Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Sermon for November 26, 2023: Given by Marge Kilkelly titled "Help Wanted: Shepherds" based upon Psalm 46 and Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95 KJV
95 O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms. For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth: the strength of the hills is his also. The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands formed the dry land. O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: Unto whom I swear in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land;
and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 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. Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
Welcome to worship today, those who are here and those who are joining us online. Thank you for this opportunity to share this time with you. My name is Marge Kilkelly, over the years I have worn lots of hats, now I am mostly a farmer and a foodie. My husband and I raise cashmere goats. I am also a member of the Board of Directors of the Maine Council of Churches and attend Christ Church Episcopal in Gardiner. I am so pleased to be joined by fellow Board Member Diane Dicranian- thank you Diane for sharing the work of the Maine Council. And thank you to all of the people of this congregation who have been so helpful and supportive today.
A friend of mine who was a supply priest in the parish I attended, always started the service by saying: Today we are governed by Rule 42. What is rule 42? Whatever happens is exactly how we planned it. Rule 42 lets us all just take a deep breath and enjoy our time together.
Over the past few weeks we have all been impacted by the tragedies that have surrounded us ...local, national, and international... it hurts to walk through that pain, it causes us to question everything and can have us feeling deflated, overwhelmed, and helpless. Worshipping is our way to hold up each other, to walk together and to find the light and love of God in even the most difficult situations.
This is the last Sunday of the Liturgical year, next Sunday we celebrate Advent and the New Church Year. It is also, in old English tradition, the end and beginning of the agrarian/agricultural calendar. So today as we celebrate the Reign of Jesus, a door closes on the past year and we prepare for the next.
The beginning of the agrarian calendar for the old English farmers- provided time to prepare for the coming season. The crops were in and now it was time to reflect, review, repair, and especially plan to improve during the next season, the next crop. Agriculture, then and today, is all about creation- caring, cycles of life, and continuing to try and improve crop or livestock yields – learning from mistakes made and improving moving forward.
Our Faith is about loving God and Gods creation - and it is important for us not to ever be complacent. The liturgical calendar also provides time for us to assess our actions, to learn from our mistakes, to repair those relationships/things needing repair, to improve how we live in the world, to contemplate what we can do to make a difference, and to look to the new year with a sense of renewal.
The assigned readings for today- from Ezekiel to Matthew- which are filled with references to shepherds, sheep, goats and care made me smile. When you invite a farmer to preach and have those readings you have to believe that God has a sense of humor and it shows.
As I thought about being with you this morning, I was aware of a number of things that I had recently seen or heard that had been hanging around in my head: the shocking headlines, pictures that broke my heart, comments from friends saying “ I don’t know what to do to help!” and even posts on FB.
A week or so ago I saw a quote from Julian of Norwich “We are not created by God but made of God...” that has continued to circulate in my head for days- I love it. “We are not created by God but made of God...”
A post in response to the tragedies we have seen in Maine and around the world was “We should not ask Why God but Why we let things happen...”
Somewhere in all of that was a message I needed to hear and would not be silenced. To prepare for this morning I was forced to face them, to hear them and to attempt to make sense of them.
For me the truth is that we could spend forever asking why- but, if we believe as Julian says we are made of God the answer actually lies inside of us not outside of us. Therefore, I believe we must spend our time figuring out how we can be the change needed in the world.
Creating change is a process as old as time itself. Creation itself is change and Change is creation.
Every single one of us was created with the ability to make change. We all have some strengths and some challenges- but when we work together all of our strengths and challenges fit together like a puzzle and make the whole- strong.
We were created with all the tools we need...
By making choices to do what we can to help another person we are doing God’s work on earth. We are not just talking about Love but showing by example the Love of God for the world.
Doing God’s work can sound intimidating. What can I do?? How can I make a difference? Doing God’s work does not have to be headline worthy, the opportunity to do Gods work is folded into our everyday lives-
During October, I know you studied Mathew 25: 35-45 where Jesus honors the people who choose to help others and further shows his deep love for all of us by actually identifying himself with those that suffer and are struggling- when you cared for the least of these you cared for me.
Just as important Jesus does not shy away from criticizing those who choose not to help. He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me. … without choice the word love is meaningless.
The biblical references also show us that the choices that have been made throughout history are the same as the choices that we make today- every day. And God has chosen through the Prophets and Jesus to give us models of how we can do Gods work on earth.
Jesus as shepherd caring, leading to lush pasture, assuring water, protecting the sheep improves the lives of those sheep. But just as important are the other benefits of that care- for example sheep, and in my case cashmere goats, also provide amazing fiber.
When a shepherd cares for the flock, one of the products was wool. Wool is spun into yarn. Yarn is woven into strong fabric for clothing and blankets. When we make the choice to do Gods work on earth – to create hope, to show others the power of God’s love by how we act- we change individual lives. At the same time, we also are creating change, when we do our tiny part we are in fact spinning strong yarn, strand by strand- then that strong yarn creates the fabric of a strong community.
As shepherds we are living into God's call to us in the
Let us pray- Father-Mother God
Thank you for creating in us the tools to do your work on earth. Watch over us as we look towards the new year, be with us as we consider the ways that we can be the good shepherds to our brothers, sisters and all of your creation. Thank you for the knowledge to read, hear and understand scripture to strengthen our relationship with you and each other. Thank you for the ability to choose our actions and learn from those choices. Help us every day to grow in our faith and to do your work on earth by taking the time listen, to share, to be kind, and to be aware of the needs around us as we endeavor to share in the job of shepherd; weaving the strong fabric of our community that always reflects your Love and the model of Jesus. Amen
Resources used: Maine Council of Churches website and Facebook for folks to reference. https://mainecouncilofchurches.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/mainecouncilofchurches
18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19 as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
“But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” These are words shared by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was a rare type of communication from Dr. King. He notes in the beginning of the letter that he hardly takes time responding to everyone who thought he was doing something wrong. He wrote, “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.” But, he said that he believed the colleagues who had written a particular critique were doing so in good faith, so he decided to respond to them.
His colleagues found a particular round of civil rights demonstrations in the city of Birmingham to be “disruptive.” It should be stated that all the clergy members who had written the critique to which he was responding were white men. They prized a city that was orderly and quiet. It is interesting to know that they didn’t write letters to the Klan to tell them to stop blowing up Black churches or to racist shop owners to tell them to stop humiliating Black customers. They wrote a letter to the people being humiliated and attacked and said they shouldn’t be so disruptive. They should negotiate instead.
The Black citizens of Birmingham had negotiated. A lot. And, white citizens of the city largely chose to ignore them or break promises made. It is not easy to argue in good faith with people who benefit so profoundly from the status quo. Dr. King and his civil rights coworkers knew the only way forward was to be disruptive... to push hard enough and demonstrate their power that the most powerful people in the city had to finally come to the table. Dr. King and other civil rights organizers knew that tension from disruptive protests was necessary and useful. So, they deployed it strategically. And, it brought the people who had been able to avoid real conversation to the table.
I talk about this letter because when Dr. King was talking about the power of disruption to get the attention of powerful people, he names some specific figures from the Bible. One of them was the prophet Amos. In fact, he quoted part of today’s reading: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." The biblical prophets were often interested in disruption, usually because they saw a nation failing in its obligations to God. And, Amos was certain that the Northern Kingdom of Israel, also called Samaria, was failing in its obligations to God. So, he showed up to try and disrupt it.
The prophecies that you and I know as the book of Amos likely would have been shared sometime between 760 and 750 BCE. These prophecies were before those of Micah, which we read a few weeks ago. Amos was a shepherd called by God to prophesy from the Southern Kingdom, called Judah. Jerusalem, David’s royal city and the home of the Temple, were in the Southern Kingdom. The ancient holy site of Bethel -- where Abram built an altar to God, where Jacob dreamt of a ladder to heaven, where Deborah issued rulings, and where Rebecca was buried – they were all in the Northern Kingdom. Amos would eventually confront the priest at Bethel, Amaziah. Importantly, while Assyria was still a looming threat, the Northern Kingdom had not yet been taken over. But, Amos thought they might at any time, and if they did attack, the attack should be considered vengeance from God.
Amos, like the books Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah, did not just address the threat of Assyria. Amos also offered up a critique of the culture that had developed in a way the prophet believed angered God. According to Amos, what had so angered God was the increasing wealth of the elite of both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. That wealth was being built on systems of mistreatment of poor people. Amos, like Isaiah, understood that faith in God was not just about an individual person’s religious commitment, but about an entire community’s ethical behavior. Gregory Mobley, in his introduction to Amos in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, argues that the nation, as a whole, was required to live up to an ethical standard of justice and righteousness. In her commentary on a different passage of Amos, Elaine James says, “God’s love demands righteousness, and breaches of God’s call to justice and love cause God grief.”
I looked back over my notes and read some more this week, but I’m still not exactly sure what systems the elite and wealthy people of the Northern Kingdom put in place to cheat poorer people. Dr. Mobley indicated that it had something to do with how wealthier people would manipulate the smallest amount of debt held by poorer people, forcing them out of farms held in their families for generations and forcing some people into slavery. While I wasn’t able to find a lot of specifics on the systems, I was able to find some clear descriptions of the impact of these systems.
In his commentary on Amos, Walter Brueggemann outlined the impacts. Some people would lose land, homes, and family. The wealthy might end up with two homes. Some people could not find enough to eat, and would starve, all the while the wealthy would through fancy parties for their friends where there was more than enough food. Amos, and other prophets, argued strongly that this is not how people living according to the covenant with God should be behaving in the world. A nation that was aligned with God would not have these disparities.
So, what kind of tension did Amos want to incite in order to push Israel to change? Amos concentrated on the tension that comes when some make sure to observe religious rituals but don’t opt to live out the love and justice that is the foundation of those rituals. Starting in verse 18, Amos warns people that God’s intervention in the world will be more dramatic and disruptive than they imagine. The ones who have gathered up wealth at the expense of their neighbors will not be greeted with sweetness. And, the rituals they uphold and gatherings they attend will not save them because, without justice, the rituals are simply noise and play-acting.
We shouldn’t read Amos saying that ritual, as a concept, is bad. What Amos is saying is that we should never believe our call to worship is greater than our call to care for one another. Ritual without love meaningless motions. Songs without justice are merely sounds. What God wants most and first is justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. All of our worship and sacrifice should flow from this, the source of our covenant with God.
Assyria may not be at our door, but we certainly have far too many systems in place that continue to benefit the wealthy while taking from the poor. Pretty regularly, I get calls here at church from people who are looking for a place to stay and can’t find one. They sometimes even have some funding, but no landlords will take it because it involves extra paperwork. Corporations are hiding price gouging under the cover of inflation, making it ever harder for people to pay for food. Lay-offs abound across multiple industries, often because laying off workers is the quickest way to make it look like you’ve either saved or made a bunch of extra money. Amos reminds us that systems where people are pushed out of homes and can’t afford food go against God. May we feel the tension of these times, and be moved by it. May we be called to disrupt systems that harm our neighbors. And, may we, inspired by the righteous waters of our baptisms, be refreshed by streams of justice we work with God let loose in this time and this place.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Elaine James: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-15-2/commentary-on-amos-77-15-4
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
Gregory Mobley’s introduction to Amos in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Letter from a Birmingham Jail: https://fee.org/articles/letter-from-a-birmingham-jail/
Matthew 23:1-12 Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Who here has ever heard the phrase “practice what you preach?” Can you tell me what it means? It means that the actions you do in the world should match the things that you say are important. If you talk about doing something, you actually have to do it. If you say it’s important to be generous and you persistently act stingy in your daily life, you’re not practicing what you preach. While this advice is directed to everyone, it can be particularly hard when leaders say one thing and then do another. Jesus is using the example of his community’s leaders that he is frustrated to instruct his disciples on how to do better. Because, at this point in the story, Jesus knows his time is short, and the disciples are going to need to step up and lead. And, it will be vital that they practice what they preach.
Sharon Ringe opens her commentary on this scripture with these words: “As a resident of Washington, DC, I recognize political rhetoric, caricatures, and trash-talk when I hear them, and I hear them loud and clear in Matthew 23:1-12.” It is wise too when in his life he preached this particular sermon. This story takes place after the celebrations of Palm Sunday, but before Jesus’ trial. It is a time that would have been tense. And, Jesus has some particular frustrations with leaders of his religious community.
When we modern Christians read about what would have been arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees, it is important to remember that Jesus wasn’t arguing with people that were a different community than him. This argument is between people who serve the same God and follow the same religious laws. For too long too much hatred has been directed towards Jewish people by Christians who read Jesus as saying Jewish people were particularly bad or dangerous. He wasn’t. Cheryl Lindsay, in her commentary on this text, reminds us that Jesus’ argument isn’t with Jewish people, but with leaders within their shared community who are preaching one thing and living another.
Sharon Ringe notes in her commentary that the Pharisees were a group of lay people with a particular interest in studying religious law and offering interpretations on how to follow it. When Rome destroys the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, the foundation of interpretation of the law that the Pharisees laid would grow into the practice of Jewish communities having rabbis as leaders. So, this is a group of people who took religious obligations seriously, as Jesus did. But, the Pharisees and Jesus had disagreements. And, he grew frustrated when he saw influential lay people who were Pharisees not living into the faith they taught. Have any of you ever gotten angry at someone who said they were a Christian and then turned around and did the opposite of what they taught? I know I have. Ringe called the argument between Jesus and these particular Pharisees “a family fight, and the name-calling and harsh rhetoric flourished.”
Cheryl Lindsay’s commentary on this text reminds us that Jesus continued to find Jewish religious law to be a useful and good guidance for living in covenant with God. He never told his followers that he came to “abolish the law.” In fact, as Lindsay says, “Faithful adherence to these guidelines for right living in relationship to God, neighbor, and self is not the problem but is commendable when done with humility and devotion.” What Jesus does think they are doing wrong is using their authority as trusted interpreters of the law to gain an unfairly special place in the community. And, they demand that some people sacrifice more and work harder than they do. Jesus is suspicious of anyone who’s faith is simply another way to brag or to gain praise and attention for themselves.
Ultimately, Jesus tells his disciples that what will be most important for them won’t be getting fancy titles, or special privileges, or an easy life. What will be most important is that they fully live into the promises they made to God and trust that God will fulfill the promises made to the people. To live out that promise is to commit to what Lindsay calls the “road of love, service, and humility.” Does anyone here have a good definition of humility? Yes. Those are good definitions.
Humility means something like not thinking you’re better than someone else. Not trying hard to be thought of as the most powerful or strongest. It doesn’t mean you are ashamed, or anything like that. It does mean being connected to others, and not above them. For Jesus, following the example of Moses and of the Bible means not putting yourself above others or striving to make other people suffer. It means being willing to make sacrifices to care for those who need it and offer love as Jesus did. Humility also means knowing that you will make mistakes sometimes and being willing to hear people when they say you have. Acting with humility also means that you might need to make amends for things you have done wrong.
It is not always easy to live with humility. If it was, Jesus wouldn’t have had to keep telling his disciples how to do it. They really needed to be reminded. If we want to follow Jesus, we don’t need to be the best or the fanciest or the most powerful. It does mean we should work to be loving and work together for justice. If we’re going to practice what we preach, that means we can’t be concerned about being the first or the fanciest or the most well-known. It does mean that we’ll try hard to love as Jesus did. So, this week, as you look for ways to live out your faith, know that you don’t have to do it in ways that gets everyone’s attention and everyone’s praise. You can start small, offer a kind word, write a letter to your congressperson, call someone who you know is having a hard time. These might seem like humble, small acts of faith. But, Jesus tells us that this is what our faith is all about.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Elizabeth J.A. Siwo-Okundi, "Proper 26," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Cheryl A. Lindsay: https://www.ucc.org/sermon-seeds/sermon-seeds-greatness/
Sharon A. Ringe: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31/commentary-on-matthew-231-12-2
Carolyn Brown: https://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/10/year-proper-26-31st-sunday-in-ordinary.html
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.