Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6; Psalm 23; Mark 6: 30- 34 & 53 – 56

When I was a child, I believed there were two people who could always see me. One was my mother. Somehow, no matter how carefully I plotted, my mother seemed to know what I was up to. I didn’t get away with much and when I did get caught, it wasn’t pretty. When I asked my mother how she knew, she’d tell me she has eyes in the back of her head and of course I’d want to look through her hair to find them. It wasn’t until I became a mom that I realized my mother wasn’t magic, kids just aren’t that subtle. The other person who saw me was God. I was terrified of God. If my mother could watch me from the front and back, coming and going, God could see me everywhere at all times. God watched me from the sky like a satellite. God could see through walls in buildings. God could see me when I was alone. God could not only see what I was up to, he could see my thoughts and look into my heart. And if my mother was angry about my behaviour, how much more did I incur the wrath of God each day? With an all-seeing, all-knowing God, I was in huge trouble. As I grew and came to know God’s grace, I relaxed a little. God could still see my misdeeds; there was no hiding from him, but at least he was inclined to forgive. It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s, when a woman in my spiritual journey group spoke about God watching us all the time as in watching over us, did the penny drop. It was one of those small conversion moments when we’re born into a new reality. I realized that God watches me not in the hope of catching me in the act, so he could punish me, God watches over me with love and care. As a father watches his child, God watches me with love and joy. God watches me not with anger but with compassion. God isn’t a monster waiting to devour his prey, God is a shepherd tenderly carrying for his lambs.

The disciples of Jesus returned from there mission trip excited to tell him all about. It wasn’t long until their excitement gave way to weariness. Jesus saw they were tired and suggested they get away to a place on the lake for a weekend of rest. However, as soon as the boat pulled up to dock, a large crowd appeared wanting Jesus’ attention. Jesus looked at them. He saw them. He saw their needs, their desperation and their hope. Compassion welled up inside him: “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). They were lost. They needed care. They needed tending. They needed someone to watch over them.

At some time in each of our lives we have been “sheep without a shepherd”. Lost. Alone. In need of tenderness. We go through many distressing things in life. We all encounter dark valleys, times when the sun doesn’t shine, and we feel hopeless. They may be valleys of failure or shame. They may be experiences of violation or violence. Poverty may seem like a valley we can’t climb out of. When we are standing on the side-lines watching someone we love destroy themselves and we can’t help, we know what it’s like to be in that valley. At other times, that valley is one where death hangs over us like a dark shadow. We are given a serious diagnosis and are confronted with our mortality; the life we love may end. Treatment is offered but there are risks involved. It may not work – death clouds our hope. We feel lost, unsure of which decisions are best. Or we watch a loved one suffer as an illness slowly takes their life and we’re helpless to intervene. Then one night, death comes to the door and the person we love is gone. Everything is eclipsed by that loss. Companionship, identity, income, extended family are losses after the loss. The bottom line is: we lose our self. Then there is the distress of being in the presence of our enemies. We feel obliged to celebrate Christmas with a family member who has wronged us. We go to class with a cyber-bully that won’t leave us be. We worship with someone with whom reconciliation has not been possible. We share a lunch room with someone who takes credit for our work. We arrive at a social event and encounter someone who sexually abused us. We run into the self-appointed “king” of the building in the elevator. We volunteer with a sociopath. We don’t feel safe.

The 23rd Psalm comforts us with the truth that we are not alone. We are sheep with a shepherd. It’s not surprizing this is the most well-known and cherished of all the Psalms. Sheep are gentle creatures without much ability to protect themselves. They’re quick to wander and get lost. They panic easily and don’t make the best decisions. Like us, sheep know many dangers. They’re vulnerable to predators. In 2004, over 1/3 of all sheep raised in the USA were killed by coyotes and wild dogs. Parasites leave the sheep weak and sick. Poachers steel them. Even running water is a hazard as sheep can’t drink from it; without still water they dehydrate. But the Psalm gives us the reassuring image of God as our shepherd: providing, caring, protecting, vigilante. If we were sheep, our Good Shepherd would bring us to lush meadows and still water to provide for our needs. As Jesus did with the disciples, God shows his loving care by encouraging respite and restoration. God gives us dignity when others would reduce us to nothing. God protects us with his guidance. His presence gives us comfort and security. Because he loves us we are safe. God never abandons us; in fact, when we wander he chases after us and brings us back.

Shepherding is one of the oldest professions known. It dates back to 10,000 BC. Shepherding was considered lowly work. It’s dirty, dusty work with long hours. Shepherds didn’t need a lot of education and they had little power. For God to be our shepherd is an act of humility. God choses to serve and care for us out of love.

Shepherds care for sheep in flocks. That’s why God gives us the Church. The Church is our herd. Sheep instinctively know there’s strength in numbers. Sheep prevail through community-based survival. Sure, the flock can give you the odd parasite or infection, but the benefits out-weigh the risks. Our Good Shepherd doesn’t isolate us from the fold. He can watch over us better as a group. At the same time, attentive shepherds know each of their sheep individually. He knows their names. He knows when Lambert wants to romp; when Woolly is sick; when Nan is about to give birth, when Sassafras is being stubborn, when Stormy is up to no good, when Creampuff is wandering away, and when Butt-head is causing problems. Our good shepherd knows each of us, our personalities, our needs, our desires, our troubles and our temptations. He loves us regardless. Shepherds also know which sheep are vulnerable – the babies, the elderly, the sick, the depressed. He keeps special watch over these, tending to their wounds, carrying them if needed, nursing them to health. He also knows that while lambs start out very cute, they grow up to be, well, not so cute. Our Good Shepherd loves the innocence of the young, but he knows that will change, we will learn to nip, become willful and wander. The Good Shepherd continues to guide us. He is especially attentive to those who are new to the flock, because they need extra nourishment, they need to grow, they need to learn what’s expected. But he talks to each of his sheep every day with gestures of love. We all matter to him. When sheep are nourished and well watered, they experience less stress. They’re happier and the whole flock is happier. The shepherd provides the nourishment for us but we need to get to the trough.

An interesting thing about shepherds is that they often lead the flock from the back. Predators are most likely to pick off the young, the old or the sick sheep trailing behind the others. The shepherd stays back where he can protect them and where he can see everything that’s going on. Often, we can’t see the shepherd. We think he should be out front blazing the way and showing us exactly where to go. We feel lost and confused because we think we’re on our own. That the shepherd doesn’t care. He’s left us to our own devices. That is never true. We may not see him but he’s still with us, leading from behind.

Sometimes sheep go astray. They get lost. They can’t find their way back. They end up in dangerous situations. In the Highlands of Scotland, the grass is sweet and the sheep like it. A sheep will jump down ten or twelve feet, but then it can’t jump back so it wanders until it gets stuck in a tight spot. The shepherd hears it bleating in distress. But even after the shepherd locates it, he doesn’t rescue it immediately. He’ll wait until the sheep is so faint it cannot stand, and then he’ll put a rope around it, and pull that sheep up out of the jaws of death. The delay is because sheep are so foolish they’d dash right over the precipice if they were able and be killed. Sometimes we wonder why our Good Shepherd has left us stuck or hanging. Why he waits until we’re worn down and weak. Why he leaves us struggling to find our own way out. God knows we’ll not allow him to act until we have hit rock bottom. Our Good Shepherd brings us back only when we have given up trying to save our self and are willing to let him save us in his own way.

We all need someone to watch over us. When Jesus saw the crowds, he perceived they were like sheep without a shepherd. He lay aside his plans, in order to teach and heal them. How do you respond to the people around you? Do you see them as a nuisance? As hopeless cases – too far gone to be rescued? As people undeserving of the Shepherd’s care? NT Professor D. A. Carson tells of a time when he and a friend were going to the beach for some much-needed peace and quiet. When they arrived, they found a horde of high school kids celebrating graduation with lots of alcohol, loud music and shocking PDA. Carson recalls, “Deeply disappointed that my relaxation was being shattered by a raucous party, I was getting ready to cover my disappointment by moral outrage.” He turned to his friend to unload his venom but stopped. His friend, also looking at the scene seemed pleased. He turned to Carson and said, “High school kids—what a mission field!’”

We are all “little lambs lost in a wood”. We are blessed beyond measure to be a sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd. Our Good Shepherd sees us and responds to our needs with love, protection and faithfulness. His beauty and love chase after us every day of our lives, until we find ourselves back home in the house of God.