The following text is a transcribed copy of the sermon prepared and delivered by Teresa Pence Lilja on August
4, 2011 in Cannon Chapel at Emory University as part of the worship service for the Course of Study Program.
This is a listener’s copy intended for use in conjunction with the audio recording of the sermon; as such it
contains several slight alterations to the original written sermon.
“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. As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep,
between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with
your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And
must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
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.” Ezekiel 34: 11-22 (NRSV)
Would you pray with me? As we prepare ourselves to go into your Word, may your Word go into us. May the
words that are spoken and the words that are heard only serve to enrich your word that we might live it out in
your holy name. Amen.
They didn’t ask me. When they were putting together the revised lectionary, they didn’t ask me. I could have
told them that the passages for Christ the King Sunday should have majesty and glory. They should have visions
of heavenly crowns and royal scepters. But instead, our passage from Psalms gives us sheep, Ezekiel gives us
sheep, the gospel of Matthew gives us sheep. Instead of some final glorious ending where we are gathered around
the throne of the king, these passages ask about our lives in relationship to our King.
God as King is one of the key metaphors in the Old and New Testaments for our relationship with God. It is
an unequal relationship. God is King, and we are not. God as king has all power and dominion and authority.
And we are subject to and subjects of the king. Being part of the kingdom defines who we are, what rules we will
follow, and what our place is in the kingdom. But this is where the metaphor begins to break down as all
metaphors do. For unless we are wealthy or exceptionally wise or have just the right status, a king may never see
our faces or know our name.
Scripture gives us a second image for God, that of the good shepherd. For while it is an unequal relationship,
the shepherd has not only care for the whole flock, the shepherd knows the needs of each and every sheep, their
own behaviors and idiosyncrasies, what they need for their well-being. The shepherd has the duty of caring for
and protecting and correcting each sheep. This dual image of the shepherd-king is found for God throughout the
Scriptures. In the Old Testament the kings of Israel were to be modeled after God, the Shepherd- King. Mighty
David who was a shepherd boy and became the shepherd king leading the people of God. Leaders of God’s people
also included the priests who were to serve as shepherds.
Many of us in the room today are pastors, and we take on that role of shepherd. But our baptismal language
makes it very clear that all believers are baptized into a royal priesthood, that in Christ each of us has a
responsibility to care for others. It is this confusing dual identity we bear as shepherd-sheep to which our
passages today call us into account. These passages both speak of us clearly as sheep. And we will be judged as
sheep, but not according to the purity of our wool or how seldom we have strayed. We will be judged, say these
passages, by how we have lived in community with others. How have we, the shepherd-sheep, extended care to
those around us?
Matthew’s gospel makes a stark distinction between the goats and the sheep. To be counted as sheep, there
are things that we are to do. “What you have done for the least of these, you have done unto me,” says the king in
Matthew’s gospel. Matthew’s text even provides us with a check list. And we have used it to measure our own
progress. Have we given clothing to those who have none? Have we fed the hungry with cans of food and hot
meals? Have we visited those in local jails. Some of us even create and understand an expanded list, checking it
off as well. Have we fed those who are hungry for love? Hungry for the word of God? Have we clothed others in
dignity and self-worth? Have we visited with those locked in the prison of their own hatred and despair? These
are the things we are to do as part of the kingdom. This is how we live as shepherd-sheep in response to our
But Ezekiel… Ezekiel is not content with the things that we do. He is not impressed by the things that we
make a conscious decision to do. He calls us instead to look at who we are. What is our nature? What are our
habits? Who are we when even we are not looking?
“Is it not enough for you to feed on good pasture, but must you tread down with your feet the rest of the pasture?
When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have
trodden with your feet and drink what you have fouled with your feet?”
I cannot speak for you, but perhaps you can find yourself in my confession. You see, when I am in those
places, those dry and hard places of life, my eyes are on my shepherd. When the road is rocky and there is a
perilous fall, I am following closely and I am watching my every step. But when we get to those soft green grasses
and that cool clear water, something happens to my attentiveness. Something happens to my focus. Something
happens to my mindfulness.
You see, all too often I respond to the richness of blessings with an impoverishment of grace. I become self-
focused, self-absorbed. I am less likely to pay attention to how my words or my actions might cause an adverse
reaction or confusion to those around me.
Where are some of those green pastures we might trample? Well, perhaps it is the blessing of a particular
style of worship that we just know everybody else has to love. Have we not discovered the last four weeks that
worship is better with harmonica? Or maybe it’s the organ playing those traditional and theologically relevant
hymns. Can it be that in the blessing of a variety of worship styles we are likely to step on toes?
Perhaps it is the blessing here at course of study where we fill ourselves to overflowing with new ideas, with
better understandings of polity and ethics and theology, that make us go home to our congregation with that
heady blessing of knowing what we know. We are likely to decide that we need to take a stand or to put our foot
down. But are we mindful of where and when and how?
Sometimes the green grass we trample is simply the stuff around our feet that we are ignoring so we can get to
a greener place that suits us better. Or maybe to that cool clear water and we jump right in. But how long does it
stay clear? How long until we muddy it? Until it is hard to tell the water from the dirt?
Even in this course of study experience where we know ourselves to be clearly blessed, with the sharing and
the learning from our professors and from one another, but how often do our family and our friends our
congregation back home, and even in our conversations with one another, how often do we say, “oh, the blessings”
and how often do we say, “oh, the pre-course work… oh, the homework… oh, the final exam we got from our
professor?!” And the shoe will soon be on the other foot as the professors start to say, “oh, the grading that I have
Do we mix our blessings and our complaints so thoroughly that others are not sure what we’re talking about?
Are there times when our own excitement, enthusiasm or prejudices muddle the message of Jesus Christ so that
others are not sure that they want to come to the water? Are there times when we muddy the water so much that
even we ourselves begin to grow thirsty?
We have a Good Shepherd who leads us to places of still water, and yet time after time we find ourselves in a
puddle of mud. Could it be that it has something to do with our feet? Could it be that the difference between
experiencing the clarity and tranquility of living water and being stuck again in the muck and the mire has
something to do with our own churning, restless, and ambitious agitations? Ezekiel warns us of the damage that
is done to ourselves, to others, to the community, and even to the message of God all because we are prone to not
be mindful of our feet.
But hear the good news. These are not words of condemnation in Ezekiel. If you read chapters 33 and 34,
there is harsh enough language to make it clear these passages have a softer tone. These are not verses of
condemnation. These are blessing of correction, almost parental in their tone. I don’t know about the home you
grew up in, but in my home I heard similar statements. My father’s voice saying, “Child, must you make so much
noise?” My mother’s voice saying, “We just bought all those new clothes for school. Must you wad them up in a
ball and leave them on the floor where you can step on them?” And when I hear statements like these I knew two
things. One, they knew me. They knew what I had done, that I had done it before, and that I was likely to do it
again. It was part of me. Two, they did not expect me to stay that way. They expected that I could learn, I could
grow and I could change, that these habits of mine were part of an age and a stage of life that could be changed by
following a better example.
My friends, we are gathered into the green pastures of this place by our Shepherd-King who knows who we are,
what we have done, and what we are likely to do. Gathered by our Shepherd-King who serves as our living
example of what to follow. Gathered by our Shepherd-King who says to each and every one of us: “I see your feet
are muddy again. Use those muddy feet to come to the table I have spread before you. Come join me to feast on
the bread of life and drink of the cup of forgiveness. And afterward, I have something to show you… a thing or two
about washing feet.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.