Three weeks ago, I walked down Dickson Street with a group from St. Paul’s, and I listened as the crowd cheered wildly and joyfully at the sight of our church’s banner. The whole event was a joyful, hopeful celebration, but I felt something special when thousands of people, who have no real connection with our church, lifted their voices in shouts of appreciation because, as I interpret their enthusiasm, they were delighted to see a group of Christians walking in the Pride parade. Although I know that St. Paul’s has long been a symbol of love and acceptance in our community, until that moment, I did not appreciate what it means to be a part of a church that is willing to show up and stand up for Pride.
Ever since then, I have been wondering what comes next. Over the years, we have done a lot of good in this community. When the crowd sees us walking down Dickson, they aren’t cheering simply because we showed up this year but because of all that we have come to represent in this town. But, when the parade is over, we roll up our banner and pack up our feather boas and put away our rainbow hats and look forward to next year, when the crowd will cheer us on again. One or two from the crowd may come through those doors because they are bold enough to come and look for something more, but many others are content to say to themselves what each of us has heard many times before: “I don’t go to church, but, if I ever did, I would go to St. Paul’s.” Today’s readings from Jeremiah and Mark make me wonder whether it’s time for us to do something more.
Back then, they probably weren’t wearing as much face paint, but the crowds we read about in Mark 6 were no less enthusiastic. The disciples had returned from the journey on which Jesus had sent them out two by two. They had taught and healed and cast out demons in Jesus’ name, and they were wildly successful. Jesus and his disciples had become so famous that they couldn’t even get a few minutes by themselves to eat. So Jesus bid his disciples to come away to a deserted place by themselves. They got into a boat and sailed to a desolate spot on the shore, but the crowd saw where they were headed, and they ran along the shore to meet them. As the eager crowd passed through one village after another, more and more people left their homes and hurried to meet them. By the time Jesus and the disciples came ashore, there were more than 5,000 people waiting for them.
By the end of the gospel reading, Jesus and the disciples left that place in the boat and sailed to the other side of the sea, but, again, a great crowd met them there. So eager were the people to be healed by Jesus that they pressed in on him as close as they could. They knew that if they could only touch the fringe of his cloak everything would be alright—that all that was amiss within them would be healed. Even though he must have been exhausted, Jesus, we are told, had compassion on them. When he looked out at the crowd, he saw beloved children of God who were like sheep without a shepherd.
There are a few times in the Bible when God’s people are described as sheep without a shepherd. When Moses asked the Lord to raise up a successor who would lead Israel into the land of Canaan, he begged God not to leave God’s sheep without a shepherd (Numbers 27:17). When Micaiah the prophet foretold the death of the wicked king Ahab, he said that he could see the soldiers of Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep that have no shepherd (1 Kings 22:17). When Zechariah the prophet described the worthlessness of the spiritual leaders of his day, he lamented how the people of Judah suffered for lack of a shepherd (Zechariah 10:2). But perhaps worst of all was the condemnation uttered by the prophet Jeremiah, which we heard in our first reading. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” In this instance, the leaders of God’s people had not only failed to keep track of their vulnerable sheep, but, like wolves in sheep’s clothing, they had actually scattered the flock, driving them away.
I wonder how often someone who was desperate for healing tried to approach God only to be driven away by worthless shepherds. I wonder how often in the name of religion someone with authority has refused to acknowledge the needs of the vulnerable who come to them for help. I wonder how often we, in the name of Jesus, have taken a stand with oppression not because we believe that it’s right but because we are afraid of admitting that we might have been wrong all this time. In every generation, there are so-called religious leaders who, instead of shepherding God’s people to spiritual safety, scatter them and chase them away, coming between them and God.
The truth is that we’re all desperate for healing. We’re all standing in our own crowd, of our own particular identity, hoping that we will be found, that our needs can be met, that our brokenness can be made whole. Some of us, like me, have the benefit of belonging to a crowd that hasn’t ever had to fight hard to be accepted or to be taken seriously. While our needs are just as real as anyone else’s, we aren’t as vulnerable as others, and we haven’t known what it means to come to the church house door only to find that we aren’t welcome—that the shepherds are determined to drive us away. But there are lots of other people who have felt that kind of rejection and exclusion by the church. And it shouldn’t surprise us that many of them have given up on religion. It shouldn’t surprise us that, when Christians show up and grab the microphone, people who have been wounded by the church expect something other than love and acceptance to come out.
The crowd on Dickson Street, when they see us, knows that we represent a different kind of Christian, but I wonder whether showing up every year is enough. In every biblical example of sheep without a shepherd, including the one from Jeremiah, God promises to raise up new, faithful shepherds who will care for God’s people. Moses was succeeded by Joshua. Ahab and the rest of the Omri dynasty were eventually overthrown by Jehu. Zechariah and Jeremiah both promised that the self-interested shepherds who had led God’s people astray would be replaced by a righteous Branch, who would bring justice and righteousness to the land. Jesus came and offered healing to those who needed it most—those who had no where else to turn, those who had no spiritual leaders to help them find the healing promises of God.
Are we willing to do more to help people who have given up on God because they have been driven away by worthless shepherds find the healing that God still promises them? I don’t mean a campaign to get disaffected people to fill the pews and the offering plate. And I’m not just talking about the crowds at a Pride parade. I think we are in a unique position to offer a message of hope to people who haven’t heard words of hope from Christians in a long time. We have spent years building a deep reputation of genuine love and concern throughout the community. People see that the members of this parish are committed to the transformational power of unconditional love. They literally cheer when they see us. Over and over, they say that, if they ever went to a church, it would be here with us.
You’re already here, so you already know the healing power of hope and love that we share in this place—not by reputation but from within. You know how good it is to be a part of this community of faith. Think of how many other people would enjoy being a part of what we do here. Might you do something more to share it with others? Jesus is sending us out, just like the disciples, to offer healing in his name. Whom will you invite to come and find it with us?