| Jeremiah 23:1-6
|Sun, November 21, 2004
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Woe”, says Jeremiah. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture”. Well it is not really Jeremiah who says this. Five times in six verses Jeremiah assures us that thus “says the LORD”. This is YHWH speaking. And YHWH announces woe “concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people”. Who are these shepherds who are so woeful in God’s sight? Simply put, they are the failed leaders of the people. In the ancient near east political leaders were called the shepherds of the people. “Woe ... on you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD”. Now this is all very well and good so long as it is a text concerning the political leaders of ancient Israel. It might even be well and good so long as it concerns the political leaders of any political stripe who do not faithfully shepherd their people. Indeed, the Feast of Christ the King that we celebrate today was first instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in the face of rising fascism in Europe. Nations were faced with crises of leadership. People craved strong and effective leaders. Sadly, their wishes were often granted with strong and effective leaders who mercilessly scattered the weak and fleeced the flock. But the problem with the announcement of God’s woe upon the shepherds is clear to me. It is clear because I am a pastor. And a pastor is, of course, a shepherd ... a shepherd of God’s people. I would like to keep you focussed on politicians, keep the woe directed to someone else. Yet I cannot help but ponder that the truth of God’s word here and now may be a mournful woe upon the shepherds of Christ’s church.
I cannot help but ponder this because I cannot help but notice how often concerns about leadership now arise in the mainline church. The United Church of the late twentieth century did not speak much about leadership. We were concerned to emphasize the whole people of God and mutuality in ministry. We were suspicious of those who offered to provide or to give or to take leadership. Now it is dawning on us that we may have closed our collective mind to the leaders God was sending to us. The upcoming meeting of the British Columbia Conference of the United Church in May will have as its theme one of its three mission goals: effective leadership. In preparing for that meeting we have noticed that the Bible does not use the language of leadership. It speaks, instead, about shepherds of the people who follow the Torah - the Way - of God. This is what the Bible calls “pastoral care”. We imagine that pastoral care is the one on one visiting of each precious lamb. And it is. But the Bible imagines that pastoral care is much more than this. The biblical shepherd - pastor - is one who guides the flock away from idolatry - from worshipping false gods - and leads the flock in the Way - the Torah - of God. To be involved in pastoral care - to be a pastor (ordained or lay) - is to be not simply a caregiver but primarily a leader. In this sense preaching is an essential act of pastoral care - of leading the flock. So is the work of the Council of Elders when it meets. The pastoral care - the faithful leadership - of the flock is its agenda at all times. And this would all be too much, too difficult, too woeful a task if it were not for the gospel that Jeremiah announces. Did you hear it?
“Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock ... and I will bring them back to their fold ... I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.” This is stunning news ... news worthy of an angel choir singing “Peace on earth” as a cohort of shepherds ponders the babe in swaddling cloths, born in the city of David, the Shepherd Messiah. Jeremiah‘s vision is incredible: “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Our Jewish cousins hear in Jeremiah’s words the promise of a leader who will bring a just peace to the Holy Land. May it be so! We glimpse something else in the promise of a righteous King born to David’s family tree. In Jeremiah’s gospel we hear an announcement of Pastor Jesus, God’s promised Shepherd who will gather in all who are lost, scattered, missing. This is the good news of great joy: there is a leader who can be trusted to guide the flock. The shepherd’s name is Jesus Christ, which is to say “King Jesus”.
This is good news. Sort of. The gospel goes something like this: You have a problem ... the problem is you are one of us sinners ... but there is good news: Jesus is the answer to our problem. I imagine just such a sermon addressed to the pastors of the church, to those who have committed their lives to leading Jesus’ flock. I imagine that the gospel begins with “woe”, you shepherds have a problem ... you have led the flock astray because you are yourselves strays, sinners, estranged and alienated and far from the ways of God. Thank heavens that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who seeks and saves the lost ... even stray pastors. That would be such a nice sweet gospel to preach. But the gospel never ends with the words “Jesus is the answer”. For if Jesus is the answer ... if Jesus is the Shepherd who is to be followed and the King who is to be trusted with our obedience ... then we really have a problem. This is the trouble with Jesus: he is the Good Shepherd, the Messiah, the King, the Christ who does not save himself. The leaders - the shepherds - “scoff at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if his is the Messiah of God’ ... The soldiers also mocked him ... saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ ... One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying: ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us’.” The trouble with Jesus is that he is a highly unorthodox leader. He does not save himself. He suffers. He is disgraced. He dies. Trust me, this is not the kind of resume that is likely to impress a congregational search committee! We expect and long for “effective”leaders ... leaders who save themselves and us. Peter Short - the Moderator of the United Church - recently reported to the General Council Executive that the United Church pastors he meets speak with heartfelt eloquence about God and Spirit while voicing the name of Jesus with much less frequency. This is a fascinating phenomenon - Christian pastors who do not speak about Jesus Christ. There may be many explanations for such a strange turn of events. One of them, at least, is quite understandable. Jesus leads his flock to a Cross.
Yesterday I spent the day sitting in the chancel of Canadian Memorial United Church. We were called together by Vancouver-Burrard Presbtery to re-imagine the shape of campus ministry at UBC. I am not sure what headway we made in that regard. But I can say that I made headway on this sermon while sitting there. You see, we gathered under the large stained glass window which shows the image that is on this morning’s order of service - Jesus enthroned on a cross, crowned with thorns. I found myself wondering what it would be like to preach every sermon, every Sunday beneath that portrait of our Pastor. This is the Good Shepherd - Christ the King - who leads his flock through the valley of the shadow where we need fear no evil.
Sitting there, in the shadow of our Crucified Pastor, I found myself pondering his words of pastoral care. Did you hear them? Jesus offers two words of pastoral care from his cruciform throne. First he looks at the shepherds of the people and then turns to God, praying: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This is a startling turn of events. Jeremiah knows that God announces “Woe” upon the shepherds, the leaders, who do not tend the weak or seek out the missing. Jesus is the shepherd of the shepherds. He knows that they are lost. He knows that they have strayed - they are killing him! Yet still he prays for the forgiveness that will reunite them with the flock because they will be reconciled with God by God. I find this to be extraordinary good news We, too, have strayed. Pastors of congregations and theological schools and denominations have wandered. Shepherds of families and households have misled. Leaders of kingdom causes for justice and peace have lost direction. Yet Pastor Jesus does not announce “woe”. Instead, he offers prayers for the people: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” His pastoral care teaches us the shape of our pastoral prayer.
Then the only one at the Cross who names Jesus as King, who trusts him to be the Shepherd, asks or does he beg or does he pray: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Over and over Jesus has recognized sheep of his own flock, lambs of his own fold and sinners of his own redeeming in the least likely of disciples: blind beggars, tax-collectors, outcasts and now in this criminal condemned to hang. Pastor Jesus assures the sinner who longs to be remembered in the kingdom: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” This is the problem with Jesus. We never know who belongs to his flock. If this convict is welcome then we have no choice but to treat every lost soul as a citizen of paradise - the kingdom come where God’s will is done. Pastor Jesus’ care extends far beyond the circle of this humble flock. Yet even here he promises that “today you will be with me in Paradise.” He says today ... not tomorrow. Jesus promises that his kingdom is near at hand. Repent, he says. Turn around. Change your ways. The rule of God is close. Die to the ways of the world. Rise in the Way of the King who washes feet. Follow the Crucified Shepherd who forgives beyond measure and who remembers the last and the least. Serve and obey Christ the King. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Today? Today!