The Sheep Look Up

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Reign of Christ/Thanksgiving/A • November 22, 2020

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24Matthew 25:31-46 

When I was 11 or so, I got my first pair of glasses. I didn’t know I couldn’t see things at a distance; I thought they were a little blurry to everyone. It was an amazing thing to suddenly have everything sharp. If you wear glasses, you probably know what I mean. We all wear glasses of some sort; maybe you’ve worn them at a 3D movie, maybe you wear sunglasses. There are other glasses too, the ones created from our culture, our experiences, our lives. When we try to understand a Bible text, it’s important to be aware of what glasses we are wearing. And it’s important to know what sort of glasses, what experience, the writer had and the audience for which they wrote. Our scripture readings today come from two times when God’s people were facing defeat and wondering how to go forward, how to hope. So let’s put those glasses on and see how these texts helped them find their way. Let’s see if they can help us find ours way.

Since ancient times, Israel found itself in the image of sheep and sheep herding. Abraham was a herdsman and before he was king, David was a sheep herder too. Groups of sheep were common sights in villages and surely many men got their first taste of responsibility when they were sent into the hills to watch over a herd of sheep. Now sheep herding was dangerous in ancient Israel. You could fall and get hurt and you were expected to defend the sheep from predators: wolves and other things. Sheep on the whole are pretty defenseless; they really know just one tactic, gather up, so you look big and run away. David got good with a sling defending his sheep and others had what must have been wild, formative experiences doing it. So everyone knew what it meant to talk about a shepherd caring for a flock. The image of a flock of sheep was commonly used to represent God’s people.

Now God’s people are living in the ruins. A few years before they pinned their hope on Israelite Exceptionalism, the idea that God would never let them be defeated. But they were defeated, Jerusalem was destroyed and many of its people carried into exile. We hear their despair in many places, including a Psalm where it asks, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” These are the glasses they’re wearing, this is how they see their situation. Just before the part we read, the prophet Ezekiel brings a Word from the Lord that condemns their former leaders as bad shepherds, shepherds who cared more for themselves than the flock. Then he turns to the sheep and brings this astonishing Word: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” [Ezekiel 34:11] There are two things to notice here. One is that God is not pretending; the sheep are lost, they’re scattered all over. The second is: these sheep belong to God. These sheep have a shepherd and it isn’t dependent on some human leader, it is God directly. The sheep have a reason to look up and when they look, they find they belong to God.

Our longing to belong is deep and strong. We see it in politics: red and blue. We see it in sports: Yankees or Mets? And we see it in churches. Long ago, in one of the first churches, the Apostle Paul mentions, 

…each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

1 Corinthians 1:12f

So even in the church, people are searching for someone to whom they belong, creating little teams of belonging that sometimes prevent them from seeing the whole body of Christ.

Huckleberry Finn is a novel about a boy free boy who is adopted by a widow who tries to do what he calls civilizing him. He runs away along with a slave named Jim. Now Huck has grown up with and adopted the values of the slave south. He is surprised at how human Jim is, that he misses his family, that he cares for others. At a critical moment, Huck faces a choice: he has been preparing to do what his culture tells him is right, to return Jim to his owner. He believes that not doing that is stealing and it will mean he will go to hell for breaking a commandment. But he’s come to see Jim as a human  being, come to see they belong to each other so he tears up the letter informing the owner and says

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said.

Many see this as the moral crux of the book: the moment Huck understands he and Jim belong to each other and neither is owned. He’s come to see himself in Jim, to see his connection to Jim as more important. He’s put on new glasses; he sees a new world.

A new way of seeing is also the theme of the story we read in Matthew. Matthew’s audience also faced defeat and despair. They had expected Jesus return in glory to defeat their enemies. That hadn’t happened and many had fallen away, others had suffered from persecution. Matthew alone tells this vision of God putting everything right. Sheep and goats are familiar to them and they know they can’t be kept together; they have different needs and sheep tend to crowd out goats. So Jesus takes the familiar figure and invites them to imagine a final scene of judgement.

But there’s no victorious king here, no defeated people sold into slavery. Instead, it’s the familiar scene of sheep and goats being divided. He came to all of them, he says: hungry, naked, in prison. Some fed him, some helped him, but no one recognized him. Then the great judgement is pronounced; then the two groups are separated and the principle is who helped and who didn’t. This is the answer to the question we’ve been circling around for weeks, ever since he explained the great commandment to love God and love your neighbor. You love your neighbor as the image of the God you love.

Everyone is stunned; no one remembers seeing him. He explains that when someone fed a stranger, they were feeding him. Notice it isn’t that they are feeding someone like him; they were feeding him, and so on for all the other conditions. Each person they encountered was him; each time they did or didn’t do something for that person, they did or didn’t do it for him. And those who did are gathered into his herd, his sheep fold, just as Ezekiel had said. They are children of God because they cared for the Song of God.

Now the name for this is simple: providence. It means simply believing each person is a child of God and that God will provide for God’s children, like a shepherd caring for a sheep herd. Providence isn’t simply a principle: it’s a decision, a decision to hope, a moment when the sheep look up from whatever their condition to see the shepherd caring for them. To look up in this way is to put on new glasses, to see the world as full of possibilities even if the situation is bleak.

That’s the real foundation of Thanksgiving. This is the 400th Anniversary of the landing of the people we call the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. After a long, stormy passage to Virginia, they were blown off course and made landfall on Cape Cod, near what is now Providence. We all know what November is like and it wasn’t any easier for them. After a few weeks exploring, they settled on a place with a creek and a tidal flat and named it Plimoth and started to build houses. The voyage had taken much longer than they planned; their provisions were exhausted. They robbed caches of corn left by indigenous people and they tried to fish. In the terrible conditions, many starved, many grew sick and death stalked them daily.

That isn’t the happy Thanksgiving picture we paint but it was their reality. Understanding that reality can help us see through to the real Thanksgiving. That first summer, they made friends with some indigenous people who showed them how to plant and raise corn; they made a small harvest. They learned to trap and fish and hunt and sustain themselves. A year after their landfall, they revived the English custom of a harvest festival with three days of giving thanks.

It may have seemed they had little for which to give thanks but their faith led them to trust God’s providence. They treated the local people with kindness, they mended their own internal squabbles. They gave thanks because they understood the good gifts that sustained them were blessings from God. They gave thanks because they understood they were children of God, part of God’s flock, and they were determined to live that identity. They had put on new glasses; they saw a new creation in a new world, and indeed, it was marvelous in their eyes.

Today in the church’s calendar is Reign of Christ Sunday, a fairly new festival, begun about a hundred years ago, in the midst of the rise of fascism and the darkening clouds of war. Roman Catholics needed to be reminded that despite the news of dictators and violence, their ultimate shepherd was Christ. Gradually, it has become a part of the whole church and today perhaps more than ever we need that reminder.

It’s also the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a day with special meaning for Congregationalists like us, for this is the beginning of our story: that a group of our fathers and mothers in the faith saw a new possibility in the new world and determined despite obstacles to embrace life as God’s people, determined to live from the hope of God’s providence.

So this year we may be separated and unable to gather as we have in the past; but we are not separate, we are gathered as God’s flock, God’s people, because we belong to God. This year we may be sick, but we know that sick or well, we belong to God. This year we may be tense and torn by the tides of politics and questions about who will lead us but we know that our true King is Jesus Christ because we belong to God.

This year, like every year, like every time, this day, every day, offers us the chance to put on our glasses and see that we belong to God, we belong to Christ’s flock, and we can trust the providence of God. This year, like every year, Thanksgiving is an invitation to hope.

Amen.

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