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Pushy Sheep and Their Shepherd November 23, 2014

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Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Proper 29

November 23, 2014


Focus:  God is our Shepherd.

Function:  That the hearers follow their shepherd.

Structure:  Parallel.


Pushy Sheep and Their Shepherd


On our family vacation last month down to visit my folks in St. Louis, we tried to take advantage of some of the fun family-friendly things to do.  Which, if you’ve never been there, is actually quite a lot.  There are so many free things to do.  The museums are free, the Science Center is free. Even the zoo is free.

One of the local favorites though is a place called Grant’s Farm, which also has free entry.  It’s run by the Anheuser Busch family as a tribute to President Ulysses S. Grant.  But aside from the free beer samples and getting to see the Clydesdales, the biggest attraction is probably the goats.

There’s a fenced-in area where they keep close to 200 goats.  And right by it there’s a stand where you can buy milk in baby bottles so you can go in and feed the goats.  It’s a fun experience for little kids, one they remember for a while.  Well, I’m not quite sure Talia will…she just kind of glared at them.

Anyway, as you walk along among the goats petting and feeding them, it doesn’t take long to notice: they’re pushing and shoving.  If it weren’t for the fact that they’re all a little chunky, you’d think they never feed the little guys.  They push each other out of the way, fighting to get to the bottle.  They nibble at each other and they’ll even chew on you, too.

So while it’s definitely a fun family outing, it was one of the first things that came to mind when I read through our Scripture reading from Ezekiel today.  It’s the spitting image of what God is telling us through His prophet Ezekiel.

“Behold, I, I Myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue My flock.”

Ezekiel was God’s prophet at the time when Judah was conquered by Babylon, when Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BC.  He saw this all the time.  He saw it in how the Judahites treated each other, constantly grubbing and picking at one another, pushing someone else down in order to lift themselves up.  He also saw it in how they were treated by the Babylonians, their captors.

But it’s not just there.  If we jump ahead 600 years to the time of Christ, we see the same thing from Him as He’s talking to His disciples and teaching them about the End Times.  You know this text, He separates the sheep and the goats.  And after speaking well to the sheep, He turns to the goats and says, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome Me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.”

You remember how they respond, “when did we see any of these things?”  “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”  Christ is talking about the pushy goats.  He’s talking about how willing the people were to look out only for themselves as they pushed everyone else aside.  They pushed out, they cast out the weak, the hurting, the poor, the lonely.

We see it again about 30 years later as Paul is writing to the Corinthian church.  1 Corinthians 11 is often lauded as one of the great texts on the Lord’s Supper, but really, Paul is addressing a problem.  If you read it closely, you can see that the pushy goats are still around.  They’ve pushed and they’ve shoved.  Rather than the whole church community coming together in the house and eating the body of the Lord, drinking the blood of the Lord, the rich have separated themselves from the poor.  The upper class from the lower class.  And the people with better social status are being gluttons and getting drunk while the rest get nothing.  Even in the Lord’s Supper!  Even in the Lord’s Supper the pushy goats were being pushy goats.  And that’s why Paul warns us to examine ourselves before we partake of the Lord’s Supper, so that if we’re being pushy goats , we don’t wind up drinking curses and damnation upon ourselves.

And we still see it another two thousand years later.  There are pushy goats in our world, most definitely.  We are pushed into corners.  In some cases, it’s the wickedness of a group like ISIS or the people in Africa who go about killing God’s sheep every day.

But it’s not just the world outside these walls.  We ourselves have a tendency to be pushy goats.  We take advantage of the hurting, we tell the little lies to get what we want, we glance over poverty or injustice so it doesn’t disrupt our schedule, we do all kinds of things to lift ourselves up.  That’s where Paul’s words, Christ’s words, and Ezekiel’s words come as warning to us, come trying to teach us that we should not act for ourselves, but for each other.

But in each of these places, God’s Word is the same: “I will rescue My flock; they shall no longer be a prey.  And I will judge between sheep and sheep.  And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and He shall feed them: He shall feed them and be their shepherd.  And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.”

For those of you who know your history, those words don’t seem to make sense.  We’ve already said that Ezekiel was God’s prophet in 587 BC. But David, David was king of Israel 400 years earlier.  David’s lived and died.  How then is he our shepherd?

During David’s reign as king, God made him a promise.  God gave him His word that there would always be someone on the throne of David, that his ancestor would rule forever.  And on more than one occasion, the Bible talks about this ancestor, about David’s throne, simply by calling Him David.  They’re referring to David’s descendant, to Jesus Christ our Lord.

There is so much beauty in our Old Testament reading from Ezekiel.  There’s so much love in that text.  There’s so much about what God is doing for us.  He’s searching for us, seeking us.  He’s going out to the places where we’ve been scattered, to the places where sin and pushy goats have left us for dead.  He’s bringing us out of those places, He’s bringing us together.  He’s feeding us, shepherding us, giving us places to lie down.  He binds up the injured, strengthens the weak.  And best of all, He gives us a shepherd, someone who will look out for us.  Someone who will guide us, protect us, and feed us with His very own body and blood.

That promise always rings true.  It was true in Ezekiel’s day, as God comforted His people in the midst of their captivity and delivered them from it.  It’s true in Christ’s day, as the disciples witness the Shepherd’s death and resurrection.  They witness the gift of life itself.  It’s true in our day, as God continues to seek and to the gather the lost through the waters of Holy Baptism, just like He’s done today, by gathering to Himself Stella and Clay/Eden.

We are His people, we are His flock.  He watches over us, protects us, feeds us with His very body and blood which give us the gift of forgiveness.  He is our Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep.

We are blessed to be in His sheep pen.  We are no longer pushy goats, but we are sheep following a Shepherd.  We are no longer scattered, but we are a community.  We no longer pillage and plunder our neighbors to better ourselves.  Instead, as we follow the Shepherd, as we listen to His voice, we give of ourselves, we feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  We welcome the stranger and visit the sick.  Once we’ve stopped focusing on ourselves, pushing and shoving to get to the bottle of milk when we’ve already eaten our fill, others get to eat, too.  That’s our role as sheep, to be sheep together, to be a community together, as we follow our Shepherd.


Psalm 23

1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.



Death and the Second Coming November 9, 2014

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1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Proper 27

November 9, 2014


Focus:  God gives us life with Him forever.

Function:  That the hearers live every day as though it were their last.

Structure:  Problem-Solution-Implication.


Death and the Second Coming


College is a unique time in the lives of our young people today.  They’re actively searching for the kinds of experiences that will give them new thrills, new insights, new wisdom.  But it’s a process of trial and error.  We take risks, we make mistakes, and we learn from them.

When I was in college, we knew these things.  We realized, at some level, what we were doing.  And so my friends and I had a phrase that we often told each other.  In some ways it was a joke, but it was also a warning.  Whenever someone was up to no good, plotting shenanigans, or was about to do something really stupid, we would say to them, “Remember, there’s no cutting in line to see Jesus.”

Today is the opposite of last week.  Last week was a great opportunity to focus on life, to celebrate the gift of life that God gives to us.  And we did that, we had a guest speaker, Rev. Dr. Jim Lamb talk about life from womb to grave.  And we celebrated the lives of the ten men and women who are now with Christ in Paradise.

But today we’re focusing on death.  Death is part of the cycle of life.  We see it in the seasons, that as spring comes, we enjoy new life.  We plant gardens and crops.  We plant flowers that will bloom, and everything around us seems to be green.

And yet, fall comes.  The leaves begin to turn colors.  Grass becomes brown.  Plants wither and die.  And as fall gives way to winter, wildlife virtually disappears.

And for some 6000 years, God has been creating people, granting life.  And yet, in all those years, billions of billions of people have eventually died.  We’ve all lost people we loved and cared about.  Many of us have seen death.  As best as we can, we try to prepare ourselves for it.

My question for you today is simple.  I want you to think for a moment, and honestly answer yourself this question:  Do I believe I will die someday?  If I asked you to raise your hands, I wonder how many of you would.

But I’m not going to.  Because if you did, you might be embarrassed when I say you have the wrong answer.  Because we’ve made death something it’s not.  Death is not part of life.

But our language has done us in.  Much like the phrase “what goes up must come down,” our culture believes, “what lives dies.”  With the way that we see death, with the way that we talk about it, with the way that we view it as inevitable, it’s no wonder why we are where we are today.   Death is now viewed as normal.  More than that, death is now viewed as our friend.

One of the biggest news stories over the past few weeks is that of Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old woman with a severe form of brain cancer called glioblastoma.  The doctors told her recently that she only had another six months to live.  So she decided to take her own life on her own time.  And last weekend, she did just that.

She viewed death as inevitable.  To her, there was no alternative, no other option.  It was either die now while I’m happy, or go through pain and die in a few months anyway.  It’s no wonder she took the pills, she saw no other possible outcome for her life.

Too often, even in the church, even as Christians, we have the wrong view of death. We look at it as a solution to a problem, a solution to suffering and pain.  We say things like: “It’s good to die, because we get to go to heaven and be with Jesus.” We tend to make death a friend, instead of seeing it as the enemy it really is, as the penalty for being a sinner.

As CNN followed up on Brittany’s choice, they interviewed another woman who is suffering from the same glioblastoma brain cancer.  Maggie Karner opposed what Brittany did.  As part of the back and forth, the CNN reporter at one point said, “We all have this desire to die while we’re still the same person we’ve always been.”


That struck me…and I hope it struck you.  There’s not an ounce in me that has a desire to die.  Not even in the sense that the reporter meant it.  My body is running full force in the opposite direction of death.  Our God and Creator and Father is not the author and perfector of death.  He’s the author and perfector of life.  There’s nothing natural about death.

As Christians, we need to see death differently.  We need to think differently.  We need to live differently.  And our three Scripture passages for this week tell us why:  Christ is coming back.

Each passage has a different message to tell us about Christ’s Second Coming.  Our Old Testament lesson from the prophet Amos is a warning.  He was doing his job as a prophet, calling the people of God back to repentance.  His hearers had abandoned God.  They weren’t following Him, they weren’t repenting of their lives full of sin.  And so Amos warned them that they should not be seeking the Day of the Lord, for that day holds only darkness for them.

But our Epistle is so much the opposite.  Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica has a different tone.  He’s talking to followers of Christ.  The one problem he did have to deal with was pretty unique.  See when he told them Christ was coming soon, they took it literally, as they should.  But they took it so literally that they stopped working.  If Christ is coming back soon, why should we worry about the harvest?  Paul had to correct that.  He had to tell them that we don’t know when, just that He will.  So we work until then.

But there’s beauty in the part we read today.  Paul proclaims the good news that our Savior will indeed return, and that those who have fallen asleep will be raised to new life, and those of us who have yet to fall asleep will be caught up together with them with Christ.  There will be several generations of men and women who will never taste death…

Our New Testament reading from Matthew gives us another look.  It serves both as a warning, but also as a way of telling us what life looks like when we truly believe that Christ is coming back.  He records Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins.

In their culture, in that time and place, they had a custom that seems quite odd to us.  The groom played a game with his bride.  The groom and his men would wait at couple’s new home for any period of time.  The bride and her bridesmaids were to wait at her father’s home until the groom came.  But they were to be ready at all times.  He could come the first day; he could come at 2am.  He could wait a couple of months if he really wanted.

But eventually, he would come.  And when he was approaching the house, the person on watch would call out to the rest, “The bridegroom is coming!”  They would all grab their things and then accompany the groom and his men back to the couple’s new home, where there tended to be a large party that lasted for about a week.

This parallels so well to our relationship with God.  Christ is the groom.  We’re the bride.  We’re awaiting His coming, for Him to leave His home which He has prepared for us, and to come and get us.

In this parable, five of the bridesmaids were ready at the random time, five weren’t.  The five that were got to go to groom’s home and party.  The others tried to catch up, they tried to get in, but the groom told them, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”  Christ then concludes the parable by saying “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The emphasis of the parable is that we, as the bride of Christ, are to always be ready, always prepared for His return.  When I was serving as a vicar, my supervisor, Pastor Eric Allyn always joked about this.  He always ate his dessert before his meal.  When pressed for the reason why, he would say, “It’s an eschatological statement of the Parousia, just in case Christ comes back in the middle of the meal, I want to have eaten the best part!”

We’ll hear others in our culture with good intentions tell us to live every day to the fullest because you just never know if it’ll be your last.  In some respects, there’s truth there, but not because of what they mean.  They mean you don’t know when you’ll die.

But as Christians, we live every day to the fullest in the firm belief that Christ is coming back.     We live every day to the fullest so that we’re prepared, so we’re ready.  We live every day to the fullest so that the Holy Spirit can work through us to create faith in others, so that there are more people at the party.

Like the Thessalonians, I don’t believe I’ll die.  I live every day, I pray every day, in anticipation of Christ’s return.  But unlike the Thessalonians, I keep working, to share the good news and to take care of my family and my community.  Because who knows, maybe the groom will come tonight, or maybe He’ll keep waiting for a while yet.  Either way, I will be prepared.