Jeremiah 23:1-6 Psalm 23 Ephesians 2:11-22 Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Jeremiah begins our reading with, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” Our psalm begins with “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Then, in today’s gospel, we are told that Jesus and his disciples were going away to rest. But, “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
Metaphors of the Good Shepherd and us as the sheep are used throughout the Bible – and with good reason. Although many of us like to think of ourselves as independent and self-sufficient yet are all in need of guidance. We all walk through the valley of the shadow of death – we all face times in our lives when making the wrong choice can separate us from what is most important in life. Some of us have made decisions that have alienated us from the people we love most. We need the good shepherd, not other sheep, to get us where we need to go, we need Jesus to lead us.
Jesus sees the crowd and has compassion because they are in need of direction, they are like sheep without a shepherd and in need of someone to help them find that which is necessary for life. In Psalm 23, that is water and green pastures – but in life, it is the love of God and others which enables us to experience true life, to feel alive.
Jesus has compassion, and we are told, “he began to teach them many things.” I think that one of the hardest things many of us need to learn in that we are all connected to one another. What hurts one of us, hurts all of us. Blinded by pride, selfish desires, or simply inattention to the needs of others, we may not realize that it hurts us – but it does.
While in Austin, the needs of others were inescapable and I felt the pain. The homeless were everywhere. Walking to dinner with the deputation from Arkansas we walked by the Salvation Army and there must have been fifty people on the sidewalks holding on to their blankets and other possessions. A few blocks later we walked under a bridge and there were another 20 -30 people camped out. From my hotel room I could look down at the street seven floors below and see the cardboard bed of a homeless man who made it back each night to sleep there.
When in seminary, I spent a summer working for a program that served the homeless in Atlanta. I learned first hand what, as a social work student, I had read. The reasons for homelessness are multiple. Some are homeless because of poor decisions or just plain bad luck. Others are homeless because of physical illnesses that leads to joblessness, mental illnesses or addiction.
One of my brothers was walking in downtown Memphis one day and came across a homeless man that he recognized. Glen had spent time in our home, when he and other brother were in college together. Glen had gone on to become an attorney before the onset of his mental illness. Our treatment of the mentally ill in this country leaves a lot to be desired. Abuses in residential facilities – and the cost of maintaining them have closed most of these facilities, so we now offer outpatient treatment instead. This works for some, but many, like Glen, end up on the streets. When my brother no longer saw Glen, delusional and on the streets, he asked around and learned that Glen had died, there, on the streets.
In Austin, a group of us sat outside at a table eating a lunch we had purchased from a food truck when a man next to us started talking. He was drunk and told us he was from northeast Arkansas. He had come to Austin for rehab – which he admitted didn’t work. Many of here have a family member and/or friends who have been in rehab. Actually, most of us, have I have learned. Some of these people we know and love – some of us, have successfully learned to live life without drugs or alcohol – others continue to struggle.
The shire number of homeless people I saw each day in Austin, and the man who was drunk – who was not homeless, made it impossible for me to ignore the fact that we are interconnected. I was deeply grieved, because I felt helpless to make a difference. Two other lessons that are difficult for most of us to learn are that what we can offer others in need is limited, and we can cannot change others. WE cannot help many who are in need, especially those are mentally ill or addicted and who refuse treatment. The Good Shepherd can and will help them, but only if they are willing to turn to God for help.
One priest I visited with while in Austin talked about his experience when he dressed like a homeless man and none of his members acknowledged him as they passed by to enter church for worship. He obviously lived in a place where people do not know one another. And, although none of us know everyone in Batesville, there a far fewer strangers here than elsewhere.
I thought about his experience and realized that I would not be able to go unrecognized if I dressed like I was homeless. One of the things I love about being here is that we not only tend to know the people we see walking on Main Street, we invite them in for a meal once a week. I see our members look people in the eye and speak to them on the streets.
We don’t offer our Community Meal for the homeless or the near homeless, we offer it to anyone who wishes to come for food and fellowship. Attendance at our church is not required, nor do we require them to sit through a service in order to be fed. We offer this meal because we know that we are connected with others and this helps meet a need in our community.
These meals help us to develop relationships with our neighbors. Individuals and whole families attend – church members and other people in our community prepare and serve these meals. We are not attempting to solve the problems of homelessness and poverty, but we are making a difference.
This is one of the lessons Jesus teaches us. The love of God is meant to be shared – sharing God’s love is about building relationships that lead us to experience joy. We may not able to change the world, we may not be about to help people we love overcome addiction or mental illness, but we can share our love with others that they, too, might turn their attention to the one who offers to guide us down right pathways, through the valley of the shadow of death. We are connected but making changes in our world is not up to us alone. We can accomplish very little by ourselves. We must learn to trust and follow the Good Shepherd.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, help us, we pray, to trust in you, to follow you, and to see you in the people we meet each day. Be especially with those we love who struggle with addictions, mental illnesses, and who are in need. Help them to turn to you for comfort, fill them with your Spirit, and give them the strength to do what they cannot accomplish without your love to guide them into new life. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.