Sermon Seeds: Gathered
Sunday, November 20, 2022
Reign of Christ | Year C
(Liturgical Color: Green or White)
Luke 1:68–79 or Psalm 46
In and With: Keep Watch (Click here for the series overview.)
Cheryl A. 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.
You have the right to protest for what is right. You know what I say: When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to say something, you have to do something. You have to push, and pull, and be prepared to make a little noise. When you see something that is not the way it should be, don’t be afraid. Speak up, speak out, be courageous. It’s a total commitment. No compromise. Just go for it.
I know something about marching. Some decades ago, when I was younger and had more hair, I marched. I marched to protest what I knew in my heart was wrong. I marched in Selma. I marched in Washington, DC. I have marched all over the country. And I’ve never stopped marching. Never stop marching.
The call of history is sounding again. It was sad and painful for me to watch the killing of George Floyd. It made me cry, as he lay on the ground, with life leaving his body. How many more? How many more young Black men and women will be murdered? This madness must stop.
Black Lives Matter protesters are sending a very strong message to the world that we will stand up against injustice again and again. We will keep marching until we get to a place of peace and equality. Young Black Americans can find hope in the actions of young people across our country and the world. They are speaking up, speaking out, and getting involved. The young people who are marching, protesting, and demonstrating their activism will be an inspiration to future generations. The activists are setting an example and writing the history of our country. This gives me hope. We did it before and we will keep doing it.
John Lewis, Carry On
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
Shards of light
in divine ecstatic flame.”
― Leonard Nimoy
Laha, Robert. Jeremiah (Interpretation Bible Studies). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Lalleman, Hetty. Jeremiah and Lamentations: Vol. 21 (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries). Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.
Murphy, Kelly J. “Jeremiah.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the gathered community to share their testimony of community. Distribute index cards with the pre-printed phrase: “I give thanks for being gathered in this community because…” Collect those cards and share the responses in worship or at another designated time or outlet (i.e. create a display, incorporate in your Advent candle lighting ritual, mail them back to the writer, or place them in a time capsule). Invite online participants to share in an email to the church/designated person or in the comments/chat of the broadcast platform.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Luke 1:68–79 or Psalm 46
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.”
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the LORD;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”