Sunday, June 12, 2005

Proper 6A

Exodus 19:2-8a; Psalm 100; Romans 5:6-11; Matthew 9:35-10:15

Well, if it weren’t for the electric lights, the air-conditioning, and the fact that our shofar was made out of PVC pipe instead of a ram’s horn, you really would have thought our parish hall was a first century Jerusalem marketplace this week. We’ve just finished vacation bible school, during which more than fifty young people visited a variety of marketplace shops of the sort Jesus might have visited back when he wandered the streets of Jerusalem. They painted little clay pots in the pottery tent, tasted honey and almonds and dates in the cooking tent, traced Hebrew letters in the scroll-making tent, and planted seeds in the farmer’s tent.

Now I don’t know if Jesus enjoyed shopping or not – surely he admired skilled handiwork of any sort, being a craftsman, a carpenter, himself. There certainly was fine handiwork in our little marketplace – weaving, jewelry-making, musical instruments, wooden boxes….I don’t know if Jesus enjoyed shopping in the marketplace, but I think he did enjoy watching.

Imagine with me....Jesus sitting just inside the shade of the familiar carpentry shop as countless people hurried by on their way to buy, sell, trade, beg….Imagine his frustration, having spent the whole morning trying to teach his disciples what it really means to love God with your whole heart and soul and strength. And now imagine Jesus watching a frail and elderly widow, jostled by the busy crowds, make her way to the temple treasury, just across the square from where he sat. He watched her fumble through each fold of her old cloak to pull out two small coins, which she drops into the treasury box, while others, more finely dressed, absent-mindedly toss in a coin or two as they walk by on their way to somewhere else….See that woman? He says to his disciples. That’s what it means to love God with everything that you have, to give your whole life to God. Watch her.

So the marketplace might have been, for Jesus, a rich source, a deep well of images and stories and metaphors and real-life examples of what he was trying to teach, trying to show….how to love and serve God. See that farmer bringing his crops to market? Well, the kingdom of God is like a harvest….See those oil lamps for sale, how they brighten the dark tent? Well, I am the light of the world….

With fifty children in a smaller-than-it-used-to-be parish hall, we didn’t need any chickens, cows, and sheep to make the marketplace feel authentically chaotic. But Jesus would certainly have seen and heard and smelled animals of all sorts in his day. Imagine with me, Jesus watching a dusty shepherd drive his sheep through the crowded marketplace, guiding the anxious and easily distracted sheep through the maze of tents and people….See that? He might have said. I am the good shepherd….

It was a good image to use. Time and again in the Hebrew scriptures, which Jesus would have known well, the God of Israel was compared to a shepherd and the people of Israel to a flock of sheep with a tendency to wander. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture….

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus has visited just about every crowded marketplace in every village and city he can walk to. He has worn himself out teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. Imagine with me, Jesus leaning against the well in the center of the market square, closing his eyes against the glare of the sun at midday….imagine the weight of knowing that when he opened his eyes again and saw the crowds, he would be filled with compassion, because he would see in their anxious and easily distracted faces that they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd….

Sheep without a shepherd are sheep without a future. Sheep depend upon their shepherd, as the beloved psalm alludes, to lead them to green pastures and still waters, to protect them from predators, to keep them on the path, and to secure them in the fold. Without a shepherd, sheep are indeed anxious and distracted, harassed and helpless, or worse, as another translation of this gospel suggests – wounded and completely exhausted. It seems that, without the compassion and care of the shepherd, sheep have a hard time figuring out what’s best for themselves.

Does that sound like the experience of anyone you know? Anxious and distracted, harassed and helpless, wounded and completely exhausted? My guess is that describes most of us at least some of the time, and perhaps some of us most of the time. We might easily imagine our lives as a marketplace in which we have to navigate a chaotic course through the crowds just to accomplish our daily tasks, while countless people vie for our time and attention and limited resources. It can be hard to figure out what’s best for ourselves, and so, like sheep, we wander and then wonder how we ended up where we are.

Most of the time, when scripture employs the image of sheep and shepherds, there is a clear line drawn – we are the wayward sheep, quick to stray off course into dangerous territory, and God is the compassionate shepherd leading us back to the way, the truth, and the life. Up to a point, this morning’s readings describe just such a relationship between God and God’s people. In Exodus, God leads the people of Israel safely out of Egypt and guides them to the holy mountain. In the psalm, we are sheep in God’s pasture. In the gospel reading, Jesus attends to the needs of the marketplace crowds as a shepherd might attend to the needs of his sheep.

As sheep to God’s shepherd, we are certainly called to follow God, to trust in a marketplace world that constantly tries to entice us to buy its wares that God will nourish our lives, heal our wounds, lead us on right paths, and bring us safely home. Though demands and expectations and distractions are shouted at us from all directions, we are called to follow only the voice of the Good Shepherd.

But this morning’s readings suggest that we are called to something more, more than being just followers, more than being sheep. This morning, we are called to be priests, to be pastors, to be shepherds, full partners with God in having compassion upon, proclaiming truth to, and ministering justice for other lost sheep like ourselves.

It is a calling as ancient as creation itself, when humans were given charge over all living things. It is the calling given to the people of Israel when, having led them like sheep out of danger to safety, God then commissioned them to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. It is the calling given to the disciples when, having followed Jesus through every crowded marketplace, they were then sent out to proclaim the kingdom of heaven, to cure the sick, to raise the dead, to cleanse the lepers, to cast out demons….

So how can anxious and easily distracted, harassed and helpless, wounded and completely exhausted sheep possibly become shepherds? My son used to have a little stuffed sheep with a music box inside. The song it played was ‘Jesus loves me.’ What a profound lesson in christology! Jesus, Good Shepherd who loves the sheep, is also Jesus, Lamb of God. Jesus became one of us sheep in order to show us how to be shepherds, how to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, how to cure the illnesses that separate us from one another and from God, how to have compassion on those who are harassed and helpless.

We are called to be shepherds, but it seems we’re still sheep at heart, anxious and easily distracted. We follow God to this place, this fold, week after week, where we hear again the story of how we have been led, where we are nourished with food and drink, where we acknowledge that we are called to something more than just sheepliness. Boldly, not at all like sheep, in our post-communion prayer we ask God to send us out into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart. And then once again, we are urged to Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, to which we reply in our best shepherd voices, Thanks be to God!

And then what? Go in peace to love and serve the Lord! In some parishes, everyone promptly sits down and listens to the postlude. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord! In some parishes, everyone promptly kneels and watches as the cross and torches are processed back up the aisle and placed in their holders. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord! In most parishes, everyone promptly goes out to….to eat, or to nap, or to mow the yard, or to catch up on homework, or to go swimming….Our shepherd’s crooks are forgotten by the door, and we are sheep again.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we don’t take time to nourish and refresh our bodies, to engage our responsibilities as parents, as students, as professionals, as homeowners….but it is curious, isn’t it, how quickly these and other important things can distract us from being shepherds, even from being obedient sheep? What if our response to the dismissal, Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, was not Thanks be to God but, rather, the response made by the people of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai, when the people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do”?

Imagine with me how our Sunday afternoons, how each day of our lives might look different if we followed the Good Shepherd out those doors not just because we are his sheep, but because he calls us to be shepherds, too? Everything that the Lord has spoken, everything that Jesus has shown us, we will do….

Perhaps, like the Israelites, we would still wander away from God, distracted by louder voices, sparklier things, and seemingly better deals….perhaps like the disciples, we would still be wayward, fearing things that might hurt us and scattering at the first sign of danger. But imagine with me....Jesus, Good Shepherd, Jesus, Lamb of God, in the midst of the marketplace, beckoning us to follow, inviting us to share, handing us authority, having compassion on our anxiety, seeking us in our lostness over and over again. We are not sheep without a shepherd, thanks be to God. Amen.