Following the good shepherd in a time of war (Joel Shenk)

Title:  Following the Good Shepherd in a Time of War
Text: Jeremiah 23:1-6
Date: November 21, 2010
Place: Toledo Mennonite Church (Ohio)
Author: Joel Shenk

Jeremiah 23:1-6 NRSV –  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.  5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

The Context of Jeremiah

This passage in Jeremiah is an indicting passage against the shepherds of Judah.  Jeremiah makes clear that God has certain expectations for those with power and influence in Judah, and there are consequences when those expectations aren’t met.  This is a demanding passage, and I feel humbled by the demand of this passage especially given the nature of my sermon entitled “Following the Good Shepherd in a Time of War;” a message looking at issue of Christian discipleship in the midst of a world ridden with violence and conflict and war.

But I find Jeremiah to be insightful in this regard.   Jeremiah is speaking into a context in where the Kingdom of Israel has already fallen, and Judah is feeling the Babylonians closing in on them.  Judah knows that the security of their nation is at risk.   In the midst of this context, Jeremiah confronts the shepherds of Judah who are scattering and destroying to flock during this very tense time in the life of their nation.

There are two ways in which the shepherds of Judah are scattering and destroying the flock.  The first way is through false worship and following other gods.  Two false gods that Judah had worshiped were Baal and Asherah.  Baal was a Canaanite god of fertility and prosperity.  Asherah was also a fertility goddess who was married to Asir, the god of war from whom we get the name of the ancient superpower Assyria.  So during this tense time in Judah’s history we see an interplay between religion and economics as Judah seeks to establish its own security.

The second way the shepherds of Judah were scattering and destroying the flock was through rebellious political and military alliances.  Again, as Judah was feeling the pressure of the Babylonians they began to turn to the nations around them for help.  These maneuverings ultimately failed.  The kings of Judah died in these wars, and ultimately it was Judah’s attempted rebellion against Babylon that caused Babylon to slam its fist down on Judah, destroy the temple, and carry the people off into exile.

In both of these ways – following false gods and creating military alliances – Judah and their shepherds were putting their trust in other things besides YHWH for their safety and security.

Our Context

The sad truth is that these types of situations still exist.  The gods of prosperity and war are still alive and well today.  They exist in our economic system that values profit above justice and they exist in the perpetual state of war that our country finds itself it.  Counting the end of the cold war, the first Iraq war, US involvement in Bosnia and Yugoslavia, and now current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, our nation has been at war essentially my entire life.  And counting back to Vietnam, Korea, WWI and WWII, that is probably true for all of us.

Perhaps some of you have heard in the news over the past several weeks and months about the whistle blowing website called wikileaks.  This is a website that has made public thousands of leaked military documents about the U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the recent reports about the war in Iraq include the following disturbing accounts:

  • A US helicopter gunship involved in a notorious Baghdad incident had previously killed Iraqi insurgents after they tried to surrender.
  • US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers whose conduct appears to be systematic and normally unpunished.
  • 66,081 non-combatant deaths out of a total of 109,000 fatalities, even though military officials had insisted all along that no official record of civilian deaths had been kept.

On top of these recent reports, there is more bad news coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan.  News has been released that in 2005, 6256 veterans committed suicide that year.  That comes out to 17 a day.  And from 2005 – 2007 the rate has gone up to 21 veterans a day.  How many of us breezed right by the Veterans Day holiday a few weeks ago without even the slightest acknowledgment of these sad statistics.

These statistics and figures shed a glimpse into the horrors of a war that is spiraling out of control.

The Suffering of those on the Margins

There is an African proverb that sates, “When the elephants fight it is the grass that suffers.”  I take it to mean that while nations and people in power collide, it’s often the overlooked and the forgotten that truly suffer as a result of conflict and war.

As the shepherds of Judah were seeking their own well-being and devising political schemes during a tense political time in their history, it was the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien who suffered for the wrongdoings of the powerful.  Yet we see throughout scripture that the prophets speak up on behalf of these groups, reminding us that God has a heart for those who are marginalized by society.

As that was the case for Judah, it is the case for our time as well.  We have learned more and more about innocent Iraqi and Afghan citizens who have become causalities of war.  And we know of how working class families in our country are losing their sons and their daughters, their husbands and wives, and loved ones to the war.  And increasingly army recruiters are targeting low income and minority groups to fill the ranks of our army, luring them with often unfulfilled promises of education and limitless opportunity.  Additionally, enlisting in the arms services has been used for incentive for immigrants seeking citizenship in our country.  If an immigrant agrees to enlist, he or she will be given priority in obtaining citizenship

Our current wars are being fought by the poor, the oppressed, the orphans, and aliens of our day.  When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

Voices for Peace?

And my fear is that the voices for peace, the voices calling for an end to this madness are fading away.  Even in our own Mennonite Church which is a history peace church.   In the April 2010 issue of the Mennonite magazine, Everett Thomas wrote an op-ed piece entitled “At Peace with War.”  In it he questions why there seems to be little resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan among Mennonites.  He doesn’t give answers, but he poses some provocative questions for why this may be.  Questions such as…

  • Have we become complacent in our wealth and security?
  • Does the war seem to not impact us since there is no draft and war has become much more technology driven?
  • Are we becoming relativistic and no longer believe that violence is wrong?
  • Are we assimilated so much into politics that we don’t question the policies of our political party?
  • Do we think these wars are justifiable uses of state power?

I don’t necessarily know the answers to these questions.  I don’t know how they resonate in each of your lives.  But I will admit that his questions do pierce my heart and make me feel a bit uncomfortable.  Just as Jeremiah was speaking out against the shepherds of Judah on some issues that would have made them uncomfortable, Everett Thomas’ questions serve a similar function.

Ultimately, I don’t have the solutions to international conflict and war.  Nor can I speak with complete authority about what people of faith should or should not do.  And I admit that I often feel powerless and apathetic in these types of situations that are so big and so beyond my ability to comprehend them.

But my gut tells me that the increasing loss of life in Iraq and Afghanistan is too much.

My gut tells me that there is something wrong when soldiers escape the hell of war only to return home unable to escape the hell of PTSD, depression, grief, and in many cases suicide.

My gut tells me that it is not right for a nation to turn a blind eye to torture and war crimes in deference to the gods of prosperity and the gods of war.

And my gut tells me that it’s wrong for the poor and disadvantaged in our country to pay the highest cost for the war.

I don’t want to live in a world where these injustices are tolerated.  Instead I want to live in light of the hope that one day nations will no longer prepare for war (Is 2:4), and that one day death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Rev 21:4).

Following the Good Shepherd

Jeremiah looked forward with hope for a better day; a day when a righteous branch would rise up from the tree of David.  He looked forward to a king who will execute justice and righteousness in the land.

That King has come.  He called himself the Good Shepherd.  The good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10).  The Good Shepherd who goes out looking for his lost sheep (Luke 15).  The Good Shepherd who resisted evil through self-sacrificial love and service toward others.  Notice the contrast from what we know of the life, death, and resurrection of the Good Shepherd with the false shepherds in Jeremiah’s day that sought their own unjust gain.

And this Good Shepherd said crazy things like, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44).  And he saw his mission as bringing good news to the poor, releasing the captives, giving sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free (Luke 4:18-19).

We are the body of this Good Shepherd.  We are the ongoing incarnation of Christ in the world.  And as Christ’s body known as Toledo Mennonite Church, and as part of the church in America and around the world, we cannot ignore the cry of those who are suffering as a result of these wars.  We cannot simply ignore these issues just because they make us uncomfortable or we aren’t sure how to respond or because it causes conflict as there are differing opinions about what should be done.

One day as my wife and I were driving around exploring the streets and neighborhoods of Toledo, we came across a house in the Old West End part of town.  And out in front on the lawn were home-made billboards that chronicled the deaths as a result of the Iraq war; of U.S. soldiers and of Iraqi citizens.  I got up the courage and I knocked on the door and asked the owner about the billboards.  One of the things he said was that, “I don’t think we can just forget about this, and I don’t think it is right to go about our lives not considering the cost of the war (my paraphrase).”  So he made these billboards simply as a way to remember.

I think what this guy is doing is a great witness.  He is an atheist, but I still think it is a great witness to the way of the Good Shepherd.  And I am humbled by his act of witness verses what I repeatedly fail to do.

Conclusion

My prayer is that we would not be lulled to sleep as wars drag on.  That we would not become apathetic in our comfort.

My hope is that we would recommit ourselves to Christ’s way of peace, which is articulated by our confession of faith in a Mennonite perspective…

  • “We believe that peace is the will of God. God created the world in peace, and God’s peace is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, who is our peace and the peace of the whole world. Led by the Holy Spirit, we follow Christ in the way of peace, doing justice, bringing reconciliation, and practicing nonresistance, even in the face of violence and warfare. (Article 22)
  • We seek to be “that city on a hill which demonstrates the way of Christ.  We also witness by being ambassadors for Christ, calling the nations (and all persons and institutions) to move toward justice, peace and compassion for all people.”

May it be so.

Amen.

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