Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Reign of Christ Sunday
11For 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. 15I 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.
17As 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?
20Therefore, 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. 23I 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. (NRSV)
When most western Christians hear the word shepherd, they conjure up romantic images of being delivered from want and laid down in green pastures, or of “shepherds…keeping watch over their flock by night.” We’ve also been told that shepherds were a grimy and bawdy lot, and there’s probably some truth to that. But who knows? Maybe such ruffian shepherds were the ones Jesus called “hired hands,” men who were apt to abandon a flock in the face of threat.
Old Testament professor Wil Gafney reminds us that shepherds were businessmen who held comprehensive interest in their flocks. Gafney says sheep were “mobile currency and a primary source of nutrition [which shepherds would] regularly breed, sell, and eat.”1
The word “pastor” derives from the Latin word meaning “shepherd,” or “to feed.” So, folks like me are often referred to as shepherds of a flock, aren’t we? What if I brought to the session a detailed program through which I paired up some of you, my flock, for breeding? Then I designated others of you as having either too much or too little value to keep, so I took you to market and traded you away. Finally, some of you, well, a man’s got to eat, right? If the session approved that pastoral initiative, wouldn’t it change your concept of shepherd?
Ezekiel’s description of the way selfish kings treated their subjects was pretty close to what I just detailed. The prophets made it clear to Hebrews and kings alike that Yahweh had no intention of getting fleeced like that.
All, you shepherds of Israel, you slaughter the lambs. You eat the fat. You clothe yourselves with wool, but you’re not feeding the sheep. You’re feeding yourselves!
Ezekiel hammers away at those who abuse, ignore, scatter, and otherwise “consume” God’s beloved flock.
Old Testament scholars argue whether these violent shepherds are Israelite kings or foreign kings.2 It seems to me, though, that trying to make that distinction distracts us from the point: Regardless of one’s nationality, or office, or religion or lack thereof, a leader cannot lead by feeding himself or herself at the expense of those who are led. One cannot maintain credibility, respect, and authority by fouling the sheep’s pastures and waters with his or her filthy feet.
Over time, two ironies come to light. First, the sheep about whom Ezekiel speaks are never stronger than when, by a negligent shepherd’s selfishness, they find themselves lost, scattered, injured, and weak. Having nothing to lose, they will rise up, and they often prevail. Second, when those sheep achieve freedom through the same means by which they were overcome and oppressed, they will, eventually, in spite of all their best intentions, become abusive shepherds themselves.
Through Ezekiel, then, God makes a new promise:
“I will feed [the sheep].”
“I will seek the lost.”
“I will bring back the strayed.”
“I will bind up the injured.”
“I will strengthen the weak.”
“[And] I will feed them with justice.”
There’s the difference: justice. In systems energized by competition, fear, and greed—all of which inevitably become forms of violence—true justice is the scarcest commodity. In violent systems, justice gets reduced to retribution. And while eye-for-an-eye justice was standard under the old law, Jesus—the Good Shepherd, the King of Kings—calls us to a new way of life, a way of life that’s not only changed and transformed, but one that becomes transforming for others, as well. Jesus calls us to and leads us in this new way of life. My dad called it “practical thanksgiving.”
A life of practical thanksgiving is a life lived with and for the sake of others. What makes this life difficult is the fact that it demands us to be continually attentive to, responsive to, and grateful for the particular person in our presence right now, while also living with, and for the sake of, all people, and all Creation, everyone present today and in years yet to come.
The Greek word for these particular and ultimate concerns is eschaton,which is the root word for eschatology. The Church has reduced eschatology to the study of end times, doomsday discussions littered with citations from the book of Revelation and from fire-and-brimstone prophets. But that eschatology limits our understanding of ultimate to the last days. It ignores the ultimate in the particular: the tangible, gloriously God-imaged Creation before us here and now. Biblical eschatology opens the door of the already as well as the not-yetKingdom of God. Living a life of practical thanksgiving, Jesus showed us that the joys and sufferings of the moment are portals into that realm.
He welcomed the stranger.
He fed the hungry.
He restored the outcast to community.
He celebrated the beauty of the lilies of the field.
He embraced the holiness of Creation in all its ordinariness and all its magnificence.
Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus demonstrated what is true for all of us: We are both more and less than we imagine. While every one of us is truly, deeply, eternally loved by God, we’re not loved any more than those whom we dislike, fear, and ignore. And to love those folks as we are called to love them—to love them as we are loved—takes more than our own wits and wills. To live with and for one another in lives of practical thanksgiving, is to live under the reign of Christ in this world.
St. Francis of Assisi took seriously Jesus’ call to live a life of practical thanksgiving. Among St. Francis’ compelling wisdom are these simple words: “Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible…If you have [people] who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion,” says St. Francis, “you will have [people] who will deal likewise with their fellow [human beings].”3
Do you hear the blending of particular and ultimate in those words? We touch eternity, and we live eschatologically by embracing the mundane, by tending and feeding the people beside us right now. Living in the realm of Christ the King means so much more than walking on streets of gold with people who have been “good” and done “right.” It means, in the words of Micah, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God. Here. Today. It means, as Jesus says in his last words to Peter, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.”
God of boundless grace, help us to follow your Good Shepherd into lives of practical thanksgiving, lives of gratitude and generosity, lives that reflect his trust and his willingness to risk living peaceably with and for the sake of all whom you love. Amen.
1 Wil Gafney, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 316.
2Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 319.