Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
There is striking beauty in the appointed texts for this weekend.
And there are shepherds.
And the shepherds are beautiful.
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. (Jer. 23:4).
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)
. . . and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mk. 6:34b)
The lesson from Ephesians does not mention shepherds but its images and metaphors are equally beautiful, and shepherd-like:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Eph. 2:14)
When one reads these four lessons together, going back and forth among them, savoring their beauty, noting their obvious (and not so obvious) connections, it is difficult to reconcile the vision they cast of the shalom of God with much of what constitutes ecclesial life in our time. Especially in this season of denominational gatherings in which the worst of ourselves, individually and corporately, is often on display: the petty bickering; the refusal to really listen to each other; the lack of charity and humility in our dealings with those we disagree with.
When Jeremiah prophesies that Yahweh will raise up a righteous Branch who will “reign as king and deal wisely,” we wonder at the lack of Christ-like wisdom in our midst. The writer of Ephesians proclaims the peace of Christ in such bold, declarative sentences that we’re unsettled by how little of our life together we recognize in them. The familiar consolations of Psalm 23 seem to mock the contentiousness in our communities, even in our own heads and hearts. And the gospel reading: Jesus’ gentle invitation to the disciples to “rest awhile”; his compassion on the relentless crowds; his patient ministries of teaching and healing.
All this beauty. These scenes of the Kingdom that so clearly radiate the fullness of life in Christ: wholeness, abundance, concord, goodwill.
And then there’s the food. A table prepared for us in the presence of our enemies. Jesus’ concern that the disciples’ need for rest is related to their need to eat. For the next several weeks the appointed gospel readings will be all about food and feeding and eating: the so-called “bread of life” discourse in John chapter 6.
While institutional Christianity is in self-preservation mode, wringing its hands over declining membership rolls and increasing deficits, we are reminded that the gospel, at heart, is about food: bread in the bellies of the hungry, bread and wine at the table of the Lord, and the inseparability of these two acts of consumption.
In Jesus’ concern for the well-being of the people he encountered, in his meeting us at his table of welcome and plenty, we learn that the whole of creation lives from the inexhaustible generosity of God. Barriers come down: “[he] has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:14b). Community is restored: “I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply” (Jer. 23:3b).
And we discover that in this Shepherd who feeds us, himself the sacrificial lamb who lays down his life for us, we lack nothing.