Sheep Called In; Sheep Called Out
The prophet Ezekiel calls God’s people IN, inviting them to be a part of God’s flock and to feed on green and abundant pastures. In the same breath, the prophet Ezekiel calls God’s people OUT, promising judgement on those sheep who would ravage and trample the weaker, leaner, and lost sheep.
Even today, the prophets continue to call us in and call us out. Come hear their voice, so that we might be transformed to transform the world.
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As 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. I 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. I 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. 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, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is 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? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
The prophet Ezekiel is known for some of his wild metaphors and graphic visions.
Perhaps most familiar is the valley of the dry bones where God’s breath brings forth life from death; sinews and flesh and skin cover the bones once again and new life is made possible. Ezekiel was a prophet during the Babylonian exile, so he was familiar with death and destruction, with heartache and loss, with displacement and fear. The Israelites were not a huge nation, so greater geo-political forces had a bearing on their lives. Babylon conquered them, taking most of the people from their land to live as exiles in a foreign country. But when Persia conquers Babylon, the Persian King Cyrus allows the Israelite exiles to return to a wasted Jerusalem. And that’s when today’s prophesy from Ezekiel occurs, as they are set to go back home. Home as they know it is destroyed. But it’s still home, and it’s their own land, and now there is a chance to rebuild their lives as God’s free and beloved people. And as they set their face towards home, Ezekiel, as prophets are like to do sometimes, serves as a bit of a killjoy. Come on, Ezekiel.
Can’t they just enjoy this win? Can’t they just celebrate and be glad, rejoicing that their time in exile is over? Can’t their lives just go back to normal? But Ezekiel cannot let them just go home, pretending that all is fine just because they have been restored physically to their land. Ezekiel cannot stay silent because being God’s people doesn’t just mean living in a certain place; it means living in a certain way. And their pre-exilic existence was not acceptable in God’s sight. Our reading for today started in verse 11 of the chapter, so we didn’t hear Ezekiel’s criticism and condemnation of Israel’s leadership in those first ten verses. In chapter 34, Ezekiel doesn’t use shocking or provocative images like skeletons coming back to life in a valley of dry bones. He uses imagery that almost every single Israelite would be familiar with – sheep and their shepherd. And he does so in order that the people will understand, so that they will get it without question that there is corruption and injustice that must be called out and changed. So what does Ezekiel call them out on? He calls them out for taking from the sheep: their wool, their fat, their babies, and using them for the good of the powerful rather than
caring for, strengthening, healing, and seeking the lost, the last, the least, and the lonely.
The leaders of Israel were in it for themselves only, not as public servants of the people,
but as predators preying on the people and abandoning them when it became inconvenient. So now God vows to be the Good Shepherd, the one to gather up all the sheep, to bring them home, to bring healing and wholeness, and to bring them to good pasture. As Walter Brueggemann comments, “In a word, good leadership consists in the restoration of the common good so that all members of the community, strong and weak, rich and poor, may live together in a common shalom of shared resources.”
Can you imagine such a world? The people and their leaders have failed in this regard. So God is taking over.
God is calling her sheep in, enfolding them with love and care, but also with justice, for as Cornell West says, “justice is what love looks like in public.” Ezekiel proclaims on behalf of God, “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, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them [all of them] with justice,” (emphasis added). The weak, the broken, and the exploited will be granted justice. The full, the powerful, and the strong will get served justice. So before the Israelites leave Babylon to return home, Ezekiel warns them to change their ways, to turn towards God as their shepherd and to commit to rebuilding a society
where the disparity between the haves and the have-nots no longer creates such grave inequities. Because if they go back home the same as when they left it, nothing will have changed, and God will not be pleased. The image on the front of this week’s bulletin is drawn by David Hayward. David is a former pastor turned cartoonist.
And these days he sees his art as his ministry, as a way to challenge the status quo, deconstruct dogma, and promote critical thinking. When I read this week’s scripture, I was reminded of this image. The sheep who are safe and behind a wall and have been called in by the shepherd are protesting that “All Sheep Matter” as the shepherd goes to rescue the one who is in the most danger.
The shepherd knows that all sheep matter, that’s why they were called in, brought into the fold and safely put in green pastures. But if those same sheep start pushing other sheep off the cliff or as Ezekiel says ravaging the food and water and livelihood of their fellow sheep, then they will be called out, and God will act. And not only will God act against those sheep that bully and endanger others; God will go to save and be with those who are in danger. The thing is, oftentimes, when we think of sheep being in danger, we think of predators that might harm them: wolves and lions coming to prey on them. But here we see that sheep, sheep of the same pasture no less, can turn against and harm each other, too. I think we’ve seen that happen here in this country, much too often, especially this year in the wake of an election. Ezekiel tells us that this breaks God’s heart. And it should break ours, too.
Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian liberation theologian, writes, “There’s an immediate relationship between God, oppression, and liberation: God is in the poor who cry out.
And God is the one who listens to the cry and liberates, so that the poor no longer need to cry out.” Both Boff and the prophet Ezekiel would agree that God is biased and has a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. This pandemic has revealed so much about ourselves and our nation. And quite honestly, living through this pandemic feels a bit like we are all in exile -exiled from each other, from public gatherings, even exiled from some family gatherings – how many of us are holding Thanksgivings that look so different from previous years?
We cannot be together or in the places we might want to be because we care about each other. We want to keep each other safe and healthy, so social distancing and quarantining and sheltering-in-place are some of the ways we choose to do that which have been proven to keep us safe.
But it’s not easy.
And many of us just want to go back to life the way it was. We want our social lives, the stock market, our schools, our churches to return to how it used to be. We want our lives back. We want to feel “normal” again. But in Santiago, Chile a message was projected onto the side of an apartment building.
It actually went up last year during an anti-government protest, but the image started going viral during the Global Pandemic because it resonated so deeply with the world. It reads, “‘No volveremos a la normalidad, porque’ la normalidad era el problema’: ‘We won’t get back to normal because normal was the problem’. You see, while this pandemic has really brought out some beauty and kindness from individuals and small communities, the great disparity between the wealthy and the struggling have really been brought to light as well.
Those who are rich have access to rapid, one-day Covid tests, so that they can throw parties or perhaps watch a Warriors game at 50% capacity while essential farm workers and childcare workers and grocery store workers put their lives on the line for us each day, and their tests often take days before getting results, leading to lost wages and greater income disparity. Some in this country are doing great with distance learning and working from home – they have reliable internet, tablets and laptops, a quiet space to focus, but others have connection issues and problems with access and space, making even greater our disparities in education.
Unemployment reached an all-time high back in April, and small business owners are struggling, but Saloni Sardana reports that “the wealth of US billionaires grew by $845 billion dollars during the first six months of the pandemic.” Normal was not okay for too many of us. Sonya Renee Taylor, author and activist, says it like this:
We will not go back to normal. Normal never was.
Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack.
We should not long to return, my friends.
We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment.
One that fits all of humanity and nature.
Friends, normal was not ok for too many of God’s children. We need something new.
Particularly in this country, as the coronavirus ravaged bodies, we were confronted yet again with another epidemic – the state-sanctioned killing of black lives. With the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, and countless many others, people began to name the on-going pandemic that has ravaged our nation for hundreds of years. “Black lives matter,” something this church has been saying for nearly four years, became an even more necessary and urgent statement, something even corporations and celebrities began to proclaim widely.And yet, some continued to quip back with “All lives matter” erasing and downplaying the very imminent danger to black and brown bodies in this country. Around that time, I saw this image of a young, black girl holding this sign that says: “We said Black Lives Matter. Never said only black lives matter. We know all lives matter. We just need your help with black lives matter for black lives are in danger.”
David Hayward’s cartoon was not drawn for Ezekiel 34. His cartoon was drawn for us today in this country, in this day and age.
The Black Lives Matter movement calls us out as residents of this country who should no longer stand for the senseless death of our sisters, brothers, and siblings who are black. We are God’s people called out to help build a more fair and more just society. In this time of pandemic exile, what priorities must shift, what values must change, what do we need to let go of and what do we need to take on, so that we can live as God calls us? For we are God’s sheep – called in and called out. Perhaps being called in is caring for the individual and being called out is ensuring that we are caring for the whole.
Margaret Odell, Professor at St. Olaf College, reflecting on this passage writes: “Justice and care are kept in balance, as if they were two sides of the same coin. Justice and care belong together … The balance between tending to individual need and addressing structural concerns is striking.” So, yes, we need to cheer for and give thanks to our health care professionals each evening at 8pm, but we also need to put in place and abide by mask-mandates and shelter in place rules, so that they are not overrun and overworked in the first place. Yes, we should put bears and rainbows in our windows and drop off groceries for those who are more homebound than us. But we also need fair access to education, fair access to food, and more than just a one-time stimulus check; we need structural relief. Justice and care belong together. And God calls us as partners to both care and do justice in this hurting world.
The good news is that we are God’s sheep – called in and cared for, beloved and created in God’s image, created for God and for love. And the call to action is that we are God’s sheep called out, called out when we participate or propagate systems of injustice, called out when we dehumanize or disenfranchise others, called out when we take advantage of and exploit others,
called out when we do not have the same care and concern for others as we have for ourselves. Friends, Jesus, our Good Shepherd feeds us with justice.
Bernice King, a minister and the youngest daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr says this about justice: “Kindness matters. But kindness does not equal justice. Civility counts. But calling for civility is not the human’s response to injustice. Justice is. Love is essential. But love is not a passive, weeping bystander. Love puts in the work.” Friends, the love that God gives us, should evoke within us enough love for one another
to not just be kind and civil to each other, but to seek justice for those who need it most. Old Testament professor James Limburg reminds us that “the prophetic notion of justice (the Hebrew word mishpat) is the expected response of God’s people to what God has done for them (Isa 5:1-7).”
“Justice is the expected response of God’s people to what God has done for them.”
In this season of giving thanks, let us remember with gratitude all God has done for us,
the great, unconditional love that God bestows upon us, the justice and the care that God feeds us, let us remember that God calls us in. And then may we respond by being called out do justice in the world.
Thanks be to God.