November 20, 2022
Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6
We are still looking at what the prophets had to say. Today it is Jeremiah, one of the most prolific writers of the prophets. He was born in the latter part of the 600’s and died in the mid 500’s BC.
He was called “The Weeping Prophet” because of how many laments are included in his collection of writings. He grieved the behavior of people of Israel and their neglect of the worship of God. In this passage, he is particularly grieved by the behavior of those who were in leadership positions: the king in particular (he called them “shepherds”). These people OUGHT to be steering the people in the right direction, but they weren’t doing that. They were more concerned about lining their own pockets, building their own power base even while Israel was in serious decline.
As you know, I’ve been thinking about the 21st Century Church and it, too, is in decline. I am discouraged when I think about it, but not in despair because I don’t think the church (in its spiritual definition) will ever die. But I think Jeremiah knew that institutions whose task it is to help people stay faithful to God and keep their spiritual lives vital – they must constantly be reinventing themselves, evaluating their performance and invigorating themselves lest they fail in their task. The church is no
exception and its leaders (shepherds and under-shepherds) are accountable.
Jeremiah watched as the leaders ( shepherds) got distracted from the heart of their calling and neglected to feed and nourish their people spiritually. They no longer cared about the poor, disenfranchised, marginalized and the broken in their community. They had gradually slipped into caring only for their own welfare.
Jeremiah saw a “correction” time coming!
All of this message is folded into the metaphor of shepherd and sheep which those people understood very well, but may not be so helpful in our time. In spite of Mark’s song he taught us: “I just wanna be a sheep, baa baa,” not very many of us want to be seen as sheep. But, remember, it is just a metaphor. Surely we can see certain qualities of sheep and agree that in at least some ways, it works for our time too!
Sheep are community oriented. They don’t always pay attention to where they are going. They don’t plan for the future but depend on a shepherd to do that. They can get themselves into predicaments and sometimes can’t get out. We’re like that sometimes and for that we need shepherds, but we need faithful shepherds!
So, we need shepherds – spiritual people who have the spiritual welfare of the community in their hearts! And not just one head shepherd! The UCC has never been a top-down institution and we don’t subscribe to a one-leader policy, but we have a system that encourages us to ALL be responsible for one another. We are ALL like sheep who go astray, and we are ALL shepherds charged with looking out for each other, caring for one another, planning for the best and most nourishing food for one another, and genuinely welcoming others into the fold and offering comfort when hardships happen.
The general welfare of our community is all of our jobs. Some in one way and some in another. And this way of living together is much like the early Christians. Our culture these days seems to subscribe to a system that is so much closer to: every person for him or herself! That may seem like a plan that sets us all free, but it isn’t so! It does take “a village to raise a child.” So, in a time when the need for functioning, compassionate, and spiritual shepherds is so great, we as a Church have both a challenge and a huge opportunity. But part of the challenge is to reimagine what it means to be a spiritual shepherd in the 21st Century.
FIRST, we must start with a new commitment to community.
Maybe at no time in the history of the church has community been more of a need! Our politics is divisive, our rhetoric is deadly to our spirits, our pandemic has isolated us and we are reluctant at times to have it any other way. Our jobs consume us until we have no energy for anything else. So our spirits shrivel and the church has suffered even when it offers a solution. The church must lead the way in our own practice and message toward healing for our time that can be found in a loving, committed, supportive community! A strong community of faithful seekers after God is essential!
SECOND, we must begin the process of rethinking, reimagining the shepherding role of pastor/preacher.
We offer the one-way communication from pulpit to pew where people have to submit to the worst characteristics of sheep and must listen without opportunity to dialogue, disagree, or question. It’s not enough and we are missing an entire generation of people who refuse to shut off their minds when they come through the church doors. We have to get better at the way we share the good news. Instead of apologizing for our small size, we need to reimagine how small groups actually are so effective in building solid, committed Christians who see the world as their field of ministry. Spiritual growth does not thrive in large crowds. It happens where intimacy is possible. We’ve got the small group down, but not the intimacy part. It is a continual issue for conversation and experimentation. What we have is good, but we cannot be content with it.
THIRD we must constantly improve how we love and support one another as part of the flock.
This is a moving target, because it is always changing as the generations change. We have to know one another better so we see each other’s needs and respond to it with the compassion of our great Healer Jesus! We can’t be truly and deeply loving to those we do not know.
I offer these insights, not as an authoritative pronouncement, but as one shepherd among many. I have always thought about the future and how to get ready for it. That can be both a blessing and a curse and sometimes both at once. That’s one of the things I bring to the table as one of your shepherds. Practicing spiritual discernment to figure out what is truth for us as individuals and as a church is a community task. I just lay these things before you and trust that you prayerfully consider them, keep them, practice them, or throw what is of no value away.
It is all good work and it is all church work. May God bless us all as we face the rest of the century together