Cowardly Lions and Depressed Preachers — Proclaiming the Gospel after the Insurrection

The image of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz haunts me today. “What makes a king out of a slave?” he asks his traveling companions, “Courage! What makes the flag on a mast to wave? Courage! What makes an elephant charge his tusk, in the misty mist or the dusky dusk? What makes a muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the Seventh Wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like THUNDER? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the “ape” in apricot? What have they got that I ain’t got?”

In unison, Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man reply, “Courage.” Without thinking, the Cowardly Lion replies, “You can say that again!” Truth.

Photo by Inzmam Khan on Pexels.com

I am a depressed preacher today. I know what’s coming from many of our white, mainline, Christian pulpits. I know it because I know how in all likelihood I would be preaching today. In response to the violent invasion of the nation’s capitol by white, neofascist, pseudo-Christian nationalists, I would soft-pedal, equivocate, hint, and self-censor. I would do this in response to my fear of the potential institutional violence I would suffer as a result of honest and direct preaching.

I never experienced any physical threats in response to my preaching in nearly 40 years of such work. That simply means that I never made anyone uncomfortable enough to prompt such a response. I knew the horror stories from colleagues, from friends of friends of friends, and from the subtle cues given by judicatory staff. I knew that preachers sometimes suffered harassment, public censure, and loss of jobs and homes when they went “too far” in their preaching. I knew that the only preaching rule besides “don’t talk about money too much” was “don’t talk about politics at all.”

I am a depressed preacher today. And I am ashamed. I was never in danger of having my head bashed in. I was never in danger of being attacked by dogs. I was never in danger of having a bomb planted in my house. I was never in danger of having my sanctuary shot up – at least not because my preaching was offensive. The worst that would have happened is that some people wouldn’t like me, I’d have some difficult meetings, I would probably need to update my resume, and my family would need to move (again).

I would have probably taken a new and somewhat less lucrative call. I might have been labelled as incompetent and/or a troublemaker. Synod staff might have regarded me as a lot of work and a pastor of poor judgment. Even those who had supported my views and position would have been quiet in their protests. After all, I could leave. Most of them were going to stay. I might have suffered a bit and lived through some hard conversations at home. I might have felt like a failure (well, what’s new), but then I would move on.

I understand that I’m a whining, privileged, white man with every advantage. And still I took the softer, safer path far, far too often. So, I know how it’s going to go in lots of pulpits today. I am still depressed and ashamed. And complicit.

The truth is that I could preach ninety-nine boring, milquetoast, complicit sermons with minimal consequences. People who treasure the truth would drift away in disappointment, despair, and disgust. But it only takes one honest and confrontational sermon for the knives to sharpened and the calls of outrage to show up in church council voice mail inboxes. Parish ministry is joyful in manifold ways. It is also often a hostage situation where the preacher is both captive and negotiator.

So, I am not surprised by the dark online humor about which preaching strategy we will choose to dissect the dilemma and live to preach another week. I laughed out loud at the “Purple Church Post-Insurrection Sermon Bingo” meme on social media. Some of the preaching choices included “Not who we are as a country,” and “Describing but not mentioning Trump by name.” There were the spaces labelled “I’m just preaching the lectionary” and “Don’t look to earthly rulers.”

I noted that one popular option was not listed on the game – “Get sick and find a guest preacher.” It would be a good Sunday to be stricken with laryngitis or the twenty-four-hour version of the bubonic plague. That might be preferable to disingenuous quotes from MLK, and Mr. Rogers, while subtly communicating that there were fine people on all sides. Lest you think that’s an exaggeration, I have certainly been there, done that, taken a selfie, and gotten the t-shirt.

And the self-deceiving rationalizations…am I going to hurt and offend and alienate people I know and love (some of whom are really trying hard, after all)? Or am I going to kick to the curb yet again that nameless mass of oppressed humanity who do not pay my salary and benefits, provide my housing, and have my cell number on speed dial? The choice is really pretty clear and simple. It’s the clergy version of the Stockholm Syndrome. After decades of practice, it starts to look like actual reality.

The judicatory will be of little help, and I don’t blame them for that. That’s just kicking the can one rung up the ladder (to mash up metaphors). Preach challenging messages, they say. But don’t generate complaints to the head office, they imply. We’ll have your back, they say. Or at least we’ll help you find another position when the complaining gets too loud, they imply. Don’t do it again, they think. And who can blame them? I don’t. Speaking hard truths and holding the institutional church together are mutually contradictory tasks.

I’m a depressed, ashamed, sad, white, male, retired, privileged preacher today. And I have some hope as well. Even in our cautious churches, we have voices of truth. So, I share words from Bishop Yehiel Curry of our ELCA Metropolitan Chicago Synod, in his pastoral letter to the members of his flock. Even as I regret years of complicity, I cling to the courage of others who call me to do better.

“For me, Epiphany, January, the New Year, is a time of vision boards and new beginnings. Hope for something new greets us as we gaze at the child cradled in Mary’s arms,” Bishop Curry writes. “But the events of this past Wednesday were nothing to look forward to. Indeed, these events once again highlighted the disparities that exist in our nation, reminding us again that the pursuit of peace, justice, and equity must never cease.”

“As we search for an alternative future, the future of God envisioned in Jesus’ teachings about God’s Reign of Love,” he continues, “I’d ask that you recommit with me to the work of dismantling white supremacy in our hearts and in the world. Will you do this? I ask also that you’d pray with me for all those who are currently living with renewed fear and resurfaced trauma and pain”.

“Of our leaders, I ask that you take this moment as an opportunity to have courageous conversations with your family, neighbors, and community. We trust that when we gather in Christ, God might instigate change in even the most hardened of hearts and that God, indeed, is with us as we work toward a church and a world where nobody has to say, ‘If it was us, we would have been shot.’”

Confession is a good thing. Repentance for the forgiveness of sins is necessary before moving on, as we read today in Mark 1. The proper next response to for me, for you, for all of us who want a different world, to keep making new and courageous choices. I know, it’s easy for me to say. But it’s better than another addition to the Post-Insurrection Sermon Bingo library.

The path of discipleship is not the Yellow Brick Road. The Holy Spirit is not the Great and Powerful Oz. There is no fraud behind the curtain pulling levers and turning wheels. I pray for some of the courage of which the good Bishop speaks. And I trust that it will come if I am open to it.”

So, pray for your preachers and support them as they seek to speak the truth. Let them know that you are with them in their efforts to be brave and honest. Share their risks and burdens if you can. Perhaps together we can do something constructive with our shame.

Text Study for Mark 13:24-37

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Happy New Year! We begin a new year in the life of the church on the first Sunday in Advent. This year we will use the Gospel according to Mark as our major lens for seeing Jesus and our primary matrix for hearing the call to discipleship. In its original form, Marks’ gospel may have been a sort of narrative catechism for new believers in the congregations in Rome (if that’s the actual location). The focus is on what it means to live as followers of Jesus, as disciples.

We begin the New Year, as we always do, in such a strange way. We begin with a text that talks about the end of the world (or so we think). “In America,” write Matthew Barrett and Mel Gilles, “everyone believes in the apocalypse. The only question is whether Jesus or global warming will get here first.” (Gross, Matthew Barrett; Gilles, Mel. The Last Myth, p. 9). We could add several other doomsday scenarios given the realities of 2020. In fact, we’re not at the end of anything.

We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working. That’s really the message of Mark 13. There will be an end, just not now. Panic is over-rated. Patience is undervalued. So, keep awake and keep working.

Mark 12 ends with the story of the widow’s offering at the temple treasury. This little narrative prepares the ground for Jesus’ prophetic words against the exploitive, extractive, collaborative system of the Jerusalem temple and the temple leadership. The widow gives “her whole life” to God as she makes her offering. Soon, Jesus will give his whole life as the offering for the healing of the world. The temple will no longer be the place where such sacrifices are made.

Jesus uses apocalyptic texts and imagery to deliver this prophetic critique. Our gospel reading is the climactic third of that critique. The disciples express wonder at the astonishing size and beauty of the temple before them. Jesus says that soon it will all come tumbling down. The disciples rightly wonder when this catastrophe will take place.

“The place to start to understand this passage,” notes Tom Wright, “is in the middle, at verse 8: ‘These are the beginnings of the birth pangs.’ (Mark for Everyone, KL 3138). Mark is all about beginnings rather than endings. His title for the dramatic narrative he produces is found in chapter one, verse one: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…

Thus, this isn’t the end of anything. It’s a strange way to start a year, unless you understand this. Tribulation isn’t the end of anything. It’s what we will endure if we are faithful. Christians need not look for trouble. It will find us if we’re doing what we are called to do. And the trouble that finds us will be what the late John Lewis called “good trouble.”

The Greek word for “judgment” is “krisis” from which we get our English word “crisis.” A crisis is, to use the current jargon, an inflection point — a point of no return, a decisive moment which determines what comes next. It is a fork in the existential road, a branching of the universe into new territory. A crisis may be the end of the world as we know it, but it is also the beginning of a world we cannot yet see.

“The world is going to be plunged into convulsions, Jesus says; and his followers, called like him to live at the place where the purposes of God and the pain of the world cross paths with each other,” observes Tom Wright, “will find themselves caught up in those convulsions.” (Kindle Location 3170).

It’s always the end of the world somewhere. I think about this insightful bit of dialogue from the film, Men in Black. Kay scolds his younger partner: “We do not discharge our weapons in view of the public!” Jay is not impressed. “We ain’t got time for this cover-up bullshit! I don’t know whether or not you’ve forgotten, but there’s an Arquillian Battle Cruiser that’s about to…”

Then comes a bit of trademark MIB philosophy. “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet,” Kay retorts, “and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they do not know about it!” [For another day: this is also a way to understand the way racism functions in our culture – not an accident that the film is called Men in Black].

Of course, Jesus is not advocating for a safe god who keeps us in blissful ignorance. Rather Jesus points to the faithful God who walks with us into the changes and challenges of faithful living in the here and now. “The safe god asks nothing of us, gives nothing to us,” writes Mark Buchanan. That god

never drives us to our knees in hungry, desperate praying and never sets us on our feet in fierce, fixed determination. [That god] never makes us bold to dance. The safe god never whispers in our ears anything but greeting card slogans and certainly never asks that we embarrass ourselves by shouting from the rooftop…A safe god inspires neither awe, nor worship, nor sacrifice. (Your God is Too Safe, page 31).

Jesus is not describing a safe god. Nor is Jesus describing “the end of the world.” But he is describing the end of the world as we know it (and the beginning of a new – or it renewed – order). Wright makes the point clear.

Had it been the end of the world, what would have been the point of running away so frantically? No; but it was the end of their world, the close of the way of life that had failed, by the combination of injustice towards those inside and revolutionary violence towards those outside, to obey God’s call to be the light of the world. (Kindle Location 3240).

It’s instructive to observe the bifurcation of the QAnon movement in the wake of the recent election. For some members, the result has produced a crisis in faith since the predicted outcome did not materialize. For others, the strategy is to double down, recalculate, read the signs again and continue the delusions. It’s no surprise that the mysterious center of all this baloney — the anonymous and eponymous Q — has simply counseled patience and watching.

On the other hand, True Q believers are advocating a variety of narratives and responses, many involving some form of violence. Christians should hear clearly in our text the warning against listening to false messiahs and prophetic pretenders. That warning was potent in the first century and pertinent in the twenty-first century.

Regarding Mark 13, Larry Hurtado writes, “it is helpful to note that the dominant theme of the whole passage is a warning against being deceived by false claims about the end being near and by individuals who will try to pass themselves off as prophets – or even something more (vv. 6, 21).” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So, Hurtado suggests that Mark had a particular pastoral concern for his listeners/readers. “Thus, Mark’s primary purpose,” Hurtado continues, “was not to inflame speculation about the time of the end of the world, but rather to urge caution and wisdom. He cared more,” Hurtado concludes, “about the welfare of his readers than about encouraging them to try to calculate the details of God’s future plans” (page 212). In a time when the QAnon conspiracy myth walks in the front door of some churches (well, at least figuratively in Covid-time), the words of Mark 13 are noteworthy.

There will be an end to history at some point, Jesus says, but this ain’t it, friends. The destruction of Jerusalem was a huge deal, but life went on. The utter chaos of 2020 is a huge deal, but life goes on. Most of us never met a crisis we didn’t enjoy, but that’s not the role for Christians. We are to wait patiently, to endure faithfully, and to continue to work while it is daytime. We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.

Panic is over-rated. Preparation is under-appreciated. Patient endurance is the platinum standard for disciples. Wright says it well: “But it is also important for us to remind ourselves of our own call to watch, to be alert. The judgment that fell on the Temple is a foretaste, according to other passages in the New Testament, of the judgment that will fall on the whole world.” (Kindle Location 3308).

I have two questions still to address. First, where is the “good news” in this part of Mark’s gospel? It is in the narrative yet to come. The crisis will come to its climax on the cross. The forces of sin, death and evil will be drawn to a single point in time and space. God takes on and takes in all the powers of anti-life and defeats them in the death and resurrection of the Beloved Son. Today’s text is the beginning of the birth pangs. In a few weeks we will remember and celebrate the Festival of the Incarnation when those birth pangs produce a child in a manger, who is Christ, the Lord.

The second question is, who benefits from misreading this passage as a text of terror? “We are surrounded by fear,” writes Scott Bader-Saye, “just to the extent that we are surrounded by people who profit from fear.” (page 14). Let us not be distracted by the fear-vendors among us. We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.

Bader-Saye continues. “Christian discipleship, that is, following Jesus, will mean surrendering the power that masquerades as security in order to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger. It will mean avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good.” (page 22). It’s hard to improve on that line. But it does give me a chance to squeeze in a great Harry Potter quote. “’Dark times lie ahead of us,’ Dumbledore warns Harry, ‘and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.’”

That is, of course, always the choice facing Jesus followers. For Christians, Jesus tells us, this time is all the time. “Courage is the capacity to do what is right and good in the face of fear,” writes Bader-Saye. “We become courageous when we learn to live for something that is more important than our own safety.” (page 67).

Can our congregations be places where we can speak our fears safely and honestly? “To speak our fear to another is to begin to loosen the grip that fear has on us. To make fear take form in speech is to name it as something that can be confronted, not confronted alone but in the community of those willing to speak their fears aloud and thus begin to subdue them.” (Bader-Saye, page 71). What a gift to the world if our congregations could become and be such places!

We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.

Resources

Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.

Buchanan, Mark. Your God is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can’t Control. Sisters, OR.: Multnomah Publishers, 2001.

Carvalho, Corrine. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3485

Gross, Matthew Barrett, and Gilles, Mel. The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America. Promotheus Books, 2012.

Hartwell, Drew, and Timberg, Craig. “‘My faith is shaken’: The QAnon conspiracy theory faces a post-Trump identity crisis.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/11/10/qanon-identity-crisis/

Hogan, Lucy Lind. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2278

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jervis, L. Ann. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=180

Lange, Dirk. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1131

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Kindle Edition. Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992.

Wendland, Kristin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2253

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (2nd Edition, Kindle). Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

What I Want to Hear on Sunday

Where do we find God? We love to find God in “the rocks and trees, the skies and seas,” as Alli Rogers wrote in “This is My Father’s World.” We long to find God in the beauties of nature, the awesome scope of Creation, the giggles of an infant in the crib, or during other Hallmark moments. There certainly is room for that in the Christian gospel – especially in Matthew. Jesus calls us to look at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as examples of worry-resilient faith.

But for every stunning sunset there is a terrifying tornado. The purple mountains’ majesty can contain a violent volcano. The majestic roar of the tiger often comes after the beast has made a fresh kill. Even the gurgling infant can soon grow into a troubled adult. Looking for God is a confusing and challenging exercise that rarely results in clarity of vision. We hear that confusion in the words of the “sheep” and the “goats” in the Parable of the Great Judgement.

Neither group realizes who they have met as they went about their daily lives. David Lose writes, “they are surprised by where the Son of Man hangs out. No one, that is, expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need.”

Lord, when did we see you?” each group asks. The word “see” can have the sense of “notice” or “pay attention to,” Perhaps the point is not so much that each group was equally blind in some way, but that they didn’t notice the deeper import of what they were doing. In that way the sheep and the goats are the same. But they differ in their attention to the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned. The sheep noticed the needy. The goats did not.

“The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world,” wrote Simone Weil, “except someone capable of paying attention to them.” Weil believed that attention is the profoundest expression of love for the neighbor. “The fullness of love for neighbor, she wrote, “is simply the capacity to ask the question, ‘What is your agony?’” The sheep appear to have asked that question and responded to the answer. The goats appear not to have asked.

Lord, make me a sheep.

The sheep feed those who are hungry. The sheep give drink to those who are thirsty. The sheep welcome those who are the strangers. The sheep clothe those who are naked. The sheep take care of those who are sick. The sheep visit those who are imprisoned. The sheep may not have seen Jesus in the vulnerable, but they saw the vulnerable. The goats saw neither.

This text can become the most burdensome expression of the Law if that is our only focus. As preachers we sometimes must fill in the good news context to be faithful to a text. In The Freedom of a Christian Luther describes his version of the “Golden Rule.” That rule, in short, is “Do to your neighbor as Christ has done to you.” The good news is that we are on the receiving end of this unconditional love first. Christ is present in us in faith so we can be present to our neighbor in love.

“Therefore,” Luther writes, “I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ.” (my emphasis). Our loving response to the neighbor is rooted in, energized by and reflective of the work of Christ for us and the presence of Christ in us.

Our works of love are a joyous outflow of the love which the Holy Spirit has placed in our hearts through Christ. “Without a doubt we are named after Christ – not absent from us but dwelling in us,” Luther writes, “in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.”

Who can do those things? Generally it’s not those who struggle with hunger and thirst, who are lost and naked, those who sick and imprisoned. The ones who can do all this good work are those who are better off! The behavior the Lord commends here is the work of solidarity with the vulnerable. The behavior the Lord condemns is the failure to do that work.

Lord, make me a sheep.

We live in a representative democracy. We can certainly respond to those who are hungry and thirsty, those who are lost and naked, those who are sick and imprisoned on our own. Personal acts of lovingkindness are part of the discipleship life. We, however, have far more power than that. We can work together for policies and practices that put in place public responses to the needs of the vulnerable.

There is no discussion in the parable of whether the vulnerable are worthy or unworthy. For Jesus followers that is not part of the conversation. We know that theologically if we understand the grace of God in Christ. No one is worthy — not even one. If worthiness were part of the equation, we’d all be screwed.

If that’s God’s standard for us, why should we apply a different standard to those God loves? Look, serving with the vulnerable is going to draw us into policies and politics whether we like it or not. Only the privileged oblivious get to avoid such concerns.

I’ve worked with those in prison. It took me about ten minutes of that work to start wondering about our corrections policies and practices. If you’ve volunteered to feed the hungry, it’s probably taken you about that long to wonder about our food policies. If you’ve had chronically ill friends or family, you’ve struggled to understand our medical system and health insurance practices.

In my experience, trying to live as one of the “sheep” has always pulled me into politics and policy issues. The only way to stay out of those issues is to look the other way. But that is “goat” behavior.

Friends, this is not just about “those people over there.” This is about us. Most of us are about one medical catastrophe from bankruptcy. Most of us are about one lay-off from disaster. Most of us are only a couple of paychecks from going hungry. During the pandemic, the number of Americans who worry about food has gone from 40 million to 80 million. Chances are that one in every four people you know is worried about whether they will run out of food before they run out of month. Maybe you are one of those folks. And many of those folks wonder if they will have a roof over their heads at the end of that month.

So this Sunday (and every Sunday) I want to hear politics from the pulpit. When we keep politics out of the pulpit, we’ve made a political decision. We’ve decided to support the people who benefit from the way things are. Those folks generally are not among the hungry and thirsty, the naked and strangers, the sick and imprisoned. Those folks are generally not much like you and me.

These days the truth is that a disproportionate number of the vulnerable are black and brown people in the United States. Race and racial conflict are tools used to keep people in their economic and social places. But lots of white people are among the vulnerable as well. Advocating for the least of these is a form of multi-racial politics that will make life better for all of us. When we are Christ to the neighbor, race, class, ethnicity, gender — they are all real, but they are not barriers to loving community.

Christ is with us always – in us through faith and in our neighbors through love. The Holy Spirit equips us to pay attention to our neighbor in need because we have no need to pay attention to ourselves. “Therefore, we conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor,” Luther writes, “or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love.”

Lord, make me a sheep. Amen.

Text Study for Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

In the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus is the King of the Universe. He is also managing sheep and goats. Thus, he serves as the Cosmic Shepherd. The image of “shepherd” is an Old Testament trope used to meditate on the nature of kingship, both divine and human. That is the case here in Ezekiel 34.

This text creates an important backstop for understanding the Parable of the Divine Judgment. The Divine Shepherd in Ezekiel 34 is the Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep. We need to keep that image in our minds as we read and reflect on the gospel text for this day. It is easy to lose track of the character of the king and the nature of the shepherd if we focus exclusively on the judgment aspect of the parable.

James Limburg titles the run-up to this section of Ezekiel, “The Failure of the Politicians.” That should get our attention immediately. “Put succinctly,” Limburg writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary, “Ezekiel the pastor to those in exile says to the political leaders of his time, ‘You shepherds have fed yourselves and have not fed my sheep.’ These leaders ought to be caring for the sheep, not exploiting them, and fattening their own lives. In these times that are a-changing, both world and church need politicians and pastors who will care for their people responsibly.”

If one of the roles of Christians in a polity is to maintain a critical distance and hold leaders accountable for doing justice (and it is), then this text is a real eye-popper. I know that most preachers won’t hold up any political leaders to this text and find them wanting. But that is exactly what this text encourages. You shepherds have fed yourselves and have not fed my sheep. The shepherds Ezekiel describes were likely collaborators with the Babylonian oppressors, lining their own pockets at the expense of the other exiles.

“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Revelation 2:29). I think the outgoing presidential administration fits this description somewhat securely.

Here’s the thing. Anyone who thinks that politics don’t belong in the pulpit simply has not read the whole Bible. The prophets are plumb full of political critique. The fact that we think we can keep that critique out of our preaching and out of our communities is simply a sign of our (mostly white, male, classist) political privilege. And, I would suggest, this reticence is a sign that we are much more in the tribe of the goats than that of the sheep in Matthew 25.

One of the privileges of retirement is the freedom to say things that would have gotten me in hot water with my “employers” in my previous life.

Carolyn Sharp speaks this element of the text clearly in her workingpreacher.org comments.

Justice means that God holds bullies accountable. The “shepherd” metaphor takes an ironic turn in verses 20-22: God’s judgment will fall on those sheep that harm the weaker sheep. Here Ezekiel satirizes any complacency on the part of “sheep” who might have dared to become overconfident in the images of God’s loving care. God will tend these sheep, all right! Those who belong to God are those who do the will of God (Matthew 12:50, Mark 3:35), and it is never God’s will that believers injure one another, jockey for advantage, or exploit resources that should be for all.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Revelation 2:29).

Our own call to care for the vulnerable reflects the nature of the Good Shepherd, who seeks the lost, brings back the strayed, binds up the injured and strengthens the weak (verse 16). These actions are more than individual altruism, however. They are the actions of the King – again whether divine or human. The punchline of Ezekiel’s text is the final verse in our reading: “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” Justice is always a political category.

Margaret Odell puts it this way in her workingpreacher.org comments. “Justice and care belong together because the shepherd metaphor was always first and foremost a political metaphor. To be a king was to be a shepherd,” she continues, “viewed from that perspective the more surprising element of the shepherd metaphor may be the way it shapes perceptions about the proper exercise of power.”

Leadership and the exercise of power – these are pretty contemporary issues, I’d say. For Ezekiel, the appropriate exercise of power is always power for the sake of the vulnerable and power with those who care for the vulnerable. It is not the power over others – the predominant secular model of power in both the ancient and contemporary worlds. Power comes from God for the sake of loving the neighbor. When power is used for any other purpose, we engage in idolatry because we worship power for its own sake.

Odell concludes with these thoughts.

The church is gathered from the nations, where power is exercised in any number of ways, and not necessarily for the sake of human well-being. It is worth asking,” she notes, “how this exercise of power has fragmented the human community, isolating us from one another, leaving us scattered, injured, and alone. As Christians continue to heed Christ’s call to care for these fragmented and injured individuals, may we also find to address the root causes of the world’s pain.

I think we are witnessing some very disordered theology of power and freedom in our culture at this moment. The power that is often celebrated is the power over others that secures my certainty, security, and comfort. The freedom that is often celebrated is the freedom from the needs and demands of others – the freedom that puts me first and, in the center, and at the top. That is not Christian freedom (as, for example, Luther would have described it).

If we are made God’s royal and priestly people by virtue of our baptisms, then we have royal and priestly responsibilities. It would appear that those responsibilities include attending to the “least” of our sisters and brothers and to do so for their sake alone.

How does this impact our pandemic behavior as individuals and churches? Is my freedom to go maskless really of greater importance than the safety of those around me?

How does this inform our continued involvement in anti-racism efforts and causes? For example, are we working to remedy the horrific inequities in educational systems based on self-segregated housing schemes and the property tax injustices that result?

How does this inform our work in climate justice, which disproportionately affects the “least of these”?

Please see my post for November 16 for the resources for this Sunday’s texts.