The 34th chapter of Ezekiel provides us with some powerful images that describe God's indictment of a nation's leaders. The shepherds slaughter and eat their own sheep. They shear and strip the wool off the backs of their sheep to make find clothing for themselves. But they provide the sheep with nothing in return.
The shepherds do not feed their sheep. They do not protect the weak and vulnerable sheep. They do not heal the sick sheep. They do not bind the wounds of the injured sheep. They do not search for the lost sheep.
God pronounces the shepherds--Israel's ruling elite, the nation's political, economic, and religious leaders--guilty. Guilty of greedy exploitation. Guilty of harsh treatment. Guilty of cruel neglect.
These shepherds have forced themselves upon the people to devour them, suck the life out of them, use and abuse them. They have disregarded their people's suffering. And now, because of the shepherd's despicable behavior, the people are suffering in exile. Taken from their homes, uprooted from their land, the people are like lost sheep living in a hostile land amidst wild animals.
The shepherds have provoked God's anger. But God's anger is a particular kind of anger. God's anger is that highly charged, emotional anger that arises within you if someone treats your children unfairly, if you see someone abusing your children, someone hurting your children, someone making your children suffer. It's that instinctive, protective, parental anger born of love for your children. Your children are suffering, crying, calling out for help. You can't just stand by passively and watch. You have to do something. It's this anger born of love that the shepherds have provoked in God. God can't just stand by and watch. The shepherds are treating God's people unfairly, abusing them, making them suffer. God has to do something.
A bit further, Ezekiel shifts his imagery.
The bigger, stronger, more aggressive sheep and goats trod all over the pasture, destroying all the grass that the smaller animals must eat, leaving them nothing but a trampled down, ruined, grassless, dust bowl. The bigger, stronger, more aggressive animals force the smaller ones to suffer chronic hunger, making them even weaker, more vulnerable, more prone to sickness.
The bigger, stronger, more aggressive animals traipse all over the communal watering hole, destroying the bank, muddying the water, and leaving it too foul for the smaller animals to drink. The bigger force the smaller to suffer chronic thirst, making them even weaker and more vulnerable.
The bigger, stronger, more aggressive animals shove the smaller, weaker, more vulnerable animals out of the way with their flanks, shoulders, and horns. Shoving the smaller ones aside, the bigger ones get the first dibs on everything. They get most of everything. They get the best of everything. The smaller, weaker, more vulnerable ones get the leftovers.
God pronounces the powerful--Israel's political, economic, and religious elite--guilty of abusing their power. Guilty of throwing their weight around and shoving the little people out of their way. Guilty of greedily pursuing their self-interest, trampling over their homeland, and ruining the lives and livelihoods of the people over whom they rule. They have shown no consideration for the needs of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the vulnerable. Their arrogance is limitless.
Ezekiel provides us with powerful images that describe the abuse of power, unchecked greed, crass exploitation of the vulnerable by the powerful, failure to consider the needs of others, and absence of concern for those who are suffering. I'm sure that if we put our minds to it, we could quickly think of contemporary situations that fit Ezekiel's images.
Who are the bad shepherds of today? Who are the big, powerful, arrogant goats that are shoving the smaller and more vulnerable aside? Where do we see people taking advantage of other people, sucking the life out of them, devouring them? Where do we see powerful people trampling over and ruining the lives and livelihoods of more vulnerable people? Where do we see the hungry not fed, the sick and injured not cared for, and the lost not looked for or even noticed missing?
Those of us who traveled to Reynosa, Mexico, two weeks ago to meet Mexican factory workers may find Ezekiel's passage resonant this morning. But any one of us, just by reading the newspaper or watching the television news, can see that the realities Ezekiel describes, the realities that provoke God's anger born of love, still exist in our world today.
In the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet pronounces God's promise to do something about the terrible situation in which God's people languish. God promises to respond to their suffering. God promises to rescue them from their plight. God promises to restore them, feed them, satisfy their thirst, bind their wounds, heal their sickness, strengthen the vulnerable, and rescue the lost.
In the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet pronounces God's promise to be their shepherd, God's promise to send a prince, a new David who will rule them with justice.
Christians believe that in some way, shape, or form Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of God's promise. In Jesus Christ, God did come. In Jesus Christ, God is with us. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, the one who feeds, satisfies thirst, heals the wounded, strengthens the weak, and rescues the lost. Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, the one who rules with justice.
But as Matthew's Gospel reveals, Jesus Christ places a lot of responsibility on those who follow him. Jesus Christ places a good bit of responsibility on his disciples, on those who see him as their Good Shepherd, on those who recognize him as their Prince of Peace. To his disciples, Jesus Christ may be the fulfillment of God's promise, but he turns the tables on them by recruiting them to become participants with him in the fulfillment of God's promise. Jesus Christ calls on all who would follow him, all who would be associated with him, all who would take his name, to participate with him in the fulfillment of God's promise.
In other words, and to put it most directly, in Jesus Christ, God calls on us to participate in fulfilling God's promise to the world. Oppose injustice. Respond to people's suffering. Restore the world. Be good shepherds to the flocks entrusted into your care. Be princes and princesses of peace in all those parts of the world where you reign.
In the most radical twist of all, Jesus Christ tells his disciples: whenever you see someone who is a victim of injustice, whenever they see someone who is hungry, thirsty, ill, a stranger, or imprisoned, treat that person in the same way you would treat me. More radical yet, I am that person. When you see that person, see me, and fulfill God's promise for me.
These, my friends, are Biblical values. Oppose injustice. Respond to people's suffering. Restore the world. Fulfill God's promise. These are Biblical values.
Different churches respond in different ways to different Biblical values. One of this church's greatest strengths is our response to these Biblical values. And I want us to claim that fact.
When we feed the homeless youth in our fellowship hall, when we invite them into the Appel Room to sleep, when we support LifeWorks in opening a medical clinic on our third floor, we are living out Biblical values. We are participating with Jesus Christ in the fulfillment of God's promise.
When we travel to Reynosa to support workers who are struggling for justice, when we work with Texas Impact to bring justice to this state's poor, vulnerable, and disadvantaged, when we invest our money into the Calvert Social Investment Fund, when we purchase Equal Exchange coffee and cocoa, we are living out Biblical values. We are participating with Jesus Christ in the fulfillment of God's promise.
It's a popular belief in our country today that conservative, evangelical, "Bible-based" Christians who focus on sexuality and personal morality have a lock on Biblical values. They are seen as the ones who are fulfilling God's promise, as revealed in scripture. They are the Promise Keepers.
This is a popular belief in our country because churches like ours have allowed it to become a popular belief. We don't cite Ezekiel 34, Matthew 25, Isaiah 65, or Luke 4 when we feed the hungry or support worker's justice. We're too sophisticated for that. We don't want to come across as Bible-thumpers. We don't want to be accused of proof-texting.
But the fact of the matter is this: opposing injustice, striving for justice, and responding to human suffering are Biblical values. The Bible reveals that God has a rather strong opinion on these matters. The Bible reveals that God has decided to do something about injustice and suffering. The Bible reveals that God calls on us to do something about injustice and suffering. And like it or not, the Bible is the bedrock of our faith tradition.
I believe churches like ours can make a claim for Biblical values without becoming a bunch of Bible-thumpers and proof-texters. So I want all of you to go home and read Ezekiel 34, read Matthew 25, flip over to Isaiah and read chapter 65, then head back into the gospels and read Luke 4.
And the next time someone asks you about your church, don't be afraid to say: the Congregational Church of Austin, United Church of Christ, lives out the Biblical values of seeking justice and responding to the suffering of this world. The Congregational Church of Austin participates with Jesus Christ in fulfilling God's promise to the world, the promise that's revealed in the Bible.