Sermon for June 2, 2019
Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-15; Psalm 23; Matthew 18:1-6, 10-14
Sermon: "Not My Shepherd!"
Our loving God always has willed that every human being have a chance to live an abundant life. The biblical story tells us that God placed his first children in the Garden of Eden -- where nothing would be lacking; where all would flourish under God's loving care.
That plan began to unravel early on as men and women began to take things into their own hands, to defy God's will and to ignore his commandments.
In the time of the prophet Ezekiel, we find God furious with the elite people of that day, who should have been, who were called to be, shepherds of the sheep.
"You are not shepherds," God said; "Not one of you is my shepherd."
God speaks in blunt and accusatory words to the ones who should be shepherds, who were leaders because they had been blessed with position, wealth, and power. They were the kings and high-ranking elites of the day.
It is too mild a thing to say that God was displeased. God was indeed furious at what he saw -- hear these words from Ezekiel 34:2-5.
"Ah, you shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You 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… So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals."
The peasant people in those times were abused by the kings God had appointed as their shepherds. The shepherd kings fed themselves full, but ignored the other people, the weaker and more vulnerable. It was no better in the time of Jesus. Keep that in your mind and heart. And I ask: Is it any different today?
The shepherd kings put themselves first in everything -- their desires, their fantasies, their material wealth, their beautiful surroundings. They ignored the common people. And God became furious with the kings.
They had disappointed him. But God had a plan, as God always does: "I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…" (34:16). And God said, "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep" (34:15).
In Jesus the Son, God fulfilled that promise. God's will always had been and still is today that everyone would be fed; clothed; safely sheltered; and rooted in God's love. But not until the appearance of Jesus in the world, God-with-us, would God's will be so clearly stated, exquisitely exhibited, properly taught by God himself through Jesus the Christ. I wonder how God views the kings, shepherds, and sheep of today's world. Do you?
The shepherd of Ezekiel 34, disdained by God, is not the one I choose as my shepherd, either. That one is not the one you want as your shepherd! I want the shepherd of Psalm 23 as my shepherd. That one is your shepherd. The Lord is my Shepherd. The Lord is our Shepherd.
And Jesus knows that the positive, pastoral image of the psalm is where he wants to take the people to whom he ministers. Jesus reiterates the divine will that no sheep be allowed to stray. As if he recalls the words provided from God by the prophet Ezekiel, Jesus makes it very clear how leaders who will gather as his church will perform as shepherds.
It would be easy to miss that call from Jesus today -- the call from God to turn to him. It would be so easy NOT to hear Jesus as the voice of the shepherd described by Psalm 23 or by God as he rails against the false shepherds in Ezekiel.
It would be easy to fall under the spell of the world's many pretend shepherds -- the voices promising to make us rich, make us beautiful, make us popular, make us safe from the "OTHERS"; make us have an abundance of possessions that will cure us of all the pains of life.
Multiple noisy voices compete for our attention every day, no matter where we are and what we are doing. Noisy and pushy slogans constantly bombard us by radio, television, and internet and telephone.
And we're urged to support this cause, send money to that one; we're warned about what to think, how to vote, whom to support, and urged to align ourselves with this way of thinking or that. We are constantly assailed by voices that come from those who have their own agendas and their own means of promising to give us their version of life abundant.
Not one of those is my shepherd! Our shepherd speaks to us of comfort and nurture. Our shepherd bathes our heads in holy oil and fills our cups with living water that gushes up to everlasting life. Our shepherd prepares us to be shepherds in his name.
Yes, our shepherd calls us to follow him, calls us to be counted, to be relevant, to be out in the scary places looking for the brother or sister who strayed from the fold -- to go where we need to go until we find that one; to bring back that one; to love and care for that one in the name of the Lord our God.
The shepherd king of Ezekiel 34 is not my shepherd. That is not your shepherd. We know our shepherd. We listen to his voice. I ask you please to read all of Matthew chapter 18 and let the words of Jesus wash over you in holiness and in love.
The lessons Jesus gives us in the short parable and the profound words that come before and after it are seen by some as giving divine power to the church, but these words are not about power over others. They are about reconciliation.
They are not about "who is the greatest," because quests for answers to that question can bring only division and arrogance. These lessons are about forgiveness.
They are about the responsible, reconciling exercise of heavenly powers on earth -- the binding and loosing that comes with the clear understanding that God wants no little one lost; and we quake with fear, as we should, over trying to achieve the responsible actions God expects.
These lessons from Jesus in chapter 18 of Matthew are not about superiority over others; they are not about "ins" and "outs." These teachings tell us about seeking the lost; they are about remembering where Jesus is found -- among the "least of these," among the "little ones," those who are learning about the love of God given to the world in Jesus, among the ones who are lost and need to be found.
Jesus does not want us to hear authoritative rules and regulations in the words he speaks; he wants us to hear about building relationships in humble service to the One who came not to be served but to serve.
These lessons today are about the loving care of all of God's little ones of all ages, especially care of those who have lost their way and have become estranged, forlorn, and weak in knee and in heart. Jesus calls us to seek them, find them, feed them, and love them.
Can we do that? With Jesus as our model, our guide, and the Lord of our life, we can.
The congregation today that gets this chapter of Matthew right is a congregation that will surprise the world with its generous heart, its loving outreach, its mission to seek and serve the least ones of the world, and its commitment not to lose a single little one but to treasure each one as a unique child of God. It will be a congregation extending the loving hospitality of God in Jesus Christ.
I challenge you today: hear this lesson and respond. Put on your shepherd hat; grab your rod and your staff -- the rod to defend some little one from an enemy who separates that little one from the God of love; the staff to gently bring back to the fold the one who has been lost and is at loose ends.
Jesus has shown us how to do that.
Yes, this Jesus is our Good Shepherd -- our shepherd God, who leads us into the green pastures and beside the still waters any time we cry out to have our faith and courage strengthened.
So what shall we fear? Nothing. Whom shall we follow? Of course, we will follow our shepherd Jesus Christ, who calls us to a great task today.
Give God all the praise now and forevermore -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.