Monday, November 24, 2014

Friends or Fiends: Ezekiel, David, Jesus and the duties of a Shepherd

Somewhere in the English Lake Country near Keswick
In the first year of mail-in balloting in a neighboring state, the one where you cannot pump your own gas, I worked on a Senate campaign.  I was a part-time grunt, stuffing envelopes and editing spreadsheets.  On an early fall day I was handed a small mailing to fold, stuff and stamp.  Being an interested advocate I chose to read this particular letter.  Let us suppose that my team is the ‘Blue Devils’ and the opposing team are the 'Red Raiders'.  This letter was addressed from the Blue Devils to prominent boosters for the Red Raiders, because apparently some people just like to see a good game and are known to boost both teams. (Who knew!)  The letter was polite and avoided all possible hot topics, mentioning only apple pie and the common good.  In the third paragraph I stopped reading.  I pushed back my seat and headed upstairs to find the ‘special teams’ coach who wrote the letter.  ‘Done already?’ he queried.  I smiled and I handed him the letter.  ‘Read the third paragraph,’ I said.  He read quietly at first and then he leapt to his feet and exclaimed ‘but I used spell check!’  To which I replied ‘it isn’t misspelled!’

The letter should have said ‘inviting our Red Raider friends’, It said ‘inviting our Red Raider fiends.’  One letter…tremendous meaning: friends or fiends.   I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak.  But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.  (Ezekiel 34.16)  A sentence of comfort and a sentence of woe.  It might make you squirm in your seat, or push back your chair.  The fat and the strong I will destroy is the majority translation.  However, in two ancient texts it reads differently.  It reads ‘the fat and the strong I will watch’.  This could be a repeated accident, the word formation is only slightly different.  However, in the context of this prophecy in the middle of Ezekiel’s extended metaphor of a divine shepherd who seeks all the sheep, I will destroy versus I will watch invites a curious wonder. 

I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out the flock when some in the flock have been scattered, so will I seek out my flock. (Ezekiel 34.11)  Referring to a king or leader as a shepherd is common in the ancient Near East.  Whether he or she is an independent monarch or a proxy vassal you are to watch over and care for your flock. Poetically imagining the divine as a shepherd is also commonplace in Ezekiel’s day and age. The expectation that a god will do whatever it takes to care for his (or her) devotees isn’t novel.  This is your vocation: to shepherd the people.  This section of Ezekiel hides references to David, who was their own shepherd and king.  Matthew reaches into Ezekiel to portray Jesus as this type of Good Shepherd, and Ezekiel reaches back into the Davidic core.  All of which leads us to see this Jesus, this Good Shepherd, this Lord and King as one with those ancient roots.  Ezekiel 34 reaches back to David’s shepherding days, to the young man who gained his skill with a sling shot defending his flock against wild animals. 

Now in these times the word of the Lord through Ezekiel is that the ancient leaders of Jerusalem have utterly and completely failed to care for their flocks.  All of the fat and strong, whether they be religious leaders or governors or the wealthy, they have tended themselves and not God’s flock.  Make no mistake, this is Ezekiel’s team.  It is his team that are the he-goats who trample the grass and muddy the water.  Yet he does not waver from God’s scathing indictment.  Convicted of self-centeredness, the idolatry, the murder and oppression and the failure to care for stranger and neighbor.  The fat and the strong have proven themselves more fiend than friend.

A real life successful shepherd isn’t as cute and cozy as the Epiphany pageant might lead you to believe.  A good shepherd will respond to provocation, with violence if necessary.  The God who speaks these words is resolute, but perhaps a weary and even grieved Shepherd.  I filled you with good things and the needy you send empty away.   I called you to comfort the lost and you locked your doors.  I asked you to heal the wounded and you headed for the hills.  If you are looking for a God who is distant and non-judgmental this is not your day, and not the Lord we follow.  Ezekiel paints for us a vivid portrait of a God who is active in the world, who is active in history, and will hold us to account for our things done and left undone. Many of us in this room, we are the fat and the strong by the scales of the known universe.  Even when it doesn’t feel that way at all, many of us are well fed and enjoy considerable privileges. The good shepherd will watch and he will defend and decide. Friend or fiend?

You may have noticed that the world is gearing up for sugar plum fairies, while the church pushes back its chair and says ‘wait’.  Like a good shepherd we should use this upcoming Advent to watch and examine closely.  We are called to prepare the highway for a Lord and King who will arrive in humility, who will be born ‘one of the least of these’.  Today is the Stewardship Ingathering and the last Sunday of the Church year, and the celebration of Christ the King.  I am glad to say that when our Lord and Master, Friend and Shepherd joins us we will find St. Paul’s striving for his kingdom. We are feeding his sheep, nurturing his people and offering healing to our neighborhoods.  These pledges, these tithes we offer, they are not a bill, or a toll, or a tribute. Our pledge of financial support go hand in hand with our pledge of fidelity to God and his call to love and care for the whole creation.  This stewardship campaign is about giving thanks for our blessings, and it is also about keeping the lights on and ministries supported and growing.  However, we commit to all of this not for our own gain but so that we might follow our one Lord and shepherd. 

We may be 125 years old, but we have only just begun to begin to seek and gather and bind and strengthen.  It is not our call to sit back and wait for someone else to do it; it is not our call to romanticize the past. It is our call to follow the shepherd, to practice fully in the now with a restless sense of movement which leads the neighborhood into Christ’s reign.  God’s question through Ezekiel comes down to this: will we be fiends or will we be friends of Christ’s kingdom?  Come practice Christ’s kingdom with time and talent and treasure, right here in this pasture.  We will seek, we will bring back, we will bind up, we will nurture: Neighbor, stranger, friend and forgiven fiend.  For we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.


The Reign of Christ, Year A
23 November 2014
Walla Walla, Washington

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