hands of Herod, his wife, and his daughter. This week the apostles gather together again after having been sent out, and Jesus sees that they are tired from their journeys and ministries and sends them to a deserted place, because at this point they’ve been so busy with all the people that they hadn’t been able to take time for themselves and rest—or even relax. We see soon though that it’s not long before the people catch wind that Jesus and disciples are off to the middle of nowhere, and they follow them there. Our text for today skips ahead and tells us even more about the people who came to be healed by Jesus, coming even to touch the fringe of his clothing hoping that they might be healed. I get from the text the image of people swarming, it says that they “rushed about the whole region and began to bring the sick on mats.” Not enough that there were so many people there, but that those people were carrying people as well. And even among all these crowds we notice that even as the disciples are resting from their own work and taking time to reclaim themselves, Christ seems to be pouring forth throughout, teaching the people simply because they have gathered, being there so that people may simply touch his fringe as he moves through the marketplace. Christ seems never to tire, even though his disciples do.
The text doesn’t say what the disciples have become tired by. Perhaps they’re just sick of traveling, or perhaps they’re all introverts called to be extroverts. But whatever it is, it seems that it’s exhausting. And any of us that have ever been called to care for another person knows this to be true. It is exhausting work, but sometimes it seems as though we’re not allowed to feel exhausted. But here Christ says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” It is so easy to forget to do that. A friend of mine is doing CPE this summer. It’s the same thing I did last summer, the same thing David did a few summers ago. It’s the chaplain internship that all candidates for ordained ministry in the ELCA go through. She has passed the seven week mark—the point during the program where you have to stop hiding behind what you say is “you” and are left with who you are. It’s the point where some of us, including myself, realize that in some part we have all learned to build walls around ourselves throughout our life. We are afraid to let people know who we really are, because often when we do it can be exhausting. And so when we are talking to someone at the grocery store or even in the narthex, we’ll let people know how we’re doing—but only so far. We’ll ask people how they’re getting on in the midst of injury or illness or another tragedy, but we stop just short of ripping into the reality beneath the façade. Stop short of asking too much. Otherwise it could be embarrassing or awkward. It would be too real or too immediate. And in being friendly, in nurturing the image of ourselves that we’ve been building since elementary school and perhaps before, the worst would be to act in a way that would make someone uncomfortable, or make them tired, or lead them to a place that makes them feel singled out or alone, as an individual with not enough muster to be independent. Or to make ourselves feel that way.
Alison hit this wall this past week. (It’s okay, I asked her if I could use her name and she said yes.) She keeps a blog about her experiences and this past week, on a particularly dark day, she left a few messages on the internet that made me wonder whether she was becoming undone. Then she made her blog post. I’d like to read it to you now. She writes: “I'd really rather not deal with it. It hurts too much. Feels too close. Hits too hard. . . . How I relate to other people seems to be performance based. I put on a show so you'll like me. So I'm coming here... where I still seem to be performing some show but where I've managed also to share a good bit of my heart as honestly as I can. I think it all has to come down to the fact that I'm scared to death I won't be liked... or loved. That if I stop being a Susie Sunshine, quick with a joke or a quote or the latest headline, that somehow you will all decide that I'm not worth being around. So my goal in patient care is to cheer people up. Crack a joke. Make them smile. This doesn't work. It fails pretty much every time. And here I am, being reminded that it isn't about me - - it's about the patients. I can't go in and put on a performance for them. But it doesn't change the fact that I want them to like me. I want to be an amazing chaplain. The problem? I can't be an amazing chaplain.... unless I deal with my [self] and get through this and learn how to connect to people on a real level and stop worrying if I'll do well, be liked, be accepted.... I'd really rather not deal with it. It hurts too much. Feels too close. Hits too hard.” When we are called to be caregivers, it helps to remember that we are not called to be Christ himself. Christ-like, indeed, but not Christ. And even when we are called outside ourselves, we are called back too. The disciples recognized that their ministries were called out to them, but it took Christ to tell them to step back and rest. Christ knows who he is and when he needs to step away, but we need to be reminded and told. The disciples gathered around him telling stories like friends coming back from a journey, but it was Christ who remembered to say “great, now take a Sabbath.” He recognized the weariness and the scattered feeling that had grown within them.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah is and isn’t about shepherds. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the LORD.” The prophet is referring to the Babylonian captivity, the period of Israelite history when the ruling classes of the Israelites were exiled to Babylon after Jerusalem was conquered. The people were scattered about when the shepherds could no longer shepherd them, driving away the flock because they had not attended to them. The prophet speaks of a different shepherd that will attend to the evil doings, gathering the remnant of the flock out of the lands to which they had been driven. The oracle here is talking about the restoration of Israel, but as I read the blog and was thinking about the passage from Mark, I wonder if it is not about our own scatteredness and restoration. We move through life scattered and scatterbrained and while we are able much of the time to keep up appearances and laugh it off, we are still torn apart underneath. I can speak from experience in the past year—how many times have I told people that I’ve been fine when I haven’t? Have you done the same? We keep moving and rushing but we find it difficult to stop and allow something other than ourselves to help us be restored. Or to make us restored when we can’t do it for ourselves. Woe to the shepherds, says the LORD, and woe to ourselves! Who scatter the sheep of our flock. Our feelings and emotions, our doubts and dreams, our worries and weaknesses. But the Lord will attend to our evil doings. “I will gather the remnant of the flock out of the lands where have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them . . . and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.”
But it is not something that we do for ourselves, we must remember. It is something that is done to us, something that changes us, something that happens to us despite ourselves, our pushing and our hoping and our stubborn grip on who we want to be rather than on who we are. Because now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one. Christ has taken the parts of us that reject ourselves and are strangers to covenant and promise and reconciles them. We may read in Ephesians of Jews and Gentiles in the early church, two very different groups of people, but we may also read of two groups that find themselves either accepted by a covenant that God will not break or aliens from this commonwealth of Israel, two groups that we find in ourselves all the time. Saint and sinner. Righteous and reprobate. And Christ proclaimed peace to the parts of you that are far off, and the parts of you that are near, for through him both parts of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. No longer strangers, but joined into the whole structure of Christ and the church and all those others who have found and are searching for the same peace that has been promised for you and for me. The whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the LORD, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
When we gather together here we are reminded in the wake of all the crowds that surround us and pull us in a million directions. And we are reminded that we have been healed by one who does not tire, though we do. Knowing that, we come into this place and find a table at which we cannot be anything other than what we are, children of God and part of a flock that gathers at this table. With the wine, with the bread, part of the body of which we are all a part in Christ. And whether we feel loved or lost, whether we feel hopeful or hopeless, whether full or empty, whether we have anything left to give or nothing, we are God’s. And we have a place to return and rest and renew ourselves. But we don’t always remember for ourselves, or why we need to do it. Sometimes it takes an invitation.