Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, Secrets of Heaven #5992:3 (see below)
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“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” How beautiful this verse is, sometimes I think perhaps the most beautiful in the whole bible! Well, I joke, but how many here can relate to this verse, especially after the last 18 months? While the pandemic did cause many of us to stay in our homes, did it and all that has happened, allow us to truly rest? Will life return now to to its face-paced default that kept many of us so exhausted? Jesus’ invitation here remains a little counter-cultural, though perhaps one that we might now be slightly more willing to hear.
But of course, in that particular moment in our text, it wasn’t to be, even for Jesus. The story continues: “but many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” Jesus saw their need and had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd, searching and searching for one to lead them. This feeling of searching, I think we can relate to as well. In our society that is so infatuated with individualism, this is a hard, and sometimes secretly shameful thing to admit; that even as adults we still yearn for mentoring, for sometime to guide us along the way.
And so, the image of the divine shepherd is so perennially comforting. It is an invitation to breathe, an invitation to focus on that which is guiding us, an invitation to believe that someone has our back and that we are not alone. We heard about the concern that the Lord has for each of us in our Swedenborg reading: “a constant concern lasting from the very beginning of a person's existence to the final moment of their life, and for evermore after that.” And, we also learned, that it is not only the Lord that we have with us, but angels shepherding us as well. “Angels from the Lord…lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant.” We are all held in the loving arms of the God and angels in every moment. We are not always conscious of it, and sometimes we resist the embrace, but it is a constant of which we can always rely. And in our text today, Jesus embodied for us this compassion and concern of God, not hesitating for moment to heal those who needed healing. God with us, working for us, constantly. Our divine shepherd.
But of course, the temptation wrapped up in such a beautiful piece of knowledge, is that it will take us out of each moment that we are in. The transcendence of spiritual things, the fact that we believe spiritual things are beyond us in some fundamental way, that they represent an ideal, sometimes draws us away from the world. Surely, we think, heaven is an escape from the messiness of our lives, surely our angels call us to abandon that which is earthly and earth-bound?
It is not quite so simple. In his book Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg describes our inner natures being in the spiritual world and our outer natures in this natural world. We inhabit a nexus, an in-between place. And our outwardness, our bodies, actions, thoughts, senses…these are the ultimate things into which the flow of God’s love comes to rest. There is not some rarefied realm in which God’s love resides which we must strive to reach by shedding our outer natures. Rather, our transformed outer natures are the ultimate destination of God’s love. They are where God has been heading the entire time.
The passage continues:
 Since the Lord's divine inflow does not stop in the middle but goes on to its very limit, as just stated, and since the intermediate region it crosses is the angelic heaven and the limit is in us, and since nothing disconnected can exist, it follows that there is such a connection and union of heaven with the human race that neither can endure without the other. If the human race were cut off from heaven, it would be like a chain with a link removed, and heaven without the human race would be like a house without a foundation. (HH 304)
We see now then, that denying, abhorring, ignoring the world for the sake of spiritual things is like trying to have a house without a foundation; it is impossible. Heaven and the human race, in all its human-ness, are irrevocably connected. And when we recognize what this means, we see that the guiding, moderating and shepherding that we receive from God and the angels is not to draw us ever away from the world but rather, to allow us to exist compassionately and courageously within it. To allow us to bring God’s love into its ultimate destination in our embodiment, in our actions.
We see this reflected in the gospel text; the people brought their sick to be healed but not to Jesus up in that secluded place he spoke of, and clearly yearned for. He instead went into their villages and towns, and specifically healed the sick in the marketplaces of those towns, in the most busy and bustling places. The marketplace in those days was not just a place for commerce, it was also a place for legal hearings, elections and debates. It was both a commercial and a political center. It was the center of everyone’s lives, it was where the details of collective life in community happened. This is where the healings took place. Not in hiding, not in a sacred temple, not the deserted place he called them to at the beginning of the story, but in the midst of the nitty-gritty of life.
We have romanticized the image of the divine shepherd so very much, placed it in the realm of idyllic pastoral scenes, peaceful countrysides, fluffy white sheep. But in Jesus’ day, it was not an abstract idea. For many hundreds of years, the Jewish people had been a shepherding people; they knew exactly what was involved in being a shepherd, how dirty, how exhausting it could be. How different to understand the Old Testament use of the image of God as shepherd then, as we see in our Jeremiah reading, how this doesn’t cast God as distantly and peacefully presiding over green hills and happily gamboling lambs, but rather, God as fierce protector and rescuer. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…” God sweaty and dirty and directly involved; shouting, running, hands calloused from hard work and oily brown wool, arms full of the vulnerable and tired and the just born.
Then, and now, we are shepherded inwardly by God and our angels, as we told, in every instant and every fraction of an instant. We are guided toward goodness and away from harm, toward compassion and away from self-centeredness. As needed, we are guided into quiet places and restfulness, we are guided, as we heard in Jeremiah, back into the fold and away from fear. But this rescue, this greener pasture, is not for the sake of itself. We are shepherded so that the inflow of God might come to rest, come to fruition, in our transformed and compassionate actions.
And so, we are *also* guided into the marketplace. God and the angels will meet us even there, in the place where the details of our lives happen. We bring our sickness and our need of healing, we bring our problems and our doubts, our challenges and our stubbornness, our day-to-day anxieties, our dreams of being whole, and our dreams of making the world a better place. Nothing disconnected can exist. Heaven is built upon the foundation of our lives in this world, brick by brick, moment by moment. And not, so that we might eventually build a tower of babel tall enough to escape, but that we might build a room expansive enough to hold us all. The point of spirituality and the shepherding of God is not that we might become unmoored from our experience and our earthiness, a soul saved from the grasp of a tortured world and taken up to heaven. Rather, we are shepherded and guided so that heaven might be birthed in the here and now, inside a heart, inside a life, in which God’s love might come to fulfillment and rest.
1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 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.
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Secrets of Heaven #5992:3
 In particular angels call forth the forms of good and truth residing with a person and set them opposite [the] evils and falsities…As a result the person is in the middle and is not conscious of the evil or of the good; and being in the middle they are in freedom to turn towards one or towards the other. Angels from the Lord employ means like these to lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant. For if the angels were to let up merely for a single moment the person would be plunged into evil from which after that they cannot possibly be brought out. The angels are motivated to do all this by a love they receive from the Lord, for nothing gives them greater delight and happiness than to remove evils from a person and lead them to heaven. This is their joy. Scarcely anyone believes the Lord has that kind of concern for a person, a constant concern lasting from the very beginning of a person's existence to the final moment of their life, and for evermore after that.