“But the fat and the strong I will destroy”


Ezekiel 34

File:US Capitol Building.jpg16I 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.

It’s such a sweet verse until you get to that last part about the fat and the strong. It is like eating sweet grapes and then biting into a sour one. It is the kind of language that troubles us about the Old Testament. But there is a story behind these words.

We don’t typically hear this shepherding imagery as political speech. We think of Psalm 23 and the parable of the shepherd searching out the lost sheep. We see the paintings of Jesus as the good shepherd with the lamb around his neck. We hear these words as sweet assurances of God’s care in times of trouble – and the last line doesn’t seem to fit.

But this is tough, prophetic language, spoken in a time when the leadership of the nation had engaged in policies that inevitably brought the nation to destruction. The royal house and wealthy families had caused this people to be scattered, wounded and impoverished. The words of the prophets in their time sound more like God declaring, “I, myself, will run the Fed, and lead the banks, and manage the economy,” in the years when the banking system nearly failed because of the criminal greed and manipulations of the banking houses. “I myself will refinance mortgages, and provide loans to Main Street, and hire the unemployed.”

Jerusalem had set a course that betrayed the justice and mercy God had commanded of the people, that worshiped at the altars of fertility gods and rain gods – gods of prosperity, gods of sex and power and wealth.

When God declares I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,” the reference is to those refugees of war and famine that had fled the country – and looks back 200 years to the collapse of the northern kingdom for the same reasons and to the Assyrian resettlement policy that scattered the Israelites across the ancient world.

“I will bind up the injured,” speaks to those cut down by sword and spear. “I will strengthen the weak,” evokes those at the edge of starvation, like the liberated captives of the concentration camps. The siege of Jerusalem had been beyond brutal.

When God declares, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,” it is a roaring voice from heaven that God will take back the reins of power and rescue his shattered people.

In such a context we can recognize the words “but the fat and the strong I will destroy” as words of grace. Those who ruled with power and greed will be erased from the nation, no more to inflict their damage upon the people of God.

I like the sweet hearing of the text. I like the picture of a tender God taking up the grieving, the lonely, the struggling, the wounded of life into his tender care. But there is also a word of the mighty God in this text – a God passionate for his people and his world – a God of power willing and able to undo the damage of human misrule. In the face of the continual violence erupting throughout the world, and the perpetual devastations of economic greed and power, there is warning and also great grace in these words – including those words at the end.


Into his presence with thanksgiving


Psalm 95

File:Pakistan train surfing piligrims.jpg

Piligrims riding on the outside of a train after a three-day Sunni Muslim festival in the ancient city of Multan, Pakistan

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.

A few years ago I met my brother and his son in Berkeley for the Big Game between Stanford and Cal. It was the first time I went to see this game on enemy territory. Stanford was the home team when we were growing up. Palo Alto’s main street is University Avenue. The Stanford stadium was across the street from my high school. Our high school played its big rivalry game at Stanford Stadium and though our small crowd looked silly rattling around a 90,000 seat stadium, this was the big time! Playing in Stanford Stadium!

Going to the game in Berkeley with my brother and his son was my first foray into the enemy’s camp across the Bay. I rode up on a BART train (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and joined the throng walking up the hill to the stadium. As the crowd ascended it grew ever bigger and the energy level grew ever higher. The mounting excitement was contagious. Songs and cries and chants broke out continually. We might as well been led by the marching bands. (The infamous marching band story we won’t get into.)

I think of that day when I hear these invitatory psalms calling the community to worship – the throngs of people ascending the temple mount to stand in the presence of God and acclaim him as their lord and king, their rock and deliverer.

It’s too bad we can’t recreate that energy as people walk from the parking lot to the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. We get a taste of that pilgrim excitement on Christmas Eve when the place will be full and people come early for seats. There is a taste in the energy of the children eager for Christmas morning. There is a taste in the walkway bordered with luminaries and the buildings adorned with lights. There is a taste in the beauty of the sanctuary, the special music as people arrive, and the moment the congregation rises to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As children, we waited all year for that moment at the end of the service when the lights are extinguished, candles distributed and the warm, flickering candlelight spreads through the room, passed from one person to the next, until we all lift up our candles singing “Silent night, Holy night.”

We don’t generally see that excited expectancy on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost or in the cold or wet winter days of the 4th Sunday after Epiphany. But this is true of all of life. I am much more likely to duck out for the restroom or refreshments in the middle of the fifth inning at AT&T Park than the bottom of the ninth.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving sings the psalmist to the crowds ascending the hill of Mt. Zion. There is excitement and energy in the crowd because it is a national festival like Christmas. The city is full of pilgrims for the holy season. But the psalm does more than capture the excitement of the day – as we can tell from the warning in the second half of the psalm. We won’t read those words on Sunday, but the thought shapes the meaning of the call to enter God’s presence.

We are not coming in the excitement of the festival to celebrate our team. We are coming to honor the God who promised a homeland to Abraham, who gathered a people from bondage in Egypt, who taught a new way to live, who guided his motley crew of former slaves through an arid wilderness and brought them to a rich and abundant land. We are coming to honor the God who revealed himself in the words of the prophets and in the words and deeds of Jesus his anointed. We are coming to bow down before the one who bears the brokenness of the world in his hands and side, and deals with us according to his goodness not our deserving.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving. The singers of the psalm are not serving as cheerleaders or the marching band to geek up the crowd. They are reminding us that our only proper response to God is a profound gratitude.

He is the creator who lifted up the mountains and governs even the depths of the earth. He is Lord of all, setting limits to the chaotic seas and forming the land upon which all life depends. He is master over every spiritual reality and has made us his own. Shouts of joy are appropriate, but above all we come into his presence with thankfulness.

Sheep or goats?


Matthew 25

File:Goat eating ribbon.jpg

A Nubian (aka Anglo-Nubian) goat attempts to eat their prize ribbon at a Scottish fair. By John Haslam from Dornoch, Scotland

32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

Jesus calls them “my brothers,” the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry. If we could just pause here long enough, we might begin to understand the true power of the parable. We might begin to understand the true power of Jesus. He has claimed those that others have scorned.

Some have argued that the word ‘brother’ means a follower of Jesus, that the nations will be judged by their treatment of the disciples of Jesus. The suggestion is that the ‘nations’ are Judeans scattered throughout the Hellenistic world, and their response to the oppressed and persecuted witnesses of Jesus will reveal whether they are sheep or goats.

The other possibility is that Jesus has declared these ‘least’ are members of his family. If you ask me, this latter sounds much more like Jesus. He had that pesky idea that everyone was our neighbor, not just people like us – and therefore you should welcome the outcast and show steadfast love even to enemies.

We call this parable the Last Judgment, but it is not a judgment scene. It is a sorting. No lives are being weighed. No actions are being evaluated. The mass of humanity is simply being sorted out. Some are sheep. Some are goats. The sheep go over here. The goats over there.

Jesus’ hearers understand this idea: goats need to be kept warm at night; sheep can remain outside. The flocks are taken out together during the day to graze the hills, but at night they must be sorted.

So we shall be sorted.

Sheep don’t have much symbolic significance for me. I haven’t known any. I have known a couple goats. They were cute. At a motel years ago, high in the Rockies with my daughters, there was a couple with some baby fainting goats. They were adorable just gamboling around. But when you clapped your hands, they fell over. They passed out. Kerplunk. No twitching. No stumbling. At a loud noise they just fell right over. It was hysterical. And darling. Anna wanted one. Anna really wanted one. So, to me, goats are cute and sheep are just sheep.

But just as we invest animals with a certain symbolic character, so did the ancients. When we call a man a ‘dog’ it has a strong cultural meaning – so, too, if we call him a ‘puppy dog.’ Or a ‘lion’. Or a ‘fox’. And calling a man a ‘fox’ has a different meaning than calling a woman a ‘fox’.

To Jesus’ audience, sheep were honorable; goats were not. Sheep symbolize honor, virility and strength; goats are unrestrained and lascivious. (This was my experience of my friend’s goat – entertaining, but always into trouble). An honorable man will protect the honor of his family. In particular, he will defend his wife from the sexual advances of others. A ram will not allow anyone but himself to approach one of his ewes; goats, apparently, have no such compunction. A cuckolded man was called a goat. Zeus and noble Apollo were associated with the Ram; Pan looks and behaves like a goat.

This sorting of humanity into sheep and goats is more than just sorting buttons. It is a gathering of the honorable and a setting aside of the dishonorable. It evokes the parable of the weeds and wheat that grew side by side until the harvest.

It is not a judgment scene; it is a sorting – a sorting by whether we have acted honorably towards the poor, the outsider, the needy. What a surprise if American Christians are to be sorted by the hospitality shown to Muslims! Did we extend our protection to the stranger? Did we give water to the thirsty and bread to the hungry? Did we tend the sick or send them back to Liberia? I understand the fear, but the church’s first response to AID’s was not particularly honorable. We could probably come up with an uncomfortable list.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.”   No books are opened. No witnesses are heard. No records are examined. The Lord knows who have treated others with the grace of heaven and those who have not.

We need to do more than pray for mercy.

There is grace here. The shameful will not govern the earth forever. The faithful will be gathered. This is a great promise and a profound assurance in a world with too much evil.

But there is also a challenge. And the question is not whether we will pass inspection, whether we have the right religious heritage or the right religious experience – the question is whether we have lived hospitality and compassion towards the poor and the outcast. Have we shown ourselves to be sheep or goats?

“All the nations will be gathered before him.”

Watching for the morning of November 23

Year C

Christ the King:
Proper 29 / Lectionary 34

File:Palais du Tau - Christ portant le globe.jpg

Original statue of Christ the King with the globe. Preserved in the palais du Tau in Reims (Marne, France).

For all our concern about language and gender equality there is something primal, archetypal, about the notion of kingship. When the true, just and wise king is on the throne all is well in the land. When the usurper rules, all is corrupted.

The just king cares for the lowly. The just king sees what is done in his lands. The just king rights wrongs and in the presence of his justice, the people prosper.

Power corrupts. Those who lust for power, who seize power, are corrupted and corrupting; they are not the source of gracious order but insecurity and instability. Those who do not seek it, to whom power and authority are entrusted, are able to rule with the light touch and just hand that are required.

So the young King Arthur, when just a squire, pulls the sword from the stone unknowing. George Washington is prevailed upon to accept the presidency – and refuses a third term lest it become a lifetime appointment. King David is a shepherd boy, offended by Goliath, not an aspirant to the throne. (Until Bathsheba comes along, anyway.) Jesus is the just and righteous king who saves his sheep. He does not, like the Jerusalem leaders confronted by Ezekiel, feed on them.

In this modern era when have witnessed fascisms and tyrannies of terrible stripe, when kings and leaders and rebels slaughter the sheep rather than protect them, when people are thought to serve the state (or the economy, ideology, movement, company or religion) rather than the state serving the people – in such an epoch as ours, the church wisely declares that Christ is King. Only Christ Jesus can claim our lives without taking them. Only Christ Jesus can summon our service without stealing our humanity. Only Christ Jesus is the just and righteous one. Only Christ Jesus is our true king.

Sunday is the feast of Christ the King and the final Sunday of the church year. We will read more words about judgment, but the dominant note is the just and faithful reign of God in Christ. Ezekiel will blast the leaders of his day but make the strange dual promise that God will be our shepherd – and give us a new shepherd. The psalm sings thanksgiving, summoning us to kneel before our maker, “a great King above all gods,” for “we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” Ephesians will speak of Christ ascended and all things placed under his feet. And Matthew records for us that great and profound parable about the sorting of humanity like sheep from goats.

In a world with a myriad voices demanding we kneel before earthly dominions and rulers, we come to kneel before the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep and declares as his family “the least of these”: the hungry, the stranger, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned.

The Prayer for November 23, 2014

Eternal God, Lord of all,
before you every human community and every human life must stand,
and by the example of your Son, Jesus, be measured.
Grant us an abundance of his Spirit,
that as he brought your grace to the fallen and your healing to the broken,
we too may be agents of your compassion;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for November 23, 2014

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
“I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” – God speaks a word of judgment upon the shepherds of Israel (the leaders of the nation) who take care of themselves rather than the people in their care. God will be their shepherd and gather his scattered flock. He will judge between the fat and the lean sheep and appoint a new David to govern them.

Psalmody: Psalm 95:1-7a
“O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” – In these opening verses of Psalm 95, the poet calls the community to acclaim God, the creator of all, as their king.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
“He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things.” –
With soaring poetry, the author of Ephesians offers his prayer for the community – prayer that rises into praise of God who raised Christ Jesus “above all rule and authority” and placed all things under his feet.

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory… All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” – The final parable of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is this vivid declaration that the nations will be judged by their treatment of “the least of these” with whom the Son of Man identifies himself: “as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”