Our lesson from Ezekiel has quite a history.
It has been so controversial that for the past 200 years,
we have glossed over it or ignored it.
But, for two thousand years before that, this lesson was the basis
for the divine right of kings.
Ezekiel wrote at the time of the Exile.
Babylon had sacked Jerusalem, imprisoned and blinded King Zedekiah,
and taken the nation’s leaders into Exile.
The governor Babylon appointed for Judah
was then assassinated by the king’s family.
In the ensuing anarchy, many Judeans fled the opposite direction
into Egypt as refugees.
The Lord called his people scattered sheep;
and there was no one to bring them home.
The King was powerless; the governor was dead.
So the Lord spoke to Ezekiel saying,
“I myself will search for my sheep
and seek them out.
I will rescue them from all the places
where they have been scattered.
I myself will be the shepherd to my sheep.”
The Lord himself would do what Judah’s leaders failed to do.
He would bring the dispersed exiles back together.
He would care for their common life.
Ezekiel did not say how God would do that.
His methods become clear a generation later in 2nd Isaiah.
I happened alright and the Psalmist sang,
“When God restored the common life, our hope, our liberty
At first it seemed a passing dream, a waking fantasy.
A shock of joy swept over us for we had wept so long
The seeds we watered once with tears sprang up into a song.”
Ezekiel didn’t know how God would do it,
but he expected an extraordinary act of God
directly intervening in history.
That was not God’s usual M.O.
It was not how he had led Israel before or how he would do so
in the future.
God ruled through kings and he would do so again.
Our lesson continues:
“I will set up over them one shepherd,
my servant David.”
The historical David had been dead 200 years.
He means an heir of David, someone like David,
a brave, wise king, like David.
“ I will set up over them one shepherd,
my servant David
and he shall feed them and be their shepherd.”
The Bible contains different political viewpoints.
But on the whole it’s a monarchist book.
God chose kings, anointed kings, and stood by kings
as long as they ruled righteously.
But the monarchist verses in the Bible
did not wear well over time.
They were cited to defend the power of kings
who lounged on thrones while workers plowed the fields.
Why? Because God said so.
Kings who lorded it over their people
and lived in luxury gave monarchy a bad name.
Eventually the English had enough of it
and lopped off the head of King Charles I,
setting a bloody example for the French
who decapitated King Louis XVI,
and the Russians who gunned down Queen Victoria’s nephew,
Tsar Nicholas II.
Since we got into the habit of regicide,
we have not known what to do with Ezekiel.
We don’t know how to take God promising the people a king,
and thinking that’s supposed to be good news.
But look what kind of king God wanted Judah to have.
“He shall feed them.
He shall feed them and be their shepherd.”
God by his own example showed what a king is supposed to do.
“I will . . . rescue them from all the places they have been scattered
and bring them to their own land.
I will feed them with good pastures.
I will make them lie down.
I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed.
I will save my flock and they shall no more be ravaged.”
The godly king is a servant, a protector, a healer.
The godly king lives to nurture his people, not exploit them.
All the bad kings have made it hard for us to imagine
the good King God was promising.
We have learned to hate kings.
In our era, we have become hostile to any kind of leaders at all.
We hate incumbents whether they are liberals or conservatives.
The electorate careens from left to right
to cast out whoever the leader may be at the time.
It is as if we elect people not to lead but to blame.
We do the same thing in the church.
We blame and we blame shift.
We blame our leaders until they say “ok, I’ve had enough.”
Eventually, we have no leaders
or the leaders have no followers,
And we become, as Ezekiel said,
“scattered as on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
If we are to find our way home, as nation or as church,
If we are to rediscover that belonging to God
means belonging to each other,
if we are to recommit to the common good
as our ancestors did in Liberty Hall,
at Gettysburg, through the depression and World War II,
we will need to rethink and refeel
our attitudes toward leadership and followership.
We have to reframe today’s lesson.
It is no longer about the divine right of kings.
It’s about the divine duty of leaders.
We all must be brave enough to lead
because in a free society and in the church,
everyone takes turns leading.
We must be brave enough to lead
and humble enough to lead for the sake of others,
not to puff up our own pride.
Jesus said “the greatest among you is the one who serves.”
We lead in ways that build up the followers.
We equip them to take our place so we can step aside.
We must be brave enough to lead and brave enough to follow.
It takes courage to trust that someone else might actually wish us well.
It takes patience to follow until it is our turn to lead.
Ezekiel tells us what leadership is about
– caring for, protecting, nurturing, and building up the followers
until they become leaders themselves.
Ezekiel tells us what followership is about
– supporting the leaders and learning from them
–participating in the process, growing into more responsible roles,
It’s a no blame no shame system.
It draws us together in relationships of mutual concern,
mutual respect, and mutual appreciation
while we work together for the common good.
When we rejected the divine right of kings,
we replaced it with nothing but random individuals
slavishly bound to their own wills.
We replaced the divine order with chaotic selfishness.
What if we replaced the divine right of kings
with the divine duty of leaders
– the duty to live together as faithful servants
of a shared mission, God’s mission
Suppose we tried that in the Church?
What if we decided all of us belong here,
so we’d better find ways to live together?
What if, just in our little corner of the world,
we established a no blame no shame zone
so we could get on with sharing God’s love
in a desperately lonely city?
Here’s what I wonder:
Is it possible people outside the Church might notice and learn something?
Might our government and business leaders learn to lead differently?
Might the electorate, workers, and consumers learn to follow differently
– sharing the load of problem solving instead of pointing fingers?
Ezekiel is a 2,900 year old book, a message in a very old bottle.
We have just read it.
What shall we do with it?
What might be possible if we took God’s word seriously?
What if we took God’s word out into God’s world?