Sermon - 26th April 2015
Shepherds of Israel
Ezekiel 34:1-10; John 10:11-18
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
We live in an age when people are disengaged from politics, when politicians are often viewed with suspicion and when irrelevant things take on huge importance.
A few weeks ago I was sitting as a magistrate and, at lunchtime, a few of us were chatting about how we thought the election campaign was going. A respected colleague was listening and burst into the conversation saying she thought Nigel Farage was dreadful because his wife wore ugly clothes! Now, I’ve never seen Mrs Farage, have no opinion on her clothes and can think of many reasons to critique her husband which don’t involve his wife’s dress sense! In one way I was horrified that such an intelligent person could make a political judgement on such insubstantial things, on the other hand I suspect she might represent a larger part of the population than we’re comfortable with.
Ezekiel uses a powerful image of the sheep and the shepherd to lambast the religious and political leaders of his day. He was writing when Israel was in Exile and the Jewish theologians of the day were interpreting the Exile as a sign of God’s displeasure with them. Ezekiel saw the religious leaders as shepherds who eat, rather than feed, the sheep entrusted to their care; the people feel they have no true leaders and have been scattered into Exile.
Many in my congregation have been scattered into Exile because their religious and political leaders have failed to create a fair and just society which protects and nurtures its people. The scandal about Parliamentary Expenses has caused a long shadow and many clearly think, unfairly in my view, that politicians are in it solely for what they can get out of it.
But Ezekiel does more than simply lambast the leaders, he promises change. God will judge the bad shepherds and will, himself, come and gather the sheep, caring and feeding them.
Jesus’ words in St John’s Gospel are in stark contrast to Ezekiel’s bleak vision of the sheep and the shepherds. A few verses before today’s passage starts he said the good shepherd was opposed to the thief and the bandit. In today’s passage he develops the theme: the good shepherd is better than the hired hand who runs away.
Thieves and bandits are bad news for the owner of the sheep as they steal animals, deprive the owner of the income produced from their wool, milk and meat and, nowadays in particular, dreadfully mistreat the animals. Hired hands who run away because they are lazy are no use either. These verses have a strong echo of Ezekiel in his critique of the religious and political leaders of the day and I’m sure both Jesus and those who listened to him would have made the link - yet another time when Jesus’ radicalism would have put him into confrontation with the authorities as he is clearly implying that he is the change that Ezekiel promised so long ago.
Instead of killing the sheep, he will lay down his life for them; instead of just looking after his own sheep, he will look after other sheep – presumably Gentiles. It is a compare and contrast moment, just as it is in Ezekiel.
In Jesus's time the political and religious leaders had to kowtow to Rome, had to keep the population subdued, had to agree to the Romans levying taxes and had to agree to Roman occupation of their land. The people were impatient for change yet were oppressed and betrayed by their own leaders.
We, with 2,000 years of history behind us, are used to thinking of Jesus as a good shepherd and we’re used to thinking of clergy as shepherds. After all the word “pastor” means shepherd. Pope Francis has said he wants bishops and priests to “smell of their sheep” – meaning they are not in ivory towers but have pastoral hearts. So we read this passage and think nice comforting thoughts about Jesus.
Now, of course it is comforting to think of Jesus as our shepherd: but he is saying something deeper. If Jesus is our shepherd he is in stark contrast to others who try to shepherd us. If Jesus is our shepherd then we have to compare and contrast his leadership, his self-sacrifice, his love with those who seek to lead us. This point wouldn’t have been lost on his original leader – “Look! I’m the good shepherd but they are bad shepherds. Like Ezekiel said, they are devouring the flock entrusted to their care.” That is edgy; that is uncomfortable listening for anyone in power.
We’re used, in recent years, to realising how clergy can fail in their charge to be good shepherds. The scandals of abuse that have engulfed all the denominations have been dreadful. The loss of confidence in our political leaders isn’t as shocking but is, perhaps, as dangerous as people are tempted to look at extremism if they have no trust in the political process.
Jesus’ words are a timely reminder to us to avoid putting our trust in earthly leaders, powers and parties. Pope Paul VI, in a seminal encyclical on evangelism, warned his readers not to put their trust in any ideology – no matter how good it seemed, no matter how much it claimed to help humanity as, in the end, Paul said, unless it was grounded on the Gospel and only the Gospel it would contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
As we approach the election we make our choices and cast our ballots; but we shouldn’t think that any party has all the answers, as politics will involve compromise and the unexpected and is made up of people just like you and me who are flawed and broken. Instead we should put our trust in Jesus, our Good Shepherd who leads, nurtures and guides us.