May the words my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen
A man’s car broke down on a country road out in the middle of nowhere. He began looking under the hood trying to figure out what was wrong. He happened to look over his shoulder and across a fence. The was a sheep watching him. “Probably the ignition wiring.” The sheep said.
The man almost jumped out of his skin and went running down the road. He met up with a farmer on his tractor, so he told him what had happened. “Did he have a tag in his ear with the number R54?” “Yes, I believe he did.” “Well, I wouldn’t listen to him. He doesn’t know anything about cars.”
Sheep always get a bad rap when stories are told about them. And maybe for good reason. PETA may differ, but about the only thing a sheep can be taught is to follow a person. They just aren’t at the top of the intelligence heap when you consider horses, pigs, or even cows or other domesticated farm animals. And sometimes we can act like sheep — wandering, looking all around for something, answers.
Before the age of fences, sheep pretty much had to have a shepherd. If not, they would just aimlessly wander. Maybe there would be grazing, maybe not. Maybe there would be water, maybe not. Sheep had to have somebody to take care of them. Someone had to lead them. And so do we.
To get a little better understand in today’s gospel reading, we have to go back to what had previously happened. Jesus had sent the apostles out to preach, drive out demons, and heal the sick. They had just come back and was reporting what great success they had.
With all that success, they were attracting great crowds. So much, that they had no time even to eat. Jesus could have said to the crowd, “Please, just a few hours off on this day. Leave them alone just to let them eat.” But this was not what he said. He did go to the other side in a boat. But they recognized them. And he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began teaching them many things.
Teaching them many things. Perhaps things like Dr. Park at Southern Seminary. He tells the story of a tiny congregation who had a worship space and two little rooms behind the altar. When they had a congregational dinner, they would push the pews up against the wall and make a table down the center with sawhorses and plywood. They had a lay pastor who lived in a town about fifty miles away. The pastor would drive out to the service on Sunday morning, eat a bag lunch in the car, visit the sick, and then head back home late in the afternoon. This went on for many years.
But there was a man in the congregation who became worried about the health of the nearby neighbors. Most of the members no longer lived close by. Many had moved away because of jobs, or marriage, or just because. Most of the folk who lived nearby were elderly or poor or both. The man talked to a nurse about his worries, and they agreed that she would come out once a month to do simple stuff like blood pressure screening and so forth. They were amazed at the turnout. Another thing they realized during this process was that many of the folk were food deprived and fell through the cracks of any type of assistance.
After church one Sunday morning, they had a council meeting, which meant they had a congregational meeting since they were so small, everybody was on council. Their plan didn’t happen overnight, but they turned one of those back rooms into a kitchen, and the other into a food pantry. They started serving several meals a week on that plywood table down the center aisle, and gave bags of food away to anyone who asked. And they did it all without any sermons or testimonies or asking folk to come to church. And when they looked around, they realized there were more people in church on Sunday mornings. “Imagine that, I wonder how that happened”, they thought. They wondered because they had done all they had done with the purist of motives. They didn’t think, “If we do nice stuff for the people in the neighborhood, maybe they’ll start coming to church.” No, they thought, “These people need help, maybe we can do something.” That was pretty much it. They were tending the sheep. Like Jesus, they had compassion.
In the middle of today’s gospel reading, the feeding of the 5000 is skipped over. But Jesus had compassion over the crowd. With five loaves of bread and two fish, he fed 5000 men plus women and children. It was more that simple multiplication of what they had. He was tending the sheep.
It shows Jesus Christ, God incarnate, having compassion for hungry people. He shows that compassion again in the Upper Room, where he distributes food: “this is my body,” “this is my blood.” He shares the food that feeds us spiritually. It shows us the cross, where his body is broken and his blood is shed; and that there is the eternal feast in heaven, where all people are gathered, and there is no pain. “He had compassion.” We are the sheep who need a shepherd to show us the way. We are the sheep who needs protection from the evils of the world. He is the shepherd that delivers us from these evil. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Jesus is that shepherd. He leads us, has compassion on us. It is compassion, caring, giving that Jesus is shown as the Christ, the Savior. And it is the church that carries the shepherding onward. So now we are also shepherds, his church, his body, his hands and feet showing compassion for our neighbors — feeding them not only with food and clothing, but with the good news of Jesus who saves us from eternal death, and gives us life, and banquet forever.
What happened to the little church? It never became a mega-church, or even a regular sized church. It got a little bigger and did a few more things in the neighborhood. It’s like what one of the members, Miss Bertha, told Dr. Chilton, who has relayed the story, “Young man, I have lived long enough that I have stopped hiding my age and started bragging about it. At my age, you learn that the most important things in life are loving others and feeling useful. That’s all we’re trying to do.”
And they had compassion.