This Sunday, we’re hearing a lot in the scriptures about shepherds and sheep.
Speaking for myself, I don’t run into shepherds very often. We don’t have a lot of them in Queens. So I did some Googling and found an actual shepherd in Vermont by the name of Kim Goodling.
She and her husband run a large farm with a lot of livestock, including a flock of sheep. Among other things, they sell wool, offer courses, and even let you visit their place for a vacation, to experience life on a farm. Not long ago, Kim Goodling wrote on her blog about what that involves — specifically, what it takes to be a shepherd and care for sheep.
What she wrote has implications far beyond the farm. It tells us something about the scriptures, about the Lord who is our shepherd — and, I think, about ourselves.
She wrote about the “Skills of a Shepherd,” and put it this way:
“A shepherd must be willing to be humbled daily. Proud people need not apply. A shepherd must not be afraid to learn new things. Must have great endurance. Must exhibit ability to observe.”
And then she added:
“A shepherd must have the patience of a saint. Sheep will test you and you must be able to outlast them and outsmart them. Once you think you have them figured out, they are at it again.”
Speaking as one of the sheep, I have to say: that sums it up pretty well. We are constantly getting ourselves into trouble.
Any priest hearing my confession would probably agree.
But this Sunday, we are given an encouraging message of hope about our shepherd, Jesus Christ. Certainly, Jesus is a figure who fits Kim Goodling’s job description.
A figure of humility. Of courage. Of patience.
He is one who looks after us — and who looks for us when we are lost.
But today’s Gospel from Mark adds something else.
“When he saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them.”
What love is contained in those words!
This is what sets him apart.
He is a shepherd who never walks away.
He cannot turn his back on us in our need. In our searching.
In our hunger.
What are we hungry for? Mark tells us that the people “were coming and going in great numbers and they had no opportunity even to eat.” He is setting the stage for the great miracle we will hear about next week, the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes.
“To all who seek him, all who run to find him, all who hope for him…the Lord is there for us. He never tires of loving us. He is a shepherd who never walks away.”
But first, Jesus knew: the people were craving more than bread.
They were hungry for something only Jesus could give them.
His word. His wisdom. His healing.
They were hungry for hope.
So before all else, as the Gospel tells us, “Jesus began to teach them many things.”
I think one of the things he taught them is something that went beyond words. It was about his presence. His attention. His availability.
It is this: the Lord will not refuse anyone who seeks him.
And he will not deny us what we need for our salvation.
And just as Jesus was there for the people seeking him on the shore, so he is here for us today.
He is a shepherd who never walks away.
This time of year, a lot of us are looking forward to a vacation. We can finally travel again — and people want to get away from everyone and everything.
But anyone who has ever taken a cell phone on vacation knows what happens. Every five minutes there’s another email, text message, a call you have to take.
In his day, that is what Jesus was up against.
One commentator has pointed out: most of us would not want to be bothered. An ordinary man would have been annoyed.
He would have resented it. He was trying to rest. It was his day off. Couldn’t they come back tomorrow?
But Jesus, of course, was no ordinary man.
He saw something more. He knew what people needed — and couldn’t say no.
There were people who were sick. Frightened. Worried. There were those whose hearts were burning from something Jesus had said. There were those seeking answers to questions maybe they couldn’t even put into words.
But something compelled them to be there with him.
They set out on a journey to meet him, to be with him. One writer described this as a kind of New Testament Exodus — a large group of people setting out for a different Promised Land.
For them, that land of promise was anywhere Jesus was standing. They wanted more of what he had to offer.
And when he saw them, as the Gospel puts it, “he began to teach them.”
He is still teaching us, if only we are willing to listen.
He is still available to us, if only we are willing to make the journey.
And that is why we are here today, isn’t it?
We are here to seek him, to hear his word, to receive him, and to carry him within us out into the world.
A world of a pandemic, of disasters, of division, of fear. It is a world where so much is unknown.
But at this moment, this much is known, as it was for the people near the Sea of Galilee all those years ago:
Amid our worries, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Greatest Shepherd, will not abandon us.
He waits for us. He listens to us. He walks with us.
He does all those things that the Vermont shepherd Kim Goodling described. But then he does even more.
As we prepare to receive the Eucharist this day, to be fed with the bread of life, we pray that we will remember the beautiful truth revealed to the men, women and children who lined the shore of the Sea of Galilee all those centuries ago: to all who seek him, all who run to find him, all who hope for him…the Lord is there for us. He never tires of loving us.
He is the shepherd who never walks away.