In the passage this morning, the prophet Ezekiel brings strange words of comfort to the people of Judah. These ancestors of ours are in despair. Their holy city and their temple have been destroyed. They have lost land, community, and culture. Now they are living in exile in Babylon. What does the prophet have to say? What hope does he have to give? Do not be afraid: God is your shepherd.
The image of God as shepherd is a familiar and beloved one. We most often hear it in Psalm 23. And in the passage that Karen read, it sounds pretty good. God promises to seek out the people; to gather them in; to give them good pasture.
But these words of promise are sandwiched in between two much more challenging sections of text that we didn’t hear this morning. Take some time and read the whole of chapter 34. Right before the passage we heard, Ezekiel takes the leaders of the people to task. These leaders have ruled with selfishness and force. Ezekiel says: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.” (34:3)
And it’s not only the leaders who are in for a tongue lashing. The sheep who have gotten a little too chubby, a little too assertive, are in for it, too. They have pushed and butted the weaker sheep; and so, they will be destroyed; God will feed them with justice.
This passage wouldn’t have been comforting to everyone in the exiled community. And reading it today, I have trouble deciding where we should cast ourselves in the story. Are we the weak sheep, or the fat ones, or the faulty shepherds? Are we being gently led to a high green pasture homeland; or are we due for a lecture, and a meal of justice?
This community of folks from Concord and its surrounding communities, our West Concord Union Church, most of us have not been through the kind of trauma and dislocation that Ezekiel’s audience experienced. By contrast, our struggles may seem small, and yet they are very real. There are many among us who are mourning. There are those who are sick, and those who are healing from surgery, illness, or abuse. There are tired long-term caregivers here; and parents concerned over their children; and people facing the losses of aging; and people who are lonely. There are those whose work is a burden to them; and those who are unemployed, or underemployed; and those who do not have quite enough in their retirement. There is just about every kind of wound among us, as well as plenty of folks who are just worn out from what is asked of them each day.
I know we need these words of comfort that Ezekiel brings: Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and I will seek them out. I will rescue them, I will gather them, and feed them with good pasture on the mountain heights. They will lay down on good grazing land. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed. I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. These words are for us: God’s hurting and tired people.
And yet I wonder if the other words are for us, too. We, who are by and large so incredibly privileged; privileged, many of us, by education and skin color and income and nationality. Do we need, not only to graze on God’s rich pasturelands, but also to eat justice? This text reminds me of that curious claim that the church exists to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Perhaps God gives us whatever we need at the moment, whether it is a warm embrace, or a swift kick in the pants.
I will confess that for me, this particular season has been one of those “kick in the pants” kind of times. I have shared with this congregation before that when I came to join you in 2009, my husband expected that we would both tithe to our respective congregations; give 10% of our pretax income away. This came as a shock to my system after years of taking on debt and giving myself a pass on any kind of serious giving. I hadn’t heard any of my friends, or even my family, taking about giving in such specific and significant amounts. It took some gasping for air before I was ready to take the plunge. But I did, and I have been at peace about it: grateful to be able to return a tenth of what I received to God and to God’s people in this place, to the work of ministry that happens here.
But this is the first year that a tithe really stretches me. With two incomes, Jeff and I have been very comfortable in what for Concord is a modest way. We also were lucky to finish paying the majority of our educational loans by the time our daughter Miriam came along. But this year is different. As you may have noticed – we’re expecting a second child. And I would like to offer our second child what we offer Miriam: high-quality daycare, with flexible scheduling, right across the street. This care has worked well for Jeff and I, and Miriam has been thriving. But two kids in daycare means a bill of about half of our take-home salary every month. When you account for groceries and gas and car repair, medical bills and life insurance, there just isn’t much left over. Something needs to give. That has made this year the hardest so far, as we have discerned what we will pledge to our faith communities, and give to others. How do we balance the demands and desires of our family, with the biblical instruction to give generously?
But the hardest part of all of this isn’t the budget compromises. The hardest part is realizing how comparatively easy this calculation is for us. I read a testimony this week from one of my colleagues who comes from a radically different background than I do, and he helped me to see how much privilege there is in my family’s discernment. I simply don’t need to worry about a place to live, or food to eat; or whether I will have healthcare. And the kind of childcare I am choosing to provide for my children is a luxury that few in this country, let alone the world, can afford. When I take this perspective, I feel embarrassed that these choices are hard for me to make, or that I’m not willing to give more, or that I don’t go around every day feeling the amazing bounty of my situation.
Because I thank you each individually for what you choose to give this congregation, I want you to know what I have chosen to give this year: $300 a month, or $3,600 over the course of the year, which is approximately 10% of my after-tax income. This is a significant reduction from past years, but a commitment that I feel I can make without risking either debt or disgruntlement. I want to give both substantially and joyfully. Because I believe that what I have been given, I have been given to share. Because I believe in this community: that it truly does work to make God’s love and justice real, both through what it does directly and how it empowers all of us to live differently. With the help of God, and one another, we learn to be people who are not just pushing and butting for our own meal, but loving God, and our neighbors as ourselves, with all that we are, and all that we have. It is because I believe in all of you, and what we do and are together, that I am committing to a pledge that actually requires more sacrifice this year, even though it is a smaller number. As I said, it is a kick in the pants kind of year.
I wonder; what part of Ezekiel’s prophecy is for you, in this season, as you discern your giving or in the rest of your life? What do you need from God today? Do you need to be sought out, embraced, fed, and protected? Do you need to be reminded that the other sheep in the pasture have needs too, perhaps much greater than your own? Maybe; probably; it is both. God, our wise shepherd, feeds each of us with what will help us to be truly healthy and whole: lush grass, sweet water, grace, and a large helping of justice.
God, help us when we are hurting, lost, and lonely, in pain and desperate for your love and protection. Help us also when we have forgotten to care for others with the same generous love that you have shown us. Amen.