Between the Desert and the Meadow
16th Sunday Ordinary time, 7-19-15, Jeremiah 23: 1-6, Ps 23, Eph 2: 13-18, Mark 6: 30-34
I suppose I shouldn’t be, but I am always startled when I read an Old Testament passage that could have come from the newspaper tossed into my driveway this morning. Newspapers seldom miss a church scandal, and scandal is what the passage from Jeremiah is talking about. “You have scattered my sheep and driven them away,” God declares. The clergy and the lay men and women of the church who make the headlines are most often those who bring scandal to the church, who embarrass the church, who cause us to drop our head into our hands and moan. It is of little consolation that this, apparently, is not a new problem. Some 600 years before Christ, Jeremiah’s “church” needed reform and integrity.
The church where I came to love the Lord seemed to be, like this passage says, a “meadow”. It was a place where I found delight in the faith, where I learned the Bible stories that never grow old, and where I felt safe. Later, I took my children to a similar church, another piece of the “meadow”. But when the new pastor was arrested by the vice squad, that meadow became yet another piece of desert. Even if the shepherd/ sheep metaphor doesn’t do anything for you, we all know how it feels to be deceived, lied to, and left in the desert.
Which is why the 23rd Psalm is the favorite Psalm of all time. There’s none of that more recent business of “smelly, stupid, downright dumb sheep” here, no, none of that. The 23rd Psalm makes us feel valuable, precious, loved, and protected. Our Lord leads, restores, guides, accompanies, feeds, and anoints. He gives tender care, ceaseless vigilance, presence and protection, and provides a feast! The images are of restful calm, well-being, and affection – affection not necessarily earned, but nevertheless, lavished on us, unconditionally.
St. Paul is no poetic psalmist, but writes something similar in the prose of every day life. He says Jesus found us “far off” (in the desert), and brought us “near” (back to the meadow). Jesus brings an end to anxiety and fear. His peace makes our enemies into our brothers and sisters. He ends the threat and pettiness of the Law, replacing it with love of neighbor equal to love of self. He overcame death by dying and rising. He came to us, created unity among us, children of One God. Paul says that Jesus has lavished unconditional love on all of us, not just some of us, just like in Psalm 23.
Then Mark tells a story of Jesus acting out this love. Jesus shows us how to love by actually loving (loving the unlovable!). He sends the twelve apostles out to teach, to preach repentance and heal. What a thrill for them to be sent out with such authority for the first time!
But then comes news that Herod had beheading John the Baptist. This was Jesus’ cousin, the man who baptized Jesus. What loss and senseless violence! Jesus has no time to grieve; the apostles return with crowds of people following them, and Jesus and the 12 were so busy they didn’t even have time to eat. “Come away by boat to a quiet place and rest a while,” Jesus tells them. But news spread quickly, and more people were waiting for them when the boat landed. At that point, I’d have hired crowd control or posted a schedule of office hours. I’d have been overwhelmed, perhaps even angry.
But with surpassing tenderness, Jesus reflects the compassionate of God. “His heart was moved with pity,” Mark writes. Jesus recognized these people had no one who cared, no one taught or modeled for them the love of God. Remember the words from Jeremiah? “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…and bring them back to their meadow.” Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus, the Son of God, does just that.
The press of people who need to be loved, who have never found the love of God as portrayed in the 23rd Psalm, who are frightened and lost and scared – their numbers seem to grow daily. We need honest balance in our lives. We need time to eat and pray and rest. We also need to give time, teaching and sharing the love and compassion of Christ, face-to-face. It is easy for that balance to be forgotten or distorted. We also need to balance our efforts to share our material wealth with sharing the emotional and spiritual wealth that Jesus brought us. Teachers know that hungry children don’t learn well. Christians know that bread alone does not satisfy the hunger of the soul.
Balance becomes real when we spend a portion of our time with those who are like sheep without a shepherd, when our hearts are moved with pity. This week you can expect an opportunity to lead someone beside restful waters and help them restore their soul. That is when we act as God’s hands, bringing back the scattered sheep to the meadow.
But your homework is to prepare yourself for next week’s reading. Today’s Gospel is immediately followed by the feeding of the multitude. While a message in itself, this week’s reading begs us to prepare our hearts and minds for the fullness of that miracle – and I do believe it to be a miracle- of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Take 15 minutes and read it in the other Gospels*, too, and you will have a better and fuller glimpse of this altar & of the heavenly feast that the 23rd Psalm promises.
*John 6: 1-15, Mark 8: 1-10, Mark 6: 34-44, Matthew 15: 32-38, Luke 9: 10-17