Sermon preached at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, Vashon
They were like sheep without a shepherd.
Our text this morning says: And Jesus had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
I don’t know if any of you have seen a distraught flock of sheep. I grew up in farm country and, if a flock was not taken care of, if they didn’t have enough food, if they were left to the mercy of predators, sheep or any livestock grew thin, anxious, hungry.
They were like sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus spent almost his entire ministry in the backcountry of Galilee. In farming towns and fishing villages. In the middle of nowhere, far from the halls of power. Jesus built his movement in the middle of nowhere.
Among people who had been robbed of their land, of their wealth, and often of their lives and their children by an oppressive Roman empire.
And he looks out over them and sees: they were scattered as sheep without a shepherd.
Now lets be clear. Often, when we read passages like this, we like to talk about how stupid sheep are. Or how they will follow anyone.
That’s not what Jesus is saying at all. Jesus is indicting the leaders who have left his people scattered. The leaders who have charged staggering taxes on poor peasants. The leaders who own all the land, forcing most people into sharecropping or slavery. The leaders who, like our text in Jeremiah says this morning, the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture. The leaders who value profit over people. Leaders who abuse land and people together.
What Jesus is not saying is that the people of Galilee were poor silly sheep. He comes teaching them and healing them, as one of them. He comes believing in them. He comes telling them their worth in the kingdom of God. He comes to make them leaders of their own liberation.
I think a lot about Jesus’ ministry in the rural backwoods of Galilee. I think about it a lot because I too work in the rural backwoods—of WA state. I work on the streets of Aberdeen, with people experiencing homelessness. And I work in our little community in Westport, a little fishing village, with people experiencing deep poverty.
We live in a world, in a country, where people are increasingly scattered. Where our leaders value profit over people. Where fewer and fewer resources are available to the average person. Where 3.5 million people are on the street any given year, and another 7.5 million do not have stable housing.
And those of us who live in rural areas and small towns and suburbs are feeling this keenly. Far from the halls of power, far from the limelight and the media, rural places in the US are experiencing growing poverty. Often, our lands have been stripped of resources. Often, we have less and less access to the bounty of the earth. We live in some of the richest land in the world and yet people are hungry and houseless. Aberdeen is within 20 miles of some of the richest farmland I’ve seen and yet its nearly a food desert. Rural areas are often denied access to good health care, good food, or decent housing.
Its in places like this that the gospel comes alive for me. 2000 years ago, Jesus was in the same place, under severe oppression, teaching communities to heal, to become leaders in their own liberation. Together, communities in pain come to seek healing and wisdom. Together, communities under empire learn to find freedom. Everywhere Jesus goes, crowds come out to find their leadership and their dignity and their worth as children of God. People told they are nobodies come together and claim their dignity.
That is what we strive for, that is what we witness in Aberdeen and Westport. People refusing to believe what the world tells them: that they are worthless, that they are to blame for their poverty. Instead they keep standing up to seeking healing and wisdom together. To become leaders in their own liberation.
In Aberdeen, our largest homeless encampment received eviction notices in March. With nowhere to go, they went to city council. They spoke with the mayor and city officials. They organized themselves and spoke up for themselves in public meetings. And, when the local Lutheran church opened up their parking lot as a temporary place to go, they started organizing the first ever tent city in Aberdeen. They are learning, these brave, young men and women, to become leaders in their own liberation.
Our little community in Westport is based out of a closed church building. In February, we opened it up again and asked the community to participate in rebuilding the space. Last week, we had 60 people come in our doors. One young homeless couple stopped me and said; “Wow, we’ve never seen a place like this before. Everyone is welcome.” We have rejected any effort to be a charity, to help people in need. Instead, we have opened up space for people to take care of each other, as each has a need.
In a food desert, we get donated fish from fishermen, whoever wants to brings what food they have, and we have fresh vegetables growing in our community garden. In a town that has no social services, various leaders in our group, all poor themselves, distribute donated hygiene supplies and clothing. In a place where poor people have no place to gather, where they are denied access so often to public space, we have space to sit and talk, to watch movies, to drink coffee and charge cell phones.
We are learning together to be leaders in our own liberation. In this tiny fishing town in the middle of nowhere, we are finding healing and liberation. We are learning to live the gospel together.
And Jesus looked out over the crowd and he had compassion on them, because they were as sheep without a shepherd.
But not helpless. Not in need of expert opinions. Not worthless.
Those men and women of Galilee, so long ago, as they followed Jesus, found healing together, in community, as they learned to be leaders in their own liberation.
And, here and now, the gospel lives on in tiny towns across the country. In places where people who are experiencing all the oppression of our modern day greed, people find healing in community. People find liberation in community. People are agents of their own liberation.
In our work, our leaders have not waited for the experts to finish their studies or the leaders of this country to change their ways. They have stood up—poor, oppressed, tired sometimes—stood up and demanded change, lived change. They join people all over the world, from Chiapas to Appalachia, from Ferguson to Aberdeen, not waiting to stand up for their liberation.
This is the call of the gospel, this is the message we preach:
You are beloved.
You are worthy.
You are a child of God.
You are able.
You are the leaders of your own liberation and healing.