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Sermon for July 18, 2021

Pentecost 8/Lectionary 16, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The disciples had just returned from casting out many demons and curing the sick. Jesus and the disciples were much in demand among the crowds, so much so that they didn’t even have time to eat.

So it is that Jesus said to the disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” A lovely gesture from a loving teacher for his beleaguered students.

The crowds apparently caught wind of Jesus’ plan to go on retreat with his disciples. The crowds anticipated where Jesus and the disciples were headed, and arrived en masse before Jesus and his followers did.

If we take Jesus’ humanity seriously, and we must if indeed we confess that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, Jesus must have experienced exhaustion and the depleting nature of overly demanding crowds.

Still, Mark reports that Jesus had compassion for the crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew’s version of this story adds that the crowds were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus’ compassion – a gut wrenching expression of mercy – was offered as a gift to the needy crowds despite Jesus’ weariness.

Harassed, helpless, leaderless crowds – this was a reality about which Jeremiah prophesied as we heard in today’s first reading: “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 have not attended to them.” (Jeremiah 23:1-2a)

Harassed, helpless, leaderless crowds – this speaks to realities of our days as well.

Where, in significant numbers, are the leaders today like the leaders of previous generations who shepherded us through world wars, the Great Depression, and the adventures of going to the moon? Where are the leaders, again in number, who put the public well-being ahead of their own gain?

Our age cries out for faithful shepherds of many kinds of flocks. Again, they seem to be few in number. Trust in authorities of all kinds is low according to opinion polls. Scandals abound among leaders in many fields according to what we read in the news every day.

Meanwhile, harassed, helpless crowds cry out for strong, faithful leadership to address the ills of our age.

Jeremiah suggests there will be judgment for the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep – as the prophet declares, “So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.”

This promise of judgment becomes for the crowds, for us, a word of hope, for leaders often act with impunity and are not held accountable.

But then there is this additional word of promise, of grace, as the Lord spoke through the prophet, “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.” (Jeremiah 23:3)

Jeremiah goes on, “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.” (Jeremiah 23:5)

Christians cannot help but hear in these words from Jeremiah a prophetic pointing to Jesus Christ, who is for us the righteous Branch, who is indeed our righteousness.

Moreover, Jesus Christ is the faithful Shepherd promised by the prophetic word.

And still more, Jesus Christ is the cornerstone that holds everything together just when chaos seems to reign. Listen again to the word from Ephesians today: “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.” (Ephesians 2:19-22)

Christ as Righteous Branch, as faithful Shepherd, as cornerstone, intervened among the crowds in his day, the sheep without a shepherd, and did so in healing ways.

Jesus Christ continues to be present, leading us in the ministry of the church, which is his contemporary body, broken for the sake of the world.

We who benefit from the ministry of the church are inheritors of the promise in Jeremiah: “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any long, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:4)

So it is, at its best, the church in its ministries extends the gut-wrenching compassion of Christ to the harassed, helpless crowds of our own day.

We share in this ongoing shepherding of Christ Jesus in the many and various social ministries that this congregation generously supports through monetary gifts. Our garden and its produce are tangible extensions of Christ’s loving hands, giving those in need something to eat that is wholesome.

We share in Christ’s shepherding ministry when we reach out to each other in times of need, in visiting, calling, befriending, and more.

The needs of the crowds are as great as they ever have been, and we risk the same kind of exhaustion in serving as Jesus and his original disciples did when they were sent out in Jesus’ name to exorcise demons and heal the sick.

But we also hear Jesus’ own words of invitation to us echoing through the centuries: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Thus, we gather here in this place to rest for an hour or so, and to be fed on this our Christian Sabbath. Christian assembly on the Lord’s Day is a time and place set apart – to attend to the word, to share in the supper, to remember and give thanks for our baptisms, all of this rejuvenating us for the work entrusted to us.

In this place the promise of the psalmist has some palpable fulfillment: “The Lord makes [us] lie down in green pastures and leads [us] beside still waters. You restore [our] soul[s], O Lord, and guide [us] along right pathways for your name’s sake…. You prepare a table before [us]…. You anoint [our] head[s] with oil, and [our] cup is running over…” (cf. Psalm 23).

The time of our assembly is comparatively brief, an hour or so, but it makes all the difference when the crowds beckon again, and the Spirit propels us from this place to enter yet again into those crowds with the compassion of Christ. Amen.