If you ask me, which you didn’t,
Jesus was not interested in being a shepherd.
In fact, I do not think Jesus saw himself as a shepherd
and he definitely didn’t want to be the guy
following along behind the flock
walking through all that manure.
That’s what the shepherd did –
walked behind the flock to keep it moving.
From what we read in Mark’s Gospel,
Jesus liked to be by himself
or with a small group of folks
with whom he could eat and talk.
But we also know, from story after story,
that people wanted Jesus to fix them.
finger-less and toe-less lepers
The raggedy blind,
begging into the dark
yelled for him.
The mannerly and proud
sent for him.
Paraplegics, and those with tumorous faces,
the lung-infected and
the hairless contagious,
all of them chased him,
were dragged to him,
or got pushed and carried until they found him.
He didn’t like it.
I know, I know,
we have been given this image
of the gentle, patient, and loving healer
who wanted nothing more than to cure people in need.
I don’t think so.
Too many times it says in Mark,
that Jesus went off to lonely and deserted places.
In today’s story, Jesus’ disciples
had been away on their own for a long while –
having been sent out two-by-two
to develop their own spiritual practices.
We do not know what Jesus was doing while they were away
but we do know that when they were back together,
the first thing Jesus did was to take them away
to a quiet and deserted place.
Here is a small side-note to this story.
I think it is John Dominic Crossan who theorizes
that the reason the teachings of Jesus survived
while those of John the Baptist didn’t,
is because Jesus’ ministry was NOT about him.
We have made it about him over time,
but when Jesus was alive
Jesus was not about Jesus.
Rather, he was about the spiritual practice
he taught and preached.
John the Baptist wasthe ministry
for those who followed the Baptist,
and when he was beheaded,
the herd was shepherd-less.
But Jesus was the agentof ministry
who sent his disciples to go out and engage in ministry also.
Both prophets – John and Jesus –
were executed by an oppressive military regime
but Jesus’ wisdom was preserved
and his ministry thrived even after his death.
Since the lectionary seems to want us
to be thinking about shepherds today,
it is worth noting that if Jesus was in fact a shepherd,
it was because he got dragged into it
and made doggone sure that his sheep were equipped
to go out and battle coyotes and wolves themselves.
Think about this now.
In chapter one of Mark – the very first chapter,
when, in the other gospels,
Jesus is having a miraculous birth
or being declared God of the cosmos –
in Mark, Jesus runs away and hides.
Don’t take my word for it!
Read chapter one in Mark.
- The first thing to happen is he gets baptized.
- The second thing to happen is he goes into the wilderness by himself for a month.
- The third thing that happens in chapter one,
is that he asks Peter, Simon, and the Zebedee boys
to hang out with him.
- The fourth thing that goes on,
is they all go to synagogue together on the sabbath.
While they are there
Jesus stumbles into an exorcism and word spreads.
- Next, on the same day, still in chapter one,
Jesus heals Peter and Simon’s mom
so that she can fix them dinner.
So now everyone knows he’s a healer
and the house is inundated.
They surround the house and drag people that can’t walk, or see,
or go to the bathroom by themselves to Peter’s mom’s house.
The healing and fixing goes on all night and in the morning,
when Peter, Simon, and the Zebedees go looking for Jesus, they can’t find him.
- The sixth thing to happen then, is Jesus runs away to a deserted place.
That is what it says, and we’re still in chapter one.
- The seventh thing to happen
is that Jesus’ new buddies find him
and urge him to come back to town
because everyone is looking for him.
That is when Jesus tells us why he came in the first place.
- It is the eighth and almost final thing that happens in chapter one. It is when we learn
that Jesus does not see himself as a shepherd or healer.
To his friends who want to drag him back, he says,
“Uh uh, let’s go to some other towns
so I can preach, because that is what I came to do – preach.”
- So, the ninth thing to happen in that first chapter,
is that he and his pals go preaching at the synagogues
all around that region.
- The tenth and final act in chapter one, ironically,
is when a leper kneels down and begs Jesus to fix him. He does – probably with a big sigh.
So here we are, today, five chapters later.
“When they had crossed over (the lake…and) got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak…”
I think this is a fascinating theme
within the Jesus story.
Here is this preacher and teacher
that everyone wants to make into their shepherd, healer,
and miracle worker.
Clearly, he is compassionate
and responds to immediate human need,
but we have to wonder how miserable he might have been.
In a world of gimme, gimme, gimme,
Jesus is promoting a selfless missionary zeal
that would have people focused on loving their neighbor,
turning the other cheek,
and refusing to play the victim role
even when they were clearly being victimized.
Because of the last week in Jesus’ life,
which is where we have focused so much of our attention,
we think the primary tension in the gospel narrative
is between Jesus and the temple
or Jesus and the Romans.
But look again.
I’m thinking the primary tension
is between Jesus,
who came to preach and teach
and send his buddies out two-by-two to practice the same,
verses all those others –
urgent care waiting room.
I think that is our primary tension too.
You and I are wounded souls,
in ways we’d be embarrassed
for anyone to truly recognize.
Some of us may be the mannerly and proud
who would send for Jesus
rather than be seen in public needing him explicitly,
but we are wounded and needy just the same.
The tension is between our neediness
and the agency that Jesus calls us into.
Neediness turns our focus inward –
drives us toward a self-orbit
where the gravity of our own hurts
and pulls us toward them.
It takes so much thoughtful breathing and mindfulness
to listen to the murmurs of our compassion
when all we want to do
is appease our hungers and our hurts.
But that is the tension –
to lean into our compassion
even as our own ego-driven desires
furiously demand our attention.
Our political leaders
would have us lean into our hurts and fears
and be led by the angels of our darker natures.
Jesus calls us to lean into our compassion.
Our religious leaders
would have us lean into our anxieties and resentments
and be led by the fear of hell and the thirst for retribution.
Jesus calls us to lean into mercy more than justice.
The puppeteers of capitalism
would have us lean into our greed and self-preservation
and be led by competition and survival of the fittest.
Jesus calls us to lean into generosity and sacrifice.
You and I are not always going to win this struggle
between compassion and neediness,
but sometimes we will.
One thing is certain.
We will be led more by our compassion
than fall into self-orbit
only if we engage in a spiritual practice
that strengthens and builds compassion
the way exercise and nutrition builds muscle instead of fat.
That is what Jesus came to do, by the way:
teach us about a compassion-based spiritual practice
and preach about how to win more often than lose
in the tug-of-war between compassion
and our own self-orbiting neediness.
That’s what our spiritual practices ought to do for us –
help us lean into our compassion
rather than our own neediness.