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Sheep Who Want A Shepherd

A sermon on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Yoonbae Cho on Unsplash]

A particular detail caught my attention in today’s gospel reading:

“when (Jesus and the twelve) got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about the whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.” (Mark 6:54-55)

It’s certainly not the only time the gospels mention people bringing their sick to Jesus, but I think it’s the image of people rushing about, carrying other people on mats, presumably considerable distances, that struck me as shocking.

You see, this past week, my dog has been rebelling in the heat and deciding to just sit down in random locations because it is too hot to move. If I didn’t want to be trapped outside wherever he decided to take his rest, this meant I had to pick up all 37 pounds of him and carry him in that same devastating heat.

I assure you, there was no rushing about involved.

And yet, whole crowds of people were rushing to meet Jesus.

Rushing with such speed that even on foot they surpass Jesus’s speed in a boat.

Rushing across a whole region, and carrying much heavier weights than my puppy in order to bring their sick loved ones to wherever Jesus was.

It speaks of desperation. Desperation for healing, but also just desperation for Jesus. Desperate hope that he had something they needed, something they must have.

As the gospel writer says, “they were like sheep without a shepherd,” and just as Jesus recognized this, apparently, they knew it too!

They knew they had a need they could not meet for themselves, and that no one else was going to meet either.

Herod was not a shepherd-king, and so the people flocked to Jesus with unashamed and unmoderated fervor. If they were sheep without a shepherd, they were also sheep who wanted a shepherd.

And this is the challenge in this story for me… because – if I am honest with myself - I can recognize that a lot of the time, I don’t actually want a shepherd.

I don’t want to be told where to go and where not to go.

Often, I don’t even want to be told I will be taken care of, because that implies that I can’t take care of myself. And I don’t want to believe that.

I want to be independent, and competent, and in charge of my own life.

I recently had a conversation with a dear friend that resurfaced a realization I have come to through lots of good therapy.

My own particular need for self-sufficiency has its roots in the dynamics of my early adolescence.

At the critical developmental stage of differentiation, when I was beginning to define my identity outside of my family of origin, that family was falling apart, as my parents separated and then divorced over the course of about 3 years. They both loved me deeply and wanted to be there for me, but they were in crisis.

And it was easier for me… it felt more stable, to not bring my needs to them when they barely seemed able the handle their own.

So, I learned to depend on myself. To trust my own resources. To rely on my own judgement rather than asking anyone else for guidance or advice.

I learned that it felt safer to be my own shepherd.

That’s my story, and I know that no two stories are the same, but I also know that I am far from unique in my desire for independence and self-sufficiency.

Here in the US, Independence Day is our national celebration, and self-sufficiency is one of our founding virtues.

But it’s not just my fellow-Americans or even 21st Century citizens of the globe who share with me this resistance to recognizing our own inherent neediness.

It’s in the background of our first reading from today, and the desire of King David (3,000 years ago and half a world away) to be to one to build a house for God… to believe that his elevation in human power meant that he had risen to a rank where he could do something for God.

Yes, indeed. I am certainly not the only one who would rather be the shepherd than the sheep.

But not so the people in today’s gospel.

It could just be that the poor peasants of the Galilean countryside were too downtrodden and oppressed to hold any illusions of self-sufficiency.

But they don’t act helpless. They take it upon themselves to pursue Jesus, despite the strenuous physical demands of such pursuit.

They can take the initiative to seek out Jesus, but they do so because they know the limits of their own strength and resources. They are content to be sheep pursuing their shepherd.

This eagerness, this open neediness, both stuns and humbles me. But it also draws me in with the desire to understand what frees them to know their own dependence in this way.

Knowing the way that self-sufficiency too often walls me off from the touch of God’s grace in my life, I want to know what lies behind their pursuit.

Scant though the details in this story are, I see four clues.

The first two actually comes from the verses we skipped over in our reading. They contain two familiar stories: the Feeding of the 5,000, and Jesus walking on the water.

In the story of the feeding, the initiating fact is the people’s hunger. Hunger is an unavoidable experience of need. Jesus recognizes it and responds. He sees the hunger of their bodies and so he feeds them… just as (a few verses earlier) he sees the hunger of their souls and teaches them.

So, in order to pursue Jesus, we first have to recognize that we are hungry for what he has to give.

In contrast, the story of Jesus walking on the waves shows the disciples afraid of Jesus’ power to control the forces of wind and water that they fight against. Rather than rejoicing, or worshipping, they respond with suspicion and fear. Mark tells us that “their hearts had been changed so that they resisted God’s ways.” (Mark 6:52, CEB).

In other words, in order to pursue Jesus, we need to be willing to acknowledge our own weakness compared with his strength, rather than being scared of it.

The third clue comes from the location to which the people would bring their ill and afflicted friends for healing: the marketplace.

The marketplace is the center of town: the place where people gather, and everything is on display. In bringing the sick and injured to the marketplace, the people were putting their brokenness on display. They were exhibiting their need for all to see.

So, here’s the third lesson. In order to pursue Jesus, we need to reject all shame for the parts of our lives that need healing and admit our brokenness in the hope of that healing.

And finally, there is a more nuanced clue in the story-arch of the disciples in this chapter. It began two weeks ago when Jesus sent them out (without provision) to do the work of the kingdom. We hear the success of that mission at the beginning of today’s reading, as they gather around Jesus and tell him all that they have done and taught.

But then, things sort of fall apart. They are confounded when he asks them to feed the multitude. They are terrified when he comes to them over the water. And even though they had done the work of teaching and healing when he sent them out, by the end of the story they are just part of the crowd, leaving all the work to Jesus.

From which we see that in order to pursue Jesus, we need to hold onto our trust in him, to always come back to the starting place of our dependence on him, because – counterintuitively – it is that dependence that empowers us to share in his work.

So, we need to recognize our hunger; not be afraid of our own weakness; reject shame for our brokenness; and hold onto our trust in Jesus, knowing that our power always comes from him.

It’s the exact opposite of independence and self-sufficiency. And this is the GOOD NEWS of this gospel.

Because independence and self-sufficiency is exhausting. We aren’t meant to go through life depending on no one but ourselves.

Even when we are feeling strong and accomplished, as the disciples were after their mission, Jesus calls us to come away and rest for a while. Because our strength is limited.

He teaches us over and over that we are meant to be sheep who need a shepherd.

I, of all people, know that such need can be terrifying. If our vulnerability has ever been a source of fear, if depending on others has ever failed us, then our automatic reaction is to reject need and to turn our trust in on ourselves alone.

But our real problem is not our need for a shepherd. We just need to find the right shepherd.

And we have him. Jesus will always see our need and respond. He will feed our bodies and our souls. He will calm our fears. He will heal our brokenness.

And he will call us to rest in his sufficiency, so that we can find the freedom of letting go of our need to do it all ourselves. Because it’s when we let go of that need that we discover just how much we can do with him.

Thanks be to God


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