Sermon – Nov 23rd 2014
Christ the King, Birkenhead.
Christ the King Sunday
So you want to be a sheep, do you?
Do you remember PE at school – when teams were picked. “Pick me”. We prayed didn’t we that we wouldn’t be the last person chosen. There are two teams in today’s gospel (Matthew 25:31-end). On the one hand there are Sheep, and there are Goats on the other. The Sheep are the winning team, the Goats are the losers – although the team looks anything other than a winning team. The Sheep are promoted by the Son of Man – they have a podium position. The Goats are relegated and put out of business.
Who do we want to play for: the Sheep or the Goats?
But then, there are good sheep and bad sheep, according to our OT reading (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24). Ezekiel explains how we can tell them apart when he talks about God’s way of judging them apart. The fat sheep are accused of being violent, abusive and non-caring within their community, pushing their way around. “You pushed”, God says. “You pushed with flank and shoulder. You butted at all the weak animals with all your horns until you got your own way and had it all for yourself. You scattered them far and wide.”
Ezekiel is one of the “lean sheep”, pushed around, butted and scattered – forced into exile.
His complaint rings true through all ages. There always seem to be people who behave like this, like bad sheep. Back then, Ezekiel’s people have been scattered far and wide in a way that reminds us of what happens in our world today, when so many people are dislodged from their families, forced to flee their homes, communities, work and livelihood.
For Ezekiel and his fellow exiles, the problem has been poor leadership (the leaders are referred to as shepherds). The leaders have only been interested in themselves, feeding themselves at the expense of the people, failing to provide any welfare or benefit system. The sick were ignored. The injured were ignored – and the leaders ruled with a rod of iron. That is why the people were scattered. Ezekiel and his fellow exiles had no choice. They had to go. That is largely the case today as well. The villagers under attack by Islamic State have no choice but to flee. The victims of domestic violence who pluck up the courage to leave their situation say “we had no choice, we had to get out”, and others who can’t leave also say “we had no choice, there was nowhere to go.”
Life should have been uncomplicated for them. They should have led settled lives in straightforward communities, in close contact with parents, grandparents and grandchildren. Instead their lives were disrupted.
The calamity of weak and/or violent leadership catches up with people so quickly, at all levels of our lives. It’s the national tragedies which catch our eye in the news – but the tragedies are lived out small in our workplaces, in the playground (bullying) and in our homes (we are used to hearing about domestic abuse, elder abuse and child abuse). The victims are the lean sheep, pushed around, butted, battered, scattered, unfairly and cruelly treated.
We know what happens to them:
to the children who are neglected, who go unheard, who deserve better.
- Some of our children are treated so badly – maybe their parents caring only for themselves in the manner of the bad shepherds that Ezekiel riles against. Some of the children manage to run away – scatter – and we all know that there are many adults preying on vulnerable youngsters. Why should they be denied a home? Why should they be denied safety? Why should they be denied care? These lambs deserve the care of a good shepherd – by their very nature. Any different and the natural order of things is turned upside down.
- to those who become refugees, clinging desparately to their identities, crossing boundaries into lives where they’re still not wanted forced to do work which really was beneath their dignity. The skills of doctors being wasted as they become cleaners. Fully trained nurses having to take any job they could find – zero hours contracts. The dream is somewhere safe to escape to – somewhere you’ll be wanted for what you can offer, but then discover that you’re fenced in from making the border crossing. Some become desparate – casting out to sea with a vague hope that they might make it, but fearful of other wild creatures who lurk in the deep
There is a charity called Eaves which runs the Poppy Project. They report Ellie’s story (which I didn’t use in the sermon):
When Ellie, 32, describes the first part of her life, she races through the disturbing details in a neutral tone; the problems she experienced as a child and a young woman are not what makes her angry. She grew up in a slum outside Kampala in Uganda. She was sent to live with another family when she was seven and sexually abused by the head of the household; when she turned 15, she was forced to marry him. He was violent, so when a neighbour offered to help her escape to a new life abroad, she agreed.
She was taken by plane to the UK with a group of six other women. Ellie thought that she was going to work as a cleaner, but on the day she arrived, she was driven to the home of a white man who told her she would have to work as a prostitute to pay back her debts for the passport and air travel. For two years she was locked in a house with the other women, and periodically driven to customers’ homes.
She only escaped when a sympathetic client gave her £60 and explained how to get to London. In London, she met a man who allowed her to stay with him, but who quickly began to ask for sex in exchange for shelter. One night when he was violently abusive, she called the police.
This is the moment, in a life story of unmitigated misfortune, when you might expect that things would begin to improve. However, it marked the beginning of a new wave of difficulty, and this is where she begins to get angry. She was taken to hospital, but not treated; later the police took her to a police station, where she was fingerprinted and told she had no visa. Since she had only been given a passport to hold for a few seconds when she passed border control at the airport, she knew nothing about visas.
“They were asking each other: ‘Did she come here legally or illegally?’ The way they were talking was very intimidating. They didn’t ask about the attack. They were more interested in why I was staying in the country without a visa.” The man who hit her was not arrested, but she was taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre. “I’d never been in detention before. It felt like a prison: being locked up, eating your food at certain times, sleeping at certain times. Most of the time you can’t go outside; you can barely see daylight.”
The other inmates laughed at her when they found out she had called the police, and told her she was stupid to have expected them to help her. She was quickly put on suicide watch because she told staff that she would kill herself rather than be deported back to a country where she would be in danger from her husband and her traffickers. “They wouldn’t let me buy tinned food in case I took the tin and cut myself; they watched me while I showered in case I hanged myself,” she says. For a while she regretted having escaped from her trafficker, and thought returning to her existence as a sex slave might be preferable.
It was only when she was in Yarl’s Wood that she realised she had been trafficked. “So many of the women I met in detention had been trafficked. I don’t think the police who interviewed me knew about trafficking. They were more interested in catching someone for being an illegal migrant than in helping someone who has called for help. All they were talking about was deporting me,” she says.
It was only when a sympathetic guard suggested that she put her name down for legal aid that she was put in touch with Eaves. Her asylum claim on the grounds of trafficking was rejected initially, but with Eaves’ help, this was overturned.
She wishes there was greater awareness of trafficking throughout the system. If border staff had been on the lookout for people-trafficking when she arrived in the UK, she would have been prevented from coming into the country. “If they had stopped me on the border, I would have been so much happier; I wouldn’t have done all the bad things that I was made to do. But I came here and I was turned into a prostitute.”
She is calm when we speak; very articulate and very angry about what has happened to her. “Putting trafficked people in prison – that is the worst part of it. You have gone through bad times, and then you find yourself in detention, told you are going to be deported back to the traffickers. That man is still there and he is still bringing in women. That’s why I’m so upset.”
Pushed around, butted, battered and scattered. In exile with a longing for the care of something like a good shepherd.
Tuesday is White Ribbon Day – a day for men to pledge to “never commit, condone or remain silent or remain silent about men’s violence against women” – tantamount to a commitment to playing a proper part in home, family and community.
Good sheep don’t push their way round. Good sheep aren’t selfish. Good sheep aren’t frightening.
Good sheep have good shepherds who they follow. The people of God have had many shepherds. Some have been good, many of them have been bad (Ezekiel is speaking from experience). Ezekiel looks forward to the time when the bad shepherd has had his day, looking forward to the time of good shepherding when the scattered sheep will be gathered in good grazing land.
Jesus shows himself as the good shepherd. It is how he describes himself as the good shepherd, and that is why he is interested in the sheep. His place is with them, not with the goats. At times, at the worst of times, his sheep look awful – and no wonder, because they are the ones pushed around, butted and scattered. They are hungry, thirsty, naked and sick. They are strangers and prisoners. Good sheep who have responded to the shepherd’s call.
If we are sheep, how do we play our part amongst them? Do we act big or play gentle? Are we one of them, or are we acting the goat?