Sermon Archives

Just Deserts

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Nov 26

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7 and Ephesians 1:15-23

A few weeks ago, I came home and found my daughter Nellie vegging out to some new reality TV show from Australia. It’s a baking contest where two local pastry chefs compete against each other and the clock to prepare some impossibly intricate and colorful sweet treats before they stand before two judges who rank their efforts on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s called Just Desserts. Get it? Of course, “deserts” with one “s” used to be a common word for a reward or punishment that is truly deserved. The expression “just deserts” means simply that you get what’s coming to you!

Leftover pies aside, it turns out that our scriptures for today serve up some just deserts for us all to consider. All three texts were appointed as a nod to a relatively recent liturgical feast known as Christ the King Sunday or the Reign of Christ Sunday. By papal decree, Catholics began observing it only in 1925. Protestants followed suit soon after when the shared lectionary of weekly readings began to take hold across churches and denominations. As such, our scriptures share a common theme: they are all about God and Christ’s authority, power and dominion. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul sets Christ on God’s right hand at the heavenly throne above all earthly powers and authorities. In both our Psalm and our text from Ezekiel, we encounter images of divine and divinely inspired leadership, especially the metaphors of shepherd, king and judge. Biblical depictions of both David and Jesus often oscillate between the gently guiding, caring and searching character of shepherd on the one hand and the strong, solitary, justice-wielding sovereignty of a King, on the other hand, albeit a King of Love. Setting aside the timely foreshadowing of the roles that shepherds and kings will play in the Christmas Story in just a few weeks, I’m most interested for now in Ezekiel’s image of a shepherd and the related ideas of both justice and judgment.

It all starts out sounding so lovely! Maybe this is because I just enjoyed two days in Northern Vermont with part of my family, taking in gorgeous hillside pastures, communing roadside with the ample cows and sheep we saw, feasting on Thanksgiving dinner and grazing on its leftovers. Ezekiel starts out with images of a God who seeks us out and gathers in the scattered sheep of family and flock, and feeds us with good and rich pastures. If you’ve been feeling banged up or disheartened by the news lately, in need of a pasture to lie down in for a time, this text is for you! As in Psalm 23— God makes us lie down, amen? What’s more, we are told that God will search out the lost among us, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak. You go, God!

But then, in the midst of all that loveliness we get this line: “But,” says God, “the fat and the strong I will destroy.” “I will feed them with justice.” Dun, dun, dun. Show’s over. It continues… “I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide. 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.”
So much for gentle, guiding, or caring Shepherd! What we’ve got here, and this image comes back in Matthew 25, is a shepherd willing to separate not only goats from sheep, but sheep from sheep! And what, pray tell, does it mean that God is going to feed the fat sheep with justice?

So often when we hear a text like this, we think we know exactly who the “fat sheep” are, or who are the goats. We instinctively call to mind those who are truly deserving of God’s judgment. Oh, we know we may sin and wander, just like everyone, we are human of course, but somewhere deep down most of us still count ourselves as within the fold of God’s love, within that flock of the righteous. At least we’re not like those fat sheep!

To put this theory to the test, I wonder…. did any particular fat sheep come to mind when you first heard this text? Be honest! Did the description remind you of anyone in a position of public prominence who likes to bully around weaker animals? It did for me! Did it call to mind anyone who wants to scatter all those animals back to the places from whence they came in order to take their grazing land? Again, yes! Did any fat sheep come to mind who want to create a tax bill that will make the fat sheep fatter? Well….It’s one way of bringing this passage home to where we live. Punch line of that sermon: “We should all be crying justice for the lean sheep, and reminding the fat sheep to answer to the shepherd, the one who stands above all earthly power!” By this logic, we can see how this Christ the King Sunday might have some relevance to our current politics.

Well, blame it on the tryptophan, that stuff that’s in turkey that makes us sleepy, but I can’t go there, not today at least. I can’t go there because the question that’s been plaguing me is this: What if we are all fat sheep? Think about it, what if those differences that are polarizing our dinner tables and demographics, that are tearing our families and country apart, are relatively narrow in God’s sight? Hard to imagine, I know. But what if, in God’s sight, we are all fat sheep, at least, say, 95% of us? Those who are voting for the tax reform bill and those who are disgusted by it? Fat sheep. Those who voted for Trump and those who didn’t? Fat sheep. What if we are not as different as we think in God’s eyes and we are all in need of a fat-sheep sized, decidedly unhappy meal of justice?

I’ve heard many of you struggling with the increasing political polarization in our country right now. We wonder how can we talk to one another and how can we break though the impasse of our widely divergent perspectives on what’s really going on. I read an article this past week about how therapists get especially busy before and after Thanksgiving precisely because people often need coaching in how to navigate differences in their families and they need to debrief after the fact! Anyone know the feeling? Read our passage at one of those Thanksgiving dinners and you can bet people would be differentiating themselves, judging self and others as lean and fat, literally or figuratively— and in my family’s case, sadly, it’s both! By the way, yes, I am feeling like a “fat sheep” these days, and were “fat” not the word used in scripture, I’d be looking for some less offensive or triggering version because I know many of us have real concerns about our weight and waistline and health and the last thing we need is further negative associations with being fat. Ultimately though, the text isn’t about weight. It’s about judgment …and justice. It’s especially about how we judge ourselves, how we judge one another, and most importantly how we leave ourselves open to God’s judgment when it comes to a vision of God’s kingdom, God’s realm, and God’s pasture where love and justice are manifest for all. It sticks right in our faces that uncomfortable notion that we can’t have justice without judgment, and we can’t have judgment, without a judge! It makes us look at our blind spots and at the ways we, however unwittingly, assume the authority not only of being justice-makers, but of being the judges as well!

In the midst of increasing family and national polarization, reminding ourselves of the God’s-eye view may be a key to break through the impasse. Consider, if you will, that in the grand scheme, God, who is the ultimate judge, sees little to no difference between those who voted for Trump and those who did not? We are all fat sheep and all still equally worthy of God’s love and grace and forgiveness! Could we begin to come off our high horses, to lay down our crooks and stop thinking that we know where the dividing lines are, and who fits in the fold of our politics and who gets left for slaughter?

Imagine, as I did for some odd reason in the car ride home yesterday, that my father-in-law who voted for Trump and I were invited to a local prison for Thanksgiving dinner, just the two us, showing up in a prison cafeteria for a ration of 1 slice of highly processed turkey meat and a scoop of powdered mashed potatoes. Would the thousands of incarcerated persons there see any difference between the two of us or would they just see two relatively well-fed, free, white sheep who have far more in common with each other than we do with most of them? Is that what it would feel like to be fed with a taste of God’s justice? I don’t know! I’m not the Shepherd. I’m not the Judge. I’m not the King! I’m just one sheep with a hyperactive imagination.

But, given my father-in-law’s politics, I’d usually consider him the fatter sheep! At some level, he knows it. He says to me, I’m sure, “who am I to judge him?” and the conversation is over before it started! I wonder if things would be any different if I came to him, fat sheep to fat sheep, and said, “Hey, can we talk about this pasture that we’ve both been chowing down on, both taking more than our share, both of us, by a global standard, gorging ourselves on food, water, carbon, education, health care, etc.?” What if we came together and asked what are we both willing to give up? Would it help? Two plump sheep chewing the fat together?

Scripture at its best has a way of reframing of our usual narratives, allowing us to try on different roles. At its best, it may even help us to imagine and write a new script. If we are all fat sheep, for example, then the question before us is - what does it mean that God wants to feed us with justice? Just what would that meal look like for you and me? Would it mean eating someone else’s leftovers? Would it be a time for fasting and reflection about our overconsumption? Would we learn to give up some of our grazing land?

It so happens that this Tuesday night, right here at First Church, we have a unique opportunity to set our real and proverbial tables in a new way, at a meal served right out of our new kitchen. Since we are still writing the ground rules for use of our new kitchen and since we don’t yet have any customs for eating together the meals that it will provide, we want to experiment with ways we can make our meal times more meaningful, connected and spiritually grounded. What patterns do we want to establish for how we set up and clean up, how we serve one another or serve ourselves, how will we share grace before meals? Answering these questions will be part of our collective work. As we consider these things, I wonder if we can ponder as well the question Ezekiel puts before us? What would it be like to let God feed us with justice? How can we stop unwittingly pushing aside “with flank and shoulder” the leaner sheep? Rather than joking about the fat sheep that are ruining our country, how can we share a meal in ways that make us grow our humility, fasting from the usual judgments of those fat sheep that are ruining our world? How can we ponder together the justice God would have us digest and what kind of enlarged perspective and enlarged hope that might allow? Come on Tuesday and let’s find out together. We’ll provide the pasta and you bring a side or a dessert (whether one “s” or two). It will be the first of what we hope will be many “Life Together Tuesdays.”

The phrase “Life Together,” by the way, is the title of a book by Dietrich Bonheoffer, the famous pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident. Hear his words: “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” As we prepare for a new year together, and many new meals together, may Christ’s love be our light and grace always! May that light and grace be what sets our tables, what guides our conversations, and what reigns in our hearts above all earthly rule and division. Indeed, may Christ ever be the King of Love, our Shepherd and our judge! Amen.

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