Baa Baa Black Sheep


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

November 22, 2020


Texts: Ezekiel 34:11–22; Matthew 25:31–46

      Uncle Harry had always been considered to be the black sheep in my mother’s family. Totally unconventional, he joined the Navy in 1940 and  much to the horror of my Aunt Ruby, the family matriarch after my mother’s mother had died several years before, he talked his two younger brothers Paul and Kyle into joining the Navy as well. Although all three were at Pearl Harbor that fateful December day when Japanese planes came in and bombed the Pacific fleet, they had been on shore leave so they were not on their ship, the Arizona, which became a virtual graveyard that terrible morning.

      Uncle Harry went on to defend our country in the Pacific theatre and ended up in China, where he married his first wife. The family almost had a heart attack because she wasn’t white. She was killed during the war and Uncle Harry went on to marry Number Two. They didn’t get along so they got divorced, another problem for the family. Wife Number Three followed; shortly thereafter, Number Four, and so on. My Dad used to tease my Mom by saying that Uncle Harry was like his namesake King Henry, you know, the one who had six wives. 

      Uncle Harry had one outstanding characteristic–– in addition to his charming way with women, he was one of the most generous persons you’d ever want to meet. He would tell stories about places far away, adding that we all needed to be grateful for everything we had because we had no idea, no idea, what it was like to live in certain other countries. As people shifted uncomfortably around the table when he began talking, I could never be sure if it was because he might disclose some terrible part of his past or just because he preached––and practiced––Christian generosity. 

     Black sheep are an anomaly in the sheep world, actually resulting from the union of two recessive genes in white sheep parents. Commercially undesirable because their yarn cannot be dyed, they were seen as the mark of Satan in earlier times and were often destroyed by being burned to death. Amazing what superstition does. 

       We’re all pretty familiar with the passage from Matthew, but the passage from Ezekiel is more telling in some ways. God looks at fat sheep and lean sheep, stating that those who will be judged are the ones who have trampled the pasture from which they have not fed, thus destroying the pasture for other sheep and goats, as well. Ezekiel was preaching to the religious and political leadership of his day; what is particularly telling is that Ezekiel says God judges the leadership not in terms of what they say, but in terms of what they do to others, in other words, their unjust behavior.

      This past week at the New Jersey Food Bank, there was a shortage of dried milk; in fact, there was a shortage of pretty much everything. The pandemic has resulted in not just more unemployment, more hunger, but also less giving to the poor and the hungry. Not only is consumer spending down with tightened lines of credit, but giving is down as well. 

       One would think that this seems like a time to pull together as communities of faith rather than pulling apart. It seems like a time to share what we have with others. We know that we say, but this week even now continues to be the week of the national feeding frenzy. It’s the week we still sit down to eat and eat and eat. The Macy’s Thanksgiving parade has been changed to be a series of performances to be televised. There will still be football sans audiences. The whole reason we celebrate this national holiday is a blip on our radar screen. 

       Abraham Lincoln instituted Thanksgiving as a national holiday during the darkest days of our republic––the Civil War. Listen to some of his words in this proclamation:


The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity. . . . . Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased . . . No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union. 


      It’s really quite extraordinary. In a time of unparalleled division, when brother fought brother, Lincoln called for gratitude to God and for the healing of the wounds of the Nation. In the midst of a war that was tearing our nation apart, we are to be thankful to God. So in the midst of time, we are to continue thanks to God for all we have received. 

       We mouth those words but how is it that we show we believe them, really believe them? We Americans have this mistaken gospel of self-reliance when we are beholden to what we have received from others: parents, grandparents, community, even government. We don’t live in an atomistic world. We live in an intertwined one. Look at how the credit crunch here has affected other markets and how the problems in other markets have affected us. Just as the pandemic has been global, our recovery will be global. 

      The voice of God in Ezekiel says: I will feed them with justice. Justice includes how we spend our money as well as how we share our resources. Think about all the ways we spend our money and where we shop. Beyond not buying items made by slave labor from China, do the stores you shop in have just labor practices? Do they hire the disabled? These are all justice issues. I know, it’s a real pain to figure this stuff out, but God demands that we go through a bit more here and there to reflect God’s vision of justice for the world. 

       Okay, so here are some proposals: First, let’s pool our information on consumer justice issues, and share them not just with ourselves but with the world on our website. Second: each of us finds something we don’t need or haven’t used for a long time and we bring it to the Calico Cat for people who really need our unused items. 

       Sounds like a little but it’s really a lot. It’s also part of what we should do. The second part is to respond to the innumerable opportunities through changes in politics and policy. God’s people have the promise of being fed with justice. Let us be instruments of that promise. 

        Let us pray: Make us instruments of your peace and of your justice. In the name of him who was the instrument of both, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.