HOLY KEYS: GATHERING STRAYS

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 21 April 24

A Sermon on Ezekiel 34:11-19 by Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS

Ezekiel 34:11-19  English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles

11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. 17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

HOLY KEYS: GATHERING STRAYS

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

God Names Bad Shepherds

We learn from reading 1 Samuel that God is King. He is the Shepherd of His people. When Israel insisted they wanted to have an earthly king like their neighbors, the prophet Samuel warned them that having kings would be their undoing. For, all too often, kings (and leaders of every sort) let that go to their heads. We also learn from reading 1 Samuel that good kings think of themselves as princes. They know that God is the true King. Good kings lead the people in keeping the Sinai covenant. Good kings shepherd their people with their eyes on the Shepherd King.

This is extremely difficult to try to translate into the American experience where we do not have a theocracy such as God’s people were intended to have in the Promised Land. This is not the Promised Land. America is not the new Israel. Our presidents are not chosen by God. Our presidents are chosen by people. Our presidents may invoke God (as all of them do at one time or another) but often the god they invoke is not the biblical God but rather a god that conforms to their own political vision. The psalmist reminds us: “Do not put your trust in princes” (146:2).

Why? We live in a death-denying, itchy-eared, narcissistic culture that frequently casts justice as comeuppance for those who do not share “my” worldview. As with all bad theology and bad Bible-reading, this problem begins with the autonomous self, who, in turn, creates its own god who shares “my” commitments. Such a god fawns over “me” and will destroy “my” enemies. On the other hand, the one true God declares that everyone has an “old Adam” or “old Eve” (which is the old sinner inside each person). We are born dead in our trespasses and, left to ourselves, we will die in our trespasses. So, put a gaggle of old sinners together, and you have a world of hurt. God’s justice is not, then, selectively focused on “my” enemies. Rather, justice is getting what you deserve, which is never good news for sinners. All of us are sinners. Justice isn’t good news.

Through Ezekiel, God names the bad shepherds as the kings who were all about themselves, growing fat and strong at the expense of the people. For us, it is not hard to think of all those who benefited from the Covid pandemic: St. Anthony of Fauci, the politicians, the pharmaceutical companies, the mega-wealthy online merchants and techie parasites, and even many bad bishops who marched in lockstep with politicians and completely shut down those churches who kowtowed to their lordship. Bad shepherds scatter the flock through fear. Bad shepherds dole out money that is not theirs. Bad shepherds are undone by their own greed and covetousness. So, it was that, first, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria. Then, the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Chaldeans. Judgment fell on God’s people, because they were led astray by bad shepherds who did not fear, love, and trust God above all else.

God’s justice was not good news for Israel and Judah. God’s justice was judgment. They got what they asked for. They got what they deserved. Politicians, beware. Corporate leaders, beware. Bishops, pastors, and lay leaders, beware. People of God, beware. Bad shepherds of every sort will get what they deserve, and the people who follow them will be scattered and get lost.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd

This may come as a shock to many. Jesus is not a Democrat. Jesus is not a Republican. Jesus is not an American. Jesus is not a Lutheran or a non-denominational Boyfriend. Jesus is LORD. He is God in a crucified, resurrected, and ascended Jewish male body. Jesus will not be coopted by the politicians, bishops, pastors, and lay leaders who would remake Him into a god that shares “my” commitments and considers “my” enemies to be His. He will come again to judge the living and the dead when God’s justice will prevail for those who insist on receiving what they deserve. But for the strayed, the injured, and the weak, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, whose grace and mercy, are good news. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve. Mercy is not getting what we do deserve. Jesus’ Good News is grace and mercy. It is not justice, which is God’s judgment.

Selective reading of Scripture, which always begins with “me” leads to bad Bible reading and bad theology. So, if the lens through which “I” read Scripture is “my” definition of what it means to be god, then that god will look a lot like “me.” That’s how folks end up with a socialist Jesus or a capitalist Jesus; a Democrat Jesus or a Republican Jesus; an American Jesus or a global south Jesus, etc. If “I” start with “me,” then “my” Jesus looks a lot like “me.” That’s not Jesus.

In my baby boom childhood in the late 50s and early 60s, there were, at least, thirty-five kids living on our block of twenty-two houses. On summer evenings, we would play games until almost dark. The big kids loved to play hide-and-seek and always made sure one of the little kids was “it.” They would hide where the little kids couldn’t find them. They didn’t want to be found. Too many people are still playing that game today. They are scattered and lost and don’t know it. In other words, they don’t want to be found by the Good Shepherd, because He would claim them. When Jesus claims you, then you are no longer your own. You are no longer in charge. He is.

The fat and the strong are not all rich and famous. The fat and the strong are those who fancy themselves to be in charge whether it’s on a grand scale or something as intimate as one’s life, whether it’s in the White House, the state house, or the outhouse. (In case you missed it, that’s the place you go to potty when you don’t have plumbing). The fat and strong don’t want Jesus to be their Good Shepherd and really want Jesus to stay out of anything important like daily life.

For the weak, the injured, and scattered, which is everyone born dead in their trespasses, the Lord Jesus comes to live the totally obedient life none of us can live and to die the innocent death none of us can die that we might be His own. Jesus did not come simply to get our vote, our money, or anything we have, He came to rescue us from sin, death, and evil. He doesn’t need anything from us. He wants all of us, because, apart from Him, we are lost and condemned. Baptized into His saving death and glorious resurrection, we are no longer our own. We are His.

His Sheep Gather Strays

If you are older, you likely have children, grandchildren, siblings, or friends who are strays. Some claim to be Christians but worship other gods day by day. Some claim to be spiritual but not religious, which means they don’t want a Good Shepherd to claim them as His. Some dabble in God, which means that occasionally a little Jesus is necessary like a booster shot, but really it’s work, sports, money, politics, pleasure, or play that they fear, love, and trust. Not Jesus.

What can we do about that? Pray daily for them. Invite them to worship. Watch and wait for those opportunities when the gods they fear, love, and trust fail them… as they must always do. Let your faith be so genuine that, as much as possible, you show that Jesus is your Good Shepherd. Ask for forgiveness as you are able. Practice forgiveness as you have been forgiven. If you run into a wall of childish intransigence, an insistence on staying lost, then pray and ask others to pray. And remember that the Lord God let His people of old discover to their own regret what happens when they trusted in bad shepherds and did not fear, love, and trust God above all else.

Very briefly, take note that God is in charge of our congregation’s disaffiliation from the ELCA and not the North Carolina synod. When Pharaoh did not let God’s people go, the Lord God was not powerless. Pharaoh thought he was in charge. He had to be broken. Everyone born dead in his or her trespasses has to learn that before the one true God we are weak, injured, and scattered. God knows we need a Good Shepherd. Everyone needs a Good Shepherd. Jesus is that Shepherd.

During His earthly ministry before His glorification, the Lord Jesus did not heal all the sick. He did not restore all the broken. He did not feed all the hungry. He did not raise all the dead. His mighty works accompanied His teaching and pointed to who He is (and not was)! The Good Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep. He died for you. He died for all. That all may be His.

When we are His through our Baptism into His saving death and glorious resurrection, our lives are not our own. His Father does not need our good works, but our neighbor does. The Holy Spirit enables our lives to be marked by loving service, not as the neighbor wants but, as God wants. We love, because He first loved us. We gather strays, because that is indeed what God’s own sheep do. We follow the Good Shepherd to the table where He feeds us with His own true Body and most precious Blood. We follow our Shepherd and show others He alone gives life!

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©Samuel David Zumwalt, STS

szumwalt@bellsouth.net

St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church

Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin insert

Holy Keys: Gathering Strays

Praying

“God of all power, you called from death our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep: Send us as shepherds to rescue the lost, to heal the injured, and to feed one another with knowledge and understanding; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (Lutheran Book of Worship, 22).

Listening

Ezekiel 34:11 “… Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”

St. Augustine [Late 4th – early 5th century Bishop of Hippo Regius, Algeria]: “Rain and fog, the errors of this world, a great darkness arising from human lusts, a thick fog covering the earth. And it is difficult for the sheep not to go astray in this fog. But the shepherd does not desert them. He seeks them, his piercing gaze penetrates the fog, the thick darkness of the clouds does not prevent him” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Ezekiel, 109).

Ezekiel 34:12 “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered…”

St. Gregory of Nazianzus [4th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Turkey]: “He is shepherd to shepherds and a guide to guides: that we may feed his flock with knowledge, not with the instructions of a foolish shepherd” (109).

Ezekiel 34:13 “… And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel…”

St. Augustine: “He established the mountains of Israel, the authors of the divine Scriptures. Feed there, in order to feed without a qualm. Whatever you hear from that source, let that taste good to you; anything from outside, spit it out… listen to the voice of the Shepherd… you will find nothing poisonous…” (109).

Ezekiel 34:16 “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed…”

St. Gregory the Great [6th century Bishop of Rome, Italy]: “If we are negligent, does almighty God desert his sheep? No; he himself will pasture them, as he promised through the prophet” (110).

Ezekiel 34:16 “… and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak….”

St. Basil the Great [4th century Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca, Turkey]: “If you are a shepherd, take care that none of your pastoral duties is neglected. And what are these duties? To bring back that which is lost, to bind up that which was broken, to heal that which is diseased” (110).

Ezekiel 34:16 “…and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”

St. Gregory the Great: “We must all of us strive zealously to make known to the church both the dreadfulness of the coming judgment and the kingdom of heaven’s delight…  support those we challenge and challenge those we support. If we neglect this, our work will lack either courage or gentleness” (110).

Reflecting

  1. In what palpable ways will I point those who have gone astray to Jesus the Good Shepherd?

 Learning

 DAILY PRAYERS (from Luther’s Small Catechism)

 HOW THE HEAD OF THE FAMILY SHOULD TEACH HIS HOUSEHOLD TO OFFER A BLESSING

 Asking a Blessing

 The children and members of the household shall go to the table reverently, fold their hands, and say:

 “The eyes of all look to You, [O Lord,] and You give them their food at the proper time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” Psalm 145:15-16.

Then shall be said the Lord’s Prayer and the following:

Lord God, heavenly Father, bless us and these Your gifts which we receive from your bountiful goodness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Doing

  1. Pray for every unbaptized child, youth, and adult that you know and for the child’s parents, too.
  2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship in person with you. Suggest they check out in advance our worship online (https://stmatthewsch.org/livestream).
  3. 3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how to set aside time for regular prayer. Keep this order for blessing at your table and pray before your meal in this way. Plan to attend the Church Picnic on Sunday, April 28, at 12:30 p.m. in the McSwain Center.
  4. As a sign of gratitude for God’s mercy in Jesus Christ and for the gift of the most significant women in your life, make a suggested gift of $10 (each?) to help survivors of human trafficking through First Fruit Ministries. The deadline for such gifts is May 5, 2024
  5. Set aside time daily, preferably first thing, but when you are able to focus, to hear the Word of God, to reflect upon that Word, and to ask the Holy Spirit to grant you grace to be shaped by and conformed to that Word. Daily Bible readings may be found at www.stmatthewsch.org. Daily lectionary readings are on p.188 in the front of the Lutheran Book of Worship (Week of 4 Easter).
  6. Curious about Christianity in general and/or the Lutheran church in particular? Register for the next New Disciples Class on Saturday, April 27, from 9 a.m. to noon in the church library.

For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”