Reading(s): Jeremiah 23.1-6 and Mark 6.30 - 34, 53-56. This sermon was given by Sally at All Saints, North Baddesley.
It will be 52 years ago on Tuesday when on the 20 July 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. It was estimated that 500 million people around the world waited with bated breath crowded around fuzzy television screens and radios, to watch or listen as Neil Armstrong stepped down the lunar module's ladder and onto the lunar surface making the first human footprint ever on the surface of the moon. It was the early hours in the morning in the UK, so those of us who can go back that far, probably saw the footage later in the day on our black and white television sets. I certainly remember the images and the words that have gone down in history "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," the words being slightly distorted by distance and communications equipment. He was joined by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin who described the "magnificent desolation" of the lunar landscape, never before witnessed in close up on Earth. Only 12 earthlings have walked on the surface of the moon, which has fuelled our dreams and imaginations since the earliest humans walked the planet. So what has the first man walking on the moon to do with todays readings? What indeed does it have to do with Christianity? Well for a start there are many people who do not believe that man ever walked on the moon, they believe it was just a glorified illusion dreamt up by the Americans to fool us all, and of course there are those who do not believe that a man called Jesus walked on earth and that he died and rose again from the dead. So just as we know off by heart the words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” we heard this morning some other words that have also been imprinted on our hearts and minds over the years, not on our journey to the moon but on our Christian journey. In this mornings gospel reading when Jesus walked on earth he is describing the people as “sheep without a shepherd”. One of the pictures of Jesus we are most familiar with and often depicted in stained glass windows is a shepherd carrying a lamb in his arms. In St. Johns Gospel Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd. And not surprisingly the psalm set for today is the 23rd Psalm The Lord is my Shepherd, a psalm of comfort and hope often said or sung at funeral services.
But we need to put this mornings passage into context to get the true meaning of these words. Last week, we heard how John the Baptist’s head was served up on a platter, the food of revenge. Herod is king and continues to be a threatening presence, if only under the surface of this Sunday’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The scene moves the gospel to make a sad observation: “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd”. This observation is a commentary not only on Herod the king and the kind of ruthless. leadership he used, but a more general indictment of the sad history of failed leadership in general that Israel has experienced over the years.
Kings and rulers of Israel were often referred to as Shepherds in their role of leadership, and some of them did indeed start out as real shepherds, tending their sheep on the hillsides, such as King David. But most fell short of being Good Shepherds in the way they ruled their people. The death of John the Baptist was a result of the ruthless, deadly power that King Herod used. He was unpredictable, corrupt and dangerous. Everything that is wrong with bad shepherds is embodied in King Herod. Jeremiah in our OT reading focuses on the same problem in much stronger language. “Woe to the shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” It's a strong message that there was failed leadership in Jeremiah’s time in particular the Kings of Judah. The spotlight of judgment is focused on the “shepherd.” Whilst actually those that shepherded real sheep were among the poor and lowly in ancient middle Eastern societies. The real shepherds that tended their sheep had great responsibility for them, protecting and providing sustenance for their flocks, keeping peace within the flock, defending against attackers, searching for sheep that had gone astray, and rescuing those who were in danger and even laying down their life for them, sound familiar? The passage from Jeremiah goes on to say that God promises to raise up new shepherds for the fold. Where will these leaders come from? Indeed, where will the shepherds come from in our own time? In the Church of England Ordination Service, the bishop says these words which express the heart of the ministry of a priest: ‘Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation’. The Bishop also carriers a crozier, a staff which is like a shepherds crook to symbolise a shepherd.
There is no special breed of human shepherd. It is ordinary men and women who must choose to be good shepherds. And it is up to ordinary men and women be they rulers of nations or priests in the church to make sure that true justice, protection, mercy, and righteousness mirror God's shepherding, for a good shepherd takes care of the sheep and protects, guides, and feeds them. A good shepherd has a stake in the safety and well-being of the sheep.
A bad shepherd is in it only for themselves and will take advantage of the sheep and disregard their safety. What, then, makes for a good leader? We already know all the ways leadership can go wrong. We see it almost daily in the media; we know the litany off by heart: corruption, disloyalty, dishonesty, making decisions for the privileged few against the many, acting as if one is above the law, harming others and we can name countries and their leaders who fit this bill. God confronts this despair, announcing that there will be a ruler rightly called "the LORD is our righteousness" the last words from this morning old testament reading from Jeremiah, predicting the coming of a Messiah, the one who will guide the people into a new way of living .
The passage from Mark ends with these words “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” There was tremendous faith and determination on the part of those that were sick and the people who cared for them, they laid them out on mats in the market place waiting for Jesus whilst others just needed to touch the fringe of his cloak to be healed. The people had heard about Jesus, by word of mouth, no fancy ways of communication in those days, he had become public property like a magnet he draws the sick to him. What a sight it must have been on that day, no social distancing as he is followed by the sick and directed towards those who were too ill to follow. Jesus’s ministry of healing is unique he did not single out anyone in particular, he healed them all, the good, the bad and the ugly! Mark shows us in this gospel passage that Jesus’s compassion overrules all of the arguments about ministering to thankless crowds. Compassion is something we need more than ever at the moment and it is extremely hard ministering to thankless crowds especially now society is becoming more and more secular and knows little or nothing about the Christian faith. Often we forget what the church is here for, what we are here for. Its not just that we need to feel comfortable and happy as a worshipping community, although that is important, but rather that we should learn to have the confidence to go out into the market place, into our towns and villages and show people God’s love in our words and actions.
With this mornings news of Victoria soon to be leaving this benefice we may indeed, for a while, feel like sheep without a Shepherd.
So the challenge for all of us is to work together as the Body of Christ to make sure that as a community of believers we keep our churches alive and prominent in our Parishes, and this starts right now.
Please continue to pray for the Diocese, the benefice for Victoria, the churchwardens and all who are working to open up our churches so more of us can worship safely in person, and together we can further God’s Kingdom on earth.