Eighth Sunday after Pentecost 2012 (Proper 11, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 22, 2012 (Proper 11, Year B)

I had a great sermon written for today. I did my usual Thursday morning caffeine-assisted sermon preparation at Redeye Roasters. There were references to sheep, a few jokes thrown in to keep things interesting, and it wasn’t a bad sermon. Then I woke up Friday morning to the news out of Colorado and decided to scrap what I’d written and start over. There are times when, as a preacher, you simply can’t ignore what’s happening outside the walls of the church. Jesus’ ministry was spent out in the world, after all – he wasn’t confined to a particular house of worship or limited to a particular set of topics. Jesus spoke not only to the broader context of life and faith and the intersection of the human and the divine but also directly into the circumstances at hand.

This is certainly the case with this morning’s gospel passage. Mark tells us that as the crowds swarmed around him, “Jesus had compassion for them for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” The people who sought Jesus weren’t exactly living a charmed life. They were poor and marginalized and disenfranchised and vulnerable. Loss and tragedy were consistent themes in their lives. They were not getting the support they needed from their religious leaders – those who should have played the role of spiritual shepherd; and they were getting beaten down by their political leaders – those who should have played the role of temporal shepherd. In other words they were being abused by the system, surrounded by human predators, living amid fear and sinfulness and abuse.

Evil existed in their world and the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora is a painful reminder that evil exists in our world. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care for us or that God has abandoned us or that God has forsaken us – indeed God weeps with those families who weep and mourns with those who mourn. Rather it makes the Easter message of Resurrection that much more urgent. Even in the darkest moments, the light shines and the darkness cannot overcome it; even when hope is seemingly lost, the Light of Christ can never be extinguished. Even in the midst, perhaps especially in the midst, of pain and suffering and loss.

When we renew our baptismal covenants, as we do whenever we have a baptism, we proclaim in what may seem like unduly harsh language, especially when a cooing infant is involved, that we will renounce both “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” and “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”

That’s tough language. But the reality is that we live in a broken and sinful world where evil does exist. And it’s not just the blaring headlines of the 24-hour news cycle that seem to announce this fact with great glee. Besides the mass shooting in Colorado and the abuse scandal at Penn State, which will all too soon fade from public consciousness, only to be replaced by other stories, there is ongoing poverty and domestic violence and addiction that simmer beneath the surface in every community. Call it the underbelly of the human condition; the one that respectable neighborhoods on the South Shore do everything to hide and avoid and ignore even as reality exposes the fact that they cannot. 

This brokenness is precisely the condition into which Jesus spoke when he looked at the crowd and saw that they were “like a sheep without a shepherd.” The metaphor can get lost on suburbanites but the bottom line is that sheep without a shepherd are a disaster. They get lost, they get hurt, they can’t find food or water, and they become an easy target for predators. Sheep aren’t the brightest animals to begin with; take away their shepherd and they’re pretty much a lost cause. 

To their credit, the people, like sheep, are drawn to Jesus. They desperately crave a true shepherd. They know there is something missing in their lives – meaning and healing and hope. Which is precisely what Jesus offers them in God’s name.

I think there are moments when we all feel like sheep without a shepherd. Lost, lonely, disoriented, despondent and in the face of unspoken horror confused and saddened and upset. And while we work hard at drowning these feelings out with endless noise and conversation, these emotions are part of the human condition.

It is into this very brokenness of our lives that Jesus offers a word of hope for both those he encountered physically and for us. This human condition transcends the millennia and it’s why Jesus’ message of hope is just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. We ignore it at the peril of our humanity. And his word is this: that despite the sufferings of this present age, evil will not prevail; darkness will not overcome light; crucifixion is not the end of the story. God and light and resurrection are stronger than evil and suffering and death. The good news is that Jesus looks at us in our lost state and has compassion for us. At those times when we think Jesus is most far away, his compassion for us is at its zenith.

One more point: in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, many were turning the event into a political opportunity. Opponents and proponents of gun control were tossing the blame on one another with reckless abandon. We live in a culture that is quick to foist blame on whoever disagrees. We do this in politics, in the church, and in our daily interactions to the point that it feels normal. Jesus, again, models a different approach. Instead of placing blame he calls for healing. Yes, he realizes the institutional problems of the day but in the midst of tragedy, he begins with healing and compassion and prayer. Rather than taking to the airwaves to lobby and blame and advance our own opinions we would do well if our first response was to do likewise. 

And so, as we reflect on the nature of what it means to be a shepherd and how desperately we need one, remember this: as we hear in the well-worn and well-beloved Psalm 23, the Lord is your shepherd. Not the evil that swirls around you, not your political leaders; not even your parish clergy. The Lord is your shepherd and he is the only one who will lead you to green pastures, walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death, and restore your soul.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2012

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