The Fine Country
First United Presbyterian Church
“The Fine Country”
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 26, 2017
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
11 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.
12 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.
13 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.
14 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.
15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.
16 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.
20 Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.
21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide,
22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.
24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
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.
32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
34 Then 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;
35 for 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,
36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'
37 Then 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?
38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'
40 And 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.'
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;
42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'
44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'
45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'
46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Imagine there is a fine country where no one goes hungry; where clean water is a human right; where no one is homeless, or friendless, or merciless. In this country, everyone has a coat to keep them warm, and shoes that fit, and a clean shirt to wear every day. There is a loving companion at the side of every hospital bed and even the justice system is defined by compassion.
The citizens of this country are not identifiable by their language or accent, their skin color or dress or clothing. They are diverse in every possible way. Instead, the citizens of this fine country are known by their acts of mercy, their kindness, their loving care. They all tend to the needs of the most vulnerable among them. Even the frail serve as they are able and the young help out where they can.
But the citizens of this fine country don’t live in their homeland. They are expats, residing all over the world, in crowded cities and rural towns, amongst other tribes and within other cultures.
In many ways, they blend in. Perhaps they live with others who look like them, or speak the same language, or dress the same way. It’s difficult to tell them apart. Some of them have forgotten about their homeland, and have begun to lose that distinguishing characteristic – mercy - that identifies their true citizenship.
One day, the ruler of the fine country decides it is time to bring its people home. The people have been living for so long in other places and among other people that they are confused at first to receive the invitation to return. What makes them different from their neighbors? What distinguishes them from other people around them? What are their fellow native citizens like?
The citizens of this good realm may not be able to recognize one another yet, but the ruler of this country easily picks them out of the crowds. Flights are booked for the folks serving in the soup kitchens. Train tickets purchased for people working to resettle refugees and folks befriending the lonely. GPS coordinates for this fine country are downloaded to the maps of those helping in clothes closets and nursing homes and prisons.
As the flock of citizens gathers, they begin to discover that acts of mercy are the distinguishing characteristic of citizens of their homeland.
Meanwhile, the departure of these ex-pats becomes disorienting for the communities they leave behind. The ones who remain find themselves in a merciless world, devoid of kindness and compassion. How did they end up here? they ask. What did they do to deserve life in this cruel and pitiless place?
They apply for visas, green cards, to go to the fine country. But they are rejected. It is explained to them that the ruler has declared only those with natural citizenship are allowed reside in this country. And so, they are turned away, sent back to live in the lands of their own making.
Back home, there is hunger and thirst with no relief. Every stranger is met with hostility and suspicion, leading to increased violence and loneliness. Some people hoard closets full of coats and clothing and shoes while many shiver in the streets, practically naked. The ill suffer alone and those who are imprisoned are certain no one on the outside even knows they exist.
Some people try earning citizenship in the fine country. They bring food to the local food pantry, only to discover it is closed. They try to visit prisoners only to learn visits are no longer allowed. They try to find a stranger to welcome, but everyone has become so entrenched in their tribes of culture and politics and economics and race that no one is crossing over those borders to sojourn into strange lands.
They throw their hands up. How can they possibly escape this place if they can’t even try to imitate the citizens of the fine country? The ruler is unjust. If they aren’t native born and can’t earn their citizenship, what are they supposed to do? How can the ruler simply leave them to their miserable fate?
One man, sitting on a bench and pondering these questions, looks over at the woman who has sat down beside him. She is wearing little more than a rag. Her body is emaciated, and she is wracked by coughing fits. The man looks away, but just as he does, he catches a glimpse of something. It must have been his imagination, but for just a second, he thought he saw in the woman’s face something…something else. Not her face, but someone else’s. Not one he recognized necessarily, but it was oddly familiar all the same. He shakes off the feeling and gets up, going on his way. Later, he passes a group of children, huddled together in the cold, and again, the strange sense that another face huddles among them. Again and again over the next several days, he experiences this sensation. In the face of his lonely neighbor and the man being arrested at the end of the block, he sees that other face. In the face of the woman who talks to herself and lives in the park and the people in the section of town where the water’s been cut off for weeks, he sees that other face.
That face begins to show up in his dreams, in his memories. It reminds him of the citizens of that other country, the expats who used to live among them. When he sees the face, a warm feeling begins to well up inside him. He knows, in some deep, intangible way, that the owner of that face loves him, unconditionally. The owner of that face sees his pain, his sorrow, his fear, and loves him. One day, he glances at his reflection in a shop window, and there, reflected along with his own visage, is that same, loving face.
The man is so filled with joy and gratitude and peace. He can’t explain it. He can’t explain what is happening or why or what it all means.
But the next time he encounters that face, this time on a young man who has clearly stumbled into the wrong neighborhood and is now hopelessly lost, he invites the man in for coffee, offers him a bite to eat, and helps him find his way. When he sees the face again on his lonely neighbor, he starts visiting her every week, bringing her a healthy meal and hearing her memories of happier times. The man decides to reopen the food pantry, and eventually it becomes so filled with that familiar face, that he adds a soup kitchen to the enterprise. That face shows up not just in the hungry, the lonely, and the sick, but on all those who come to help him care for them. Each day, it seems, when the man looks in the mirror, the face becomes clearer, more distinct. And each day, the realm where the man lives looks less and less like the place he once knew. In fact, it begins to resemble that fine country, that place where all the merciful people live. He finds that his longing for that country has gone. He no longer feels compelled to rail against its gates, demanding entry.
One day, he looks up from sorting clothes for the community closet, and he sees it. The face of the one who has been everywhere. But it isn’t masked under another face or hidden within a crowd. The one with the face is standing there, and the man suddenly knows who it is. It is the ruler of the fine country. But why is the ruler here?
The man hastens up to the ruler and asks that very question. What are you doing here, so far from your own country?
“I have always been here,” the ruler replied. “This is my country, and it always has been.”
“How is that possible? This place is nothing like that good land where the others live.”
“Isn’t it?” asked the ruler.
The man looked around. He saw a country where no one goes hungry; where clean water is a human right; where no one is homeless, or friendless, or merciless. He saw a country where everyone has a coat to keep them warm, and shoes that fit, and a clean shirt to wear every day. He saw a loving companion at the side of every hospital bed and a justice system defined by compassion.
“When did this happen?” asked the man.
“It has always been this way,” the ruler replied. “But you could not see it, you could not experience it, until you could see my face in every one of your fellow citizens. You did not need to apply for citizenship, and you could not earn it, because this has always been your home. You belong here, and you belong to me.”
We all are citizens of the commonwealth of heaven. We may not see it. We may not know it. We may not act like it or accept it. But we are.
And as citizens of heaven, we are defined not by our language or culture or even our creeds. We are defined by our compassion, our mercy, our ability to see the face of Christ, ruler of heaven and earth, on every one of our fellow human beings.
The “least of these” are all around us. In those who hunger and thirst and lack any of life’s necessities; in the sick and the lonely and the imprisoned. And in every human longing. In every kind of need. In my face and yours, and in the faces we cringe to look at, and in the faces we choose not to see. Jesus is present in all our world’s brokenness and deficiency. And when we see him there, we will not earn our salvation, our citizenship in the heavenly realm, but we will discover it.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.