Weekly Seeds: Gathered

Sunday, November 20, 2022
Reign of Christ| Year C

Focus Theme:

Focus Prayer:
Sovereign One, gather us in your fertile kindom, guide us with your presence, and enfold us in your love.

Focus Reading:
Jeremiah 23:1–6
23 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. 2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 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.
5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 23:1–6
Luke 1:68–79 or Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11–20
Luke 23:33–43

Focus Questions:
1. Have you ever felt isolated or removed from God and the community of faith?
2. What does it mean to be scattered as a community?
3. What tools does the Shepherd have to gather us together again?
4. What changes in the unscattering process?
5. How can we become gatherers for the kindom of God?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Sheep bite. Sheep wander. Sheep become agitated. While they may be easier than most animals to domesticate, the image of sheep as only docile, gentle, and easily led may cause us to underestimate the hard work required of the shepherd. Further, the vision of a neatly manicured landscape free of intrusion cultivates fantasy over the reality of rough terrain and the presence of predatory animals in close proximity. The role of a shepherd is not as easy as it is often portrayed.

Perhaps that’s why the metaphor of shepherd, over other leadership imagery cited in the biblical narrative, is so consistently applied to that of the pastor with the people, by extension, assuming the characteristics of sheep. It also might be the close linguistic relationship between the Hebrew word for shepherd and pastor that makes this metaphor so persistent. We could read the focus passage and substitute the word “pastor” for “shepherd” and it would still make sense. It would still convey the nature and responsibility of the relationship.

It begins with a strong warning set in the midst of a crisis:

We turn our attention now to Jeremiah’s prophecies concerning the kings and false prophets of Judah. The primary purpose of the monarchy is to do justice and to care for the needy (21:12; cf. Exod. 22:20–23). The primary purpose of prophets is to deliver the word of the Lord. In Jeremiah’s view, the kings and prophets of his day are not fulfilling their purposes; they serve only themselves and therefore lead the people of Judah away from Yahweh. The chapters now before us give us a good picture of Jeremiah’s message to the kings and prophets and his understanding of their role in the downfall of Judah.
Robert Laha

Imagine the impact of a shepherd who does not tend their flock of sheep. The sheep scatter but still seek each other out because sheep flourish in, and therefore crave, community. Those who wander off and find themselves in isolation not only experience disoriented and disconnected, they become agitated. Some may remain in places that are no longer safe without the protection and surveilling supervision of the shepherd. Others may roam unwittingly into treacherous terrain. Their protective instinct may fail them because they have been domesticated and lack the ability to navigate without the direction of their guide.

But, what happens when the sheep aren’t abandoned but led by a shepherd who does not center the interests, wellbeing, and wholeness of the flock as a priority? An incompetent or menacing shepherd can yield as much, if not more, damage as an absent or negligent one. When sheep are led in the wrong direction, is it any different than when they wander into dangerous places? What if the ones called to protect them are the ones intent on their harm?

The leaders of the day have failed to live up to their assignment. They have turned away from the Holy One and are leading the people in the wrong direction at a time when their guidance is needed the most:

Jeremiah 21–23 focuses on the fall of Jerusalem and the failure of the kings, priests, and prophets during a time of national crisis. Such a text reminds readers that ancient peoples also looked to their leaders during moments of uncertainty; like other prophetic books, this passage places responsibility in the hands of the people themselves (Jer. 21:8). If the people want to save themselves, they must abandon the divine city and accept their fate; if they wish to remain and fight the Babylonians, they will die abandoned by YHWH. The passage is a stark warning that what seems like the right or the easiest course of action is not always the correct course. In the contemporary world, when we often want to blame political leaders for their actions, we also frequently fail to take into account our own inactions. We too are responsible for “choosing life,” for taking care of the ecological well-being of the earth, the health and welfare of others, and political crises both near and far.
Kelly J. Murphy

Metaphors, even biblical ones, only take us so far. People aren’t sheep even if the relationship between a community and its leadership may resemble aspects of the sheep-shepherd dynamic. Human beings have the opportunity to make intelligent choices. Human beings have greater agency in determining their own direction and rejecting leaders who do not have their interests at heart. Human beings participate in their own protection and salvation. Yet, in times of crisis, human beings seek someone to follow.

Movements coalesce power even if their cause is not just, right, or beneficial. Some folks follow a crowd even without knowing where they are going or who is leading them. They get caught up in the swell of emotion or the momentum of the large group. Some people gain followers not because of moral leadership or an ethical claim; their charismatic appeal finds its basis in bravado and confidence while their character remains unexamined.

Jeremiah ministered during a time of inept and corrupt leadership. The kings of Judah rarely rose to their calling. As shepherds, they did not continue in the ways that David modeled effective, caring, and faithful leadership. No leader was perfect, and David had pronounced failings of his own. Perhaps, his most profound demonstration of leadership was his repentance when he so starkly deviated from God’s will and decency in his violent encounters with both Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. God held David accountable, and David responded by turning back toward God in remorse and contrition. His successors in this era did not emulate his example.

Human kingdoms were not part of the Holy One’s plan for creation. Beloved community in harmony with the rest of creation demonstrated what God called into being. The anointing of Saul, David, and all the kings to follow were permitted by God but not designed by God. Even God does not typically describe themselves as a king; rather, the model of leadership espoused by the Sovereign One is shepherd. When God calls leaders, God empowers and anoints them to serve in the role of a shepherd with the expectation that they will follow The Shepherd’s example and guidance.

Hope for salvation and a secure future will only come via the king after God’s heart who will reign in righteousness. Verses 1–4 give a clear analysis of what was already obvious in Jeremiah 22: the kings of Jeremiah’s day have failed in their calling as kings from the house of David. They have led their people astray. Yet this is not the end, for God will provide a righteous, true Son of David, who will reign justly and bring safety and peace. Verses 5–6 form one of the messianic promises of the Old Testament.
Hetty Lalleman

A key element of the messianic promise of the continuation from the same root that gave us David. While most of David’s legacy is tied to his later years as first a warrior and then a king, David started as a shepherd. His formation as a leader came from his training not leading soldiers into battle, but in gathering sheep in the pasture. He kept them together, led them to graze and drink, protected them from wild animals, and chased them down when they went astray. The coming messiah will preside over beloved community forged in faithful love. Their realm will be justice and righteousness, which will have no end. That is the kindom of God…gathered by the Sovereign Shepherd.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

For further reflection:
“Completeness is gathering the broken self and wholeness is gathering the complete self” ― P.S. Jagadeesh Kumar
“Everyone gathered around this drink in order to devote themselves to their favorite activity: discussion. This discussion had its own purpose: To speak behind others’ backs is the ventilator of the heart.” ― Marjane Satrapi
“‘Embracing the Light’
Collected bits of truth
Shimmering sparks
Shards of light
Bursting Bright
in divine ecstatic flame.”
Leonard Nimoy

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.