Facing The Future Without Fear
Ezekiel 34: 1-16
Chilmark Community Church
May 7, 2017
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
(Bold, italicized text indicates material excerpted from a talk and commentary given by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as foot noted below)
“These are the times that try men’s souls, and they’re trying ours now.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks quoted Thomas Paine as he began a talk about how we can face the future without fear if we face it together.
There are so many layers of meaning in the scriptures that we have just heard. As we so often discover with rich texts, we will probably miss a few.
I want to use three questions to get at some of the layers. Actually, they are questions we could use for any bible study. First : What does the text reveal about the relationship between God and humankind? Second: If we understand that the scripture can reveal something about God, what kind of Self is God revealing? And third: What is the text either teaching or asking us about our own relationship with The Holy One? And then perhaps one final question: “What does the holy One have in mind for us to learn about moving into the future with confidence?”
The passages we have just heard are chock full of sheep and shepherd images. I never realized how the metaphors of flocks, and shepherds and sheep permeate so much of the Bible until I began thinking about today’s sermon. One of the first things we notice in the words of Ezekiel is that the prophet points to the reality that the flock – the people of God – is scattered – wandering – at risk – in danger of becoming food for predators. Their wounds are not being cared for. When they stray off from the flock no one seeks them out to bring them back. They are separated from each other – – lost sheep.
The prophets used the metaphor of shepherding to talk about the health and well being of the people under their various leaders, their shepherds. They did not paint a pretty picture. On April 24, 2017, Rabbi Sacks spoke in Vancouver, Canada. The theme of his talk was “The Future You”. He spoke about facing the future without fear. I want to intersperse some of his remarks here.
Rabbi Sacks names our contemporary scene. “It’s a fateful moment in history. We’ve seen divisive elections, divided societies and a growth of extremism — all of it fueled by anxiety, uncertainty and fear. The world is changing faster than we can bear, and it’s looking like it’s going to continue changing faster still. Sacks asks: “Is there something we can do to face the future without fear?”
One answer to the question of what the Bible reveals about the relationship between God and God’s people is that God notices the state of disarray – – the scattered-ness – – the wounded-ness – – the disunity of the flock. If we are to trust the words of Ezekiel, then the text reveals that the current state of the world both wounds and angers God – – and God lays responsibility on the shoulders of the shepherds – who have failed to keep faith with the flock – to keep the flock safe and healthy and free from harm. I think it is fair to say that much of the flock of humanity feels insecure – – is scared and fears the future. God notices – – and God is angered. This is not what God intends for humankind. Indeed, the disarray in which humanity finds itself in the 21st century offends the sacred unity and holiness – the Wholeness of God. And God does not like it. So there is an overarching revelation in the text that there is a profound Wholeness that is broken. In our individual lives and in our small community, we may be able to maintain our connection with the Holy One. But on a larger scale humankind is scattered, disconnected and afraid. Taken as a whole, there is a rupture in the harmony of the relationship between humanity and the Source of All Creation. The passage Ezekiel reveals this much to us about the relationship between God and humankind.
The second question kind of piggy backs on the first one: What might God want us to know about the Divine Self? What kind of Self does God reveal? I think we can go right back into the words of the prophet. In a very telling line we read: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep from their hands…no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves… I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that my sheep may not be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:10) This is an image of a passionately loving God of justice. That passion takes the form of anger at the dereliction of the shepherds – a dereliction that God describes as the shepherds eating – consuming their own flocks. The God revealed in these verses is a God who seeks out the lost, the scattered, the abused, the exploited, in order to feed, and heal and restore to full health and unity. Whenever we read or hear the words “Thus said the Lord…” we need to be prepared for some revelation of the mind of God. We also learn here that God doesn’t choose to remain hidden in secret – leaving us to guess what is going on. Sometimes God says it outright as through the voice of Jeremiah: Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord (Jeremiah 23:1-6). There is a price to be paid by the people who are irresponsible in their leading and governing – who do not carry the vision of God for the wholeness of the people.
Through Jeremiah, God is revealed as the movement toward justice for all people. We know enough about life and social and political and economic dynamics to know that the Divine vision for justice and peace and harmony and well being for humanity must happen through human beings who embody the vision that carries us forward. When human beings lose sight of the vision – or ignore it – the vision goes unfulfilled. The poor get poorer. Access to adequate health care becomes more difficult. Fear and the threat of violence grow. It becomes easier to take aim at the lives of strangers. Nevertheless, the prophets hold before us a holy and passionate Urge that demands that we keep moving toward justice for the human community. This is the God – Self revealed in the prophetic texts. This is what gets conveyed through the metaphors of shepherding and sheep.
The third question. What does the text ask me to think about in my relationship with The Holy One? What does the scripture want me to understand more fully about who God and I are together?
This is where the metaphor of the sheep begins to fray a little. There is always an “is and is not” component of metaphors. While on one level I can own that I am one of many sheep in the flock of humankind that is held in the gaze of the Holy One, I also must own that I am not a sheep. I am a distinct human individual. I have a brain that asks questions and tries to figure things out. I am capable of teasing out right from wrong. I am capable of making a conscious choice about whether to follow a particular shepherd or not.
I’m thinking that this is where Jesus comes in to tell us about who we are and about what our relationship with Him might involve.
I read a bit of commentary on the nature of shepherding in the ancient MIddle East relative to today’s text. In Jesus’ world of shepherding, several flocks were sometimes allowed to mix. More than one flock might be kept in the same sheepfold. Often, flocks were mixed while being watered at a well. When it became necessary to separate several flocks of sheep, one shepherd after another would stand up and call out something like: “Tahhoo! Tahhoo!” or a similar call of his own choosing. The sheep would listen and after a general scramble, they would each find their own shepherd. The sheep were familiar with their own shepherd’s tone of voice. Strangers might try to use the same call, but their attempts to get the sheep to follow them would fail.
The story of Jesus and the sheepfold lets us know that we are a mixed and diverse people sharing space on the planet – – and there are many, many voices of would be shepherds calling out for our loyalty. But we are attuned to the voice of Jesus because that is the voice we have been taught to listen for. Hearing requires a focused listening. There are lot of other voices also calling for our attention – voices that threaten – – voices that lie – – voices that play on our fears and anxieties. The truth that the sheep recognize their shepherd’s voice puts the spotlight on our relationship with God. Whose voice do we listen for? Whose voice do we trust and follow? Do we listen carefully enough? Do we recognize the particular sound of the voice of Jesus over the din of all the other competing voices?
From the same commentary I learned that the Eastern shepherd does not drive his sheep as Western shepherds do. The Eastern shepherd leads the sheep, often going out ahead of them. “And when he has brought out all of his own, he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”(John 10:4). This does not mean that the shepherd is always in front of his sheep, although he would usually be in that position when traveling. The shepherd might also walk alongside, and sometimes even follow behind, especially if the flock was headed for the fold in the evening. The shepherd positioned him or herself wherever the sheep might be the most vulnerable in the given conditions. This reminds me of a verse from Psalm 139 describing God’s all encompassing presence: ‘You are present before me, and behind me, and you hold me in the palm of your hand. Such knowledge is too awesome to grasp; so deep I cannot fathom it.”
Scripture guides us into thinking about where we stand in relationship to The Shepherd. It asks us to look at ourselves. Are we listening for the voice? When we hear it are we able to get up and follow? Do we know and acknowledge that we are continually in the attentive embrace of a Shepherd at all times. Is this what we are meant to understand about our relationship with God from Jesus’ about the shepherd and the sheep?
Then there is the fourth question. What might the God want us to understand as we face into the future? Is there something we can do to face into the future without fear?
Back to Rabbi Sacks: Future anthropologists, Sacks says, will take a look at the books we read on self-help, at how we talk about politics as a matter of individual rights, and at “our newest religious ritual: the selfie” — and conclude that we worship the self.
This worship of the self conflicts directly with our social nature, and with our need for friendship, trust, loyalty and love. As he says: “When we have too much of the ‘I’ and not enough of the ‘we,’ we find ourselves vulnerable, fearful and alone.”
To solve the most pressing issues of our time, Sacks says, we need to strengthen the future US in three dimensions: the “us of relationship,” the “us of responsibility” and the “us of identity.”
Starting with the “us of relationship,” Sacks challenges us with the idea that it’s the people who are not like us who make us grow. “We need to renew [and engage in] face-to-face encounters with the people not like us in order to realize that we can disagree strongly and still stay friends. We need to recognize that we are a mix of flocks in the same sheepfold. Our sense of “me” needs to be replaced by a sense of “we” and “us” as humankind under the care of the Shepherd with Many Names if we are to find our way to a safe and secure future. Sacks notes that “In [encounters with the stranger], we discover that the people not like us are just people, like us.” We need to strengthen a sense of “Us” in relationship.
In considering the “us of identity,” Sacks invites us to the memorials in Washington, DC, for American luminaries like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. They all feature panels of text and quotes enshrined in stone and metal. In London, memorials are different, with very little text. Why the difference? Because America is largely a nation of settlers from elsewhere. We created our identity by telling a story. The trouble is now that we’ve stopped telling the story of who we are and why. “When you tell the story and your identity is strong, you can welcome the strangers. But when you stop telling the story, your identity gets weak and you feel threatened by the stranger,” Sacks says. “We’ve got to get back to telling our story — who we are, where we came from, what are the ideals by which we live.” Our story, in part, is a story of sheep and a Good Shepherd. We confirm and affirm our “us of identity” when we continue to tell the story. It helps us to keep from being consumed by fear and anxiety.
Finally, the “us of responsibility.” Sacks finds that we’ve fallen into “magical thinking” when we believe that electing a particular strong leader will solve all of our problems. When this kind of thinking dominates, we fall for extremism — on the far right or far left, in the extreme religious or extreme anti-religious.
“The only people that will save us from ourselves is we, the people — all of us together,” Sacks says. “When we move from the politics of ‘me’ to the politics of ‘all of us together,’ we rediscover those beautiful, counter-intuitive truths: that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable. That is what makes great nations.” This is the strength that we have available to us when we recognize and pay attention to the voice of the Shepherd who knows us by name.
This is the message of the prophets and of Jesus. When we have a sense of ourselves belonging to a larger flock – a sense of being in the world together with every other human being – – and when we have a sense of working together under the careful attention of a Shepherd who gathers us, whose voice we recognize, who calls us by name, who leads from before and behind and along side of – – we really do have the possibility of facing the future together without fear.
As we come to the communion table, may the sacrament be a reminder for us that we are known by name and that we are called together by a voice we can recognize. And may we know that the closer we draw to one another, the closer we come to the Shepherd. AMEN