“Feed the sheep with justice”

“Feed the sheep with justice”

This is the sermon Dr. Steven Bishop preached at the ordination of Corrie Cabes to the priesthood, June 29, 2020, at All Saints’ Fort Worth.


Corrie Cabes Ordination Sermon
June 29, 2020
Steven Bishop, PhD
All Saints Episcopal Church
Fort Worth, Texas

Hello. I want to thank Corrie for inviting me to preach on this exciting occasion of her ordination to the priesthood. I bring greetings to you, Corrie, and to Bishop Meyer and the Diocese of Fort Worth from the faculty, staff, and administration of Seminary of the Southwest.  We share your joy at this wonderful occasion of recognizing God’s call in Corrie’s life. And we celebrate that the diocese has ordained five women this month in faithful response to the Spirit’s leading.

I’m recording this in my home in Austin. This is just one of the realities that provide context for this ordination. The Diocese of Ft. Worth has been through a difficult period of litigation, the number of new Covid-19 cases is rising in Tarrant County and across the State, across the country, and even the world; people are in the streets trying desperately to awaken us all to the systemic wrongs in American society, hundreds of thousands joined together last week to call for a moral reform in our culture through the Poor People’s Campaign. We are living in a time when the calm waters of normal life have been permanently disturbed.  For many, fear has taken root. Our health, our employment, our retirement, family life, our worship life: it all feels tentative, disturbed, and borders on chaos. Even emotional and spiritual chaos.

The passages read today speak clearly to our times and the chaos and mistrust that appears to have finally roiled to the surface. Our time is not unlike Ezekiel’s, who received his visions in a period of disruption, in a foreign land, on the banks of the Chebar River in Babylon. He was driven from Jerusalem, forced into a new land, and there he heard that the Holy city of Jerusalem, the Holy Temple, and all he held dear was destroyed by the military power of Babylon. The world had been turned upside down. Leadership in Judah had failed. They failed to hear the message God proclaimed through Jeremiah. A proclamation which demanded repentance and a change to the status quo.

In a time of exile and disruption Ezekiel receives a new word from God. A word fit especially for his time. It is a word of hope. A word that will shock those complacent ones who only want to return to normal, to the way things were before the disaster disrupted their lives. Normal was gone forever. God, in true mercy, would step into the void left by the sudden change. Ezekiel was the voice of the new thing.

Speaking through Ezekiel God declares “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep”. This translation captures the emphatic nature of this declaration. God could simply say “I”, but this  message is emphatic. “I, I myself” will care for my people in this ravaged time. The failure of the leaders to heed Jeremiah’s warnings has resulted in their replacement by the Sovereign God.  This is good news. This is great news.

In the description that follows we are given a window into the character and heart of God in relation to God’s own people. The active verbs in this passage stack one upon the other to form a habitation of comfort. “I will seek”, “I will rescue”, “I will bring them out”, “I will gather them”, “I will feed them”, “I will feed them with good pasture”, “I will feed them upon the mountains of Israel”, “I will be the shepherd of my sheep”, “I will give them safety”, “I will seek the lost”, “I will bring back the strayed”, “I will bind the injured”, “I will strengthen the weak”, “I will watch over the strong”, and “I will feed them justice”.

That’s emphatic! God knows how to shepherd. God describes in detail what a shepherd must do.

The word that is most used to reflect Ezekiel’s word for feed, repeated 5 times in the Greek translation of the Hebrew, is broad in its connotation. It covers the range of work a shepherd does for her sheep. She leads them to places of health, she insures their diet is wholesome, she shelters them in green pastures, she binds up the injured, she seeks the lost, she protects the able, and she does it all with justice.

What is meant in the Old Testament by Justice? The word touches upon several realms: political, legislative, judicial, social. The OT use covers that gamut of meanings but the source of justice is not in law or regulation but in the person of God. Biblical texts inform us that the Lord loves justice, that justice is the foundation of God’s throne, and that justice is the work of God’s hands.

In Ezekiel we see clearly what justice looks like. Seeking the lost, binding the injured, strengthening the weak, and watching over the strong.

In our gospel, Jesus said to Peter three times, “Feed my sheep”, twice using the Greek word so common in Ezekiel. I wonder if Jesus had in mind this great passage from Ezekiel. I imagine Jesus drawing upon the rich resources of his Jewish tradition and the power of the prophetic word as he commanded Peter to shepherd justly. If Peter was unclear about what Jesus meant he could go to the scroll of Ezekiel and hear the words spoken by God in a traumatic time to a hurting people. A time of exile and displacement, a time when God appeared absent, a time when hopelessness took up residence in every heart, a time when normal life had been turned upside down.

This vision of justice is expansive. I must mention the reading from the Psalm because it adds texture to our understanding of Justice as God sees it.

3 I count Egypt and Babylon among those who know me; *

behold Philistia, Tyre, and Ethiopia: in Zion were they born.

4 Of Zion it shall be said, “Everyone was born in her, *

and the Most High himself shall sustain her.”

In an unexpected turn away from provincialism, nationalism, and exclusion, the Psalm declares all foreigners to be citizens of Zion.  To drive the point home, the Psalmist mentions specific historical enemies of Israel: Egypt and Babylon. In the eyes of God, they were all born in Zion! They are all citizens in the kingdom of God. God’s love for justice extends beyond our group to embrace everyone.

It would take a long time for Peter to embrace this message. It took a vision from God and an encounter with a Gentile, Cornelius, the Other, to learn what the Psalmist had long ago declared.  God’s sheep are not just those that congregate in our buildings on Sunday morning, not just those who look like us, it is everyone, even our enemies. Those marching for justice, those unemployed, those on a ventilator, those working in the service industry during the pandemic. They all belong to God.

In this time of heightened awareness of systemic racism in our society, we need more than ever to embrace the justice of God for all. To seek and serve those who are oppressed and marginalized, to repent of our own complicity in sheltering the status quo over striving for moral reform, to look to God as our example in this moral, spiritual, and health crisis.

Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep in justice. Feed my sheep. God does it. Jesus commands it.

Corrie, as you are ordained today into the priestly vocation of Christ, I want to remind you of what the Seminary faculty said about your gifts in your second year evaluation:

Corrie has a rare combination of realism and common sense, a good sense of humor, habits of theological reflection, and a down-to-earth love of others.  She builds and tends community.

She ‘builds and tends’ community. ‘Tend’, that’s the same idea as shepherd, feed, care for, and protect. As one who tends community in this time of tectonic shift you must, like Ezekiel, remind us that God is present in this turbulent time.

So, lead us. Feed the sheep with justice.