Sermon for Sunday, November 22nd, 2020
The Feast of Christ the King
No, that is not a swear word, though maybe it should be.
Shibboleth is a Hebrew word and if you know what it means or what it refers to, then that means you are quite possibly a biblical scholar, a linguistic scholar, or more likely a fan of the TV show “the West Wing.”
What is a shibboleth? Well, to put it quite simply a shibboleth is a tool that we use to sort ourselves into insiders and outsiders. A shibboleth is a test, only you may not know that you are being tested. A shibboleth can be something cultural, it can be a food, it can be a word or phrase, it can be a WAY of pronouncing something, that is a signal, usually a secret signal, that I am a part of a special group. It is like a secret handshake. We use shibboleths all the time and don’t even know it.
When I hear someone uses the pronoun “y’all” correctly, I immediately start to think “hey, I bet this person eats grits; I bet they know how to cook okra.” The word is a signal of something greater. It is a signal that you might be a part of the in-crowd. You might be like me. We might have something in common. That is what I start to think when I hear “y’all”
What “ya’ll” start to think may be a different story. You may think Goober and Gomer Pyle. Yokel. Unsophisticated, uneducated. You may make assumptions about my family background or my politics, all just because of one word. The word is a symbol of something greater.
In the Book of Judges there were two warring tribes the Ephraimites and the Gileadites. And the Gileadites controlled a river crossing and they would ask everyone that crossed the river to pronounce the word “Shibboleth.” Well, if you were a Gileadite you said “shibboleth” with an -sh, but the Ephraimites pronounced it “sibboleth” with an -s. Well whenever the Gileadites head someone mispronounce their word, they killed them. It wasn’t about the word at all though, it was about what it signified. This shibboleth was a signifier of which group you belonged to. It was a tool to sort ourselves, and boy do we like to sort ourselves.
We use shibboleths all the time, sometimes they are very secret and subtle, sometimes they are obvious and overt. And it’s not just words that we use; it can be anything: food, clothing, what kind of car you drive, what kind of church you go to, whether you go to the 8 o’clock service or the 10:30 service. This week your Thanksgiving table will probably be covered with shibboleths and you didn’t even know it. Did you roast that turkey or did you deep fry it? Are you serving white bread stuffing or cornbread dressing? Does your cranberry sauce still have the rings on it from the can it came out of, or is it made from whole, fresh berries that you have boiled with lemon zest and Gran Marnier? And don’t think that the shibboleths end when you step away from the dining room table either…oh no, because then there is the issue of which football team you are going to root for. Oh, you see, the problem with shibboleths is that they don’t know when to stop sorting people. Are you from the Western world or the Eastern world? Are you from Europe or the United States? Are you a Northerner or a Southerner? Are you a wealthy, coastal southerner that drops the ‘r’s from your words, or are you a poor, in-land southerner that adds ‘r’s to words? Are you a white southerner or a black southerner? Which state are you from? Do you put white gravy or brown gravy on your country fried steak? Is your cornbread sweet or savory? Are you rooting for Auburn or Alabama? That is like asking someone up here if they are a Yankees fan or a Mets fan. Get it wrong and you are cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We are constantly looking for ways to sort ourselves. I do it. You do it. We all do it, and sometimes we aren’t even aware that we are doing it. It may seem like fun and games, and it is…until it’s not. Shibboleths don’t know when to stop. Healthy rivalries turn into vicious divisions. In the Bible, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites weren’t playing a football game, they were killing each other. This desire we have to sort ourselves has a dark side: it becomes an addiction. We won’t stop until we are deciding who is worthy of life and who isn’t, or who is entitled to sit on God’s right hand and who should be on the left.
Jesus said, “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. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judgebetween sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
Jesus talks about the great day when he will come in glory and separate the sheep from the goats. When those who are the righteous will be separated from those that are accursed. God tells Ezekiel that some day he will come and judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. We hear these prophecies and it confirms for us what we already know and believe: that the world is filled with sheep and goats, or fat sheep and lean sheep. The world is filled with bad guys and good guys. The world is filled with those who are blessed and those who are accursed, so why can’t we get a head start on all this sorting?
Ah but, you see that’s not our job. The sheep are not qualified to sort themselves out; whenever they try, it is just sheep pushing flank and shoulder against other sheep; the strong butting against the weak until all are scattered. We want to decide who the sheep are and who the goats are, but Jesus makes it clear that that is his job, not ours. We love to judge and sort ourselves, but God makes it very clear that the only sorting and judging that is every going to matter is the sorting that he does. The more inclined we are to sort people according to who we think is blessed and accursed, or who we think is a sheep and who we think is a goat, the more likely we are to find ourselves on the wrong side of Jesus when the real sorting happens.
If we really believe that Christ is our king, which is what we proclaim today. If we really trust that Christ is the Lord, King, and judge of the universe, then we have to learn to put our own little shibboleths aside. We need to stop trying to sort the world out for Jesus and trust that he will know his own sheep when he comes looking for them. None of us are qualified to judge, not even the best among us, we are all gonna get it wrong.
In Jesus’s little story this morning, did you notice that the sheep and the goats have something in common? The righteous people on Jesus’s right hand and the accursed people on Jesus’s left hand have one important in common: they are all surprised at which side they wound up on.