Ezekiel interprets Occupy Wall Street


A sermon preached on November 20th on the occasion of the baptism of Kaia Joy Mihalko, and based on lectionary readings for Thanksgiving Sunday and Christ the King Sunday:   Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:14 – 30; Luke 17:11 – 19. 

In the Jewish and Christian faiths, the tradition of Thanksgiving dates back thousands of years – well before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.   It recalls the story of how God delivered the Israelites from their slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt, and how God’s people spent forty years of subsistence living, wandering in the wilderness.

In the latter part of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to the people on behalf of God just as they are about to enter the promised land.  Declared Moses,

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. 10You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.

The promised land was a place where people could enjoy all the abundance that God’s earth could produce.  Life in this world is good, and it is God’s intention that we should enjoy the bounty of this world. 

But on the eve of entering the promised land, God warned God’s people.  You will be blessed with an extravagant prosperity, but, said Moses,

Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God…12When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…

God intends for us to prosper, to live abundantly, and yet there is a temptation that comes to us precisely in our prosperity: that we will exalt ourselves, and forget the Lord our God, the giver of every good gift.    

Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

And sure enough, it didn’t take long living in the promised land for God’s people to forget the One who had given them the good life.   And where gratitude is lost, injustice is soon to follow.   The little people at the bottom of society began to be crushed by the rich and powerful. 

And so God called the prophets, who stood outside of the power structures of their day, to speak against the injustice that arose precisely when people forgot, in their prosperity, the truth expressed in the psalm we began our service with this morning:   “It is God that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”

The prophet Ezekiel, for instance, addresses those who have been blessed by God with wealth and power, but have neglected the responsibilities that come with these blessings to be good shepherds for the sheep.

The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has focused attention on the fact that this same dynamic continues in our day.    Here are a couple of statistics that stand out: 

* The top 40 Americans average $3.4 billion in wealth each, contrasted with $6,840 for the bottom 184 million Americans.

* The top 1 percent own more net wealth and double the net financial assets than the bottom 90 percent combined.

* The divide between the 1% and the 99% has been steadily growing in recent decades. 

And here is another statistic that caught my attention this week:  One in three children in American lives in poverty. 

And it is even worse in other parts of the world.

I am reluctant to speak from the pulpit on what could be called political matters.   But this is not a matter of Republican politics or Democratic politics.    The simple truth is:   God grieves over the children who grow up in poverty – who suffer from neglect that scars them for the rest of their lives.

And this, too, I know.   When God blesses us with prosperity and abundance, God also gives us a responsibility – we are shepherds of the sheep, of those who are the most vulnerable among us.  

I am very moved by the grateful and faithful life lived by Mike and Andee Milhalko.   They knew they had been blessed.    They aren’t by any means the part of the 1 per cent, but they knew they had been blessed materially speaking.   They knew also that they had been blessed by God with two beautiful, healthy girls, Katie and Mary.    Now running one’s own business and raising two little girls is no easy thing – indeed, it could well have been utterly consuming.   But Mike and Andee weren’t consumed to the point of forgetting how blessed they were and feeling a call to reach out to care for one less fortunate.   And so they reached out to a beautiful little girl living half way around the world who had no father or mother, and who had certain health concerns.  They brought Kaia Joy into the circle of their love, and it hasn’t made their lives easier, but none the less, they no that they have been mightily blessed in the process. 

In the same way that Andee and Mike and the rest of us are responsible for little Kaia Joy in her weakness and frailty, as expressed in the vows we took in the baptismal service, so we are collectively responsible for all of God’s fragile sheep in our midst. 

What political policies might be required for the little ones to be cared for is far beyond my expertise.   But the sheep can not be neglected.  God demands they be cared for.

And this is not just a responsibility given to the 1 per cent, the wealthiest of Americans.  None of us sitting in this room are among the 1 per cent (unless there is something you’ve not been telling me!)  but that doesn’t leave us off the hook. 

Psychologists have identified a dynamic in human relations that they refer to as “last place aversion.”    It refers to the fact that oftentimes we will block those less fortunate than ourselves from receiving what they need, for we are afraid that in doing so we will find ourselves in last place.    Working class folk at times can turn a deaf ear to the cries of the poor because it is comforting to have someone beneath them in terms of status and wealth.

2500 years ago Ezekiel identified the same thing when he went on to call to account not just the shepherds, but also the ones he refers to as the “fat sheep,” who have blocked the access of the “lean sheep” to the good pastures and clean water.    

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, 22I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

In the New Testament, Jesus carried on the same theme, speaking of the judgment that would take place at the end of time.   Those who were blessed with abundance but did not reach out to help those who were in need are called to a great accounting, for in doing so, they have failed to serve the King himself: 

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me… Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.

I myself feel threatened by such words.   I know that I have routinely failed to see Jesus disguised in those less fortunate to me. 

Beneath the issues of injustice, there is a spiritual issue that I know I share to some extent with all people.  Something is blocking us from feeling the gratitude that would naturally come to us if we could just see our lives clearly. 

One time Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem where he would lay down his life not just for some people, but for all people.    He was passing through the border between Israel and Samaria, when he came to a little leper colony – ten of them in all.  The poor and diseased lepers, made up of both Jews like himself, as well as Samaritans, began to cry out to Jesus for mercy.   When Jesus saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

And as they went, they were made clean. The painful and distressing disease that had separated them from their communities was suddenly no longer with them.  

One of the ten, who happened to be not a Jew like Jesus but rather a Samaritan, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice, and bowed down before Jesus in a expression of profound gratitude.  

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Then Jesus said to the Samaritan with the grateful heart, Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Where were the other nine?  I suspect that they had no time for gratitude. 

Suddenly they had been lifted out of the ranks of the lean sheep – now they were back among the fat sheep.   And there was work to be done if they were going to manage to stay there.   

No time for gratitude.

But the Samaritan did have time for gratitude, and as such, he was the only one of the ten who was truly whole.  

It makes no difference that we have health if we don’t appreciate what a gift health is.   The same is true of wealth and every other blessing we receive.  If we cannot appreciate the abundance we have, we are indeed lost sheep.   Gratitude and compassion go hand in hand. 

Lord, help us slow down.