The Sorting Shepherd
Based on Ezekiel 34:11-24, Psalm 100, Matthew 25:31-46
“We need to go sort this out”, my great grandfather said to me. We had been to the grocery store picking up something that great grandma needed to complete dinner preparations. I had asked to go along because I wanted to ride in the big car that he had, and just to spend more time with him. These trips usually involved some kind of treat, but today we were a bit pressed for time and we just bought what grandma needed and headed back. While my great grandfather was paying for the groceries, I was eye level with some candy. I pocketed a piece of something and neither my great grandfather nor the clerk saw me. It wasn’t until I unwrapped my ill-gotten prize in the back seat that grandpa realized something was amiss. In my 4 or 5 year old mind, I probably knew that I had done something wrong, but my great grandfather made it clear to me that I had acted in a way that was not acceptable. He turned the car around and we returned to the store where I had to admit my act to the clerk and apologize for stealing. I don’t remember that grandpa said anything to my mom and dad – I think he knew that his look of displeasure, my admitting my error, and his lecture as we drove sorted everything out. He forgave me my error in judgement and I learned a lesson that informed my subsequent decision making.
In our daily lives we are constantly sorting things out – using our reasoning, experience, family traditions, work and societal norms to make decisions. The same is true of our spiritual lives. As United Methodists we believe that while scripture is the bedrock on which we base our decision making, John Wesley taught that we needed to sort out our spiritual lives using scripture informed by tradition, reason and experience. In that way we can best discern how God is calling us to live as faithful Christians. We can also ask for God’s guidance through prayer – and I invite you to join me now as we sort out what God has to say to us today…
The writer of Psalm 100 has penned a song of thanksgiving to our LORD and savior. The writer instructs us how we are to enter into the presence of the LORD, worshipping gladly – singing and praising joyfully. We are to be thankful; praising God and blessing God’s most holy name. We are to do this because the LORD is good – God’s love and faithfulness endure forever. In verse 3, the writer clarifies who this LORD is with whom we are interacting. The LORD is God – the God that made us. The following phrase is interesting in our discernment…in the NRSV translation the phrase comes out “…and we are his;…” The Orthodox Jewish Bible translation has it this way: “…and not we ourselves,…” Thus the OJB verse reads, “…Know ye that the LORD is God; it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves, His people, the sheep of His pasture….” Did you catch that change in perspective – that nuanced observation? We didn’t make ourselves, God did! All that we are comes from God our Creator and sustainer. Once we realize that fully, then how can we do anything but enter God’s courts with praise and thanksgiving, singing at the top of our lungs at such great good fortune!
That helps us sort out one big issue for us as believers, but there is another big issue that confronts us. When we truly discover who it is that God is to us, then we begin to love God back with everything we have. Jesus pointed to this as the first and greatest commandment. Yet, Jesus also went on to speak of a second commandment about loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. The other scripture readings from today address what happens when we forget to use this edict to sort out our lives.
The texts from Ezekiel and Matthew utilize the image of God as shepherd…but it is not the visual that we are used to hearing. You know the images I’m speaking of – that of the caregiver of Psalm 23 or Jesus the “good Shepherd”. In both of the scriptures read today, God is depicted as a shepherd who is sorting out sheep that will be kept with God versus those thrown out into “eternal punishment”. These shepherd images are far more troubling for us because they call into question how it is that we are living – how we understand how God’s instructions are helping us sort out our lives. The text from Ezekiel, who was a prophet sent to Babylon in the first Exile, is a text written as a judgement against the leadership of Judah. In fact, one of the key aspects of the entire book of Ezekiel is the characterization of the leadership of Judah being her people’s worst enemy. Here the LORD is depicted as finding those lost sheep who have been mistreated by the leaders of Judah. God will gather all those mistreated sheep from around the world to God’s-self and will harshly judge the leadership which fouled the water and land on which they were to drink and feed. In the last two verses of this section of Ezekiel, God states that a member of the line of David will be put in place of the current leadership to feed and care for the people.
We reach the culmination of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew today. Jesus wants to leave the Disciples with a clear cut understanding of what their mission is and how they and subsequent disciples will be judged at the second coming. It is the understanding of how they treat the “other” – that is, how they recognize the presence of Jesus in those with whom they interact. The typical issues of the day are reflected in how they cared for this image of Jesus – feeding the hungry, quenching those who were thirsty, welcoming the stranger as friend, bringing the resources of the community to the outcast who was naked, ill or imprisoned. Those who are welcomed into the kingdom are those who never lost the ability to see in all the image of God.
These scriptures can help us today to sort out our lives as Christians – as believers in the One true and steadfastly loving God. On this “Christ the King” Sunday, we are once again confronted with the imperative to sort out who it is that we follow. Do we believe in our hearts and minds and make decisions based on believing that we ourselves are kings; or do we understand that God made us (each and every person) in God’s image and that we are fully subject to God? As long as we see ourselves as kings, we will continue to sort ourselves from each other in a dualistic manner (I-It, We-They, Us-Them) then we will miss out on the kingdom of God. It is clear from both Testaments that the King in whom we live and move and have our being has a mind which is unitive – which shepherds all those who act in like-minded ways; who have the same unitive vision of all of creation.
My great grandfather stated, “We need to go sort this out!” Something had been done that needed to be rectified – to be put right. That statement is true of our spiritual lives as well. We are about to launch into a new liturgical year with the coming of Advent next week. It is important to understand who it is that we are following from Bethlehem to Golgotha and beyond. To sort out what it is that we believe and why it is that we believe it; why it makes a difference in our lives and the lives of those we serve to follow Jesus. To sort out how it is that we are called as part of the Church of Jesus Christ and The United Methodist Church, to minister to a world full of hungry, thirsty, naked, strange, ill and imprisoned fellow sheep. We have behaved in ways that are not what God needs or wants from us. We have not done everything that God could expect us to do to expand the ministry of Jesus into all the needy places of Madison County, let alone the world. Remember the Gospel scriptures from the last few weeks…we do not know when the Christ will return. What we can be certain of, however, is that the return will bring with it a mindset like my great grandfather’s. It will come with a “Sorting Shepherd” that will put things back to the way they were in Eden before sin. Whenever that time comes, brothers and sisters of the faith, we will want to be known as disciples who did their best to care for each other. We want to do it as such a matter of course that we can answer like the righteous in Matthew, “…Lord, when was it that we saw you…” The time is now, dear friends, for all of us to get out of these walls and into the messiness of life – it’s time to get this sorted out. Amen and amen!