Flourishing and Following
Series: Summer Sermons from Saint Paul's
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: leader, leadership, shepherd, follow, sheep
July 18, 2021 • Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Saint Paul’s Within the Walls, Rome
Text: Mark 6:34: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd;
and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things.”
The very short gospel reading we just heard calls for a very short sermon as well, and I hope I may do justice to that expectation. At the same time, there is something in this teaching for us to consider—two things, in fact.
First, there are some things we need to know about the text. We just heard the beginning and the end of a story from Mark’s gospel, but not the middle. In the middle that we didn’t hear, there are two other stories.
There is a story about feeding an immense crowd of hungry, desperate people with hardly any food to start with; and then there is a story about the disciples being out in a boat caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee, which gets calmed when Jesus walks across the water to join them.
If we had read this whole text it would have taken a long, long time. But both of those stories that we didn’t hear actually shed some light on the reading we just heard. To understand the link, focus on these words that we heard: “He saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
I am going to guess that most of you have not spent a great deal of time in the company of sheep, and especially not large flocks of sheep. If all you know about sheep is what you read in the bible and see in the religious imagery in practically every church in Rome, you may have the idea that sheep are sweet, and meek, and mild, and gentle.
Let me assure you that sheep are nothing like that. They are willful, and not very intelligent, and inclined to move in large numbers, and easily, very easily, led astray. Sheep are dumb. And not just dumb; they can get themselves into serious trouble.
When God looks at us, that is what we look like. And when God sees us—when Jesus sees that crowd—the response is not frustration, or exasperation, or anger. Jesus looks at that crowd, and his response is compassion.
What God knows about us, because God made us, is that for us to flourish, for humanity to become all that it was meant to become—both each of us and all of us together—we need to be led. Not controlled; not caged; not dictated to; not harangued or abused; but inspired, encouraged, directed, focused.
Sheep without a shepherd very quickly get into trouble. They will not only be vulnerable to the wolf; given no other option, they will follow the wolf to their own destruction—because they are hard-wired to follow.
And dear friends, we are the same. Human nature points us in the direction of forming communities and societies. We are hard-wired to gather into societies, to organize ourselves. And when we do, we are on the lookout for who it is we’re supposed to be following.
Those who are most willing to take advantage of this fact about us know it, and exploit it. There is a reason why the social media companies that so dominate our lives call all of those people who read the stuff you post “followers.”
If you want to be a social media influencer, you need to go get more followers. And we willingly make ourselves followers of people whose whole self-interested goal is to be influencers—because we are, by nature, followers.
Again, God knows this about us because God made us. And Jesus, who is God incarnate, sees it right here in that crowd of people in front of him. He sees that the people who are supposed to be their leaders are misleading them. And he sees how desperate they have become because of it.
We know about this. We see it in our own day, all around us. If you can make people fearful, you can exploit their fear to get them to follow you in ways that serve your own interests.
If you can make people feel powerless, you can sell them on the idea that you have secret knowledge, some dark conspiracy that explains what they now believe is a world turned against them.
It is very easy to teach people to hate others—exactly because we are such willing followers.
It is much, much harder to teach them to love their neighbors—which is why the actual hard work of Christian discipleship has never been an easy sell.
Jesus looks at that crowd and his response is pity and compassion. He knows that the solution isn’t to somehow change human nature so that none of us need leaders to follow.
The solution is to have better leaders—leaders who know that leadership is a spiritual task, and that it involves doing everything possible to help all people fully realize the gifts and talents they’ve been given, in ways consistent with God’s hope for all humanity.
That means developing our ingenuity and intelligence in ways that serve others, not just ourselves. It means doing our work in ways that help steward and tend to God’s creation—not exploit it for our own interests and ravage it for our own profit.
It means creating systems of laws that assure fairness. It means not just teaching the value that all people are equal in the sight of God, and that the differences we imagine to be real and significant are things we invent; it means living as though we actually believed God expects us to treat all people equally.
That story about the feeding of thousands of people with a very small picnic basket is, sure, a feeding miracle, a story about God’s abundance.
But when you read it through this lens, it is a story about Christian leadership—about Jesus’s ability to help those overwhelmed, self-doubting disciples accomplish things they believed were impossible by more fully realizing their own potential.
And that story about Jesus walking over troubled waters to a storm-tossed boat is, sure, a story about God’s mastery over nature, a way of giving those disciples a hint about just who Jesus is.
But when you read it through this lens, it’s a story about Christian leadership, too—about how leaders don’t avoid the fears and challenges their followers face, but get right into the trouble with us.
Many of us are leaders in some way. We are parents, or teachers, or members of the Vestry, or supervisors at work. Some of us have formal roles of leadership; some of us have the sort of informal leadership roles that come from personal influence and the respect others have for us.
But all of us are followers. That is a Christian truth. All of us are searching for a movement to be part of, looking for a leader who will inspire us and call the best out of us. That is true of us whether we believe it, or like it, or not.
The task of Christian disciples is the task of being discerning followers—of knowing this about ourselves, and asking ourselves of every next leader, every next influencer that comes along: Whose interests are being served here? Does the aspiration of this leader bring us to a world more like the Kingdom Jesus taught us to build?
Am I being led to build a human society that is more compassionate, more just, more open to the flourishing of more people? Is the vision one in which all people are given equal dignity, equal voice—and in which our work together is being directed to some high and noble purpose?
The Dutch theologian Peter-Ben Smit has written of this notion of leadership in Mark’s gospel as a contrast between the world’s ideas of leadership, where the leader is over the community, and the gospel idea of leadership, where the community—its potential, its possibilities, its full realization of God’s hope for it—is placed over the leader in importance.
Certainly that’s a model for leadership in the church, and as a bishop in our church it is one I strive to hold myself accountable to.
But all leadership is a spiritual task, no matter what realm it’s exercised in. So whenever someone offers themselves to us as a leader, we should ask: Do they want to be over us? Or does the possibility inherent in our community, however that is defined, come first?
God designed us to be led, sisters and brothers, and that means we are meant to be followers. But as disciples of the one who knows us better than we know ourselves, we must be wise and discerning followers. We must remember, in our choices, that we are meant to be led to build God’s kingdom, show God’s mercy, bear God’s hope, and defend God’s poor. That is the flourishing we are meant for, and that, by God’s grace, we will choose. Amen.