Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, 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. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
We’re back to talking about shepherds again. We’ve talked about shepherds before... Jesus as the Good Shepherd, God as the shepherd that guides you through the valley of the shadow of death. The prophet Jeremiah needed to talk about some bad shepherds... shepherds who didn’t know how to care for the sheep entrusted to them or misuse the power for their own game. As we well know, just because someone has been put in charge, it doesn’t mean that they know what they are doing and it does mean that they will do the job well. Jeremiah is clear that the shepherds who have been in charge of Judah have not done right by the sheep, God’s people. Jeremiah wants the shepherds to know that God will hold them accountable. Jeremiah also wants to assure the sheep that God has not forgotten them.
Last week, when I preached from the book of Amos, I talked some about what stressors Amos was responding to in his prophecies. One was the systems of acute inequality that were enriching powerful people and making a lot of less powerful people very poor. The second was the looming threat of a powerful neighboring country that was looking to gain more territory through war. Amos connected the two, warning the Northern Kingdom of Israel that the unjust systems, contrary to the covenant they made with God, would be the downfall of their kingdom and divine retribution would come through war with their more powerful neighbor. About a hundred and sixty years later, Jeremiah would respond to similar issues in the Southern Kingdom, called Judah, with a similar warning. The promises of the covenant come with expectations for ethical behavior. To fail in your ethical expectation is to risk destruction. The shepherds who have scattered the sheep will face accountability.
Amos was delivering a warning before the Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria. Jeremiah appears to be offering a rebuke-filled explanation for Judah’s loss, and Jerusalem’s destruction, at the hands of Babylon. Choir members, when you sing that beautiful setting of Psalm 137, you are singing about the same period of history that Jeremiah is addressing in this part of his prophecy. Here is part of Psalm 137, written as from the ones who were kidnapped and taken to Babylon:
By the rivers of Babylon--
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
I appreciated reading Dr. Julián Andrés González Holguín’s commentary on this part of Jeremiah. He reminds the readers and hearers of this text, which began as prophecies shared by the prophet and remembered by the people and was later collected and edited into the version we have today, that this book is a product of a community processing a significant trauma. The siege of Jerusalem, a destructive, several-month attack on the city at the heart of the communal religious life in the Southern Kingdom, is the particular event that the prophet and editors of the prophet’s words were trying to explain.
The temple was destroyed. The ark of the Covenant, that is, the resting place of God, was carted away as treasure. The king, his family, court, and other members of the ruling class were forced to go to Babylon. Many other leaders and elite in the community were killed. Life became even harder for the poor folks. Dr. Holguín notes in his commentary that everything about life in this city changed in the wake of the siege. So many people were displaced. So many people struggled. It was, as Holguín describes it, “a multilevel debacle,” a disaster on national, economic, and spiritual levels. Displacement from one’s home and disruption of religious spaces and practices, in particular, threatened the survival of the people of the covenant as a whole. We can look at the histories of indigenous communities and the descendants of Africans kidnapped and brought here to North America to see how much damage a nation can do by moving people against their will and forbidding them from participating in the common religious rituals that give life meaning.
If something really bad happens when you are in charge, you should expect people to assume that you should have been able to prevent it. That is part of Jeremiah’s critique here. According to the scholar Walter Brueggemann, Jeremiah is a part of theological tradition of priests who were already in conflict with the kings of Judah. He may have been primed and ready to be critical of the ways they were leading the kingdom. Chapter 22, the chapter just before today’s reading, is a critique of three different kinds of Judah, who, according to Blake Couey, “ruled unjustly and exploited their people.” In her commentary on the text, Elaine James points out specifically that these kings failed to follow the ethical demands to care for the immigrant, orphan, and widow (Jeremiah 22: 3-4). Jeremiah 22:13 says: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.” If Babylon was able to destroy Jerusalem, according to Jeremiah, it was because the rulers of Jerusalem were more concerned with building up their own comfort than adhering to the demands of God’s law.
Dr. James makes it clear: the consequences of corrupt leadership is a scattered flock. Now, Jeremiah will make an argument that I won’t. I don’t believe that God empowered Babylon kill so many people. But, I understand why Jeremiah would argue that God would. In Jeremiah’s understanding, nothing happens in the world without God’s command, including war. Dr. James also notes a tenderness of God held in tension with God’s scrutiny. Other scholars I read this week talk about this as the patterns of judgement and restoration common in prophetic books of this era. As surely as God will mete out justice on those who ignore divine ethical requirements, God will also provide for the restoration of God’s people.
Our reading for the day describes it this way, with God speaking to the kings who have been poor shepherds: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. I will attend to you for your evil doings.” That’s the judgement. Here is the restoration: “Then I myself will gather then remnant of my flock out of all the lands when I have driven them and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” Dr. James notes the ways that the shepherd metaphor is flexible here. God, once again is the ultimate shepherd who gathers and tends to the sheep. But, God will also raise up new shepherds, that is kings, who will tend to God’s people with justice and righteousness. Under this king, “Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.” Did you notice that, in this time of restoration, the two kingdoms we be reunified? Judah and Israel will both be safe under the new king. That’s the ultimate restoration, isn’t it, two nations, split by arguments over leadership, brought back together in justice?
We are in a time when people are trying to make sense of the on-going trauma in our world. Between the Pandemic and the failures of leadership that have incited even more suffering, and the droughts, fires, and floods, and the failures of leadership to address climate change that is at the root of these dramatic weather events, I know that we are hearing prophetic voices, right now, warning us of the further destruction that awaits nations that don’t attend to the ethical demands of care for the immigrant, orphan, and widow. May we be more moved by the prophets to change than these ancient kings were. And, when things seem the most bleak, I pray that we can remember the promise of restoration. We can be gathered together as God’s flock and live in righteousness. We don’t have to be satisfied with a nation that stomps on the needy. God’s leaders rule in justice and righteousness. If we are following God, we can insist on justice and righteousness, too.
Resources consulted in writing this sermon:
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.