We are at the midpoint of a five week sermon series on the prophets. We have heard from Isaiah and Jeremiah and today we will hear from Ezekiel. Jesus was compared to prophets, he studied the prophets and taught from them. The 70+ prophets in the Old Testament were very diverse in their backgrounds and personalities – and yet they all spoke God’s truth without concern with how their words might be taken.
Ezekiel has puzzled readers for centuries. He was both a priest and a prophet. He spoke, fell down, acted out Gods word, traveled between Mesopotamia and Syro-Palestine in a visionary state, saw strange visions, and proclaimed dangerous messages. At one point in history, Jews were not to read Ezekiel until they were thirty years old because of its complexity and madness. But, in spite and maybe because of his madness, Ezekiel was one of ancient Israel’s most vigorous religious thinkers.
He was born into a priestly family and became a priest himself. He was married but no children are ever mentioned. Before he became a prophet, Ezekiel was part of those forced to leave Jerusalem in the exile to Babylon in 587 BC. In exile, Ezekiel was well respected and had significant stature. Jews consulted him on a regular basis for advice and teachings which provided fertile ground for the messages he later gave as a prophet.
Ezekiel is best known for his vision of dry bones where the bones come together to live again – symbolic of the restoration of Jerusalem under God’s loving care. Today we hear a less well-known passage that uses a more familiar symbol, sheep. Here now the words of God through the prophet Ezekiel in chapter 34, beginning in verse 11.
Sheep are found in 74 passages in the Bible and shepherds another 43. From the 23rd Psalm to the Good Shepherd, there are very famous passages about sheep, and many more that we may have never heard or read. I developed a particular fondness to sheep after raising two, Joey and Grace, on a bottle because they were orphaned. So when I visited Turkey and saw a shepherd with a flock of about 20 sheep on the hillside above Ephesus, I was overjoyed. He was a real shepherd, in the flesh and was just as I had come to imagine from the Bible. He was carrying a large walking stick as he walked along with his sheep. Every so often he would sit down on a big rock to rest while the sheep grazed around him. After a while, the sheep would move ahead and the shepherd would get up walk on with them. It was a beautiful day and an idyllic setting and watching that shepherd brought peace and joy to my spirit.
But since that day, I have thought many times about that shepherd and what it takes to be a shepherd. Sheep need to eat even if it is raining or the shepherd is not feeling well. And since the sheep are only worth having if they are alive and healthy, one eye must always be kept on the lookout for predators. The life of the shepherd includes bad weather and predators, injuries and illness, along with the lovely days. The shepherd must provide extra care for the young and the weak, making sure they get plenty of water and foliage. Shepherds must sometimes use those big sticks and give out justice when the large and fat sheep do not let the smaller ones eat and drink. A shepherd’s life is not all rainbows and lollipops or beautiful sunny days on a hillside overlooking Ephesus.
Jesus’ meaning was clear when he told Peter to feed his sheep and we Christians have received the message (loud and clear) on the importance of care – of not only feeding the sheep, but also sheltering the homeless and visiting those in prison. We have heard the message of caring for the least of these loud and clear. We get it!
We Christians find countless ways to practice such charity through food drives for the pantry, delivering food boxes or serving food to the hungry, volunteering and donating to homeless ministries, visiting prisoners and supporting prison ministries and so much more. We have received the memo to care over and over and we have responded.
When I have at times gotten into a discussion with people, who are spiritual but not religious, who question the need for the church, I have asked them how the hungry would be fed without Christians. How would the naked be clothed and the prisoners visited and the sick prayed for? Who would take care of the widows and orphans? And I am serious. I have traveled to a Hindu country and a Muslim country and I have found Christians running orphanages and schools, feeding the hungry and responding to disaster. It is not that other religions do not provide care – but not to the same degree.
I understand the criticism of the church. We very much deserve some of it and it helps us strive to do better, but without the church this world would be in a much worse state than it is now. I believe it was Thomas Merton who said that without those of us who pray, the earth would spin off its axis. We Christians have taken the command to care to heart.
We Christians have not, however, received the message of the importance of justice quite as loudly or as clearly. The message of justice has been there, for sure, but it has been covered up, or overshadowed by the command to care. We are not so good at tending to the underlying causes of the need to feed, clothe, visit prisoners and pray.
Ezekiel uses the familiar symbol of sheep for both a message of care and justice. Ezekiel holds justice and care together. God’s message is that they cannot be separated and our responsibility is to do both.
The first 10 verses of chapter 34 are addressed to the community leaders who are compared to shepherds. The shepherds have gotten wealthy and fat, using the sheep for food and clothing but not feeding or caring for them. The leaders had not been fair just to God’s people. The people had been exploited, the nation had been destroyed. The exploitation did not simply damage the flock, it resulted in its scattering, leaving individual sheep vulnerable to further prey and the flock subject to yet further disintegration. In Ezekiel’s context, this scattering alludes to the disintegration of the kingdom of Judah and the dispersion and exile of its inhabitants to other nations.
In our passage, God responds to the injustice in a way that is reminiscent of Psalm 23 in its rich description of God’s care in gathering, resettling, and feeding the flock in good pasture. God’s care is both implicitly and explicitly associated with justice. “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy….I will feed them with justice.”
The first step in establishing justice is the re-creation of the community. God will seek out the sheep, rescue them from their scattered places and gather them together. Rebuilding the community comes first and care for the individual members of the flock — tending to the injured, strengthening the weak, feeding on good pasture– comes next. Community is of vital importance. I have always known that in once sense or another, but it has become so much more real through our work in prison ministry.
Jerry has been at Luther Luckett Prison for over 35 years – he has the longest time for that particular prison. He did not murder anyone – as I thought he must have for that number of years – he is a repeat offender. He had been in and out of trouble, and in and out of jail so they threw the proverbial book at him. In 35 years, his marriage has ended and his daughter moved to Florida and only writes occasionally. He was active in a church but the pastor has changed many times and people have moved on with their lives. Many of the friends he did have were trouble. Jerry no longer has anyone on “the outside” that he can call a friend. And yet, the parole board has set several goals for Jerry that he is to achieve if he is to ever get out and one of those is to build a community on the outside. While I have no idea how Jerry is supposed to build community on the outside when he is on the inside, I do understand why they see it as important.
The world has changed a lot since Jerry was arrested, cell phones, cable and satellite tv, personal computers, and internet are only the beginning. Without guidance and help, the chances of Jerry succeeding on the outside are slim. Without a community the chances of him getting in with the wrong crowd and coming back to prison are high. We say it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to make it as an adult.
Community is important as a safety net – as an agent of care – but it is also priority for God because injustice is a systemic issue. If some people in the community have more than enough food while others go hungry that is a problem of the community. If we only focus on feeding the hungry, the problem will never lessen. Addiction, poverty, crime, and all the –isms are community issues. “I will feed them with justice” God said.
We ARE to care for the needs of the least of these and we ARE to seek justice. Justice and care are to be kept in balance, as if they were two sides of the same coin. But justice is not always clear cut or simple. I can give you a meal, but helping you find a decent paying job and childcare and transportation and skills and education and clothes and also care when your children are sick and money to secure an apartment and to turn on utilities and on and on and on. And if you have disabilities or brown skin or chronic illness or a child with disabilities or a same sex partner or a criminal record – everything becomes much harder. Getting on solid ground when you have been in prison or you have been homeless or you have been on the bottom is very, very difficult and it is impossible without some help and nearly impossible without a community.
Ezekiel 34 identifies injustice as a primary cause of the fragmentation of the community. The leaders were more concerned fulfilling their own needs and desires and the people did not watch out for each other. —If you drive in any direction in Kentucky you will soon drive through a place in the road that used to be a vibrant and active community. The community schools are gone, the small stores and post offices and little cafes where people came together and checked in with each other are gone. The tiny churches are closing. The people who live in those places, work, go to school, shop, and worship in the bigger towns and cities. The groceries have become Super markets, the shops are now Wal mart, the churches are Mega churches and the schools are huge. The shepherds have eaten well, while the sheep have been scattered and have not been fed. “I will feed them with justice” says God.