Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
I just heard a story about a kid who’s bicycling across the country raising money, which as I recall is for medical research. I happen to know the kid’s mother, and she shared this story.
This boy is a pretty typical upper elementary age kid. He’s outgoing, kind, and adventurous. He has a chronic medical condition of his own to contend with, which is one of the reasons why he planned this adventure. His parents support him and have helped him pursue his dream.
After many long weeks of riding, the boy and his dad made it to a major Midwestern city. Every now and then they stop and stay at a place with a pool as a reward for their hard work. So they checked in and soon were enjoying the refreshing water.
The kid quickly made friends with some other boys of a similar age and played with them in the water. After a while the kid noticed that there was a zip line into the pool. He pointed it out to his new friends and suggested that they try it out.
Now, not everyone is up for that kind of adventure. And when you’re in a social situation with a lot of peer pressure and you’re apprehensive, an invitation like this can get awkward. Especially when you’re not yet ten years old.
The other boys eyed the zipline. Then one of them said, “That’s so gay, I’m not doing that.” And the others quickly chimed in. “Yeah, that’s so gay.”
The kid was surprised. “What do you mean,” he asked. “Are you saying gay is bad?” They all agreed that it was. “Well, I don’t know who told you that, and gay isn’t bad,” said the kid, “I’m going to ride the zipline. And I think I’ll go find some other kids to play with.” And he did.
I can’t help but think of the innocence of all the kids in this story. They handle this complicated world as best they can with the tools they’ve got. Whether they approach the world with fear or confidence, kindness or meanness, hope or despair; depends in large measure upon the ones to whom they look to for leadership and learning.
Jeremiah the prophet brought teaching and warning in a time of great social upheaval. The very people appointed by God to care for the people, had abdicated their responsibility. They were just plain bad shepherds. The common people had no one to look to for wise and just leadership.
God sent Jeremiah with an oracle blasting the political and spiritual leaders who had failed to lead and teach the people. They had become vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by unscrupulous people who destroyed the fabric of their community. They were afraid, helpless, lost, and divided from one another.
God wasn’t having it though. The bad shepherds would come to ruinous ends. New shepherds would be raised up. The lost would be found, the divided would be reunited.
And that’s not all. Jeremiah had something even more amazing from God to announce. “I will raise up from David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land…” It was a complete repudiation of the existing leadership.
This early messianic oracle stands out especially because the promised messiah would lead differently from Israel’s kings. Not to bring law and order, or restore Israel as a powerhouse nation – the kind of messiah that later came to be expected by militant nationalists such as the Zealots – but a messiah sent to rebalance all things. Inequity of any kind had no place in God’s reign and among God’s people. But this is a hard lesson to learn.
Inequity was still a real problem for early Christians. Particularly the spiritual inequity between the circumcised and therefore ritually pure believers from Jewish backgrounds, and the uncircumcised and therefore impure gentile Christians. The lingering fear of spiritual contamination caused problems every time the Christian community gathered.
The letter to the Ephesians is a passionate appeal to the people. See what Jesus did? He ate with sinners, he welcomed the unwelcome. He consorted with the uncircumcised. All impure.
The result is that Jesus proved the law around ritual impurity and subsequent dogmas to be irrelevant to God. His own words and actions fulfilled the true Law, making everyone right with God. Through the cross Christ created in himself one new humanity in place of two. No longer were there insiders and outsiders. There was only the one human community built together on the foundation of God’s faithful leaders, with Jesus as the capstone holding all people together.
The gospel today speaks to the issue of what we learn and how it shapes our lives. Jesus was teaching his disciples one day about the importance of rest after intervals of hard work. Unfortunately their journey to a quiet place ended up in yet another crush of humanity. The word about the rabbi from Galilee was out. People were desperate to find him. And they did.
The disciples may have been suffering from compassion exhaustion, but Jesus was not. He saw that the people lacked a trustworthy leader. They needed a teacher. So he taught them.
We skip verses in our reading today where Jesus has the disciples feed the large crowd when there is no food to be had. A miracle! The story resumes with Jesus and the disciples at Gennesaret helping desperate people. Jesus healed all who touched his cloak hem. A miracle!
But perhaps the real miracle is when we listen to Jesus and hear a new teaching from the good shepherd that leads us to change, for goodness sake. And perhaps, if we have learned well enough from the Good Shepherd, we ourselves will be formed to shepherd others into God’s goodness too. God’s call to live and teach the Way of the Messiah is for everyone who claims Jesus as their savior, from nine-year-olds to ninety-plus-year-olds.
Oh, and by the way, the father of the boy who is bicycling across the country to help others? His name just happens to be Shepherd.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.