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.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Some of you might be wondering why Pastor Dexter chose a prophetic text on this Reign of Christ Sunday that not once mentions or refers to Jesus? Some scholars would use a Christian lens to put Jesus into this Jewish text but we would not want to trample over our Jewish siblings with secessionist logics. What this text does teach us about is leadership. It shows us what bad leadership looks like and gives a vision for what good leadership can be as well.
Jeremiah was speaking during the reign of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah who were each under Babylonian control and would reach out to powerhouse Egypt when they wanted support. This often led to sieges of Jerusalem eventually ending during Zedekiah’s reign when the temple was destroyed and many people were taken into Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah was calling out these bad leaders and attempting to give hope to the people under this oppressive leadership. Now you can imagine that the kings probably did not like what Jeremiah had to say, in fact it is believed that Jehoiakim burned an early version of the book of Jeremiah in order to stop it from circulating among the people.
The first 25 chapters of Jeremiah lay out numerous reasons why these kings were wicked and predicted the fall of Jerusalem. In earlier chapters, Jeremiah points out that these wicked kings had forsaken justice, abandoning the most vulnerable in society–foreigners, widows, and orphans. Jeremiah chapter 22 also discusses how these kings failed to adequately pay their workers all the while growing and hoarding their personal wealth. Jeremiah says that these kings have blood on their hands. It is clear to us today that these kings were examples of bad leadership that caused immense harm to those entrusted to their care.
So what are the alternatives? The good news is that Jeremiah does not leave us only with the list of bad leadership attributes but turns toward a beautiful portrait of messianic hope. Jeremiah leans into the Jewish tradition of waiting for a messiah who will save Israel from violent outside attacks as well as insider-caused pain. This king to come, Jeremiah says, will “deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land”.
And this is where Jeremiah uses an interesting phrase to describe the coming good kings: Jeremiah calls them shepherds. This might seem common parlance now but to compare the highest official in the land – ordained by God and in charge of immense wealth – to a shepherd, the lowest of the low, covered in muck and smelling rotten from their job tending livestock in the open fields, that would have been quite the surprising turn of phrase. This shepherd image is a reminder to remain humble in your charge and responsibility as well as a call to be like the lowly shepherd. Shepherds are responsible for protecting their flock and providing food and water to them. It is the shepherd’s job to fight off wolves, bears, and thieves, to search for the lost sheep, and to rescue them when in danger. The shepherd is one who is responsible for their flock. Similarly, Jeremiah is saying, a king or leader should be judged upon how well their flock is doing.
With this shepherd image, Jeremiah is also pointing out that good leadership does not come from the tippy top of the pyramid but from the bottom, from those hardworking and compassionate leaders in our midst. This means that anyone can be a good shepherd of humans. It just takes ordinary people like you and me who choose to do right in the spaces we are in, to seek justice and mercy in our dealings with others, and to mirror God’s call to care for those our unjust society has targeted – the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the ones that the powerful have tried to throw away.
These last few years we have seen the challenges of good and bad leadership. In our own town, we have seen the poorest pushed to the edge of the city, to a place removed from where the wealthy in Longview live, relegated to the Alabama Street encampment. But recently leaders are trying to do better and just last week the Longview City Council approved a pallet home community called Hope Village to operate here in our own city. This will now go to the county commissioners some time in the coming weeks, we hope, with a request to fully fund the project with document recording fees collected here in Cowlitz County that are earmarked specifically for addressing homelessness. We do not know how our commissioners will vote on this request. One of our commissioners pulled this from the commissioner meeting agenda this coming Tuesday 11/22 at 9am, where the vote was supposed to take place. Every person and every leader has choices about how to treat the people who have the least amount of power in our community. Leaders have a responsibility like a shepherd to make sure the sheep do not die outside in the cold or go hungry when we have plenty of resources to share. And we have a responsibility to be like Jeremiah and remind our leaders of their responsibility to take care of ALL the members of this community. Many of you have been going to Longview council meetings as recently as this last Thursday to be like Jeremiah, pushing our leaders to be the kinds of shepherds who care for the most oppressed among us. I’ll be at the commissioner meeting at the county building this Tuesday 11/22 at 9am to follow your lead, ready to speak if needed in support of the ones who most need our help. I hope you’ll consider coming to the county building this Tuesday morning to join me, because the sheep are in desperate need of a good shepherd.
Jeremiah puts the question to us on this Reign of Christ Sunday: Will we trust in the leaders of the empire? Or will we put our trust in God and the communities of shepherd-like care where we depend upon one another to live? Do we put our faith and hope in Wall Street and a certain political party? Or do we rely upon one another, building bonds of trust and safety, resisting the systems of oppression that pull us down? What would a community look like with good shepherd leaders? With people working for the care and safety of all?
Beloveds, I have glimpsed this good shepherd Reign of Christ here on earth in this community of faith. I pray that we will always keep that at our forefront so that in all we do, we live into the community of shepherd-like care and support that will bring forth God’s loving reign to our world. May we go and make it so!