Today’s Gospel lesson is the conclusion of the story that we heard two weeks ago, from the Gospel of Mark, about the Mission of the Twelve. As you may recall Jesus commissioned his disciples to travel in pairs to surrounding villages to share their healing ministry. We don’t know how far the disciples travelled or how long they were away but we do know they were tired when they returned. We can, of course, presume this because we know from our own experience that travelling and offering care for those who are ill is tiring. We also know this is the case because it is stated clearly at the beginning of today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. When the disciples returned from their mission trips they gathered around Jesus and told him all they had done and taught. Even as they were gathering there were “people coming and going” who were in need of the disciples care and attention so much so that the disciples “had no leisure even to eat.” (Mark 6:31b) Knowing the disciples were exhausted and in need of restorative rest Jesus told them to, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31a) The disciples followed Jesus and took a boat with him to the other side of the lake where they could be alone and rest. Their plan was foiled, however, because many people saw them leaving and hurried on foot around the lake to meet them on the other side. Mark’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds that had followed them, “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd”. (Mark 6:34)
In any kind of helping service or ministry we know the need does not stop, even when the care-givers are tired. Self-care in any kind of helping profession is essential in order to continue being of service and avoid
burn-out. In Kootenay Presbytery there is money budgeted for an annual Ministers’ Retreat. Even so, it is incredibly hard to get ministers make the commitment to take the time to attend. I attended one of these retreats early this past week and was away from the office from Sunday afternoon until Wednesday evening. When I was preparing to go I kept thinking I really couldn’t afford the time to go – there were just too many things to do – and I knew that when I returned I’d have to rush to prepare for today’s worship service. But, I’ve learned from experience when I get into that kind of mindset, that is usually when I really do need to take time for a restorative time of retreat. Spending time with colleagues, reflecting on scripture passages, engaging in other spiritual disciplines, and sharing experiences both in worshipful and playful ways is energizing, builds a sense of community, and offers refreshing perspectives and insight.
Jesus knew the importance of building strong and caring communities of faith. He also knew the importance of spending time in prayer, reflection, and resting and nourishing the body as well as the soul. Later in Mark’s Gospel, after the miracles of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Mark 6:35-44), Jesus sends the disciples to Bethsaida while he goes up to the top of a mountain to pray. (Mark 6:46) After Bethsaida, Jesus and the disciples went to Gennesaret, the location for the second part of today’s Gospel story. It is helpful for us to know that Gennesaret was located near hot mineral springs that were thought to have healing properties. Many people who were in need of healing flocked to Gennesaret and it is likely that Jesus did not choose that location by accident but rather intentionally went to a place where he knew that many would be gathered who were in need of healing.
Jesus had great compassion for those who needed his time and attention. His heart was filled with love and concern for others and his actions reflected this fact. Mark likens the crowds that gathered around Jesus as being “like sheep without a shepherd”. They needed to hear the sound of a shepherd’s voice to calm, comfort and lead them. Jesus, like any shepherd, would never abandon his flock and would call each one of them by name and care for their needs.
The shepherding analogy is one that has deep roots in Hebrew prophetic and scriptural tradition. From ancient times, kings and prophets were known as the “shepherds of Israel”. For example, when King David was anointed as king of Israel it was declared that he would be the “shepherd of Israel”. (1 Chronicles 11:2)
God is also often portrayed as a shepherd in the Bible. Listen to these words from the book of Ezekiel, “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. …I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…I will feed them with justice. (Ezekiel 34:11-16) And, of course, there are the familiar words that we heard this morning from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:1-3)
It is not surprising that Jesus, with his tireless care for all people, was understood as the Good Shepherd. This is explicitly stated in John’s Gospel but is also referred to in the Gospel accounts of Mark and Matthew.
Seeing Jesus as a shepherd is a powerfully pastoral image. A good shepherd risked his own life for that of his sheep, calling them by name, caring for each sheep individually and with great care. The shepherd was a constant companion and guide leading the sheep to places of nourishment and safety.
For Jesus’ first followers this image of a shepherd would also have been a powerful connection with the great leaders of the past. Moses used the analogy of a shepherd in his appointment of Joshua to lead the Hebrew people through the wilderness. In the book of Genesis, Jacob blesses his grandsons and refers to “God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day”. (Genesis 48:15) When King David was anointed as king he was referred to as the one who would be “shepherd of my people Israel” (1 Chronicles 11:2)
It is clear that the image of a shepherd was a powerful image of care, guidance, and protection for Jesus’ ancestors and his contemporaries. The question that has been swirling around in my mind this week is, “In a 21st century, North American urban context, is the image of God, and Jesus, as a good shepherd meaningful?” As I was considering this question I thought about the countless times in my years of ministry that the 23rd psalm has been recited as an affirmation of faith during a Memorial Service. For me, the comfort of Psalm 23 is in the fact that God, like a good shepherd, will never abandon us and is always with us on the journey; in life, in death, in life beyond death. This affirmation of faith is a celebration of God’s presence and the abundance of life that follows from the experience of God’s guidance and blessing.
The essence of the meaning of God as shepherd has been interpreted in a variety of ways. There are many paraphrases of the 23rd Psalm that illustrate this point. Many years ago I was given a copy of a paraphrase of this Psalm that uses the analogy of God as a pace-maker, setting the pace for our activities and encouraging us to pause for quiet times of refreshment. Inspired by the 23rd Psalm, I wrote a psalm this week that engages the pastoral aspects of the Psalm and affirms God’s calling and our communal response to God’s steadfast and faithful presence. I offer these words as a blessing, and a challenge, for all of us in our ministry together:
The Lord is our shepherd. What more could we want?
God offers us moments of calm and peace to restore our faith and courage.
God leads us in the paths of goodness and compassion for the sake of love and justice.
God calls us forth as persons of faith into a world with many challenges and complexities.
Even though we will journey along paths of sadness and loss we know that we never travel alone.
Our fears are quieted because God is with us, encouraging and supporting us.
God’s calling, and prompting, challenge us.
God helps us to be aware and sensitive to the needs of others,
then presents us with opportunities to serve.
God’s confidence encourages us to grow in amazing ways.
God’s love will be ours to share throughout our lives
and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.