Going Upriver

November 22, 2020

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

There is a story of a town named Downriver. Some of you may have heard of this town. It was quaint and the people living there were very pleasant. They knew the happenings of their town and they enjoyed working together. There was no time more important where they needed to work together then when they discovered a body in the river struggling against the current to keep their head above water. Working together, they found a way to help the individual out of the raging waters.

       The next day, they discovered another body struggling in the water and since they devised a plan the day prior, it didn’t take them nearly as long to get the individual out of the water. This became a constant for the town of Downriver as they continued to rescue people from the river. We are now talking about several people a day that were in need of being rescued. This went on for years and it became such a common occurrence they were no longer surprised by those that were struggling against the raging water.

       The question was asked on occasion as to what was happening in the town of Upriver where the town of Downriver was having to rescue people from the raging waters. While the question was asked, there was so much to do that no one ever fully investigated. They accepted that there were people in the raging waters needing to be rescued.

       Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “There comes a point when we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”

       This morning I would like to turn our attention to the Hebrew scriptures and the lesson from Ezekiel. For hundreds of years, the people of Israel had been struggling with their kings. No one could match the prowess and leadership of King David. He was a great warrior and grew the empire of Israel. It would be continued by his son Solomon, but eventually Israel would struggle and lose their importance; being conquered by Babylon and sent into exile. Israel would experience kings that cared little for the people and were more enticed by the power and riches that came with being king.

If we read chapter 34 of Ezekiel in its entirety, we receive the background of our lectionary lesson, as well as the promise God makes to the people of Israel.

       Ezekiel uses the familiar image of the shepherd. It was common for the king at the time to be referred to as a shepherd because of his responsibility to oversee the kingdom. The image of the shepherd was political. No wonder the authorities in Jesus’ time knew they had to deal with him swiftly so that he would not upend their political system. Ezekiel is called to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, because they have been feeding themselves and not caring for the sheep. They would be the goats which Jesus refers to in the gospel lesson this morning.

       The shepherds of Israel have left the people in despair as they find themselves in exile, separated from a land that they have called home for centuries. The shepherds have fed themselves and have become fat and strong while the people of Israel have been weakened. They have counted the riches of the flock, such as the mutton and the wool, while giving no heed to the needs of the flock. The shepherds have not cared for the people of Israel as they should. As this has happened, the people have failed to look to the cause of their desperation, the immoral and unethical conduct of the shepherds. They have failed to look upriver to see what is causing their demise.

       The same can happen to humanity in any time and place. Whenever one’s personal needs are above the needs of the community an imbalance results where care and justice are not given equal measure. The Reign of God calls us to a place where we serve those in need and our needs are cared for as well. It is this Reign of God that Ezekiel reveals to us in his prophesy. It is the same Reign of God that Jesus promises to us in our gospel lesson.

       Ezekiel comes bearing a promise in the oracle he shares. Ezekiel reminds the people of Israel who God is. A God that will seek the lost sheep and return them to the flock. A God who will bring them back into a community from far scattered places.

A God who will feed them with good pasture and they will be comforted in being able to lie down in that pasture and take rest.

       God reveals a love of God’s very creation in the relationship with the people of Israel. It is also a relationship that embodies justice. It is the same justice and care kept in balance which we see reflected in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

       This Sunday we celebrate Reign of Christ Sunday to recognize Jesus as the ruler over all creation. This is our bridge from one church year to the next as we prepare for the coming of Advent and wait to celebrate the birth of the newborn Christ. It is today that we honor Jesus Christ as Lord, or shepherd, over all creation. As we rejoice in Christ’s Reign, we are invited to partake in the Reign of Christ here and now.

       Jesus invites us to go upriver to care for and seek justice for those that are struggling and in need. Those that are fragmented and broken need to know that they are loved and cared for by a loving God. We go upriver to find out why people hunger and thirst. We go upriver to sit with those hurting and in emotional distress. We go upriver to ensure that no one else falls in and struggles against the raging waters of an unforgiving river. We go upriver because Jesus has come to us to let us know that we too are loved and what God reveals to Ezekiel also rings true for us,  “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God.”  

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