Rancho Cielo helps kids find and develop meaningful lives and avoid jail.
The word for today is “gathering,” an appropriate word for this last Sunday of the church year. This Sunday brings to a close the week of Thanksgiving, when we gather with our families, coming home to those who are near and dear to us. This is also the season of gathering, of harvest, of preparing the gardens and the fields for their winter rest, before the next season of planting and growing begins once more.
In today’s opening hymn, the familiar “Come, ye thankful people, come,” “all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.” Throughout the year, we have gathered the blessings that God has provided, and so today, we come to raise the song of harvest-home, with great gratitude for God’s goodness.
Today’s reading from the Old Testament is all about God gathering in God’s lost and scattered people. The Prophet Ezekiel pronounces an oracle of restoration to the people of Israel, who have been scattered far and wide, separated from one another, taken into exile, and now are like lost sheep without a shepherd.
“Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep and I will seek them out…I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…I will bring them into their own land…I will feed them with good pasture…they shall lie down in good grazing land.” God says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep….I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”
What hopeful words! No matter how far we are scattered, or how far we have strayed, God is always working to gather us back in, back into God’s love, care, healing, and safety. God comes looking for us, and for all the lost. “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” God’s goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives. God gathers us in, and we dwell in God’s love forever.
God also says, “I will feed my sheep with justice.”
And so the Apostle Matthew presents the great judgement scene in his gospel, another great scene of gathering, one with which we are probably all familiar. In the scene, Jesus, Christ the King, has come in his glory, all the nations are gathered before him, and Jesus will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep are the ones who have provided love, care, healing and safety to the least of these. “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you have done it to me.”
Those who have done for others what God has already done for us are the ones God invites into eternal life. For when we care for the least of these, we too become shepherds, searching and seeking, rescuing and providing.
In his time among us, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, gathered his followers in from tax collector’s booths, gathered them in from lives of oppression and hopelessness, gathered them out of their old lives into new life, into hope and healing.
And then he gives to his followers the disciples, and to us, the authority to go out and to seek the lost, and to be God’s love and light in the world through our actions, to enter into God’s very heart, and to become part of the eternal flow of love that God constantly pours out into creation.
Because we have been gathered in by Jesus, in gratitude we go out to gather in the lost, the scattered, the strayed, the injured, and the weak ones of this world, the ones that Jesus calls “the least of these” into God’s healing love.
Maybe some of you have read this article online, an article from USA Today, written by Elizabeth Weise, entitled “Jobs, not jail: A judge was sick of sending kids to prison, so he found a better way.” I share it today because it is such a fine illustration of a person seeking out and gathering the least of these, and in doing so, transforming their lives.