Sheeple, Pentecost 9 (B) – July 22, 2018

Proper 11

[RCL]: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

What do you suppose are the most prevalent metaphors that we use for God? Likely Father, King, and Shepherd are in the top three, if not the top three. There are, of course, hundreds of names and images in the scriptures for God. The sheer number of images for God present in the scriptures is enough to make the mind reel. That reeling is likely purposefully sought on the part of the writers to shake us from unduly attaching ourselves to one image or another. The piling on of image after image after image for God by the scriptures seems to be a warning to be careful about getting into a spiritual rut. Just as in life, if the only tool we have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail, so too with God: if God is only and ever a King, or, take your pick—fire, wind, lover, friend—then our prayer lives get anemic. We need the full buffet of images for God to allow our prayer lives to be well-rounded and exciting. Our need to constantly try on new images for God has recently been explored by the Rev. Lauren Winner in her wonderful book, Wearing God.

Now, having laid the case for looking at the less-than-top-three images for God as a remedy for a boring prayer life, we really ought to examine one of those top three: the shepherd. It is used over 1,200 times in the Bible in reference to God only. It’s used lots of other times in the Bible to refer to actual shepherds, but for God, it’s a very, very popular image. “King” and “Lord” lord over “shepherd,” at around 2,500 and 6,500 uses respectively.

First, we need to understand that these metaphors are simply that: metaphors. No one should think that God is an actual, literal shepherd. God does not own a shepherd’s crook, God does not abide in fields with actual sheep. It’s a figure of speech by the biblical writers to get us thinking about what God is like. But that’s the thing: God is like a shepherd. God is like one who has a crook and knows how to use it. God is like one who abides out in fields with the ones for whom he cares.

Metaphors like this work the other way, too: they are for us in our daily lives. We are meant to bring the metaphors with us, to carry them, as it were. The ancients who heard this language for God would then go about their business and daily lives and — lo and behold! — they would see a shepherdess – and if they were paying attention, they might think of God. They might see the shepherdess painstakingly caring for her sheep. They might see a wayward sheep being brought back into the fold, perhaps forcefully depending on the waywardness of the sheep, and then they might be brought to the threshold of prayer and repentance over their own wayward ways.

This is the power of figurative language for God; it can transform our daily lives into countless occasions for prayer. The problem, of course, is that most people in the modern era are unfamiliar with shepherding.  Shepherding is a way of life in many parts of the world, but for the increasingly urbanized among us, shepherding is really just a quaint and sanitized notion.

Then there is the whole problem that we have with this metaphor and where we stand in it. One of the hallmarks of our post-modern age is a suspicion of authority. We do not want a shepherd, which is probably why the images of king, lord, and shepherd are so prevalent in the scriptures: even though we don’t want a shepherd, we do still need one.

Besides, let’s face it: if you are honest you have a shepherd of some sort or other. Go ahead, get quiet for a moment: what are those forces and individuals in your life who call the shots? Who is the one who forms your life most fundamentally? It might be a desire for perfect health, to be financially secure, it might be to be successful, desirable, or free. We all have these shepherds, probably many shepherds.

But they are false shepherds, because they cannot ultimately give what they promise.

Each of us have these shepherds, and even though we think that we are free, we do in fact serve these shepherds.

Bob Dylan, who recently was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, wrote many years ago in his song, Gotta Serve Somebody, that you:

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

This simply is a fact of life. Just as no one is an island, so is no one free from authority and these guiding influences. This is what arouses Jesus’ compassion for the crowd today: they are like sheep without a shepherd. And he begins teaching them. Of course, they had shepherds, but those false shepherds had led them to seek the real shepherd.

So then, what are sheep? Since we are the sheep in this metaphor that we use for God, we ought to know. You know, don’t you, that there are critics of the church who would call us disciples of Christ, “sheeple.” It’s meant to be a derisive term for the unquestioning following, not so much of Jesus, but of the culture warrior preachers. But in many ways, we act like sheep, we are sheeple. As the Prayer Book says, “like sheep we have gone astray.”

Sheep are not known for their intelligence, but they are quite bright in their own way. While they can easily get their little horns caught in briars or get lost, it seems that most of their brains are dedicated to their flock and their shepherd.

In a flock, sheep will arrange themselves in concentric overlapping circles of sheep with the strongest and biggest sheep on the outside and the youngest and weakest sheep on the inside. We could learn from these sheep in terms of being neighbors to each other.

In addition to their ability as a good neighbor, the sheep is singularly focused on its shepherd. So much so, that the sheep learn the voice of their shepherd, his scent, and even his silhouette upon the sky as the shepherd stands on a hill.  The sheep learn somehow that this one shepherd, in however he calls to them, whether through sight, voice, or smell, is to be utterly trusted – and not only that, but all other shepherds are to be mistrusted, or at least skeptically investigated.

Let’s learn this skepticism from these sheep. Let’s submit all those so-called shepherds who would lead us to the test of the Good Shepherd. Do these things and people that we follow offer life and significance, or are they turning us into a product? Are our shepherds leading us to life or to the slaughter?

Go, be sheeple, follow your one and only Good Shepherd who heals and teaches and then enables us to bring life and healing to our hurting world.

Joshua Bowron is the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte NC where he lives with his wife Brittany who is a Jedi-level catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atria. 1,2,3,4: They have 1 dog, 2 cats, three children, and 4 chickens.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 9 (B).

In Christ Jesus, the Walls Come Down – Proper 11 (B) – 2015

 2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Psalm 89:20-37 (or Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Psalm 23); Ephesians 2:11-22Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Into the midst of this situation comes Jesus, and as we read in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians today, Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Languages and nations? Christ proclaims peace to those who are far off and those who are near. Religions and ideologies? Jesus was prepared even to “abolish the law with its commandments and ordinances,” in order to create one new humanity.

Click here to read the sermon.

Click here to download the sermon for Proper 11 (B).

Today’s sermon is written by The Rev. G. Cole Gruberth is priest-in-charge of the Allegany County Episcopal Ministry, a community of four houses of worship and welcome, within the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y.

In Christ Jesus, the walls come down, 8 Pentecost, Proper 11 (B) – July 22, 2012

2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Psalm 89:20-37 (or Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Psalm 23); Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

We humans are great builders – towns and turbines, subways and satellites, farms and factories. We can take justifiable pride in these accomplishments, but too often we tend to do our building for all the wrong reasons.

Remember the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel? Those builders achieved amazing things – they were on their way to building a tower to heaven itself – but they were constructing a temple to their own glory. God scrambled their languages and put some limits on their ambition.

Unfortunately, we took those skills we had at building one very tall tower and got really good at building lots and lots of walls. We build walls to protect and to shelter, to corral and to contain, to mark boundaries and to defend them.

In fact, the walls themselves work in concert with the curse of Babel – they help us define and defend all the differences between us. We usually start with languages and nations, but before long we’re segregating ourselves by customs and habits, by religions and ideologies. The distinctions get finer, and the walls grow more numerous. Ever creative in our pride, we begin to build walls to the glory of our own distinctiveness, and then convince ourselves that God dwells within our own particular boundaries.

Into the midst of this situation comes Jesus, and as we read in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians today, Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Languages and nations? Christ proclaims peace to those who are far off and those who are near. Religions and ideologies? Jesus was prepared even to “abolish the law with its commandments and ordinances,” in order to create one new humanity.

Jesus takes down whatever walls we have raised to create divisions amongst us. Insiders and outsiders? The walls come down. Citizens and foreigners? The walls come down. Oppressors and victims? In Christ Jesus, the walls come down.

Jesus isn’t just doing demolition work here – he’s not trying to bring about a sort of spiritual anarchy. He’s working to raise a new structure, to join us together into a holy temple. Jesus is working to reverse the curse of Babel, first by healing our divisions and then by creating a new tower. This tower, though, is built to God’s glory. Instead of striving to reach heaven from the earth, this temple is built to invite the presence of God, to be “a dwelling place for God.”

Paul tells us that Jesus does all this through his own body. “In his flesh he … has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” At least in part, Paul is talking about the crucifixion. On the cross, Jesus accepted the full weight of our pride and our contention, allowing his own body to be broken in order to show us the folly of our divisions and hostilities.

Here again the story does not end in mere destruction. In the resurrection, Jesus not only witnesses to new life, but acts to reconcile all our divided factions to God “in one body through the cross.” In a sense, this is a natural extension of Jesus’ work of bodily healing throughout his earthly ministry. In our gospel reading for today, remember how the crowds rush to meet Jesus, bringing the sick to lay along his path. The sick and injured come to him with nothing but their faith and their own weakness and vulnerability. Jesus meets not only their needs to be healed, but their needs to be seen and acknowledged.

Sickness or disability in that culture was a sentence of separation. Likely it meant a life of dependence or even of begging. Certainly it meant exclusion from religious life, being declared unclean for temple worship, prevented from drawing near to the physical presence of God that the temple represented. Jesus instead brings God’s presence directly to those most excluded and most in need. Jesus does not let even the religious law stop him – he heals on the Sabbath, he heals in synagogues; he overturns tables in the temple and the sick come to him to be healed there.

Jesus is healing more than bodily illness; he is healing division and exclusion. In fact, he is creating a new Body, gathering together the crowds who have been like sheep without a shepherd, and bringing God’s presence among them. Teaching and healing, Jesus begins to assemble a new community bound together by faith in the nearness of God.

In the cross and resurrection, Jesus consummates all this work of teaching healing. He shows himself to be present even in surrender and suffering and death. He surpasses all those ills in the resurrection, and invites all of humanity to become part of his own body. He not only restores the temple of his own body in three days, but begins to shape all of us into the Body of Christ. In the cross, the two great metaphors for the church are united and find their basis: the church as the Body of Christ, and the church as the new temple of God.

We all are invited to join with the apostles and prophets in their self-giving role of building this new and holy temple. More, we are invited to hold each other up in service, prayer and worship, even as the stones of the temple together bear the weight of the whole.

This can only happen because of Jesus the cornerstone, who also happens to be the master architect. We may look at the church and see it terribly fragmented. We may look at our fellow Christians across the dividing line of denominations and worship styles and theologies, and despair of ever working together. Frankly, we may not want to be placed side-by-side with them in a new and unified structure.

But if we come to seek healing, in humility and in faith, then maybe we will see that Jesus, who is able to heal our divisions, is also able to grow us into one body of many different sorts of members, so long as we remember that Jesus is the head. And Jesus as our master-builder can make use even of our differences in order to create a perfect balance and counterpoise. He will work until the only walls that remain standing are the walls of one great “holy temple in the Lord.”


— The Rev. G. Cole Gruberth is priest-in-charge of the Allegany County Episcopal Ministry, a community of four houses of worship and welcome, within the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y.

In so many ways we are a tired and weary people, Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 11 (B) – July 19, 2009

(RCL) 2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Psalm 89:20-37; or Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

We are in many ways a weary people. Literally and figuratively, we are tired.

A survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that 47 million American adults suffer from sleep deprivation. That’s almost a quarter of the adult population in America. That’s a lot of weary people. And it is a serious problem. Fatigue and exhaustion can have serious consequences. Lack of sleep can affect our physical and mental health. It can also be deadly. Sixty percent of licensed drivers reported that they drove cars while drowsy. Fatigue has contributed to many auto accidents and fatalities. Sleep deprivation is a serious problem, and it has a number of causes: from lifestyle choices, to work, to illnesses, to sleeping disorders. The results of the survey are clear: many Americans, too many Americans, both adults and children, are not getting enough sleep. We are, quite literally, a weary people.

However, we really didn’t need a survey to tell us this. Just ask someone how they are doing these days, and listen to what they say. Have you ever heard people say things like: “I’m exhausted.” “I’m running myself ragged.” “I’m wiped out.” “I’m spent.” “I’m running on empty.” “I just need a nap.” “I need caffeine.”

People are tired these days and they will tell you so. We are over-worked, over-committed, over-extended, stretched-thin, stressed-out, and burnt-out. We are too busy and we are too tired, and we will tell you about it. It seems like there is some kind of strange competition going on where we try to outdo each other with how busy and how tired we are. In a curious way, busyness has become a socially desirable good.

Kerby Anderson, in an essay “Time and Busyness,” puts it this way, “Being busy is chic and trendy. Pity the poor person who has an organized life and a livable schedule. Everyone, it seems, is running out of time.”

We are a busy, busy people these days, and ask somebody how they are doing, and you’re more than likely going to hear about how worn-out they are. We didn’t need a national survey to tell us what we already knew: we are, in many ways, a weary people.

The pace of modern life has picked up, with keyboards clicking and computers crunching and cell phones chirping with their instantaneous messages around the globe. Contradicting the optimistic predictions of people in the 1950s and 1960s, these technological feats have not led to more leisure time for Americans. Quite the contrary. Most people are busier than ever. The average workweek has increased rather than decreased in the last thirty years.

Kerby Anderson quotes a Manhattan architect, who designs automated environments, as saying, “Technology is increasing the heartbeat. We are inundated with information. The mind can’t handle it all. The pace is so fast now, I sometimes feel like a gunfighter dodging bullets.”

And we are not just physically tired. The Germans have a good word for this other kind of weariness: weltschmerz, which means “world weariness.” We are wearied by many things in our lives. In our work lives, people speak of being tired of the rat race, the daily grind, or climbing the corporate ladder. In our political lives, people are tired of broken promises, empty rhetoric, and partisan bickering. In our personal lives, we are tired of being alone, tired of the bar scene, tired of the routine. We are tired of feeling angry all the time, or feeling afraid all the time, or feeling worthless all the time.

In so many ways we are a tired and weary people.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus addresses the weariness and busyness of his apostles. We are told that the apostles gathered around Jesus and told him all that they were doing and all that they were teaching, and, apparently, they were very busy. They were so busy, we are told, that they didn’t even have time to eat. So many people were coming and going, that they didn’t even have a chance to grab something on the go. So Jesus’ words to them must have felt like cool, refreshing water to people who are slaked with thirst. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

How refreshing this response must have been to his weary disciples. Notice Jesus didn’t respond to the apostles’ reports about what they were doing by going over a new strategic plan. Notice he didn’t respond to their reports of what they were teaching by going over a new curriculum. No. He said to his weary apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Don’t we all long to hear these words spoken to us by our Lord? Don’t we all desire to hear the invitation to come to a place all by ourselves and simply rest a while in the presence of our gracious God?

No doubt our faith requires us to do certain things as well as believe certain things. No doubt we are created to find meaning and value in the work we do, especially when it is done to the greater glory of God and the service and up-building of our neighbors. But our weariness in what we do and our pervasive busyness are signs that something isn’t quite right.

To put it in contemporary terms, our pervasive business and weariness are signs of the failed illusion that we are in control of our lives, that we are self-made men and women. To put it in theological terms, they are signs of the illusion that we can make ourselves right with God through our actions and beliefs. Since these are illusions, we need to keep propping them up. We keep adding one more thing to our to-do list, rather than take some time and reflect on why we are doing all these things.

And rather than see weariness as a sign that something is out of whack, we take it as a sign that we are making headway. See how busy and weary I am? Doesn’t that mean that I am valuable? Doesn’t that somehow make me worthy of admiration? Doesn’t that merit at least a little divine favor?

When the apostles gathered around Jesus, they told him all that they were doing and all that they were teaching. They were so busy, so many people were coming and going, they didn’t even have time to eat. And Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Our Lord knows what we need, even when we do not. When we gather around him, we may want to tell him all the things we have done and all the things we have taught others. We hold up before him our busyness and our weariness as objects worthy of praise and reward. We tell him that we have been so busy that we haven’t even had time to eat. And we say to ourselves, surely all these things will prove how important and valuable we are.

And our gracious Lord looks past all our illusions and he doesn’t even mention them, because if he did, he would have to remind us that all that we are and all that we do are gifts from God in the first place. Rather, he looks into our hearts and sees what we truly desire, what we truly need. He makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside the still waters and restores our souls. And he says to us, “Come away to a place all by yourselves and rest a little while with me.”


— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He received a Ph.D. in theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Big and brave, Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 11 (B) – July 23, 2006

(RCL) 2 Samuel 7:1-14a or Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 89:20-37 or Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 

One of my favorite Old Testament stories is about Naaman, the Syrian army commander. Naaman is a very important guy. I picture him dressed in an impressive uniform, riding in a big chariot, and surrounded by his officers and staff. What happens is that Naaman contracts leprosy. His skin is a mess – big, ugly blotches all over him.

He gets word from Elisha the prophet that he can be cured of his leprosy by dipping himself in the Jordan River seven times, yet he resists doing this. His officers and staff approach him and say, “Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult and dangerous to cure your leprosy, certainly you would have done it. Then why not do something as simple as dipping yourself seven times in the waters of the Jordan?”

Naaman is a proud man, but he’s not dumb. He concedes their point, goes straight to the Jordan, and by the time he’s toweling himself off, the general’s skin has become as fresh as the skin of a little child.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to do something. What he says is: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” In other words, he tells them to take a break to devote some time to being rather than doing.

Often he tells us the same thing. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.” Often he tells us to take a break and devote some of our time to being rather than doing.

Yet often we ignore this command. We want to follow Jesus and are willing to take action, but when it comes to rest, when it comes to Jesus telling us to take a break for a while, then we respond as Naaman did at first: We would do something big and brave, but rest is too simple, we say, and so we ignore what Jesus tells us.

Jesus has his reasons for inviting his disciples to rest. They have just returned from a mission on which he had dispatched them. He had sent them out in pairs and in haste. They were not to encumber themselves with gear or supplies, but simply trust local hospitality to meet their needs. They were not to linger where they were not wanted. Instead, they were to be on the move, calling people to repentance, casting out demons, anointing the sick. It was work they had never done before, and once they returned, they must have been exhausted.

Many of us do critically important work and find ourselves exhausted. Yet we don’t rest. We may even believe that we cannot or should not rest. We push ourselves in a way that we would never push others. Our life may be productive, we may check off everything from our daily “to do” list, but deep down we recognize something is wrong, that we lack a sense of deep meaning, and so we feel cheated.

The disciples have returned from their travels, but the pace has not slackened. As the gospel reports, “Many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Does that scene sound familiar to you? Is your workplace like that? Is your home like that? This is a common experience for people today. Many are coming and going, and they have no leisure even to eat.

Jesus listens to the disciples as they report on all they did and taught in the numerous places they visited. He does not, however, tell them to throw themselves into action again with even greater abandon. He doesn’t ask them to do something difficult and dangerous, big and brave. Instead, what he asks for is disarming in its simplicity: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.”

Jesus invites us to rest, yet we treat rest as a four-letter word. If people are resting, we may be suspicious of them. If we are resting, we may be suspicious of ourselves. There’s always more to do, further ways to justify our existence by what we produce. In the face of this, Jesus smiles and says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.”

If asked, most of us could recite something of the pattern of our work as we engage in it day by day, week after week. I wonder, though: Can we do the same regarding our rest? Do we have patterns established that insure that going off by ourselves to rest for a while is a reality for us, rather than simply a desire?

We may lack such patterns of rest, but we can take steps to establish them. Gradually we can build into our lives rhythms of rest and solitude to balance out the busy rhythms that already pulsate so strongly. It can be done.

Let me mention a couple of resources. One is a little book by Donna Schaper called Sabbath Keeping. She helps us see that the sabbath is not something to keep, but a way of living that helps us become people who work when it’s appropriate, rest when it’s appropriate, and even rest and work at the same time. She sees sabbath as a road to living a life of plenty.

Another resource are the numerous retreat facilities open to us throughout the country. Some of these are associated with Episcopal and Roman Catholic religious communities. Both individual and group retreats are available. An individual retreat may involve working with a spiritual director or guide. Retreats can be scheduled for one or two days or longer periods. They are sometimes available for specialized groups. For more information on retreats, speak to any of the clergy connected with this parish. And if you go on retreat and find yourself sleeping a great deal, that may be exactly what God wants you to do!

The French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal once said that more than half this world’s ills come from how people cannot sit in a room alone. Our refusal to rest can hurt us, the people around us, and the endeavors to which we devote ourselves.

A lot of us try to function without the Rest Factor that Jesus wants us to include in our lives. We’re plenty busy, but the results are disappointing. When we factor in some rest, some sabbath time, we are not working as much, but what we do is more significant, more meaningful than it was when we were always on the go.

Like Naaman the Syrian commander, we may be willing to do something dangerous and daring, big and brave, when what we’re asked to do is something simple. Naaman needed to slip into the Jordan River’s healing waters. What we are asked to do is equally simple: to slip into the healing waters of a life that makes room for regular rest, a life marked by sabbath time.


– The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley, 2003).