Sheep without Shepherds

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal

Well, Jeremiah, if shepherds can be so iffy, who needs them anyway?

I was not quite thirty when I made my first trip to the UK. We were backpackers, staying in youth hostels and bed & breakfasts chosen from the Ramblers guidebook, and, well, rambling.

In October it was cloudy and sometimes wet. We were determined to climb Snowden, the highest mountain in Wales, and we walked up it on a day when we could have enjoyed views from any of the lower hills. Here, we found ourselves ascending higher—and into a cloud. That’s where we saw the skeleton.

It was a mostly complete skeleton—rib cage, skull still attached to the spine—of what had once been a four legged animal, lying maybe fifty feet below us. Our path followed a ridge, and below us to the left dropped a sharply vertical slope of mostly rock. On that slope there were some ledges and outcroppings, and on some of them enough soil had accumulated over the centuries to nourish vegetation. Evidently, some years earlier, a sheep had strayed up onto the mountain, spotted that delectable long grass, managed to clamber down to feast on it, and had been unable to climb back up. Then it starved or froze to death and then a combination of scavangers … birds I guess, and the wind and weather too, had eventually picked and scoured its bones white and clean.

Sheep, on their own, can not only stray, but yes, die. They can slip slide away. For sure. And so can any of us—separately, or together. We don’t often talk about the deadliness of sin in Anglican churches these days. But it’s real, and God is always present trying to call us back to the right path.

The shepherds are supposed to do that too—by word and by example.

When I read the first words of Jeremiah—“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord!” I thought, “I guess this is Bad Shepherd Sunday.” (Good Shepherd Sunday came earlier, a few weeks into Easter, when Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd”). And I thought, “Hmm, maybe I should reacquaint myself with Jeremiah before assuming I know who these bad shepherds are.”

In his forty-year career as a prophet in Judah, the country was invaded more than once, and the elites were marched off to Babylon while the poorer people struggled to eke out a living under the foreign rulers. Jeremiah himself was nearly killed for prophesying as he did, and there is an account (not in Scripture) of him being stoned to death in Egypt by his own people.

In his day, to speak of shepherds was to refer to the rulers of Judah. The king’s virtue or misbehaviour was not a question of personal conduct only; it affected the whole of society. Individualism as we understand it today was pretty much unknown. Sin and virtue were regarded not simply as matters of individual behaviour but of collective failure or success. Right thinking and right actions protected the community. (And they still do, don’t they? Covid has brought this home to us.)

Turning to the Gospel, we meet Jesus and his disciples right after John the Baptist has been put to death. The disciples gather around Jesus. We can imagine that they are pretty worked up after John’s murder, as well as exhausted after a lot of teaching and doing. The story says the crowd around them gives them no time to rest or eat. Jesus’ first thought is for his disciples, he tries to take them all away to a deserted place. This doesn’t work. The crowds pursue them. And then Jesus takes pity on that multitude, because “they were like sheep without a shepherd,” and he teaches them. The place he does this is very near where Matthew puts his long collection of Jesus’ teachings preserved as the Sermon on the Mount, including the Beatitudes.

In the Hebrew Bible, the phrase “sheep without a shepherd” always refers to temporal rulers who misuse their authority. Here it points straight towards Herod. Last Sunday, Bertrand clearly described Herod’s stupendous dinner party and how he got trapped into killing John. We’re now in the aftermath of this horror. The ever-growing crowds that pursue Jesus are drawn by both neediness and hope. Their excitement is palpable. Jeremiah had prophesied that God would “raise up for David a righteous branch … who shall do what is right and just,” and now, God’s reign is not just being proclaimed, it’s being made real in their own time, even though their earthy leaders are untrustworthy and their lives are utterly precarious.
When a government, or a business organization, or a church, acts in a way that causes harm, everyone suffers. In religious settings, and not just Christian ones, either, abuse on the part of a religious leader affects a wider circle than the perpetrator and the individual victim. It breaks faith with all the members of that congregation or that faith community. They can no longer trust their leaders. A covenant, spoken or unspoken, has been broken.

On the steps of Notre Dame des Sept Douleurs, around the corner on Wellington from where I live in Verdun, pairs of children’s shoes started to appear as graves were identified of students who died in Canada’s residential schools. A small protest, a miniature accusation, by people in 2021 in Quebec directed towards Christian clergy and institutions who harmed children decades ago. The hurt is still alive today.

How do we understand Jesus—God with us—standing with us in this brokenness? We know he had no interest in being an earthly king. We call him “Lord Jesus” in our hymns, but don’t really think about how much baggage we are assigning to someone who in fact always travelled light. In the Beatitudes, he turns power and privilege and the whole middle-Eastern culture of honour entirely upside down. In this new kingdom or reign, “the poor are blessed, the hungry are filled, the grieving are filled with joy, and enemies are loved.” (See note.)

This is the Good News.

How has it touched you? I ask, because I can’t tell you what you need to know this morning about how Jesus did this. He seemed to speak to people one on one. So I ask you, because you are the expert here…When did you experience something like this, yourself? Did someone or something, somehow, reveal to you that mercy is not just an abstract concept but something real to be received, or given? That revelation might not have come in church! It might have come via a family member, or a friend, or a work colleague. A moment when you were sure you were standing in the presence of a love and respect that asked nothing in exchange. That celebrated your fundamental dignity. Who you really are. A touchstone reminding you what God’s love is like.

Right relationship can be experienced, and this experience arches across times when dangerous people, policies, viruses, and sicknesses wreak havoc with our well-being. God can’t guarantee that we will never, in the words of the Psalmist, ”walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” But through whatever comes, we can trust that God… the one who is our shepherd… will be present to us, will hold our identity and love secure.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


(1) The readings for today, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, are:
Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

(2) I used Richard Rohr’s summary of the Beatitudes from this column of his:

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