Shepherds Who Shepherd

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Meghan Florian
November 20, 2016

Today is “Reign of Christ” Sunday, a fact that feels both timely and unsettling. This Sunday comes around every year, one moment in the cycle of time Christians inhabit, before we circle back into Advent once again. But this year, today, the world looks different.

This is neither the first nor the last time preachers and congregations will need to consider the gospel in light of political upheaval. Indeed, given that our gospel text is about a man, Jesus, who posed such a threat to the powerful that they killed him, one might argue that we have always had to read the gospel in that light.

While I am grateful for the reminder of who we follow, of an alternate allegiance in contrast to the powers of the U.S. government, I am unsettled by the imagery of kingship represented by the phrase “Reign of Christ,” not least because of the recent uptick in statements from liberal and conservative Christians alike I have seen proclaiming something along the lines of Jesus for President, before and after election day.

Jesus is not our president. A political prisoner, more accurately, he was put to death: our martyred God. To read his life as a call to anything other than active resistance to evil and corruption in our actual government is a distortion of the gospel.

Today, though, I am focusing on the words of the prophet Jeremiah, rather than the gospel text. Words of warning, and words of promise, words for a people longing for righteousness and justice, longing for safety, living in the shadow of the Babylonian Empire.

Jeremiah 23:1 begins by reproaching Judah’s leaders, addressing them as failed, fallen, or misguided shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord.” God is not pleased with “the shepherds who shepherd [God’s] people.”

“It is you who have scattered my flock.” It is you who have driven them away, it is you who have not attended them. Judah is scattered, and it is these leaders’ fault.

Two things follow: first, Jeremiah says, the Lord will attend to these shepherds who failed God’s people. This is not a positive attending. This attending sounds like judgement. And second, God will gather the remnant of the flock, bring them safely into the fold, that they might be fruitful and multiply. This gathering into the sheepfold – this sounds like a promise of safety.

People around me have expressed some variation of three different emotional trajectories these past twelve days: some settle into a presumed normalcy (as if anything about what is going on in our world is “normal”), some gird for the fight, already circulating lists of actions to take, and others – many, many others – are still too numb to do more than make it through each day. And as I read Jeremiah’s oracle of restoration, about a scattered flock of scared sheep, I wonder how exactly life does and doesn’t “go on” in the face of oppression.

We must resist normalization, but neither can we stop living. All over the world, all throughout history, in places of violence and oppression, I thought this week as perhaps I had never bothered to consider before, people have continued to live – to fall in love, to go to work, to care for children, to look after the elderly and their neighbors as best they can – to do the things that are normal in abnormal ways. Plenty of people in the U.S. already feared for their safety on a regular basis. It is worse, now, and it will grow worse still, but it is not new.

“People will move on in about a week,” a friend’s daughter’s psychology professor said this week, based on his knowledge of what makes us tick. But he is wrong. Or, I hope he is wrong. We need him to be wrong, because we will need to resist and refuse acceptance of a great many things in the weeks, months, and years to come. “Normalization is psychic armour” Laurie Penny wrote this week, “But so is resistance.”

No, we cannot, should not “move on,” but we do keep going, and perhaps we refuse to normalize oppression and hate precisely by refusing to let them take away the small joys that keep us human, the moments wherein we name and honor the humanity around us – small joys that persist in a turbulent world.

“I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear,” Jeremiah writes. God promises that righteousness and justice will reign – that shepherds will shepherd, which could not be more different from the picture of leadership now enfleshed and broadcast on our computers and smart phones as we follow the news. Our country’s new leadership has promised to scatter and destroy – families, communities, and quite possibly our entire system of government altered, if not destroyed, piece by piece. Goodbye environmental regulations, goodbye affordable care act, goodbye to who knows what else.

If you feel anxious, if you feel unsettled, well… I cannot tell you not to feel that way. I won’t. The worst thing we could do is to accept this, to settle into this new place and forget that it is anything but normal, forget that God has made us for something better.

The world shifting, and in this unsettled world we are called to be shepherds, gathering, attending, creating, protecting, building, resisting.

One of the most dangerous moves I see Christians want to make in times like these is to claim the reign of Christ as a way past the difficult path ahead, as a way around the struggle. But there is no way around the struggle. For those who are scattered, for those who are vulnerable, there is no way past the truth that earthly leaders are destroying black and brown and queer and Muslim lives. There is no way around an already depressed economy, irreversible climate change, or any number of other real concerns about our present and future lives together. The truth of Christ’s reign does not erase the reality of such “evil doings,” to use Jeremiah’s language.

We are the shepherds who shepherd God’s people. Our “king” is a shepherd, which is less about ruling than it is about caring for fragile creatures, nurturing, meeting needs in basic, unglamorous ways. That will look like different things for different people, and we need to talk about that too, sooner or later, if not right here in this exact moment, when for many of us reality is still too raw.

The day after the election, I stayed home. I felt frozen, scared, for others especially, and in certain ways for myself, too. I texted people to say “Are you okay?” and “I love you.” And I have continued doing so every day since, when someone comes to mind who might be alone, who might find this all too much, who I haven’t checked in with yet, because while I still feel numb, and while more direct action must follow, one thing I know how to do is to gather up the people I love and be sure they are still eating, breathing, coping. To make sure they are safe. To say the words I love you over and over and over and over again until my voice fails. That feels like shepherd work, though on some days, also, I am the sheep, in need of someone to shepherd me.

I want to end with a poem by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib. His words have shown me a glimmer of something, a testimony to humanity, and I hope they might for you, as well. He names small things, which for me is a place to begin to imagine what everyday resistance looks like. It is called The Day After The Election I Did Not Go Outside.

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