Shepherding Today

22 July 2018, Sherando Presbyterian Church

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Shepherding Today

   The Revised Common Lectionary does something that puzzles me today: it cuts 19 verses from the middle of the story and spackles over the empty space as if those verses had never been there. Why, I have to wonder? Surely the Lectionary knows that, if I’m following the Lectionary, I must be sufficiently invested in the literature of the Bible to notice that jump. In fact, it probably assumes that either I’m carrying the omitted material around in my head already, or I’m going to go back and look for it.

   Why don’t you do that now. I’ll pause here for a moment while you take a look at what’s been left out: Mark chapter 6, verses 35 through 52.

   That’s pretty spectacular material, isn’t it? If we were to rank spectacular events in the life of Jesus, those would probably make the top five. Don’t read that part, the lectionary says. What’s left behind when the Lectionary cuts the spectacular stuff is the metaphor of shepherding — right there in the middle of the story — so it seems fair to conclude that the Lectionary wants us to think about shepherding today. And its strategy for turning our thoughts in that direction is to cut the most exciting part of the story, knowing we’ll go back and read it anyway.

   I want to suggest that cutting those most exciting parts is, in itself, a form of shepherding. Some commentators say the shepherd language might be taken as a critique of false leaders — which may include the exciting, the extraordinary, and the spectacular: the kind of stuff I like.

   Shepherding isn’t spectacular work, but for some reason it’s the favored career track in the Bible: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David all kept sheep. I used to spend a lot of time in Spain, where old-fashioned shepherds still move their sheep from one high pasture to another, on foot. They sleep in little huts and eat whatever they can buy in little villages, which haven’t changed much in 1,000 years. You find tufts of wool stuck to the stone buildings, because shepherds still drive their sheep right through the narrow center of town.

   For Jesus, shepherding sometimes meant feeding people and sometimes it meant teaching. We don’t get to hear how he teaches in today’s story, but in other stories he teaches by resetting our perception of the way the world is supposed to function. For example, in the story we read a couple of weeks ago, he gets the disciples ready for a work trip by telling them to leave behind everything they need. Go unprepared and unprotected — no food, no money, no jacket, wearing flimsy sandals — so they’ll have no choice but to rely on people who are likely to reject them. Get ready by getting unready.

   That’s not how I would do it.

   Today’s reading picks up where we left off two weeks ago. Jesus sends the disciples out unprepared and unprotected, which is not how I would do it, or how they would chose to go, and now they’ve come back, saying, “Wow, that actually worked!” In fact, it worked so well that people have followed them and are still beseeching them to such a degree that they have no leisure even to eat.

   “And Jesus had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Who’s ‘they’? The beseeching people? The disciples? Us?

   Jesus teaches them something, probably something that resets their perception of what’s real and possible, but the text doesn’t give us that part, and the Lectionary tells us to skip the part where Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves of bread and then walks across the sea of Galilee to catch up with his friends. And I’m like, “Wait a minute: You’ve got this great story and you’re telling me to skip the most exciting part?”

   That’s not how I would do it.

   It begins to seem that God often enters my life precisely by way of what I would not choose. That’s what God’s been doing all along: God chooses to become the bastard son of a teen-aged girl from a nowhere town, whose fiancee goes out unprepared, without a reservation, even though his betrothed is pregnant, so God has to be born in a barn.

   I wouldn’t do that. Neither would I cut the most exciting part from the story.

   Maybe that’s why the lectionary cuts it for me. Maybe that’s shepherding.

   The Lord is my shepherd, says the psalmist, I shall not want. Well, that doesn’t seem likely to me. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures — sorry: I’m a mountain guy. Let me lie down on the Great Blue Ridge. He leadeth me beside the still waters — I like moving water: cold, fast rivers. Look for me beside the waterfall.

   He restoreth my soul — how is he going to do that?

   Probably not how I would try to do it.

   A few years back, a Turkish newspaper reported that 450 Turkish sheep had died after jumping off a cliff. Apparently their shepherds had turned aside to eat breakfast, and the entire flock, some 1500 sheep, followed one adventure-seeker up the hill to the edge of a cliff, where either curiosity or pressure from the crowd drove him into the exalted and spectacular: he plunged to his death — and the rest of them followed, one after another, all 1500 sheep, many of whom actually survived the fall because the bodies and the wool of all the dead ones on the bottom turned into a kind of mattress that the others landed on.

   “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

   Put that verse in the middle of the reading for today.

   A few weeks back, the Lectionary cut another spectacular passage: the story of the man who calls himself Legion, “for we are many,” he says, meaning that so many demons compete for the right to occupy his mind that he cannot be with other people, so he lives in the cemetery. Jesus somehow moves those demons from that man’s mind into a herd of pigs, which then run down a steep hill into the sea, where they drown.

   Sounds like those Turkish sheep.

   “The Lord is my shepherd,” the Psalmist says, “I shall not want.” Maybe it’s not a statement of what is, so much as an expression of what can be.

   He maketh me to lie down in green pastures — perhaps he thinks it’s best to keep me away from the cliff. He leadeth me beside the still waters — perhaps he knows that I’m likely to stand beneath the waterfall itself, engulfed by the torrent, because it’s thrilling!

   He restoreth my soul — dear God, how I would like that. He leads me in right paths — I guess that means to the pastures rather than the mountaintops, and to the ponds instead of to the thrilling waterfalls, where I’m likely to drown.

   Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil. Actually, I fear evil all the time, but it’s usually the kind of evil that involves my failure to make the world work the way I think it should.

   Your rod and your staff, they comfort me — how about a hug, or a few encouraging words? You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows — well, only when I’m not the one who does the pouring. When I pour out the story of my life, it goes straight to the mountaintop, where I expect my cup to run over with everything exalted and spectacular — miraculous feedings! Miraculous walking on water! Miraculous suicidal pigs! And you want me to like lie down and take a nap?

   You may recall that two weeks ago, the lectionary appointed a story about Jesus going home, and I referred to a country song that explains what home is: Home is an easy chair with my Daddy there and the smell of Sunday supper on the stove. Home is a back porch swing where I would sit and my mom would sing Amazing Grace while she hung out the clothes.

   Home is the place where doing laundry makes you sing Amazing Grace — not mountain climbing or whitewater rafting or walking on water or feeding 5000 people with a tuna sandwich. The miracle of clean socks — evaporation — water turning into air all by itself, which is not the miracle that I would choose, because I’m led away from it by those false shepherds: Extraordinary and Spectacular.

   It took me a long time to figure out why that song chokes me up — like when I hear it come on, I have to separate myself from other people, so I won’t be expected to talk. It’s because it resets my perception of reality. It shows me that amazing grace is not what I want it to be, which means that I will not be called upon to bring amazing grace or any other kind of promise to fruition. All I have to do is embrace the joy of being wrong.

   I always think of my grandmother when I hear that song. She was a widow for all the time I knew her — not the life she would have chosen, but she actually sang Amazing Grace throughout that life, and she also hung the laundry on a clothesline in her yard. Now and then she must have done those things together. She died in 1983, without achieving anything of note. She loved rhubarb bread, and crossword puzzles, and gladiolas, and she loved me.

   We buried her in a little cemetery near the nowhere town of Rapidan Minnesota, surrounded by green pastures and a gentle stream. After lowering her body into the ground, I stepped away to gaze across the pastures and remember how she made me feel, and while I was giving thanks for that miracle, my father came up behind me and said, “Take a good look around, because no matter how far you go in life, this is where you’ll wind up.”

   My father didn’t go far in life. He was an extraordinarily gifted man, but his gifts never came to fruition. When I was 24 years old, standing at the edge of that cemetery gazing out at those green pastures, mourning the death of the person who embodied the amazing grace of home, I could have told my father exactly what had kept him from becoming the great scientist he had hoped to be, the man who would map the human genome and discover how to reverse all the ills that beset the feeble human body. If you’d done this and this and this, I could have said, and not done this and this and this, you would have been the man you were meant to be — the man I wanted him to be, the father I would have chosen. Thanks be to God that I resisted the urge to say that to him, ever.

   During the last few weeks of my father’s life, I entertained the fantasy that on the threshold of death he might utter words of truth about whatever lies beyond the door of our perception, words that only someone of great unmet promise could speak — Fruition with a capital F, hampered, hindered, and delayed for 80 years, and then finally delivered. I imagined bending down so I could take those words into myself as my father’s gift to me, and to my children, and to my children’s children. And at the end, that moment came: on his last day, my father was struggling to speak. I bent down and gave him my ear, and he struggled and struggled, and finally an utterance emerged: “Earl Grey tea,” my father said.

   I stood up and looked at him. “You want some tea?”

   He closed his eyes and nodded.

   So I made some tea. And then I stood beside my father and held a straw to his lips so he could sip a little tea before he died.

   Last weekend we buried his ashes in that same cemetery. After we had lowered his urn unto the ground, my son, a young man of tremendous promise who is finishing his doctorate in environmental chemistry at Stanford, stepped away to gaze across the pastures. I went over and said to him what my father had said to me: No matter how far you go in life, this is where you’ll wind up.

   And then I explained what my father had meant for me to hear in those words: that this place is always here for you, and so are these people, most of whom did not go far, no further than the miracle of laundry, which makes you want to sing Amazing Grace while you hang up the clothes. That’s the legacy my father left me, and I passed it on to my son as a blessing.

   My wish for all of you is that you may go as far in life as the fruition of amazing grace, and no further than the miracle of laundry, and that you may dwell forever among people who can lead you to the joy of being wrong.

   Amen.

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