Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, 18th July 2021
Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34
A friend of mine, Father Paul Towns, is a priest in rural Leicestershire earns his keep by day as a farmer, and he made the local press on the Easter weekend when he rode on horseback to the Good Friday services across his five churches.
Whenever I hear a passage such as the ones we’ve heard today, with its agricultural metaphors, I often think of Father Paul, who will have a much clearer insight into these things than I do.
I also think of my friend Cerys, who after leaving school went off to study agriculture not far from Fr. Paul in Loughborough – and I’d often see photos of her, with wellington boots and flat cap, striding across fields, or surrounded by sheep – learning the shepherding trade.
Shepherds are always closely, almost intimately, involved with the life of their flocks. You can’t be a shepherd from a distance. Even today, in the age of technology, when a shepherd is as likely to use a quad bike as a crook, there is still a great amount of work to be done in and among the sheep – checking them for diseases, leading them to pasture, and of course the great arduous task each year of delivering lambs into the world.
And it is, I think, for this reason that our Lord uses the image of a shepherd so often in the Bible to describe humanity’s relationship with God and those whom he sends.
In the first reading, Jeremiah addresses the lying prophets of his day- those who instead of speaking the words given to them by God, spoke on their own account, in order to curry favour with kings. We read throughout the Bible of the way that God’s prophets were treated when they spoke his words – from Elijah who was hounded out into the wilderness, to Amos, who we heard last week – he was told to leave the kingdom of Israel and to cease his prophecy. And of course John the Baptist and many like him were killed for preaching God’s message. So if you were a prophet, and you wanted to be treated well by those in power, you told them what they wanted to hear.
But what we want to hear isn’t always what we need to hear, and this is why Jeremiah describes the flock of God’s pasture as being scattered and destroyed – without shepherds who will truly care for them, they are lost. So God promises to raise up true shepherds for them – shepherds who will care for the flock and lead them.
Of course, the truly Good Shepherd is our Lord himself, and this is foreshadowed in the second part of the first reading, when Jeremiah recounts God’s promise to raise up the virtuous branch, the true king. Our Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
A good shepherd, as I say, cannot be separated from his sheep. He must be among them. And so in the second reading we hear from St. Paul how Jesus came among his flock, bringing down the barrier both between Jews and Gentiles, and between God and humanity. In the Gospel Jesus cannot bear to leave the crowd, tired as he is, for they are like sheep without a shepherd.
“And he set himself to teach them at some length.”
Every year there are programmes on TV about the lambing season. It’s a difficult time of year when farmers and shepherds must be ready at any time of day or night to help a ewe in trouble, no matter how tired they are already. So too Jesus – who though he and his disciples had no time even to eat, we hear – he still took the trouble to teach them at gret length.
This is our God, our Lord Jesus Christ – the good shepherd who cares for his sheep. In 2013 the Pope, soon after his enthronement, called on priests to be shepherds who smell of the sheep. I said just now that it is impossible for a shepherd to tend a flock remotely – you must be among them. I and my priestly colleagues, in this benefice and beyond, are called to share our lives with you, to share our very selves – as your pastors, as imitators of the great shepherd of our souls.
Why does the psalm talk especially about restful waters? Because sheep can’t drink from fast flowing torrents, they have to be near gentle waters to be able to drink from them. This is the care God gives us, he leads us in the way that we should go, and gives us the things that we need. We have spent the last year and a half being led by God through a valley of darkness – but with him, we do not need to be afraid. He prepares a banquet for us – the heavenly banquet of the Eucharist – to nourish us; he gives us the living water of his Holy Spirit; and one day, we will be led into our Lord’s own house, to dwell with him for ever and ever.