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 Where Have All the Shepherds Gone?

Sermon - 11/20/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Ezekiel 34:1-14

This is the last Sunday of the church's year, of the liturgical year. The liturgical calendar is a way to remind ourselves that we operate on different time -- that we don't operate on the world's time, we operate on God's time, or cosmological time, or however you want to think of it. Just a little reminder that our calendar is a little different. So this is the last Sunday of the church's year.

Who knows what this Sunday is called on that liturgical calendar? Christ the King Sunday. Now, it's not a big one in terms of our feasts, we don't celebrate this Sunday in quite the same way as other churches, but it's called "Christ the King" Sunday, so you know what that means? It means that there are only 35 days left until Christmas. Or 43 days left until the Iowa caucuses that kick off the primary season. Or 41 days left until the Rose Bowl, when the righteous shall return to claim their crown of glory! [Actually, I had to re-write that line, because originally it was supposed to be the national championship BCS bowl, but the righteous came up one field goal short. Sad day :) ]

The text for this holy of Sundays, from the gospels that Leroy read for us, is from that Matthew 25 story (very familiar to us, we use it often), that scene of the judgment when the Son of Man separates sheep from goats. The text from the Hebrew scriptures is from Ezekiel 34, and it is a text that has some striking similarities to that more familiar text in Matthew 25.

It was composed during the period of the exile in Babylon, where the prophet tells the people what went wrong to cause their suffering, and now how God will set it right. So then, reading from Chapter 34 of Ezekiel, verses 1 through 24:

The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

17 As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: 18Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?

20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Do you suppose this text, written over 2,500 years ago, has any relevance for us today?

I was coming to church and listening to the news on NPR, and they were doing a series of stories on poisoned places in the United States. Places where chemical plants, oil refineries, and factories have been found by the EPA to be high priority violators of the Clean Air Act. And the case in point in this particular story was a smelter (copper smelter in Arizona) in a largely poor, Hispanic neighborhood, that over a period of six years had released high levels of lead and arsenic into the air so that the entire yards of 200 homes had to be removed and replaced because of children who had tested positive for high levels of lead from playing in their own back yards on toxic ground.

And then I get into my office, and I open up my Bible to study the scripture in preparation for this morning, and I read: "Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down your feet with the rest of your pasture? Must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet?". Hmmmm.

The premise of the prophets is simple: the leaders of the country are like shepherds, and the primary responsibility of shepherds is what? To care for the sheep. And their failure, then, to fulfill that responsibility, the prophet says, is the cause of the country's demise. This is the consistent and persistent message of scripture, based on this very agrarian metaphor of shepherding that would of course be very familiar, very close to people in Biblical times.

Now, today, we are about as close to shepherding as the Ducks are to the BCS championship bowl :) Or the Super-Committee in Congress is to coming up with a budget deal. Or the NBA is to striking a deal with their players. Or Hermann Cain is to Barack Obama, name your illustration.

This image of shepherds caring for their flock still remains for us today a very powerful one because we get it, we understand the role of a shepherd is to care for the sheep. And that's why the alleged offenses committed at Penn State are so appalling. How could anyone fail such a clear, unambiguous moral responsibility to protect young, vulnerable children under their care?

Well, hear the message of the prophet. We are Penn State. The moral responsibility, and hence failure of our society, to protect the weak and the vulnerable could not be clearer. Every child abused is a failure of societies shepherds. Every child who remains homeless is a failure of the shepherds. Every mentally ill person who remains locked up in prison is a failure of the shepherds. Every school without with adequate resources to provide a well-rounded education is a failure of the shepherds.

As President Eisenhower so famously put it, "every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed".

Our shepherds have failed us. And on this, pretty much everyone agrees, from the Tea Party to the Occupiers. That's the bad news. And so prophets like Ezekiel are the ones who bring this bad news to light, to expose it for all to see. Not surprisingly, then, prophets tend not to be very popular.

We're reading in our Thursday-morning group from Richard Rohr's book "Everything Belongs". This past Thursday, we read this passage: "I find it interesting that Jesus is called Priest, Prophet, and King. We have the priesthood, continued every Sunday in the liturgy. We have feasts and symbols celebrating Christ the King. But I've never in all the Christian world found a church named 'Christ the Prophet'. Nor is there any feast day called 'Christ the Prophet' Sunday". And so Rohr concludes: "We only want a King who blesses the status quo".

Well, this is Thanksgiving Sunday as well as Christ the King Sunday, and we don't want the bad news. We want the good news -- the harvest is in, the table is full, let's celebrate all that is right and good that we have. And there truly is much to celebrate. So the last thing I want to do is serve up heapings of guilt for our Thanksgiving meal.

But what the prophet calls us to celebrate is not the good we already have, but the good that is yet to come. The good the Messiah will bring. That one who will be like the great shepherd King David who will do all these things. The good shepherd, the righteous King, who will care for the flock, who will seek the lost, who will bind up the injured, who will strengthen the weak, who will feed them with justice. Where will we find such a shepherd?

And this, of course, is our image for Jesus, isn't it? And it's so well said already in the birth narratives in the gospels, that bring together the shepherds of Luke with the Kings of Matthew, paying honor to that newborn King of Bethlehem.

But we're not there yet, that's still five weeks away, so be patient, that moment will come. Now, on Christ the King Sunday, we have the opportunity to look back, instead of looking ahead, and ask how did Jesus fulfill that expectation? How did it work out for him? Huh.

The answer is, not like anyone expected. The Davidic monarchy was not restored, the Romans were not expelled, the new and better government with liberty and justice for all was not established. Instead of doing any of that, Jesus went about doing those various things that the shepherd was supposed to do. Feeding the hungry. Healing the sick. Restoring the lost.

And then this is the radical part: what does he do? He says "This is how you do it. This is how you bring that Kingdom of God from heaven to earth. Now it's your turn". You see, that's what Matthew 25 says. When Lord, did we see you hungry? "When you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me".

In other words, Jesus took that very shepherding role we thought was for someone else, you know, the one we're all waiting for, and he gave it to us. I'm not making this up, it's right there. It's right here. The time of waiting for someone else to fix our problems, be it the Messiah or that candidate that we're all waiting for, is over. No longer are we called to wait for God, God is waiting for us to act.

Now, isn't that what this Occupy thing is also about? Jim Wallis, the founder of that Sojourners community in Washington DC, sends out a weekly letter that I know many of you get because at least three people sent it to me this week :) I don't always get it, so it's good that people forward me these things. And this is what he writes, reading in part:

"Our faith communities and organizations should swing their doors wide, and greet the occupiers with open arms, offering them a feast to say 'thank you' for having the courage to raise the very religious and Biblical issue of growing inequality in our society. Concentrations of wealth and power, unfairness in our political process, the loss of opportunity (especially for the next generation) and the alarming rise of poverty in the world's richest nation are all fundamental concerns for people of faith.

So let's invite the young occupiers into our churches and ministries for good conversation and a great meal. Bring them in out of the cold and offer them appreciation and warm hospitality of our thankful faith communities. The Occupy movement needs a sanctuary, and what better, safe and welcome place could these young people find than with communities of faith? As we provide that sanctuary for a new generation of protesters who dream of a better world, let us also engage them in the spirituality of the change they seek.

Jesus is a popular guy among the thousands of Occupy sites around the world, and faith is a lively topic even if religion is suspect as an institution of an unjust society. This could be a great opportunity for hospitality, for ministry, for solidarity, for faith conversation, and yes, for prophetic witness as churches and people of faith speak up for the economic justice that is at the heart of the Biblical faith and is an integral part of the Gospel.

Offering that sanctuary for the Occupiers at our tables, on our church property, in our parish halls, in church basements, and in our sanctuaries for the quiet prayer and reflection that every movement needs to sustain itself could be the beginning of a powerful relationship between the faith community and the leaders of an emerging generation that is so clearly and passionately committed to creating a better world".

Well, what do you think? Should we? Dare we?

I am by no means in agreement with everything that the Occupiers have said and done. But the issues they are raising are issues that we, as people of faith, need also to be raising. Who are the shepherds?

It's rather striking to me that on the first night that we opened the Egan Warming Center (Friday night), to bring people in off the streets and out of the cold, after being told for months to prepare for record numbers (recession and all of that, we know that there are more people on the street than ever), we opened and had 60 people sleeping here. That's about the same, or less, than we had most nights last year.

Now, how could that be? Well, it turns out that the Occupiers have been providing shelter themselves for the homeless. And last night we weren't open at all, because the weatherman told us that we didn't need to because it was going to be above freezing, but it turned out to be colder -- we weren't open, but they still were open down there underneath that Jefferson Bridge, providing shelter.

In other words, they're doing that very same 'Matthew 25 ministry' we so often talk about and try to implement here. So why would we not engage them in conversation?

If we don't, I fear the church will be left out of the dialogue as a largely ancient institution that is considered irrelevant to the challenges we face in this time. So here's the challenge I see for us: Ezekiel says that God is the good shepherd, who is personally involved in the struggles of the people. The gospels say that Jesus is the good shepherd, who is personally involved in the struggles of the people. Paul says we are the body of Christ, Christ is in us, we are in Christ.

So if we ask, to paraphrase Pete Seeger, that question: "Where have all the shepherds gone?", the answer, to paraphrase Pogo, is: "We have met the good shepherd". . . . Right? isn't that the good news that we have, that the good shepherd that our world so desperately needs has been made known to us?

And of course, if you know Pogo, you know how it finishes. We have met the good shepherd, and "he is us".

Jesus says to Peter: "Do you love me?". And Peter says: "Lord, you know I love you".

And Jesus says: "Feed my sheep".

Where have the shepherds gone? If not us, who? If not now, when?


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