Sermon for Ordinary 16 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

What kind of shepherd is needed?

He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

It is helpful in thinking about what is most needed in any ministry, to focus on the model of ministry that Jesus himself gave. We see some important aspects of it in the gospel reading for today. Some commentators have drawn a contrast between the gory elaborate feast at Herod's palace, which was our previous gospel reading, and the rural simplicity of people sitting down to eat with Jesus and his disciples in the wilderness. You remember how it was: the lascivious dancing, the intrigue and the head of John the Baptist on a platter to save the pride of a foolish demagogue, compared with the compassion of Jesus on the crowds who would not let him escape to pray quietly on the mountain.

Jesus had sent the disciples out on mission two by two and when they returned

This was an important time, for it was an introduction to the work they would be called upon, or sent out, to do when he had departed after his death and resurrection. Their experience of being sent out on mission at this time prefigured their work as apostles. This is the only place in Mark's gospel, except at the time when the twelve were appointed (Mark 3:14), when the disciples are called "apostles", which means literally the "sent ones", those sent forth with the good news. So the experience in mission which they had just been through was central to their vocation. Just as an educator today would value time to reflect with students on their practical experience, so it was with Jesus. He needed time with them in rest and reflection. The news of John the Baptist's death, if it came to them at the same time, would have given greater emphasis to the need for regrouping and centering again on what was ongoing and important. As a teacher and shepherd of his flock Jesus recognized all this, and that they had been working hard and needed a rest.

But they could not escape the crowds even though they left them on the shore and set off in a boat. Rowing a boat was often a slow business and sometimes people could walk ahead and be gathered already when they came to land again:

You would think that failure to escape would be frustrating and perhaps annoying. It was not as though they were simply pleasing themselves. Jesus had good reason for taking them away. They really needed that time together away from the crowds. The response of almost any leader today would be to insist on their plan being carried through, but it was typical of Jesus to respond with compassion rather frustration and annoyance.

The feeding of the five thousand when it had grown late in that deserted place is described in verses which our readings today omit. It is the topic of next week's reading from the Gospel according to John, but it is helpful to have in mind that it is part of the context for the two episodes of interaction with the crowds recorded in the verses we read today. We see then that the compassion of Jesus for the people who came to him is shown in several ways: in his teaching, the shared meal and healing the sick. He began to teach them many things; he blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to his disciples to set before the people (Mark 6:41); and then further on we read once again when he came ashore they rushed around that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was (Mark 6:55). These three ways of responding in compassion to the needs of the people -- teaching, sharing the meal and healing the sick -- model the essential forms of ministry which the apostles carried out in the early church and which have been found in the church throughout the ages since: the ministry of word, sacraments and pastoral care. It was the apostolic ministry that is essential to the life of the church for which the disciples were being prepared, and which we find expressed in the life of the new believers at the conclusion of the great events of the Day of Pentecost, of which we were reminded recently:

Word, sacraments and pastoral care is the neat way that we traditionally summarize that apostolic ministry which came from Jesus himself and continued in the fellowship of believers. It is still with us today in his body, the church. Different ministers have different gifts and God calls us to different tasks. If a minister is retiring or moving on the congregation will have in mind that someone else may well be able to do things that he or she cannot do, or be able do better some things. That is important, but it is not the most important thing about ministry. If a congregation planning for the future imagines that their problems will be solved by finding the right minister/ parish priest/ or pastor, they will be sadly disappointed. That is not only because it does not all depend upon the minister/pastor. I would hope that everybody knows that a parish minister is not a hired servant, who is paid to do things which other members don't want to or can't do, to keep the show going while the members get on with their own business. You must know better than that! Ministry is a partnership in mission.

We have learned the value of members seeing themselves as working together, recognizing and encouraging their varied ministries in partnership in the one body, of which the ordained minister (priest or presbyter) is one member who will have individual gifts. But if you are to work most effectively with whatever particular gifts a minister of the Word and Sacraments might bring, you and he or she will need to recognize that the most important gifts any minister can bring are those common treasures which were originally committed into the hands of the apostles. The common treasures are much more valuable than the particular gifts which a person has as an individual. Whatever our differences in personal qualities these most precious gifts are common to all who are placed under the discipline of the ministry of word, sacraments and pastoral care.

In our individualistic, consumer oriented, entrepreneurial world, today, I fear churches have been corrupted by present day values, which are largely the values of the market place. One of the consequences is that neither ministers nor people often know clearly what to expect of each other. One good change has been that ministers and congregations have both learned to expect more of the contributions that lay people can make in ministry, but my observation over the last thirty or forty years is that there has been increasing confusion about what to expect of ordained ministers. I think it is one of the consequences of unfaithfulness in the church. Sometimes it seems that people expect too much of ministers and sometimes too little, and very often the wrong things. In a task I have had for the Synod, counseling ministers who are in difficulty, and in the pastoral care of ministers in the regions, I have often seen distressed ministers who have lost heart and are very confused. One factor in it is that the expectations of church members and the community at large no longer sustain their self understanding. In more simple terms, the wrong things are expected of them.

There was time when you could go into a new parish and fit more or less easily into the role of the parish minister, of which everybody knew more or less what to expect, and which was much the same from one place to another. These days parish ministry is a much more complex and demanding task, while at the same time it is now also held in much lower esteem, certainly in the secular world and, it seems, sadly, too by many in the church. It requires more in personal resources to maintain the effort in the face of misunderstanding, apathy and sometimes fear and hatred. Even where there is good will (and there is still much goodwill), when people's expectations are no longer clear there is a temptation for both the minister and people to put too much emphasis on the personal style and strengths of the individual who happens to be called. That tends to promise both too much and too little. It will be too much if you think that success depends on the individual and too little if you do not look for the most valuable things that a minister can bring. I hope you will encourage ministers in those things which are their greatest gifts to any community of faith, whatever their age or experience, that is, in the central values of teaching the faith received from Jesus by the apostles, of celebrating it in the sacraments and in the pastoral care of the people.

The most valuable thing about ministers in the tradition of the apostles is not how they differ, but what they have in common. I saw a good illustration recently when a well respected older male minister who was in college with me over forty years ago, but was still active and effective with all age groups but whose general outlook was that of a person formed a generation ago, was replaced by one of our youngest women ministers, who is highly talented and well prepared but had many of the attitudes you would expect of a young woman in the professions today. The change from one to the other worked remarkably well. [This was personalized for the Templestowe Congregation, when this was first preached, by the fact that the young woman concerned had come from that congregation.] What matters most was not their obvious differences, but that they are both faithful and able ministers of Christ. Certainly, a minister and congregation working together in partnership will work differently when different people are involved, and sometimes they will be more successful than at other times, but the church of God will be most truly present when the ministry that Jesus gave to the apostles is faithfully delivered and faithfully received.

What we have called the ministry of the Word, or ministry of Word and Sacraments, includes those three parts, Word, sacraments and pastoral care, that were seen in the ministry of Jesus who abandoned his plans for a quiet time in order to teach and feed and heal them. It has been our understanding that this ministry of word, sacraments and pastoral care is the ministry of Christ, the ministry he himself exercised and for which he prepared and commissioned the apostles. In the gospel accounts we read today we can see how his feeding the people in the wilderness and caring for them in other ways followed from the same compassion which led him to abandon his plan for a quiet time in order to serve by teaching them. The ministry of the sacraments, especially the breaking of the bread together, is another expression of the same word that was expressed in his teaching and in his healing. The Word that is expressed in these different ways is the Word made flesh, Jesus himself. The ministry of the Word, which is not just about words, is the ministry of Jesus expressed in different ways, in the spoken word, in symbolic actions and in practical caring for people in need. What you have a right to expect from an ordained minister as pastor of a congregation is a true, faithful, representation of that same teaching in both word and deed. If you are tempted otherwise, think again. Do forget any desire for an all singing, all dancing performer with multiple skills and a winning personality - rejoice in such talents if they are given - but first look for the representation of Christ in word, sacraments and care of the people.

None of us is perfect. Far from it. Ministers are only too painfully aware that we fail at many points in ministry as any member can in any aspect of life. It is the faith of the church, nevertheless, that the validity of our ministries does not depend upon our skills or our goodness, or lack thereof, but on the grace of God who is able to use imperfect instruments to do his work. I hope and believe that our saying so is not an excuse for any failings in our ministries, but rather an encouragement to you to expect from a minister more by way of what Jesus gave to the apostles than you might expect of the personalities of ministers, however delightful they may be in human terms. It will be the way that you receive what Jesus had the compassion to give which will enrich your lives with the treasure of heaven. The kind of a shepherd under whom the flock will prosper will be the one from whom they are willing and able to be fed good food, the bread of heaven, which is our Lord Jesus Christ himself. All ministry, in both the giving and the receiving of it, should be celebrated in thanksgiving for the compassion with which he gave not only his words, but the Word which was himself, for our sakes. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.

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