We have just heard that the crowds who came to be with Jesus were like sheep without a shepherd. As many of us look with increasing disquiet at the utterly disordered state of leadership in this country, in the United States, and in many other parts of the world, we may well feel like sheep without wise human shepherds. Shepherds have to have foresight and imagination: they protect, lead, find food, heal, teach,forgive, seek out the lost, and provide freedom for their flock. They have to be selfless. It is no wonder that scripture resonates with descriptions of Christ as a good shepherd. Shepherds give us a model of the kind of person nations need as leaders of their people, people who are mostly sheep-like. At present our political world is often being led by people who are rather like another animal – the pig: determined, forceful, even combative, sometimes cunning, and often remarkably selfish. Many of our leaders lack many of the qualities of a good shepherd. Instead there is something primitive and almost Darwinian about our leaders – the most forceful survive.
In the last few weeks several hundred people have been ordained for ministry in the Church of England. At their ordinations they are told that they are to be like shepherds, with the qualities I have mentioned. The words used at every ordination service continue to shake priests like me whenever we hear them. It is something of a relief to be reminded that this ministry can only be attempted by the grace of God. AllChristian discipleship, lay or ordained, is shepherd-like, at least to a degree. We may also say that, ideally, many of the same qualities are called for in those who are in the secular professions.
All of us who find ourselves as shepherds are prone to fatigue, exhaustion, and at times guilt at what has not been done, or what has failed. Today’s gospel reminds us that Jesus needs to go and rest a while with his disciples in a deserted place. But they are followed by crowds and there is no rest. Instead, Jesus is once again busy teaching and healing. Such work is very draining, and yet people in ministry are driven by the expectations, real or imaginary, of those around them. We can find ourselves asking: are we doing enough for God? Does God have expectations, and what might they be? The same broad questions apply to many occupations. So often the needs are endless, and the challenges great. Reading that Jesus tries to find a few days off with his disciples is a great comfort to those who feel endlessly driven by the scale of the task and our assumptions of what God, or our employer, might be expecting of us. We often think that we really cannot take time off, and here Jesus finds that he cannot take time off.
But let us look a little further into this story. Jesus says to his disciples: come away to a deserted place by your selves. It is not an invitation to be with him, but to be with themselves. This is a prompt to each of us to find some solitude and some space, regularly. If we fail to do so then we run the risk of living at some distance from the people we really are, and also of living at some distance from God, who is to be found at the deepest centre of our being. This passage is a reminder that God knows how essential it is that we find space and time to stop, rest and catch up with God and with ourselves.
The reading from the letter to the Ephesians is a reminder that the biblical image of Christ as the good shepherd is about freedom. Here we are offered a set of images from the building industry. Christ is the master builder, who demolishes the separating wall between Jew and Gentile, the circumcised and the uncircumcised. There will be a single temple for all, with him as the cornerstone. The prophets and apostles are the foundations. From the cornerstone the whole building will be shaped and grow. There is no mention here of walls and yet we as humans seem to love walls, for they give us a false sense of security. Nearly 30 years ago we rejoiced to see the wall surrounding Berlin broken down. But in this century we have seen separating barriers or walls set up in Israel, now in parts of middle Europe, and of course a wall is planned between Mexico and the United States.
It is tragic to find that the church is also tending to build walls to separate those with conflicting views on how biblical texts may be interpreted and used to guide moral principles. It is particularly sad that these walls are being built around matters which concern the sexual orientation of a small minority of people, while far more significant matters such as the enormous effects of wealth inequality upon human wellbeing are given much less attention. As Wilkinson and Pickett have shown in their new book, The Inner Level, more equal societies reduce stress, restore sanity and improve the well-being of all. It is sad fact that we living in an increasingly unequal and more sharply divided country, in which more walls are being built than broken down, as Brexit is showing. Those walls may be physical or psychological. They may make us feel safer or more secure, but this passage reminds us that they in the end are an illusion. The body of Christ has no walls. We need no walls, for our security and safety are to be found in Christ the good shepherd, who sees and loves everyone equally.
Let us pray that Christ the Good Shepherd will lead us to start dismantling the walls that separate nations, communities, churches, families, and perhaps most importantly, the walls of prejudice we have built within ourselves, the walls which separate us from God. Amen.