A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
There is a subtle shift in our Gospel today, subtle but telling. The apostles, returning from their first foray into mission, report on all they've said and done, and Jesus, in turn, recognizes that they need rest, immediately leading them across the lake into hiding. They do not stay hidden long, however; a crowd rushes to catch them at the far shore. And notice, once how Jesus responds differently than the disciples do (perhaps because they’re still exhausted):
Now many saw them going and recognized them, and hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
The apostles are already beginning to share in Christ’s ministry, already working his works. But they do not yet share his compassion, his tender mercies. They think mostly of themselves. They care mostly about how they're perceived, how they're treated. They do not yet see others as Jesus sees them. They are not yet moved, as he is, by the good God desires for others. So, Jesus draws them out into the wilderness where they can begin to learn the heart of the God of Exodus, the God who not only delivers from slavery but also delivers into the abundant life of covenantal reciprocity and glad mutuality.
Today's OT reading (Jer. 23.1-6) recounts God's diatribe against the false shepherds who've failed to care for God's people, the sheep of his pasture. And after threatening them, he promises to be Israel's true shepherd, gathering them at last until not even one is missing, raising up other shepherds to care for them so that they're never again left to fend for themselves.
Jesus, we believe, is the beginning and end of that promise. He is the good shepherd who gathers all into the Father's fold, the chief shepherd who raises up other shepherds, beginning with these twelve apostles, around him in collaboration. But, as today's Gospel shows, it takes time for them to learn to love as Jesus loves. They're following the good shepherd. But they do not yet have his heart for the sheep—some of whom still seem to be goats.
The same, of course, goes for us. We too are called to be co-shepherds. And it will take at least as long for us to learn to love as God loves. Today’s Psalm, Psalm 23, provides the pattern for that learning. Notice, it opens with words spoken about God, praise for a God named in the third person, thanksgiving for what this God is to me and has done for me:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name's sake.
These praises, needless to say, are all true in one way, false in another. Yes, God loves each of us personally, giving himself to each of us totally, infinitely. I am his and he is mine. But not in a way that makes him not yours or in a way that sets me apart as your better. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, an idol is a God who is mine but not yours, serves me instead of you, cares about me more than he cares for you. And yes, God satisfies my needs. But only inasmuch as my wants are true. This is why we have to learn to pray with St Chrysostom: "Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us..."
So, the truths in these opening lines become true for us and in us only over time, as we learn to hold them lightly. That shift is signaled in the Psalm's very next line:
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.
God does indeed lead us along the right paths. But those paths always lead through the valley of the shadow of death. Because it is only there, in the threatening darkness, that we learn to speak honestly, from the heart, to this God we've previously only spoken about. Theology matters, of course. But only as it arises from and returns to prayer. This is what distinguished Job from his friends: they obsessed over theology; he prayed.
In the valley, we learn to pray; that is, we learn to speak to God in the second person. And over time, as we pray—which, of course, always turns out to be little more than trying to pray and failing, miserably—we find we can say not only "The Lord is my shepherd" but also "Lord, you are my shepherd"—with something like confidence. And the more confident we grow in speaking to God, the less pretentious we are in speaking about him.
But the hard truth is that that praise, and that blushing—sheepish!—confidence, becomes possible only after long stretches of protest and searching. "Lord, you are my shepherd" can be said trustingly only because it has first been said accusingly and questioningly: "Lord, you are my shepherd!" "Lord, are you my shepherd?"
In the valley, we learn to speak to God in the second person—and we learn to listen, to hear him address us, just as personally. We also begin, ever so slowly, to acclimate to the strangeness of his methods, to adjust to how it is that he provides for us and protects us—always without seeming to. And, as that happens, we become stranger and stranger ourselves, more and more delighted by the fact that he prepares a table for us always only in the presence of our enemies, because we want to do for them what has been done for us.
God means to do more than merely reconcile us in one body, however. He means to make us equals—and not only with each other. So the Psalmist sings, drunk with delight,
"You have anointed my head with oil."
This is the wonder of wonders: Christ, the anointed one, anoints us, making room for us to share his relation to the Father, identifying with us so completely that we are included in his uniqueness. As the Fathers say, what he is by nature we become by grace because all that he receives from the Father, he gives to us. And when all is said and done, we shall be filled with all the fulness of God, just as he is, knowing as we are known.
And that means we have to learn even now to speak of God's goodness also in the first person. After "The Lord is my shepherd" becomes "Lord, you are my shepherd," it becomes possible—and therefore necessary—to say, "Lord, I am your shepherd." At the end of Mark's Gospel, Jesus assures the disciples that "these signs shall follow those who believe." And that is precisely what we hear at the end of this Psalm:
"Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."
In the Apocalypse, this is Christ's last promise to the churches: "To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame and am set down with my Father on his throne." This, and nothing less than this, is the hope God holds out for us. We are meant to dwell in his house, forever, not as slaves—God is no master, after all!—but as friends, as partners, as equals. We are, as Scripture says, Christ's co-heirs, purposed to reign with him. Our lives are meant to have the same effect for others that his life has for us. We are meant to be the face of his mercy, the presence of his goodness. We are meant not only to pray but to be answers to prayer.
A hard truth to swallow, I know. At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, remember, John was reluctant to baptize him. At the end, Peter resisted having his feet washed by him. Why? Because both assumed then, just as you and I are conditioned to assume now, that relationship with God is determined by a radical inequality—as if God is known to be God only through our subjugation, shown to be superior by our inferiority. But God is truly beyond compare, utterly, inconceivably without rival. Hence, no competition exists between him and us. He is not the greatest among many. He is one. He is, as Isaiah says, God alone, and he does not share his glory with another. He shares his glory with us because in Christ we are not another. As St Irenaeus said, God's glory is a human being fully alive, living as Christ lives—glorified in glorifying. If we know that, then we know how to sing with a full heart, a heart broken open wide:
"The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want."