(Ezekiel 34: 1-6, 10-16)
It was September 1963. A young man was sitting in the apartment of his friend, who happened to be an up-and-coming singer/songwriter. He noticed a number of song manuscripts and poems lying on the coffee table. He reached down and picked one up and started reading:
Come gather ’round, people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
He was intrigued, but it was another stanza that really caught his eye:
Come senators, congressmen – please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is a ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a changin’.
He turned to the author sitting next to him, held up the scrap of paper, and said, “Man, what is this?” To which a 22-year old Bob Dylan replied, “Well, it seems to be what the people like to hear.”
And he was right. The song would not only go on to be one Dylan’s staples but would also be covered by dozens of artists worldwide. It’s one of those glorious moments for a songwriter when the song ceases to be just yours and becomes the song of everyone. It spoke to a moment in time – the early and mid-60’s – when things were most definitely changing.
Thousands of years before, another prophet penned words in the midst of change; words that the people liked to hear. Ezekiel was one of those who was there when “it” happened. That fateful day, the day they’d talk about for generations; that day when the Babylonian army descended upon beloved city of Jerusalem and ripped the people of God from their homeland, the only land any of them had ever known, and hauled them off to live in Babylonian captivity for a hundred years.
It is impossible to overstate the existential devastation of this single event on the life of God’s people. It threw into chaos all they had known and understood about their world, all that they believed to be true. It was a spiritual catastrophe. They not only questioned who they were, they also questioned who their nation was and what in the world was going to happen next.
In particular, the leaders of God’s people had to face a bit of a reckoning. The prophet Ezekiel uses a common metaphor in the ancient Near East for kings – “shepherds,” he calls them. As a servant of the deity, these shepherd-kings were expected to provide for their people and rule with justice, much the same way that actual shepherds cared for their flocks and guided them where they needed to go.
Centuries before, when God’s people had clamored for a king like other nations had, they had no idea that there would come a day when those kings would come and go like the rising and setting of the sun, like leaves falling from a tree in the heart of autumn. Nor could they have foreseen the ways in which many of these kings would fail them miserably. Rather than serve the people and look out for them, these kings by and large would only look out for themselves and their own interests. Instead of feeding their sheep they would fatten themselves. They would blatantly neglect the sick, the injured, the lost. Their rule would not be kind but brutal. And in the end when the nation was on the brink, when it mattered most, they were nowhere to be found.
Ezekiel’s prophetic indictment of Israel’s leaders is deservedly harsh. But prophets are about more than simply calling out what is wrong. They are also there to speak to hope. And so through the prophet, God offers a profound way forward. God essentially says to the people: Forget those lame shepherds. Tell you what – I’ll be your shepherd. I’ll be for you what they never were. I’ll do that which they never did. From now on, I’m your shepherd.
And even though the prophet would not live to see it with his own eyes, it would come to pass. After experiencing displacement, God would bring them back. After enduring misery, God would nurture and feed them. After being hurt, God would heal them. After all the neglect and mistreatment, God would vindicate them. God would be everything to God’s people that the kings never were. God was the shepherd now.
And lest we think Ezekiel’s Shepherd-God is simply Psalm 23 revisited, listen to how former Montreat speaker MaryAnn McKibben Dana puts it:
God is more than just an immanent presence, comforting with rod and staff. God does not simply walk beside the afflicted in the valley of the shadow of death – God rescues them from it. God does not just prepare a table for the righteous in the presence of their enemies – these enemies are sitting down to dinner as well, a dinner of justice.
Justice. Ezekiel mentions “justice” as one of the things this Shepherd-God provides. The Hebrew word for “justice” is mishpat. At its core, mishpat speaks to the reality where people are treated equitably, where their rights are granted, where they are given their due. It’s that balancing of the scales we hear echoed in Dylan’s tune, and it stands in stark contrast to what the shepherd-kings did before.
But that’s not all. Because for mishpat to truly be justice, it cannot be simply what God does for us. At the heart of mishpat-justice is an expectation that the receiver becomes the one who shares it. You can’t hold onto it or hoard it – which is exactly what those shepherd-kings did. Mishpat-justice is fully realized when the receiver becomes the giver.
Mishpat-justice is fully realized when the receiver becomes the giver.
I think that’s what I’m supposed to tell you all to think about today. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure for a long time this week what this sermon was going to be about. I spent the better part of it staring at a blank computer screen, which is way outside my comfort zone. You’re looking at the guy who in college had their papers done a day or two before they were due.
But this week, I just couldn’t find the words. I am certain it was all the background noise of this election we’ve been living with for what seems like forever, on top of everything else going on these days. I feel pretty certain you know what I’m talking about. I’ve checked in with many of you, and I know you are exhausted. And people of God, I am right there with you.
We are exhausted by a pandemic that has claimed 237,000 American lives and over a million worldwide and is nowhere near letting up. We are exhausted by deep-seed racism, built into the very fabric of our nation, spilling over in unsettling and even violent ways. We are exhausted by all the divides – political, religious, demographic – divides that are only growing deeper. We are exhausted by the mere thought of 545 children separated from their families who very well may never see them again. We are exhausted by the relentless onslaught of natural disasters in hurricanes to our south and wildfires to our west. We are exhausted by not only norms being broken, but the breaking of those norms becoming the norm.
And we are exhausted by an election cycle that has brought to light so much of what is ailing our nation. In a Zoom Prayer service this past Thursday, Jessica Tate, Director of NEXT Church, said that as she looks around our country, what she is hearing is
Pain: Half the country doesn’t SEE ME.
Anger: How could they vote this way?
Grief: This isn’t the country I thought it was.
We are a deeply broken people, a deeply broken nation, she says.
We don’t trust one another.
We don’t respect one another.
We are afraid of one another.
And more than the divide itself, it is how deep the divide goes. Renowned author Jon Meacham said it best on the Today Show this past week when he said: “Many people have set aside their capacity to change their mind if circumstances suggest that they should.” Now think about that. It’s more than simply disagreeing on policy or a particular candidate. We are losing our ability, and even our desire, to have empathy for those across the divide.
Beloved, if this election has shown us anything, anything at all, it is that we are many of the things we had desperately hoped we were not. And if we were waiting for Tuesday to convince us otherwise, if we were hoping the vote tallies would not only determine who gets to hold office but somehow magically clear up the messiness and uncertainty of who we are, that did not happen. And we should not expect it to. The prophet Ezekiel told us as much thousands of years ago.
When it comes to our civic duty and our privilege of participating in a democracy by casting our ballots, we are right to expect our elected leaders to be decent, to be fair, and to do their jobs. But if we expect them to heal our divides and make whole that which is broken in us, Ezekiel and Bob Dylan and a whole host of other prophets are here to tell us loud and clear that we will be sorely disappointed in both them and ourselves. The work of healing and wholeness is our work, in tandem with our Shepherd-God, who longs for the day when the mishpat-justice God gives becomes the mishpat-justice we share.
And for all the narrow ballot margins and nail-biting finishes and races decided or undecided, for all that is still up in the air, this election has made one thing crystal clear: there is much work ahead for us. And that work is not to try and convince those who disagree with us to suddenly see things our way; that work is not to make others change who they are to better reflect who we are. No – our work, at its heart, people of God, is to love the other and share God’s mishpat-justice with the world. That is the only way out of the death cycle we are spiraling away in, where divides are made deeper, where violence and hate are made stronger, and where we are more concerned with being right than being faithful.
More than ever, we need our Shepherd-God to care for us, to nurture us, to protect us from harm, and sometimes to protect us from ourselves. With God as our shepherd, our faith and trust and hope is properly placed. With God as our shepherd, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, we can hope to discover the “restoration of the common good so that all members of the community, strong and weak, rich and poor, may live together in a common shalom of shared resources.”
We don’t get any of that from an election. Because mishpat-justice is fully realized when the receiver becomes the giver. Friends, the healing our world so desperately needs is in our hands, and it begins today. For the sake of our broken world – for the love of God – let’s share some justice.
In the name of that God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Feasting On The Word, Year A Vol. 4, pg. 316.
Featured image from https://mysteryandmud.com/tag/ezekiel-341-16/