Texts: Ezekiel 34:1-6 and Matthew 9:35-38
Hymns: 001 – Praise to the Lord. 358 – Far and Near the Fields Are Teeming
[Eze 34:1-6 NLT] 1 Then this message came to me from the LORD: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign LORD: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? 3 You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. 4 You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. 5 So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. 6 They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.
[Mat 9:35-38 NLT] 35 Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. 38 So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.”
The other day Karin told me she had seen Don Mehrer wandering the adjacent property with a five-gallon bucket in his hand. She couldn’t figure out what he was doing. It seemed kind of odd. A day or two later she saw Don again and asked about the bucket thing.
Don grimaced and complained. “It’s hard to be an owner.”
He was picking up trash that had been dropped, especially cigarette butts. Why do people just drop cigarette butts? Do they think they’ll just evaporate or something?
People drop cigarette butts. That’s kind of a mystery.
Don picks them up. That could be an even greater mystery. Why is Don wandering around next door picking up cigarette butts?
Because he’s the owner. It’s what you do when the place belongs to you.
I have my own cigarette butt story, proof of my ownership. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, every morning when I’m home I walk a few blocks up the hill from our house to Ella Bailey Park which has a grand view of downtown Seattle.
Like lots of other people I enjoy the park. I sit there in the mornings on my stool and wait for sunrise or put up with the rain. Then I do something else. Before I leave the overlook, I pick all the trash, which usually means picking up cigarette butts. I do it for two reasons. I want my meditation space to be clean. And I figure I own that park.
True, I share ownership with a million other Seattleites. But it’s my park. I own it. So I don’t hope someone else will pick up the litter. I do it.
Jesus saw his disciples as co-owners of the kingdom of heaven. We are not merely helpers.
To pick up the metaphor from today’s scripture readings: We are not sheep. We are shepherds, participants with Jesus in his mission of seeking lost sheep and feeding lambs.
There is no shame in being sheep. There is a special glory in being shepherds.
Last spring, on our annual geology tour, our caravan of four vehicles was driving toward Grand Canyon. I was in the last car. We came on the scene of an accident. The first car, the one with Dr. Grellman in it, was pulled off on the shoulder. Of course. Dr. Grellman is an ER doc.
Two of the cars continued on so we could buy groceries for the weekend, leaving Dr. Grellman and the other two cars to meet up with us later.
Why did Dr. Grellman’s car stop? Because we were in the middle of nowhere. No ambulance had arrived. And he was an ER doc.
I would not have stopped. Other people were already there. I have no expertise in treating trauma. I have a hard time finding a pulse.
Another time, one of our tour members got something in her eye. It was becoming a serious problem. Others had tried to help her, but could not find and fix the problem. Dr. Grellman fixed it. Because he was a doctor. That’s what he does.
At times like that, I’m jealous of my physician friends. I wish I knew what they know. I wish I had the skills they have. It must be a pain sometimes. There’s an emergency and suddenly everyone is looking at you.
In our house, my wife is the medical expert–for people and for animals. When I get splinters in my feet, I ask Karin for help. When I notice something wrong with a horse, I don’t try to figure out what’s going on. I simply call Karin.
On the other hand, when there is a plumbing problem, I get the call. Karin and the kids count on me to fix everything from faucets to septic systems. Their life is better because Dad is a plumber. A couple of weeks ago, one of my daughters called me. Something was wrong with her kitchen faucet. She wanted to fix it. Could I walk her through the process on the phone?
When there’s a car question in our family, we all know who to call. We call Karin’s brother Carl. That’s Eric Lundstrom’s dad. What kind of tires do we need on the car? Don’t bother thinking. Just call Carl. He’ll tell you exactly what you need.
When I have trouble with my phone, I call my son.
When I need help understanding some piece of contemporary culture, I call my oldest daughter.
There is no shame in needing a doctor.
There is glory in being a doctor.
There is no shame in having a plugged up toilet.
There is glory in unplugging it.
There is no shame in being a sheep.
There is glory in serving as a shepherd.
In today’s New Testament passage we heard reference to a classic metaphor, God as shepherd, people as sheep.
Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
One way to read this passage is to feel our own confusion and helplessness. We wish we had a shepherd. But that is not the message the Gospel writer wants us to get. The writer wants us to stand with Jesus and look through Jesus’ eyes and see the helplessness and confusion of others and join Jesus in the work of being a shepherd.
To make his point, Jesus messes with the metaphor. In fact, he completely switches the metaphor (which was common in the literature of that time.)
“Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.” [Matthew 9:35-38 NLT]
Jesus does not say, “All of you are sheep. I am the shepherd.” Jesus says, in effect, “I am a shepherd and I want you to be shepherds, too.” Or even more strongly, “I am a shepherd, and the work is too much for me. I need your help. There is more work than one person can do–even a miracle-working, God-man like Jesus Christ. There is more work than we–here Jesus would have motioned, indicating the twelve disciples–more work than we can do. So pray. Pray for more workers. Pray for more shepherds.”
Jesus–the Risen Christ, the Lord of Glory, the King of Kings and Lord of lords–Jesus cannot fix breakfast for a two-year-old. But we can. Jesus cannot run to the drugstore for a neighbor. But we can. Jesus cannot find the bug in the software, but some of you engineers can. And we need you.
In First Peter, we read that church people are to act as shepherds modeling their service on the service of Jesus, the “Chief Shepherd.” We do what Jesus did. We serve as Jesus served. That’s our calling. (1 Peter 5:1-4).
Being a shepherd is hard work. It will mess with our convenience. This spring, when I saw the car Dr. Grellman was riding in pulled over, I immediately knew what was happening and I knew we didn’t have a choice. We were in a bit of a hurry to get to our campsite before it got too late. But we had a doctor among us and a doctor was desperately, urgently needed. So we stopped so the shepherd could take care of the wounded sheep.
Sometimes being a shepherd is exhausting, draining work. Sometimes it takes us to the very edge of endurance. It is important that we not romanticize shepherding. We honor the work of shepherding. We cultivate an appreciation of its glory. But we are not blind to its cost.
Tuesday morning I was sitting in meditation in the park a few blocks up the hill from our house. I was writing a poem about a man whose life is made very difficult by mental illness. I noticed a message. I checked it. It was from a mother who was worried about her son whose life is shaped–or perhaps I should say is misshaped–by mental illness. There was a crisis. Would I please pray?
Of course, I prayed. That was the easy part. Then I spent some time contemplating the decades of shepherding practiced by this mother. She has intervened over and over and over again. Spending scarce money, consuming hours and days of her life in a never-ending struggle to keep her son alive.
He is a perennially lost sheep. Sheep need an always-on-duty shepherd. It is exhausting.
Just yesterday, I received a message from someone else I’m close to. Her husband spirals in and out of crisis. She wrote of the great weariness of coping with his mental illness, the exhaustion that comes from going to the rescue the umpteenth time. She is the shepherd. Her husband is the sheep. Being a shepherd is hard work.
On Tuesday’s I volunteer at Aurora Commons, a center that serves street people along Aurora Avenue. This last week the place was unusually crowded. People milling about. People slumped on couches, in a drug-induced haze. One of the regulars was on a manic phase. Spouting long lines of eloquent laments memorized from movies, restlessly pacing the place.
There were some tense moments when verbal altercations threatened to escalate. Only the skilled, practiced intervention by the chief shepherd of the place calmed things down.
I’m haunted by the people I see on Tuesdays. They are a drain on society. They take more than they give. For many of them, this will be true all of their lives. Providing even the barest minimum for their survival is draining. Still, they are sheep. They need shepherding. And we who are sane, we who are not addicted, we are called to be shepherds. We are called to tend the lost sheep.
Let’s be clear. It is more work to be a shepherd than to be a sheep. It’s easier to be a sheep. But I have never met someone who having tasted the glory of shepherding wished to become again, a sheep.
Taking care of a mentally ill person is exhausting and bewildering and perplexing. It is miserable, at times. But I have never met someone who would prefer to be the mentally ill person instead of being the caregiver.
There is deep satisfaction. There is very difficult and exhausting work. And there is glory.
Here among us there are some who carry a staggering weight of shepherding, of caregiving of various kinds. Let’s honor them. Let’s figure out what we can to help them, to ease a bit of the load they carry.
Jesus said to pray the Lord of the Harvest to send workers into the field. Let’s pray that prayer. Then let’s open our hearts to the call of God and do what we can to be part of God’s answer to that prayer.
As Don said, “It’s hard to be an owner.”
And it’s hard to be a shepherd.
And there is glory, too.