Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
A sermon by Meighan Pritchard
Prospect United Church of Christ
Seattle, WA November 26, 2017
Two sheep jokes:
Where does a sheep get its hair cut?
At the baaa-ber’s.
What do you call a sheep covered in chocolate?
A candy baaaa.
The thing about parables is the opportunity for multiple entry points. Of course we want to be the sheep, not the goats. We want to believe that we will do the right thing when confronted by need and suffering. And we try, repeatedly, to get that right, to respond when crises hit. But sometimes we are the goats, ignoring the need in our midst, turning a blind eye. And sometimes, as much as we don’t want to admit it, we are the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick or in prison. We are the ones in need.
There is no sin in being in need. There is no sin in being a sheep who does the right thing. But those goats…. So today we’re going to look at some examples of being a sheep, an example of being in need of a sheep, and then we’ll do some wrestling with our inner goat.
Father Greg Boyle was a guest on Terry Gross’s radio program “Fresh Air” last week. He is a Jesuit priest serving a largely Hispanic neighborhood in LA. His community has lots of gangs, lots of young people ending up dead through gun violence. He set up an organization, Homeboy Industries, now the largest of its kind in the U.S., for people who wanted out of the gang culture or were coming out of prison and wanted to make a fresh start.
Thirty years ago when we started Homeboy Industries, you know, the motto was nothing stops a bullet like a job, and that was a response to gang members saying if only we had work. And that was essential, but then when we discovered that, you know, we would dispatch gang members to jobs. But the minute any kind of monkey wrench was tossed into the mix, they would unravel, you know, that there was no resilience.
There was no healing. And they would go right back to gang life or go back to prison. So it was then that we kind of, probably 15 years ago, we said, you know, healing is probably more necessary along with the fact that people need to have a reason to get up in the morning and a place to go and a reason not to gang bang.
So we kind of altered in an essential way that if people don't have a foundational, fundamental healing, you know, then it's going to be really difficult for them to navigate their lives. And so we altered our kind of fundamental stance from just finding a job for every gang member or employing them with us but also trying to have them come to terms with whatever suffering they've been through and trauma. [https://www.npr.org/2017/11/13/563734736/priest-responds-to-gang-members-lethal-absence-of-hope-with-jobs-and-love]
And then about 15 years ago Father Greg got leukemia. It’s a chronic leukemia that he has so far been able to live with, but it changed things with the people he serves. Now they get to take care of him, too.
You know, the homies still say, I hear your cancer's in intermission.... That it has apparently stepped up to the lobby to buy popcorn. You know, past two years, I have had to go through immunotherapy and radiation recently. But it’s—you know, I would not trade this for anything because it allows homies to be tender in a way that's different than the usual thing, you know? They just—they would just do anything for you. And they express it constantly in my presence or on—usually on a text and very sweet, very kind. And you feel cherished, you know? [Ibid.]
These young men have so many needs in order to get their lives on track, but they’re not stuck just being the ones in need. Sometimes they get to be the sheep, the ones who reach out to help.
And that’s true for all of us. We are sheep, we are goats, we are the ones in need. We are all of them.
One time in college during spring break I was visiting my friend Kate in a town that neither of us knew well. We went to a movie that got out at 11pm. To walk back to our car, we decided to take the main street, because it was better lit, more likely to have people around. As soon as we got to that main street, a man we didn’t know fell into step with us. He threw his arm around me and said, “I’m gonna get me some white girls tonight.”
We weren’t quite sure what he meant by that, but it seemed to involve us in some way that we were not assenting to, and we weren’t sure what to do. So we kept walking down the street, him with his arm around me, and me hanging onto Kate. All the restaurants that had been open a few hours earlier were now closed. There was no place for us to duck into an open business and get away from this man.
After maybe a block we came upon a man and woman who were strolling along the sidewalk going our same direction. There was not room for all three of us to pass together around this couple, so Kate and I went around on the right, and this guy went around on the left. And the man in the couple said to that guy, “Not tonight. Not tonight.”
That was all we needed. We took off running. We ran up to a hotel in the next block, ran through the lobby, got on an elevator, took it to the top floor, and just walked around the hallway for a while. We didn’t know what had just happened, except that it wasn’t headed anywhere good, and the man in that couple intervened on our behalf. We were the ones in need, and he was our sheep. Thank God.
This comes to mind in light of recent women—and some men—coming forward to name in public people who have abused them. Harvey Weinstein and all the others. And what I’m wondering now, along with a lot of others, is Where were the sheep in all this? Where were the people to warn these women away from powerful men who repeatedly behaved badly? Because in many cases other people knew this was going on and said nothing.
When we see something amiss and do nothing, we become complicit in evil. We step away from our own power for good. We decline to connect to the rest of the flock, and we decline to connect to all that is holy in each person.
Last night in this space we showed a film called Promised Land, about the quest of the Chinook and Duwamish tribes for legal recognition from the U.S. government. Brian Baird, who served as the representative for Washington’s third legislative district from 1999 to 2011, learned the history of white people’s systematic abuse of Native Americans who have lived on this land for thousands of years. He has tried to champion recognition of these two tribes, but the process is still dragging on. And he basically said the same thing: When we see something amiss and do nothing, we become complicit in evil.
So I have to ask myself: Why am I sometimes still a goat? There are people in need. Why am I not helping? And there can be many answers. Here are some of the ones that run through my head:
These are excuses, and they may even be true. But the needs are real and growing.
Maybe we can’t all be like Father Greg, devoting our entire lives to working with the people most in need. But I suggest that when we are able to get past all the excuses of our inner goat and actually reach out to those in need, the transformation can work both ways. We help someone in need. And sometimes they also help us. At the very least, we come to know ourselves as people who will show up, people who will stand up, people who will bear witness to the brokenness. We can refuse to be complicit in broken systems.
The good news is that we don’t have to fix everything all by ourselves. But we do have to try. We do have to keep wrestling with our inner goats. Whether we are feeding lunch to a bunch of hungry people or advocating to change the system so that no one goes hungry, we get to own our power to change the world for the better.
In the passage we read from Ezekiel this morning, God promises to come and be a shepherd to the people. Look at all the healing and caring terms in this Ezekiel passage: God will seek the lost, bring back the strayed, and bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. For those of us who are lost, strayed, injured, or weak, this is very good news.
We want that shepherd. We want God to come and take care of us, bring the scattered flock together, find the good pastures and water. When we celebrate the coming of the Messiah a month from now, what else are we looking for but this: the Divine coming into the world to take care of the sheep, to bring justice and healing and good pasture for all.
Next week begins Advent, and in our sermon times we will explore what kind of Messiah we are waiting for. But we actually started on that road to Bethlehem today.
We need a Messiah to be born in each of us to help us wrestle with goats.
We need a Messiah who will call us to be good shepherds, to seek out the lost and strayed, the injured, the hungry.
We need a Messiah to gather the flock together, to bring it out of the desert of injustice and into good pastures where all may graze and drink good water and none are forgotten or left behind.
Come, Messiah, come, into each of us. Amen.
All men are created equal: George Lakoff on democracy, equality, historical development of this concept.
All the nations: all-skate, no one left on the sidelines.
We talk about sheep and goats as being herd animals: they like to stick together. As opposed, say, to mountain lions, which tend to roam solo. Humans are generally herd animals, too. We have a word for those who are the exception to this rule: hermit. It’s not a flattering term. We are suspicious of people who are solitary. Even the Lone Ranger had a sidekick. Think of what word comes to mind when we say “lone.” We use it to describe shooters. The lone gunman.
What are the advantages of being part of the herd?
Ezekiel talking of an exodus-like movement: rescue, bring them out, gather, bring them in, feed them. No sheep left behind.
Not such good news for the fat, bullying sheep. God will destroy them. God will feed them with justice. I have seen sheep that got it in their minds to start butting each other, and if I were a shepherd looking to cull the herd, those are the ones I would want out of there.
We see similar ideas in the text from Matthew, only now it’s not between lean and fat sheep, but between sheep and goats.
Pearl the goat was in among the sheep. Maybe she missed being part of a goat herd, or maybe she was just naturally ornery, but she liked to gore people in the thigh with her horns.
Notice that this passage in Matthew says nothing about what religion you follow. Nothing about what you believe, what flock or tribe or nationality you belong to, what socioeconomic level you’re in, your level of education, your gender—none of that matters. Not about what creed you believe in, how much you tithe, what sacrifices you make at the Temple. It’s about how you live in relationship with those most in need around you. What matters is how you connect with each other, care for each other, support each other. Love each other. Oh, that’s right. We’re supposed to love each other, not shove each other out of the way so the powerful few can get more of the food and water.
A friend of mine once said, “I choose to work with high-functioning adults.” I didn’t know you could make choices like that. It’s tempting to say you have no gift for working with people who have special challenges. And yet he was one of the most tender, patient, good-natured people when working with a mutual friend who was particularly challenging. Maybe he just didn’t want to own up to his inner sheep.