Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Quintessential Politician

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Christ the King Sunday
November 20, 2011

William G. Carter

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

          When I was ordained as a preacher, my father suggested I should never discuss politics in the pulpit. I have often remembered that, as elections roll around and national events unfold. It’s tempting for a preacher to speak out for one side or another, especially if convictions are strongly held and lives are at stake.

          And then there’s the complication that the Bible talks about politics on nearly every page. Remember how the story of Israel unfolded this fall. Pharoah was the emperor of Egypt. He reneged on his forefather’s contract with Joseph and enslaved the tribes of Israel. But God is the Sovereign Ruler, even over Pharoah. God called Moses to lead what a rebellion that disrupted the Egyptian labor force. It was called “Occupy the Promised Land … by Getting Out of Egypt.” In the words of William Sloan Coffin Jr,, “If Moses had believed in separating religion and politics, the Israelites would still be slaves and making more pyramids for free.”

          Critical moments in scripture are political moments. Jesus himself was crucified at the command of a Roman governor, after being arrested by some movers and shakers among his own people. The apostle Paul regularly fell afoul of the law, most notably the Roman governor of his day. Paul was accused of being “a pestilent fellow, an agitator of all the Jews throughout the world” (Acts 24:5). How did Paul counter these charges? He gave a rousing defense that reached the ears of King Agrippa.

          In the Bible, there are politics on just about every page. Two books in scripture are titled First Kings and Second Kings. A number of psalms were written to celebrate the coronation of royalty.

By the time you get to the last few pages of the Bible, there is the strong affirmation that Jesus is the King of Kings. Every political leader will answer to him, even those who believe they are an end in themselves.

          If only because the issue comes up so often, we need to talk of politics. What makes for good politics? Or for a good politician? If the rulers of this world must answer to the King of Kings, they have a sacred obligation to govern the people well. And if they don’t, God considers them expendable.

          This is the governing issue of our text. Ezekiel is a priest. He is held captive in a foreign land. Stolen away from Jerusalem, Ezekiel saw the Temple of God obliterated by the Babylonian army. All of the candles were extinguished and the sacred rituals were interrupted. The priests were removed from their posts, many like him by force. They were valuable to the Babylonian Empire because they had money, authority, and lots of connections. If the government controls the priests, it may be able to control the people who revere them.

          What a government cannot control, however, is the voice of God. God comes to Ezekiel to speak in a series of visions. One vision is the one we have heard in this text selected for Christ the King Sunday. God looks ahead to the day when the people are governed through generosity and care.

Now, that’s quite a statement. The Jewish people had their hopes demolished by a foreign army. The central meeting place between them and God had been torn down. There was plenty of blame flying around – some said it was the intimidating power of Babylon, others accused the Jewish political leaders of being weak and corrupt. What everybody could agree on was what they saw: the once-flourishing nation of Israel was in serious decline.

This is the point at which God speaks. Chapter 34 is a political vision, and what it declares is that God will establish a new ruler to watch over his people. This new ruler will be like a Shepherd. He will watch out for all of the people – not only his supporters, not only his friends, not only his cronies – but all the people. He will be broadly concerned for the widest possible public good, rather than remain narrowly focused on any one slice of the population. And the Lord reveals who this Good Shepherd will be.

          Listen again to the promises of our text:

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

          Now, lest our eyes glaze over as if this is one more generalized Bible promise, the model that God establishes for the heavenly throne is a model for every earthly seat of power. Just a few verses before our text, God indicts the politicians of Israel. Looking them straight on, God says, “You have been feeding yourselves without feeding others.” That’s the perennial issue, isn’t it? Misusing power for your own benefit. Skimming what belongs to everybody simply because you are currently charged with their oversight.

          The indictment God offers goes on from there:

·        You have not strengthened the weak (that is, no plan for empowerment)
·        You have not healed the sick or bound up the injured (call it a health care plan)
·        You have not brought back the strayed nor sought the lost (they have not retained their wandering young people)
·        “All you have done,” thunders the Lord, “is rule with harshness and force.”

All of this suggests why God is so concerned with good politics: because God has made every single human being and God wants each of these children to flourish. If God has a political agenda, it is eliminate the “have nots.” How is this going to happen? By including the “have nots” among the “haves.” Some people might call this “socialism.” The Bible calls it the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom is where everybody is valued. The Kingdom is wherever everybody is regarded equally.  It seems the people at the top of Ezekiel’s food chain kept getting confused about this. They had no regard for those trampled under the rulers’ feet. No concern for the well-being of all the people. In no small part, that was precisely why the nation was in so much trouble: call it a systematic neglect.

When the Penn State scandal broke a couple of weeks ago, a friend was paying careful attention to the news reports. She had been a student there in the late 1980’s, and she listened with interest as one of the high ranking officials declared that his office had done everything possible to protect innocent youth.

She shook her head and thought, “That’s not the same man that I remember.” She had worked part-time as a waitress while she was a student. He and his family went to the restaurant every week. None of the wait staff wanted to take their table. They were rude, demanding, and regularly obnoxious. “They treated the staff like dirt,” she said, “and wanted to get special treatment because of who they were.” Not surprisingly, they never left any tips.

It’s a small thing, she said, particularly given the damage that the Grand Jury recently reported. And she wasn’t surprised when that high ranking official was fired for his role in the scandal. She noted, “Character is what you do when you think no one is watching. Ignore the ‘little ones’ who bring food to your table, and it may reveal how you are disregarding the other ‘little ones’ around you.”

What Ezekiel receives from God is a vision for how people are to be taken seriously, particularly those who are weak or injured, lost or strayed. The one who governs well is the one who shepherds all the people. She or he will be fair to all, and this fairness means that those who are most vulnerable or have the greatest need are regarded with the same dignity as any child of God.

This is the same vision that Jesus offers for the end of time. “The Son of Man will come and separate the sheep from the goats,” he says. People shall be sorted on the basis of one matter: how did they respond to human need? Did they do anything for the benefit of those who were hungry, thirsty, naked, or sick? Did they visit the prisoner or welcome the outsider? Or did they pass those people by? The way that people respond will reveal whether or not God’s grace is at work within them.

We have every reason to expect that our leaders should be good people, that they should be generous and truthful. Public service is a noble calling when it really is public service. We can quibble about strategy and policy, and many of us do. But the real test is how well a society cares for those of greatest need.

If the only value honored by a people is prosperity, life can descend into a contest to see who can gain the most stuff. Greed will consume everybody who is infected by it, leaving the poor to become expendable. That’s not what God wants.

A society like ours is called up to remember a basic truth: that we march only as fast as the slowest person in line.  To be the keepers of our brothers and sisters means, among other things, that we must slow down enough for others to walk with us. That’s not easy, especially if we are accustomed to nice things.

Last week, I found myself at a church supper in southern Appalachia. Some friends were with me, and they were eying the meal that was being prepared. The ham was overcooked, the vegetables were wilted, the macaroni has melted down to lose all shape. It was nothing like the church suppers that I normally enjoy! My friends murmured criticism, quiet sarcasm, really, and pledged to stop for a real meal on the way home. They began to giggle and laugh as a way of coping with a bad plate of food.

Then Anna came with her tray to sit with us. She was a young girl, maybe ten or eleven years old. She put down her tray, went to get a glass of milk. Our host whispered, “This is probably the only meal she is getting today.” My friends changed their tune in a hurry. We watched with admiration as she prayed a prayer of thanks and ate every bite. One of my friends said, “Anna, what do like most about school?” She talked about writing a poem about her cat. “I like to do that,” she said. Then she scurried off to do her homework before her mom got off work to pick her up.

How dare anybody think that they are better than others! Every single person is valuable. Every single one.

The quintessential politician is the Good Shepherd, the kind of shepherd who watches out for every lamb. None of us can do that perfectly, but all of us can do that together. We need the kind of public leaders who keep our conscience awake, the kind of leaders who pay attention to the well-being of everybody, and not merely play to the agenda of those put money in their pockets. This is a noble calling, and nobody does it perfectly. Yet the vision of scripture is clear. God says, “I will save my flock, and they will not be ravaged. I will set up my shepherd to make sure all are fed.”

Jesus comes as that kind of shepherd, a shepherd with concern for every single lamb. He offers the model for how our leaders are called by God to govern. Even so, there is no one who is so fair to everybody, no one else who has such love. That is why we call Jesus our King. 

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved.

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