A sermon preached online at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 22 November 2020.
There’s a great deal in both our readings this morning that speaks to us now.
The first reading was from the prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament. The people of God had experienced the greatest catastrophe in their history – the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. The fabric of economic and community life in Judah had collapsed and the leaders taken into exile in Babylon.
The whole of this chapter 34 in Ezekiel is about these leaders, the shepherds of Israel. Earlier in the chapter Ezekiel has argued passionately that the shepherds have only been caring for themselves and not for their sheep:
‘You have not strengthened the weak, you have not
healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured,
you have not brought back the strayed, you have not
sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have
Leadership in all areas of society is so crucial, and in a time such as we’re living through the weight of responsibility lies heavy on those shoulders. The shepherds of Israel had failed hopelessly and were dismissed by God. What now?
God himself will be their shepherd.
That’s where our reading this morning starts, with God having dismissed the shepherds now saying that God will be their shepherd: I myself will search, seek, rescue, bring, gather, feed, bind up, strengthen. The words tumble over each other, finally settling on that briefest of sentences:
‘I will feed them with justice.’
I wonder if you noticed that disturbing bit about what happens when you don’t have good shepherds around. The fat sheep push with flank and shoulder and butt the weaker ones with their horns. Ezekiel knows how sheep behave; I wonder how different we are?
Which countries will first get the vaccine? Will it be the ones that push with flank and shoulder and butt the weaker ones with their horns? I wonder.
There’s deep ambivalence throughout the Old Testament about kings and rulers. Yes they’re needed, but the actual experience of leadership in the Old Testament was rarely very good.
Why not do without them and have God alone as our king, the rule of Christ as our guide?
And that’s where all those Old Testament hopes gather: around a new king who will not be like all the other kings and rulers, but who will finally ‘feed them with justice’.
It’s a deep, deep longing.
Our second reading is the last bit of Christ’s teaching in Matthew’s gospel.
This is the culmination of the five blocks of Christ’s teaching given to us in this gospel and the scene could not be set more grandly:
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the
angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his
glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and
he will separate people one from another as a shepherd
separates the sheep from the goats.’
At the end of each day that’s what a Palestinian herdsman does, separates the sheep from the goats. During the day they graze together side by side but in the evening they’re separated out because the sheep prefer to spend the night in the open air whereas the goats need shelter to keep warm.
What’s so striking in this last bit of teaching, is those whom Christ appoints to be his representative:
‘I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.’
None of these things are beyond us.
At the personal level they’re simple unobtrusive acts of kindness. But we must do them.
At the parish level they’re the activity of Community Cupboard, our commitment to our Harvest Appeal.
And at the level of government it’s keeping in place the £20 rise in Universal Credit, the 0.7% commitment of GDP to the overseas aid budget.
As I said, none of these things are beyond us.
But there’s more.
With the very next verse Matthew begins his story of the passion. That story tells of Christ hungry and thirsty, Christ betrayed and stripped naked, Christ alone and imprisoned.
The Son of Man, who at the beginning of this parable is pictured seated on the throne of his glory, identifies so totally with those who suffer that love for them is service to him:
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of
these, you did it to me.’
Living with that perspective changes everything.