Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
We’ve read two bible texts this morning that share many of the same themes. On of them is quite familiar and has impacted the broader culture outside the church. The other is fairly obscure. Both are written in the wake of tragedy. This morning we are going to look them both to discover what we can learn from these prophecies of shepherds and flocks.
Let’s start with the lesser known story, the reading from Ezekiel. The Book of Ezekiel is written by a priest of the same name. He lived in the sixth century BCE during the time that Judah was defeated by the Babylonian Empire. Jerusalem fell, and the temple where Ezekiel served was destroyed. Ezekiel himself, along with many other leading Jews, were taken away into exile in Babylon. And they are wondering what has happened. Why have the people been defeated and carried away? What has happened to God now that the temple, God’s dwelling place, has been destroyed?
It is out of this context of loss that Ezekiel writes. He comes to understand that God was not destroyed when God’s temple was destroyed. Before Babylon’s attack, the glory of God—the pillar of cloud and fire that had accompanied the Israelites centuries before when they were with Moses in the desert—the glory of God has left the temple. And, according to Ezekiel, God’s glory, God’s presence, has moved along with the exiles to be with them in Babylon. God has gone into exile right along with God’s people. Ezekiel believes that Judah has been defeated because the people, or their leaders, were not faithful to God and God’s covenant. But Ezekiel is optimistic that Judah’s fate is going to be reversed. God will protect the people in Babylon until God leads them back to their home in the promised land.
God is going to begin by becoming a shepherd of God’s people. They have been scattered all over. Not just in Judah and in Babylon, but also among the Assyrians and the Egyptians. God’s people have been dispersed; they are in diaspora. So God will go out and find all of God’s missing sheep, and gather them back together into one flock. God will gather all of the Jews from all over the world and bring them back to the Promised Land in Israel. God says, “As a shepherd seeks out the flock when some in the flock have been scattered, so will I seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered during the time of clouds and thick darkness. I will gather and lead them out from the countries and peoples, and I will bring them to their own fertile land. I will feed them on Israel’s highlands, along the riverbeds, and in all the inhabited places. I will feed them in good pasture, and their sheepfold will be there, on Israel’s lofty highlands.” God is going to bring everyone back home, to the Promised Land.
But then the message changes a bit. Once God has brought the whole flock back, then God is going to start dividing them up, just like a shepherd does. God speaks in the voice of the prophet, “As for you, my flock… I will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats.” But why does God need to judge between the sheep? Ezekiel continues, “Is feeding in good pasture or drinking clear water such a trivial thing that you should trample and muddy what is left with your feet? But now my flock must feed on what your feet have trampled and drink water that your feet have muddied.” It is because the greediness of some is causing trouble for the welfare of all. God gives them plenty of green pasture land. God gives them plenty of clean, cool water. But the bossy sheep eat their fill and then trample the rest so that no one else can eat. The pushy goats take a drink from the clear stream and then start kicking up mud so that no one else can drink. It isn’t even that the greedy sheep have consumed all of the resources themselves so that nothing is left. Yes, the greedy sheep have eaten more than they need, but then they have spoiled the rest so that no one else can partake of the abundance that is available. There is plenty for everyone, so long as a few don’t hog, hoard, and destroy it.
“So,” God says, “I will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. You shove with shoulder and flank, and with your horns you ram all the weak sheep until you’ve scattered them outside. But I will rescue my flock so that they will never again be prey. I will even judge between the sheep!” What an interesting image. Some of the sheep have become predators and some have become prey. God is not going to let the predator sheep keep targeting their neighbors. God is going to have to choose between those sheep who are trying to hurt and disenfranchise their neighbors and those sheep who have been on the side of fairness. God will sort things out. And God will appoint a new shepherd, a new David, who will watch over the sheep with justice.
That is the less familiar story. The well-known one comes from the 25th chapter of Matthew: the separating of the sheep and the goats. We call this text the “little apocalypse,” because it shares some of the same themes as the Book of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature. It’s a mini version of end-times prophecy. It’s so familiar, that it pops up even in non-Christian settings. Separating the sheep and goats is synonymous with separating the good from the bad.
But by what standards does the shepherd separate the sheep from the goats? The criteria is similar to that found in Ezekiel, though not exactly the same. It has to do with how they treat other people. Do they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome outsiders, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit prisoners? If so, then Christ will welcome them. If not, then Christ will reject them.
This chapter of Matthew can make Protestants a little queasy. After all, we believe that salvation comes through grace alone apart from any works of the law. But here Jesus seems to be saying that salvation is about works. If you take good care of your neighbors, then God will accept you into heaven. If you are apathetic or cruel to other people, then you will go to hell. And Jesus isn’t messing around in Matthew, either: “Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things,” he says. “Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels! Go away into eternal punishment!”
Part of this is just Matthew being Matthew. This is the sort of thing he does all the time. He is always talking about eternal punishment, about throwing people into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s just part of Matthew’s style. He has anger issues. And we have faith that God is more gracious than that, that God is more forgiving, that wherever there is an abundance of sin there is always a greater abundance of grace.
But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore what Matthew is saying here. Because whether or not our afterlife is on the line, our relationship with Christ is on the line. Because Jesus says here that the hungry woman we encounter, she actually is Jesus. The prisoner sitting in the jail, he actually is Jesus. The sick person at home alone, she actually is Jesus.
The best commentator on this passage I’ve found is the Lutheran rap artist, AGAPE✭. The youth group at my previous church had occasion to see him perform a few times. He has a song about this passage. Actually he has two of them. And he has a good way of getting past the punishment in this passage and getting to it’s deep meaning. Some of the lyrics go, “My savior’s livin’ under the bridge, because my neighbor’s livin’ under the bridge.” My savior’s living under the bridge, because my neighbor’s living under the bridge. That’s not about fear and punishment. That’s about seeing the real human worth in someone who I might not identify with, someone I might be afraid of. Elsewhere AGAPE✭ tells the story of passing by a father and daughter on the street who were asking for help. He kept going. And in retrospect, he says, “I know who he was now, back then I wish I knew it. I had my chance to connect with God, but I blew it.” Again, he tells the story of a man coming to his door to use the phone. He was caught in the snow, but AGAPE✭ was afraid he might be dangerous, and he asked the man to move along and said, “You oughta know it’s hard to trust people./ You understand, it’s not that I don’t see you as my equal. He said, “Uh// huh, I understand. God bless.” He said it nice. Over his /shoulder on the door was a portrait of Christ. He // walked out the door and I slammed it so hard the /portrait on it fell and broke my picture of God.”
We’re not called to help our neighbors just so that we can avoid punishment. We are called to help our neighbors because they are our sisters and brothers in Christ. We are called to help our neighbors because God has a special love for the poor and marginalized. We are called to help our neighbors because when we do, we have a way of meeting God there, we have a way of finding Christ.
These two biblical stories about sheep tell us something about who God is and how God wants us to treat other people. God identifies strongly with the poor, the weak, the marginalized, and those who are in danger. If you find people who are in trouble or oppressed, that is also where you will find God. Jesus is already there in the detention center, in the shelter, at the food bank. Jesus is already there.
Many of you have already experienced the presence of Christ in the face of a stranger. I know that many of you have been involved in the Family Promise program, a collaborative effort of several churches to provide temporary housing for folks experiencing homelessness. In fact, I know that this congregation has even made some renovations of the church building so that it can be a more welcoming place for overnight guests. And I’m sure that those of you who helped with that program have indeed seen the face of Christ. As you may already know, Family Promise is currently suspended because of the complications created by COVID, but they are working hard to adapt to the current situation by housing people in local hotels. They still haven’t been able to work out all of the details, though, so please pray for Family Promise, and contact Janet Hummel if you’d like to hear more.
And I’m sure many of you have met Christ in the face of a stranger in other contexts. Everything is complicated by COVID right now, of course, but you may have experienced Christ’s presence nonetheless. Maybe serving in a soup kitchen. Maybe in giving warm clothes to folks who may not have them, something we have traditionally done in our Christmas Basket program. Maybe you’ve visited someone in the hospital, in a nursing home or care facility, or in a prison or detention center. Maybe you made a Zoom call or a back yard meeting with someone who is isolated. Or you might have encountered Christ unawares out in the world, on a street corner, sleeping on a park bench. Each time you do, you see the face of Christ.
“I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
I’ll bet a lot of you who have met Christ in these sorts of places have been surprised to find that when you help, you often find yourself being ministered to. I know it’s been true for me. I’m thinking in particular about the people I visited in The Dalles who were being detained indefinitely by ICE. So many of the people I met there were concerned more about others than they were about themselves. They were seeking out ways to better themselves while they were jailed. And I will tell you the truth, I don’t think I will ever have as strong of faith or as gracious a temperament as some of the detainees I have visited there. I don’t know how much they got from my visits, but I know that they inspired me, and I know I saw Christ in them.
And you know, that is the wonderful grace of God’s path. When we accept God’s love for us, and when we return that love by loving our neighbors, it isn’t actually harder, it isn’t actually more of a struggle. Loving our neighbors, even when it requires a bit of courage, it actually makes life better. Eating my share of the green grass without gorging on it or trampling it underfoot, that actually makes life better for me. Giving people the benefit of the doubt when they annoy me, that actually makes me feel connected and peaceful. Going out of my way to help someone, that actually makes life more rewarding. And it is all possible because God first loved us and because God continues to work grace in and through us.
When the Son of Man comes in his majesty, he will sit on his throne, and he will separate the people, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And the king will say, “I assure you that whenever you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”