July 18, 2021
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34
“Woe to the shepherds who mislead the flock,” says the Lord through Jeremiah. “You have scattered my sheep and driven them away,” and we know these shepherds ourselves. They’re all over the internet, all over twitter, and too often we’ve let them mislead and scatter us, too.
God doesn’t want us to be afraid, but these false prophets do. They feed on it.
God leads us beside the still waters, the psalmist says in Psalm 23, maybe the most beautiful psalm of all. We know he is present when we feel this peace, when we feel goodness and kindness within us, but the false shepherds want us to doubt this joy and doubt this peace.
There’s a beautiful moment in the baptismal rite when you anoint the baby on the head with the oil of chrism in the same way a king was anointed in the Old Testament, the way King David was anointed. “You anoint my head with oil,” the psalmist says–some scholars think in the voice of David–and in fact this is what the Hebrew word “messiah” means. It means “the anointed one.” In Greek that word is translated as “Christ.”
This is the amazing thing about baptism. In the baptismal rite we are saying, “you, child, you are good, you are made in God’s image. Listen to yourself, trust yourself–listen to God, trust in God.” The oil of chrism is the oil a priest is anointed with at his ordination, on the palms, and in this sense, through our baptism, we are all priests, we are all prophets and kings, or prophetesses and queens, and through our baptism, too, our families commit themselves and the community commits itself to protecting and nourishing that spirit, that goodness, within us.
So what happens? All those sad faces we see every day, all those angry faces, all those lost and lonely and suffering people all around us? They were all once children, too, and they still are, underneath, but they’ve let themselves be led astray. As we all have. We all have, all our lives. It’s always a struggle. Even the people in AARP magazine are all thin and good looking. They’re always laughing. They’re always running marathons or curing cancer and I think, really? I’m finally retired, I’ve finally walked away from all those false pressures at OSU, as at any workplace, and now there are these new pressures? I have to be the perfect old person? The perfect grandfather? And I fall for it. I fall for it.
“O Lord, I have let myself be deceived,” Pope Francis prays. “In a thousand ways I have shunned your love.” Because of course these false shepherds are inside us, too. They wouldn’t trigger us if there wasn’t something in us waiting to be triggered. There are all kinds of voices inside us, and not all of them are from God. The challenge is to learn how to distinguish our true inner shepherd from our false ones—the challenge is discernment. And we have to try to surround ourselves with what is good and right and real, with the scriptures, with the Eucharist, with good friends and good food and literature and art and good things on our screens and good things on our phones, and we have to try to get away, too, now and then, come away to “a deserted place” and rest a while, as Jesus says to the disciples today when they’re so busy and beset they don’t even have time to eat.
It’s wonderful that the pandemic seems to be easing, at least for now, at least in this country, but I hope that we don’t just add back in all the stresses and pressures and false ambitions and empty busyness the pandemic forced us to give up.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” the psalmist says. There’s nothing here about weight loss. There’s nothing here about making a lot of money or impressing people.
“Live in the present,” Pope Francis said in his homily on Pentecost this year. The Spirit, he says, “affirms the primacy of today against the temptation to let ourselves be paralyzed by rancor or memories of the past or by uncertainty or fear about the feature.” The Spirit “reminds us of the grace of the present moment. There is no better time for us.” We don’t need anything else. We don’t need all the stuff we buy and all the trouble we borrow. And all the things we worry about? Even theological issues, however important, even issues of social justice and action in the world for the poor and the oppressed–and these are crucial, these are essential–all these things however real and necessary are not the most important things and can even be temptations, away from the grace of the present moment and into abstractions. Ideas can be false prophets. Causes can be false shepherds. Unless our engagement with these larger issues proceeds from the peace of the still waters, from the cup that overflows, they are dangerous. They work against the Spirit.
“If we listen to the Spirit, we will not be concerned with conservatives and progressives, traditionalists and innovators, right and left,” Pope Francis says. “When those become our criteria, then the Church has forgotten the Spirit.”
Or as Ephesians puts it today, “brothers and sisters, in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near.” The author is talking here about Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians and how they’ve been battling each other, though he could be talking about warring factions in any time. In ours. “Christ came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near,” Ephesians says, “for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
I think of another moment in the baptismal rite, when one of the godparents lights a candle from the Easter Candle. This light, we say to the parents, is “entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly,” because that light is Christ. That light is the goodness burning in that child, and it’s such a touching thing, to see the godmother or the godfather walking back, cupping a hand to protect that little flame. It’s so easily snuffed out.
This why we need the deserted places. This is why I do. This why I need community. This is why I need to try to pray and pray, to try to keep myself as best I can in alignment with the force of Christ within me. Only then, though I walk in the dark valley, will I fear no evil.
Only when we dwell in the house of the Lord. Only when our cup first overflows.
O Lord, I have let myself be deceived;
in a thousand ways I have shunned your love,
yet here I am once more,
to renew my covenant with you.
I need you. Save me once again, Lord,
take me once more
into your redeeming embrace.