First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
November 19, 2017
“Who am I?”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Ezekiel 34:11-16 (NRSV)
11For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As 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. 13I 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. 14I 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. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I 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.
Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV)
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
It will be fun, they say. It’s important to build community, they say. It’s not hard, they say.
But, if you’re an introvert and you’re in a group of people, most of whom you don’t know, and the facilitators start talking about doing a brief little ice-breaker, my adrenaline level immediately starts to rise.
Yes, I know it’s important to build community. But, for about 50% of the population, milling around a room of strangers asking each other questions about their life or even not about their life, is hard and fun is relative. So, I usually put on my extrovert big-girl panties and go along with the show, because I know it’s important to build community.
Here’s one of the more common ice-breakers. You may have done it a time or two – we used it just a few weeks ago at the Our Whole Lives Facilitator training.
As you come into the room, a piece of paper with a famous person’s name is pinned to your back. You are not told who the person is and you are supposed to find out by asking questions of people…. People you probably don’t know. (Now add anxiety attack for anyone who may have an anxiety disorder on top of their introversion and the fun level just goes down a notch or two.)
Now, depending on the age of the facilitators I may or may not know anything about the person whose name I’m bearing because I really don’t know anything about 90’s boy bands. (Photo of Back Street Boys) And even if the name is familiar, that doesn’t mean I know a whole lot about them. That’s when I usually start collecting answers that don’t help me a bit during that particular game but might come in handy if I ever get labeled with Alfred Nobel again. Okay, other than having one of the world’s most prestigious awards named after him, how many of you know much more about this guy? (Photo of Alfred Nobel)
You know what name I’d like to get some time? I mean, if I’m going to go along with this game that was obviously designed by a non-anxiety disorder extrovert with an encyclopedic memory, I’d at least like to be given the option to choose my person. I’d be willing play along and ask at least 5 people some questions so the community thing will still happen but I might just be able to enjoy the silliness for a while since the stress of maybe not knowing who the person is won’t be a factor.
I’d like to be Jesus. Jesus is the name I’d like to have taped to my back if I’m going to go through this ice breaker. This is somebody I know a little bit about and, the idea of knowing that Jesus literally has my back is somewhat appealing.
Then, the sociologist in me thinks it might be fun, once we’ve humored the community formation gurus, would be to sit down with someone that you do know and talk about what it would be like to be in the presence of the person whose identity you’ve been carrying around. I wonder how long it would take me to get to this part of Jesus’ hidden identity where he is known as the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, imprisoned, the stranger. That’s not typically where we go. When it comes to being around famous people, we tend to go right for the big known things about them: Savior of the world….. rose from the dead….. walked on water….. born on Christmas….. in a stable…..
Should I have ever secretly, for the sake of building community, been Jesus, I don’t think I would have asked about his financial status or criminal record.
Yet, this reading from Matthew’s gospel that describes the glorious coming of the Son of Man and subsequent judgment of the nations indicates that we should be paying attention to this part of our Lord’s identity.
Yea, he was raised from the dead but he was also hungry.
He made blind people see and lame people walk but he was also a stranger.
He changed water into wine but he was also thirsty.
He changed the world but he was also without clothes.
And when he’s describing the Kingdom of God, the identity that he puts before us defines someone who would more likely be found at the rescue mission than the Vatican.
And we know this. I’m going to guess that if members of the United Church of Christ were to be asked to name 3 scriptures that inform their lives and the mission of the church, this would be among the top 5. It’s what forms the basis of our understanding of our outreach and mission: when we tend to the needs of the people of the world, we are tending to none other than Jesus. (As if the people who are thirsty and hungry and imprisoned can’t be cared for under their own identities but that’s a rant for another day.) And so we get that this scripture reminds us that within each person is the image of their creator and that each have value as a child of God.
Perhaps we get it all too well and we see Jesus in the 1 in 5 American households with children who don’t have enough money to buy food for those children and so we give to food banks and Thanksgiving baskets and host Family Promise and read to kids at school. But it’s hard. We see conditions we don’t want to see. And it’s exhausting. And it’s frustrating. And it’s discouraging. And we give up…. Or want to.
We get this all too well when we recognize Jesus in the 12% of the US adult population that is either unemployed or underemployed, meaning that they either don’t have a job or are working part-time jobs or low-wage jobs, most likely without benefits – which leads to the 1 in 5 households that don’t have enough money to buy food. And we get that. And we get that it’s not acceptable. And we get that it’s not reflective of the Kingdom of God. And so we contact our legislators and urge them to do something different because what’s happening now isn’t cutting it. And it’s hard. And it’s exhausting. And it’s frustrating. And we give up …. Or want to.
Back in the early days of the church, somewhere in the 5th or 6th century, a list of seven deadly sins was put together: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Envy, Pride and Sloth. Some have claimed that sloth is our problem these days. Sloth really doesn’t have anything to do with how well you keep your house or trim your beard. It has to do with lack of caring. It’s a refusal to get involved because we don’t care enough. I see that happening but I also see something else. I see that people care so much that they get overwhelmed. And they freeze. And they give up. They see Jesus everywhere there is need and think that there’s so little that we can do as individuals that we don’t even try or we try for so hard and for so long that we simply wear out. We keep seeing Jesus in the hurting of the world and we are exhausted before we even get started. Or we start delving into the root the troubles and see that it’s so complicated that we simply turn away. What good could I do anyway?
And then we run across that little fable about the boy who was walking along the seashore full of starfish that the tide had brought in and left on the shore where they would most likely die. The little boy is picking up the starfish one at a time and throwing them back. A man comes by and points out that he’ll never be able to get all those star fish back into the sea so it won’t make much difference. The boy simply points out that for that one star fish, it’s made a difference.
The next time I play the “who am I” ice breaker, I want to be the little boy who throws starfish into the sea not just because he was a cool kid but because he embodies Jesus, too. A Jesus who is not stopped by the enormity of it all but emboldened by what he can do.
You all should have a little sticky note in your bulletin with the name “Jesus” on it. That’s to remind you that of all of the people whom you encounter throughout your daily lives, Jesus is among them. But, Jesus is also the identity that you wear – an identity that survives through hunger and thirst, an identity that lives through death and survives hatred, an identity that is rooted in the values that give life, an identity of love.
Wear your identity on your back, across your forehead, around your heart and through the actions of your life. For it is who you are. And, you are not alone. The prophet Ezekiel reaches through the ages to remind you that you are amongst the sheep whom God has sought.