Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
As many of you know I bought a house this summer. What you may not know is that I bought a small farm. My little house is perched on a small hill with woods and fields around it. And with those fields has come my first experience of caring for goats. We raised sheep when I was younger and they have their own character and quirks but goats are a different beast and I am slowly learning what it means to be responsible for raising them, with all its trials and tribulations. When I hear the Matthew passage for today it is easy for me to go to stories of goats and sheep in my head but really that may just be confusing the point that Matthew is making. Sheep and goats may be more comfortable to talk about then the passages we heard this morning. Because what I read in these passages is judgment.
Restoration is easier to preach than judgment, or so says the one of the commentaries I was reading about Ezekiel this week. I think I would have to agree. Judgment, hmm…how do I feel about judgment? Well, it makes me squirm. Some of the strong lines of judgment we heard in the texts today make me totally uncomfortable. There is little that is gray here and I am a person who kind of likes gray.
But I do judge all the time. I want to be on the side of right and good and I judge others and their actions. And yet when I think about it I don’t want to be THE judge, I’m really glad I don’t need to decide who is right and good in the complexity of our lives. Which is a good thing because I’m not really sure if Mennonites can be judges anyway, are we allowed to do that?
When I read all of Matthew 25 it confuses me. The two parables that proceed this story are ones that make me scratch my head. First we hear of the Bridesmaids getting oil or not and then being excluded from the party. Then there is the parable of the servants being given talents. Two invest or grow the money but the one who does not is punished. Reading these I feel my stomach flip, this is territory I don’t like treading into. People are being cast out and there is gnashing of teeth. Where is our compassionate God in this?
Then we come to this story we heard read today. It starts with a grand picture. I can hear the trumpets and fanfare, see all those upturned faces waiting expectantly to hear the words of the Son of Man seated on the throne in all his glory. Yet as he starts to divide and judge the goats and the sheep there is shock and possibly horror.
I grew up listening to the musician Ken Medima who has a beautiful way of telling stories in his songs. When I listen to this text I hear his setting of this passage. When both the sheep and the goats are given their judgment they are truly astonished and surprised. Who me? No! When did I do that? And I wonder how we would react. I have tried to be the good girl most of my life, would I be devastated and want to ask why? How? When?
Do we fear others judging us and ultimately the judgment of God? Are we all longing to hear the words “well done, my good and faithful servant”?
Many in my generation and those younger than me shy away from judgment; unless it is judgment of the judgmental. We value tolerance, openness and letting people believe or act how they deem as right. But we still believe there are rights and wrongs. We may just lean towards John 3:17 a bit “Jesus came not to condemn the world but that the world through him would be saved”.
As Mennonite we have tried to be without spot or wrinkle. Trying to live out our faith in ways that are pure. Yet earlier this year many of us gathered to hear some of our history of how Mennonites were complicit with the Nazis. These stories hurt more because our forefathers and mothers tried to be in the world and not of it. Yet even as they came to the USA to enact their faith in freedom, they displaced the indigenous people of this land, stripping them of their land, their culture, their language and ironically their religious freedoms. Is there space for judgment here?
We like to think that God is on our side, judging the other. My cousin and I have been watching a number of dramas lately about WWII. One of the things that hits me as we watch is that all sides think God is on their side. It seems easier to act if we think God will work for us and judge in our favor in the end. This seems true of our day and age and the way we treat those who are on the other side or don’t agree with us.
As much as the Matthew passage made me squirm the Ezekiel passage drew me in. I honestly don’t remember reading this passage before. “Ezekiel was a prophet to those Judeans who survived the fall of Jerusalem…he ministered to the few who found a way to continue as the people of Yahweh in exile” (Knox Preaching Guides, p. 1). The passage just before this one judges the false shepherds or bad leaders of Israel with words and condemnation very similar to what we see in the Matthew passage. These shepherds did not protect and care for their people. The verses before today’s text say “Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds…and I will rescue my sheep.”
In this passage we hear the words from a personal God. God who is the true shepherd. “God is the sole source and agent of salvation” – “there is no appeal to the (bad) shepherd to change, for it is too late for that.” there is little reference to human activity of any kind (Knox P111-112). This passage is God seeking, God coming to care for the sheep.
We hear again and again the divine “I” and at some points for double emphasis “I myself”. It is God who will search, seek, rescue, bring out, feed, watch over the sheep and then restrain those who might hurt the flock. God will judge and save. “I will” is said 18 times in these 11 verses. These are commitments that God is making. This is an active God.
What really hits me is that there is such love here and then, bam in vs. 16, we hear also of God’s justice. “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.” This is not lovey dovey – this is a strong and powerful care.
A few weeks ago in Kids Club we had prayer stations. At one of the stations the kids were led to think about images of God and how they see God. God is a rock, God is a mother hen, God is a strong tower, God is our refuge and our joy. Who is the God we see in this Matthew passage and here in Ezekiel? God as royal, God as a good shepherd, God as a just judge. I want you to think for a minute: what is the image of God you connect to? What is an image of God you struggle with? I invite you to turn to the person next to you and I’m going to give you a few minutes to tell the other person about what your images of God are.
This is Christ the King Sunday. Is that an image of Jesus we like? What does it mean for us to look beyond Jesus as teacher, model and savior and to give Jesus the space of King and just judge? Because we don’t know what will happen when the final judgment will come. We are not the judge and thus we don’t get to decide about others fates. We are not the judge – God is, Christ is. What do we know is God seeks, God cares, God judges justly and we are judged by our care for the least and the lost.
I am normally surprised when I ask young people what it looks like to be a Christian. I often get a long list of don’ts – Christians don’t swear, they don’t sleep around, they don’t drink, they don’t dance. The positive thing that I normally hear is that Christians are nice to people. But this Matthew passage says that our “judgment rests not on acts of wickedness but on (our) failure to act compassionately when faced with human despair.” (Matthew – A Good News Commentary p. 244). It’s what we don’t do that may get us into trouble. The good shepherd God of Ezekiel cares for the lost sheep and we need to join in that work. We are called to accept God’s care and extend it to others – this is a God of complexity, care and judgment.
Often after I hear a sermon I want to go back and read the texts again. Wanting to look at them after I have the insights of the sermon. In the same way that I love Lectio Davina where you can hear the text heard multiple times and new things stand out to you. So I invite you to hold your image of God as we close by listening to these texts read again.
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