by David Baer, July 22, 2018
Text: Mark 6:30-34,53-56
I’m not normally one to follow these things, but it seems Taylor Swift has been performing at the Met-Life Center this weekend. The only reason I know that is that two members of my household managed to score free tickets being offered to Girl Scouts. When the e-mail came in, we thought it must be some kind of scam, but it checked out. All you had to do was sign up on the Girl Scouts of Northern New Jersey web site and show up to pick up your tickets. And it turns out to be a good thing that we jumped right on it, because a lot of other people wanted to do the same thing. The Girl Scouts’ poor website was designed for collecting information about cookie sales rather than dispensing tickets for a pop idol, and so it groaned under the traffic and failed. Because when a celebrity like this comes to town, people want to be where she is, and they come running from everywhere.
Are there people who have had this kind of magnetic pull on you? For myself, I don’t think so much about celebrities, but a few longstanding friendships—you know, the kind of friend that, when you find out they’re going to be passing near your town, you move heaven and earth just to spend a few minutes together. There’s a piece of who you are tied up in the relationship with this person—maybe you shared time at school, or you raised your families together—and when you’re with them it gives you a chance to remember who you were and are.
There are people who move us to be with them. In this passage of scripture, we see that Jesus is one of those people. The apostles, the crowds—everybody is drawn to Jesus for their own reasons. And it’s in his responses to each of them, as we see who he chooses to be for them, that we begin to see his invitation to us as well—who Jesus is for disciples like us, and who we are, how our identity changes, as we follow him.
People come running to find Jesus in a deserted place. He was trying to take the apostles on a retreat to find respite after their very successful missionary efforts. They’ve been touring the Galilean countryside, teaching people about the Kingdom of God, and then showing them what that teaching means by healing them of their diseases and casting out their demons. And when they return to Jesus, they tell him everything, and Jesus nods and says, “Hey, have you guys eaten lately? Have you rested? Let’s go, let’s take a break!”
But it’s no use. Somebody sees them departing. Somebody gets wind of their destination. And everybody comes running from all over the region, so that by the time they land the boat there’s a crowd waiting for them on the shore. There’s not going to be a retreat. Not this time.
Why were they all there? What was it about Jesus that brought people running? We get a clue to the answer when we read about how Jesus responded to the crowd: “[H]e had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd….”
Ever since God brought King David from the pasture to the throne, everybody understood that a shepherd was a leader, a ruler of the people. Jesus looks out at this people, and he sees that they have no leader, and so he has compassion on them.
But wait a minute… They do have a ruler! They have several rulers! Last week we read about King Herod, and how he had John the Baptist executed. And King Herod only has his position because the Roman emperor gave it to him. Roman soldiers maintain order, and Roman tax collectors extract the money that pays for it. Whatever problems these people have, it’s not the lack of someone in charge. They don’t lack for rulers.
But they do lack a shepherd. “The Lord’s my shepherd,” says the twenty-third psalm, “I have everything I need.” A shepherd does not simply rule the sheep, but provides for their needs—guiding them in the right paths, leading them to rich pasture, giving them water to drink, protecting them from their enemies. And these people lack many things. They are hungry for hope and for bread. They stagger under the burdens of illness, injustice, and sin, and they long for a new beginning. In short, they are sheep without a shepherd, and in Jesus they have found the one they need.
Jesus proceeds to shepherd them. He teaches them, showing them the right paths. Our scripture today skips over the miraculous story about Jesus feeding the crowd of thousands with a few loaves and fishes—but know that Jesus feeds them too. And he heals them. Because a shepherd guides, heals, protects, and feeds.
This is a story for our time. Many of us are looking for a shepherd, and not finding one among the political and business and cultural leaders of our day. When people are hungry for food and for a future with hope, when people struggle with health and financial burdens, when those with power and resources are more interested (as King Herod was) in protecting their privileges and position than meeting human needs, then you have sheep without a shepherd. The crowd gathered to meet Jesus in the wilderness, on the outside of established cities and towns, because no system, no community, no structure built with human hands was going to satisfy their needs.
We’re here today to celebrate the baptism of two children. This is always a powerful demonstration of God’s love. Connor and Finley don’t even have the power of language yet to call on God or understand what is happening here. But in spite of that, we see that in the water of baptism God claims them, Jesus loves them, the Spirit promises to shepherd them now and always. And that’s just as true for you and for me as it is for them.
As we were talking about the meaning of baptism, Finley’s father Will spoke very movingly about the values he wanted Finley to learn, especially loving her neighbors as herself. In our conversation, all the parents of these two children talked about how meaningful it is to be connected with a community gathered around Jesus, our shepherd.
I don’t know if Taylor Swift will still be performing in ten years’ time, or if she or some other artist will pull crowds, or whether Connor or Finley will be among them. But I do hope that what we are doing here today will help them to see that who they are is rooted in the love of God in Jesus.
And if your heart quickens at the promise God makes in Jesus Christ, if you want to trust in and walk with the God who makes that promise and keeps it, if you want to walk with others who hope and trust as well, that’s all it takes. You don’t need to be good, you don’t need to know the right words or how to perform the right rituals. Knowing your need, trusting the promise is all it takes to belong to God. Like those crowds, don’t bring our strength, but our needs. We’re here to trust, to lean on a faithful promise-keeper, a powerful protector, a loving God whose shepherds us in this world and forever after. Amen.