Sheep Without a Shepherd

Mark 6:30–34 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” For there were so many people coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat. 32They went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33But many people saw them leave and knew where they were going. They ran there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34When Jesus stepped out of the boat, he saw a large crowd. His heart went out to them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. He began to teach them many things.

I recently read an article entitled, “How Pastoral Care Stunts the Growth of Most Churches.” It was written by Pastor Carey Nieuwhof, who is not a Lutheran pastor. In the article, the author suggests that churches will not grow numerically if the pastor is busy visiting the sick, the elderly, the infirm, and the straying. Taking the time to do that work means that he does not have time to plan, organize, and evangelize.

This is a portion of the article: “When the pastor has to visit every sick person, do every wedding and funeral and make regular house calls, attend every meeting, and lead every Bible study or group, he or she becomes incapable of doing almost anything else. Message preparation falls to the side, and providing organizational leadership for the future is almost out of the question. …

“If you’re a good pastoral care person (and many pastors are), people will often love you so much that the church will grow to two hundred people, at which point the pastoral care expectations become crushing.

“If a church is going to grow, congregations have to let go of the expectation that their pastor will be available for every medical emergency, every twist and turn in their lives, every family celebration and every crisis.”

The article makes the point that in order for the church to grow in numbers, then the pastor should not have so much time taken up by doing pastoral care. In a way, the author is correct. If the goal of the church is to gain numbers of members and baptized souls, then that’s where the pastor’s time and focus should be on.

But, is that the goal of the church? Is it to grow numerically? To fill the pews? To have the offering plates overflowing? To be able to offer all kinds of programs, activities, and interests?

The scriptural goal of the Christian Church is to be the faithful flock of the Good Shepherd. The Lord of the Church never mentions in His Scriptures about growing in numbers. The goal is to grow in faith and understanding. To be faithful in God’s doctrines and to follow God’s will for our lives. To bring lambs and sheep into God’s flock through the Means of Grace – the Gospel in Word and Sacraments. Then, to keep them in that faith through those same Means of Grace.

I disagree with the very premise of the article. The pastor is not the primary leader or vision caster or CEO of the church. The pastor of a congregation like Epiphany is to be the shepherd of the flock. That’s what the title “pastor” means – “shepherd.” If a lamb is straying, the pastor goes after him. If a sheep becomes sick, the pastor goes to visit her. If a couple of sheep are having trouble, the pastor counsels them. If a sheep is dying, the pastor goes to comfort her.

That takes time.

But, there is no better time that a pastor spends than seeking, finding, feeding, counseling, and comforting the sheep the Good Shepherd has placed under his care.

If all that time is spent doing that pastoral work, then the church probably won’t grow numerically. That’s the Holy Spirit’s business. The business of the pastor is caring for the sheep that have called him to be their shepherd.

We heard in every one of our Scripture lessons this morning the importance of the work of the shepherd. Joshua is anointed to be the next leader of God’s people. Moses gave the purpose for Joshua succeeding him: “May the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the community, who will go out before them and come in before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the community of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

In the Epistle lesson, the holy writer gave us this advice for our spiritual shepherds: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls as men who will give an account.”

In our Gospel lesson, the disciples had just returned from being sent out to do mission work in Jesus’ name. The disciples returned to Jesus excited, energized, eager to tell Him all about their little adventures. Demons exorcised, diseases healed, good news preached. It was a smashing success. They were tired and excited at the same time. So many stories to tell. Jesus takes them on a little retreat, off to a wilderness place, far from the clamoring crowds. A chance to recharge and reflect and rest. And so, they went away in a boat, off by themselves.

But, the Sea of Galilee that Jesus and the disciples were crossing, is not terribly large. The people could see them on the boat. So, they followed on the shore. As they followed, the crowd grew larger.

Word got out. People were running from their houses with their sandals barely strapped on, chasing after the boat with Jesus and His disciples. They came from all the surrounding towns and villages, a huge mass of people by the seashore, clamoring for Jesus and His disciples. They were rock stars. Celebrities. Heroes. Everyone wanted a piece of them. There was no rest. No place to escape.

The people had heard Jesus teach and preach. His message came with authority. His message was backed up by miracles: the blind received their sight, the lame walked, those who had leprosy were cured and the good news was preached to the poor. The people couldn’t seem to get enough of Jesus or His miracles.

Jesus looked on that crowd running after the boat with compassion. He felt it deeply in his stomach. It wrenched his guts to see them like this. How desperate they were! How hopeless they must be to be running after them like this! How utterly lost, “like sheep without a shepherd.”

Jesus’ heart went out to the people. He had compassion on them. It was compassion for the people of Israel that moved Jesus to send His disciples out into the Judean countryside. It was compassion for the people that moved Jesus to travel to Samaria and northern Galilee to minister to the Gentiles. It was compassion for His disciples that moved Jesus to try to get some rest for His disciples. But, Jesus was so moved by the desperation and misery of the people, that He changed His plans. His heart went out to the people who lost in the darkness of sin and death. He was moved to give up His personal quiet time to lead these lost souls into the wonderful light of God’s forgiveness and life.

Jesus’ compassion for people is most obvious on the cross of Calvary. It was there that Jesus suffered and died to pay for the sins of all people – Jews and Gentiles, those who know they are lost and those who stubbornly refuse to admit their lostness, the hurting, the straying, and the dying. There on the cross, Jesus took our lostness and brought reconciliation with our heavenly Father. There on the cross, Jesus removed our fear of death and hell and replaced it with the joy and comfort of heaven being won for us. There on the cross, Jesus took our desire for healing and forgiveness that makes us run after Him and He pours it out with His blood flowing freely over us – giving us the healing and forgiveness we so desperately need.

We gather here today to worship Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep; to thank Him for all His compassion shown to us. We have come out of the desolate place of the world to sit at the feet of the Shepherd. Compassion, peace, comfort, rest, feeding, forgiveness, Word, and life. All that we need and desire. All that is offered by Jesus to us here. For God is in this place. God has compassion. He demonstrated that compassion by sending us His Son, Jesus, our Savior and Shepherd.  

But, there are so many more who should be here. For whatever reason, they aren’t here. So, should the pastor forget about them and move on to find new people – new sheep and lambs?

Something has grabbed hold of those who aren’t with us this morning. Perhaps it is busy-ness or apathy or indifference or anger, loneliness, fear, resentment, weakness of faith, caught in a sinful lifestyle. Something. They are in a spiritually desolate place. Do we leave them there?

No. Our heart goes out to them. We have compassion on them. For, they are sheep without a shepherd.

Whatever the desolate place, our Lord has come to make it desolate no more. He invites His sheep and lambs out of the desolation into the sanctuary of His house of worship. But, when they don’t come, then the pastor, the under-shepherd of the Good Shepherd goes to them. He trains the elders, mentors, visitation team members, and others to go out in the Good Shepherd’s name, as well.

To bring the water of baptism and life to the desert of sin and death. To bring the food of Christ’s body and blood to feed hungering souls. To bring repentance to those caught in the lies of Satan and the addiction of their sins. To bring peace and hope through the precious words of absolution. To bring the comfort and consolation to those who are traveling through the dark valley of death.

The pastor goes out to them to bring Jesus close to them once again. So, those who were once far off, may be far off no more. So, they may be brought near to God. But, not just near to God, but actually be joined to God – in Word, Sacrament and absolution.

That means the church may not grow numerically. But, that’s OK. God never calls for us to grow His Church here on earth. Instead, He calls for us to have compassion on lost sheep. If the Church grows when we are showing compassion, that’s up to Him.

The article stated that the pastor should have time to lead, plan, and accomplish the goals of growing the size of the church. That’s wrong. The pastor should be given the time to do pastoral work – teaching the catechism students, writing sermons, and studying for Bible classes. Pastoral work includes visiting the homebound, seeking the straying, counseling the hurting, encouraging the sick, and comforting the grieving. Despite what the article states, the pastor should be available for every medical emergency (when you let him know), every twist and turn in your lives (when you let him know), every family celebration (when you invite him) and every crisis. That takes a lot of time. Some other ministries will not get done. That’s where everyone else steps in. Because real pastoral work is going to the sheep who are in need of their shepherd. Amen.

Now may the God of peace—who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep - equip you with every good thing to do his will, as he works in us what is pleasing in his sight through Jesus Christ. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.