Proper 29, Year A
Have you met any of the Occupy-ers? That movement fascinates me. It’s been self-organizing from the start, somewhat chaotic, and it has managed to present a fairly coherent message. It’s certainly not all pretty, but at least in local situations, it’s been able to find effective responses to invading interests who want to foment violence or divert the movement’s energy. It’s also generating some remarkable response and reaction. Given the number of cities that have ousted occupiers from parks and other public spaces, that movement is having to reorganize. We don’t yet know if it will end in being creative or not.
We know another chaotic and creative moment in the first creation story in Genesis, when God breathes over the waters of chaos. The new creation in Jesus had its own chaos at the start, and throughout his life, and it also generated intense reaction. Each of the great biblical prophets generated similar reaction – as Jesus says himself, Jerusalem always murders them. The powers that be usually try to silence challengers, from Jeremiah to Jesus to Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela. Challenge and change always generate reaction, but God works something new in the midst of the fear. God’s creative work always seems to have seeds in chaos and death.
The reasons for the reactivity are powerfully the same in each situation. The reign of God is about righting the injustices of human and divine relationships. The ancient prophetic critique is that some loll about on ivory couches while others die outside the palace gates. The occupiers are protesting the same kind of economic inequity that deprives a large part of the populace of the blessings and abundance of life for which the biblical tradition says we were created.
Ezekiel’s imagery is stark: God the shepherd will gather up the lost and heal the weak and injured, but he says, “the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” God will judge between the overfed and the starving. God is going to cull the bullies in the flock, the ones who “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak”… until the other sheep fled in terror.
When the reign of God is fully realized we will no longer see some fat and happy while others are starving, tearful, and terrified – everybody will have enough to eat, and enough more for a feast. No one will be focused on accumulating more than enough – that is most essentially what the manna in the wilderness story is about. You can’t hoard it – it won’t last, daily bread is all you need, and full barns aren’t going to feed you in the grave.
Jesus’ commentary is also pretty pointed. He claims the ancient prophetic vision of the reign of God as his own mission in Luke 4 – the spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and proclaim the kingdom. He tells his listeners in this morning’s gospel that if you don’t get that vision and if you won’t do that kind of work, you aren’t going to find the kingdom. How can we possibly find the reign of God if we ignore the hungry person outside the door? The heavenly city arrives each time we feed, clothe, house, heal, or visit anyone in need. That’s pretty blunt and pretty basic.
What we’re put on this earth to do is pretty clear, but it’s far from easy. Obstacles arise at every turn. They start with our habit of only reading and hearing what we agree with, or what doesn’t challenge us too much. I’m quite sure I’ve never heard that part of Ezekiel about the bullying sheep read in church before.
It’s also very easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of need. We feed a person a meal, or provide a bag of groceries, and in this economy, next week there will be two to take her place. That’s not an invitation to despair, but it is an opportunity to ask why the need continues to grow so fast, and why there are so many emaciated sheep. The same question has motivated the occupiers, but they’re only offering a partial answer in putting it down to the likes of fat and bullying sheep.
Why has the vast bulk of the American populace condoned the kind of robber baron behavior we’ve seen recently, while the gap between rich and poor has grown wider than ever before in our nation’s history? Why do we elect legislators who encourage that gaping divide? The poverty rate continues to rise. One in six Americans now lives below the poverty line. So do 21% of our children, and about a third of those who are Black or Latino, and even more Native American children. Why are there so many skinny lambs? If the shepherd is going to feed all the sheep with justice, it won’t be a feast for everyone. Some of the overfed sheep are going to go hungry.
Another obstacle lies in trying to answer a physical need only with words, even if they’re holy words. That’s like leading the sheep to astro turf instead of rich prairie. Not only isn’t it nutritious, that false pasture destroys hope.
Sometimes the scale of need invites us to put up stout barriers against seeing and feeling the hunger of others – somebody else will bring food, somebody else will visit the prisoners. Then we can ignore the least and avoid our own responsibility. Sometimes that self-protection sounds like what we hear too often, “well, he doesn’t deserve my help. His laziness has gotten him into this fix, he can get himself out,” or even more frequently, “they’re illegal – they shouldn’t get any help.” Last time I checked, it wasn’t immoral or illegal to be a human being in need.
But the deepest challenge is the very vulnerability of the poor and hungry and oppressed, because it reminds us of our own deep need. When we do discover our own vulnerability we become much more willing to stand in solidarity with others. That is what it means to be Christ-like, to lay down our lives for another. That is also what it means to discover the treasure of the poor.
This congregation has grown in its ability to tend the sheep and treasure the poor. You are healing the sick and feeding the hungry, you’re inviting people to discover dignity and community. You are responding in very significant ways to those who are hungry for food, community, and relationship. The shepherd of us all is still trying to feed all the sheep with justice, and you are helping.
There is one more obstacle that feels to many of us like the third rail – politics. By definition we live in a society of injustice, simply because so many are still hungry. Are we willing to ask the hard questions about why, and what we can do about it? That’s really the opportunity presented by the chaos of Occupy. It’s a challenge to all our defenses – ‘the problem is too big, I don’t want to get involved, what can I possibly do, don’t make me deal with those people…I’m afraid.’
The big solutions require broad involvement, whether it’s the public witness of Occupy, or the massive action of citizens willing to challenge corrupt systems, or even peaceful hordes mentoring schoolchildren in this nation. What if we began to see ourselves as a political party of shepherds, under the slogan, “feed my sheep – with justice”? What a counter that would be to the ‘me-first’ idolatries of consumerism, pushing out the least of these, and getting mine while the getting is good. If we can treasure the poor, and discover our own internal poverty, we just might find the courage to start eating right, and eating in right relationship. What’s standing in your way?