"For many were coming and going, and the disciples had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd."
Being a Jesus-follower can be wearying. I wonder if you've ever found this to be the case. This morning's gospel has the disciples fresh off their first missionary adventure: two by two, they'd gone out - with the word on their lips and oil in their hands, newly minted apostles (no longer simply those gathered, but now those who are sent). They are returned from proclaiming and healing and kneading the loaf of the Kingdom that's beginning to rise. They're excited - polished with the shine of those who have ventured the Unknown and found life there. Now returned, they stand before Jesus: like kids on show-and-tell day, brimful with stories and the need to debrief. Jesus promises them just such a moment of peace - some quiet together - also, they're hungry. But the promised moment does not come. The crowds cut them off. The crowds, too, are exhausted from following Jesus. They've caught the fragrant scent of the his Kingdom: the people of Peace. They want more. Suddenly, instead of quiet, there are people climbing on people, clamoring for a view, just a glimpse, jostling for position, a touch of his garment; there are noises and smells and elbows and dirt and babies crying and it is all so very much like us: real and irritating and itchy and overwhelming and - maybe most of all, for the disciples - disappointing. The Kingdom is rising, and it looks like a mutton-busting competition gone wrong. Mutton busting... you know, where the six-and-unders chase the sheep through the rodeo mud - falling face-first in the dirt, losing shoes, twisting limbs, wrestling over one another for the chance to tug at the ribbon tied somewhere on the end of a lucky sheep's tail.
This rodeo of emotions and irritation feels a lot like today, for me. You and me, saying goodbye. Seeking a moment's peace - some quiet - before you send me out. Trying to find inevitably inadequate words for the privilege and blessing it has been to walk the Way of Jesus with you as your priest. Wanting to make our goodbyes good ones - holy ones. At the same time aware that some of you are already wondering out loud if this isn't also a good time for you to say your goodbyes to St Christopher's. Others wondering out loud about why it is you'd be leaving. Still others wondering out loud from outside the walls of the church about coming back inside the walls - coming back home - once the the goodbyes are over and "he's gone." Still others wondering out loud about what to do if/when those outside return and "just how long is an interim anyway?"
And all of this is perfectly normal.
Still, in the rodeo of emotions competing today in the words and in the silences, it would not be unreasonable for us to gravitate to these words from the gospel: "As Jesus went ashore he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd." The world would understand if you went to these words for solace this morning, seeking to apply them to this moment and its uncertainty. It would be perfectly reasonable, by standards of reason, to seek peace in these words, the compassion Jesus has for the people without a shepherd. Entirely reasonable, maybe anticipated, even, or predictable. It would also be a terrific mistake.
The Good News of the Gospel is nothing if not this: ever after that first, dark, glorious Easter morning, you are never without a shepherd.
The road of Faith may be challenging - even wearying - not unlike unruly mutton busting sometimes - but you are never without a shepherd. His name is Jesus. We like to say here at St C's that the Church is the People. (Amen??) If it is so, it is only because of the Christ who shepherds his flock.
"So then," says St Paul, "you are no longer strangers and aliens (or sheperd-less sheep), but you are citizens with saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone."
Jesus Christ as the cornerstone: the Lord is my shepherd.
Now I realize that this runs of the risk of coming across as a boring last word - a Captain Obvious word - to a people I love. "Gee, Father Jonathan, we know this already. This is not novel or new. Tell us something we don't know." I pray this is so. I would never be so happy to bore you, than if, by the familiarity of this word and holding it before you in your daily living and its being written all over your hears, across your lives, in your souls, this word bored you silly.
Jesus Christ is the cornerstone; he is your center; the Lord is my shepherd. As one of the Wesley boys put it: "The best of all is, God is with us."
And proclaiming Christ as the center, we have come here each Sunday. Proclaiming Christ as the center, we have lifted up our praises and offered ourselves. Proclaiming Christ as the center, we have been washed clean by the waters of his death and resurrection. Proclaiming Christ as the center, we have found food at his table. Proclaiming Christ as the center, we have become food for the world.
"The Body of Christ. The bread of heaven," said St Augustine. "Become what you receive."
Gathered in praise, fed by the Savior, sent out in the Spirit, called back to be fed, sent out again, enveloped in the rhythms of the new Jerusalem, that heavenly city, called back and sent out, and never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever left without a shepherd. Take heart. Be encouraged. Stand strong. You are never without the One who makes you God's own.
"Lo," Jesus says, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age." This is the shepherd we praise and proclaim.
Y'all hold still a second. (What am I saying? You're already still. I should say, "Wake up and smile!") Say "cheese!"
I will miss you. Dearly. I thank God for you and the three years we have shared along this pilgrim walk. I thank God for your leaders, like Larry, and your Vestry. I thank God for the pleasure of working with a generous and gifted staff: Jo and Cassandra. I thank God for your friendships and the over 500 (500!!) occasions we had to pray with one another, bread bread and share the cup - at this table, on bedside tables, hospital end-tables. I thank God for the times the faithful few gathered to walk the Stations of the Cross or, more ridiculously, met up a the church by 6:30 AM, during Lent, to offer prayers for our common life. I thank God for the ways you embodied your love of the Shepherd in your care for one another and, especially of late, in your notice of and care for the strangers you did not know - whether at Starbucks or through the food pantry or ALPHA or putting a movie up on the lawn and inviting the neighbors so that they would have something to do instead of calling the police to complain about the noise. The gift of our time together, for me, has been to discern the risen Christ, the Good Shepherd, in the midst of people and occasions and tragedies and joys, even when we weren't especially looking for him. My training for such discernment was the rhythms of this table.
Bless you, and thank you, for sharing this gift. I pray you continue to find life in these rhythms, in the Way of our risen Lord. To have walked the way of the cross with you - and to have found it to be the way of life and peace - has been a wonderful and holy privilege.
Finally, then, may our Great Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, continue to bless you with the Good News that he is enough for you - the Lord is your shepherd - and so also that he is enough for you, and so also that you already have all that you need and more than enough to share with the others: all of those whom God also loves, even each other.
Do not be afraid.