November 26, 2017
Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25.31-46
+ For any of you have known me for any period of time, you’ll know this about me before too long:
I have an issue with authority. I know: you look at me and you think, “”That guy is no rebel. He’s such an Anglo-Catholic! Look at him up there in his black clericals, cassock and vestments. He looks like a person who follows the straight and narrow.”
And, yes, I actually kind of do.
But I still have issues with authority. Especially when authority attempts to control and to manipulate. I have issues with authority when authority becomes lazy or when authority is misused or when authority is used for things that run counter to following Jesus. And don’t even get me started on politics and the current political situation!
Yup, I have issues with authority. I had issues with teachers telling me what to do in school. I’ve had issues with clergy who got a bit too heavy-handed and with Bishops who have thrown their weight around too liberally. And I have certainly resisted when I see any church leaders (ordained or not) try to control or manipulate a congregation or a church body.
And resisting authority in any way is not easy. Let me tell you, there are often repercussions for such resistance. Being the rebel labels one. It puts one of the fringes, even more so for those who are already out on the fringes.
But, this is the way it is. And my conviction is clear: sometimes being a follower of Jesus means doing exactly what Jesus did.
And, as we know, Jesus had a few issues with authority himself. Which makes this whole Christ the King Sunday even more interesting.
This issue of authority came up in a fascinating little article I just read about Christ the King Sunday from All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, The article, written by Melissa Hayes, the Director of Liturgy at All Saints, is fascinating.
For example, according to the article “Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925 to remind Christians that their allegiance was to their spiritual ruler in heaven as opposed to earthly supremacy, which was claimed by Benito Mussolini.”
Very, very interesting! Especially considering how many of us might be feeling about the current political situation.
Hayes goes on to write,
“Our group [at All Saints] discussed Jesus standing against the empire and what that leadership looks like. We admitted our human response to someone of great spiritual authenticity is to venerate them – even if titles and hierarchies are not important to them. Our findings led us to conclude that Jesus ‘kingship’ does not involve domination or triumphalism — but the radical, all-powerful compassion and love of Jesus seeking justice for all.”
So, yes, today, is Christ the King Sunday. And for some reason, I don’t have much of an issue with the idea of Christ as King, despite my deep-seated issues with authority. I love this idea of Christ as Ruler.
And, as you know, I love preaching about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a good thing to preach about.
Also, it’s an important Sunday for another reason. It is the last Sunday in that very long, green season of Pentecost. Today, for the Church, it is New Year’s Eve. The old church year of Sundays—Church Year A—ends today. The new church year—Church Year B—begins next Sunday, on the First Sunday of Advent. So, what seems like an ending today is renewed next week, with the coming of Advent, in that revived sense of longing and expectation that we experience in Advent.
Today, we get this reading from the Prophet Ezekiel, with all its threats of judgement and punishment. But, we also hear God saying things through Ezekiel like,
“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.”
And (I love this one)
“I feed them with justice.”
We also get to hear Jesus tell us that story of the sheep and the goats, echoing in many ways our reading from Ezekiel.
Now, I actually don’t hate this parable—even with its threat of punishment (on which everyone gets hung up), and its judgment. I love this story because there is something beautiful and subtle going on just beneath the surface, if you take the moment to notice. And that subtle aspect of this story is this: If you notice, the reward is given not to people who work for the reward. The reward is not given to people who help the least of their brethren because they know they will gain the reward.
The reward is granted to those who help the least of their brethren simply because the least need help. The reward is for those who have no regard or idea that a reward awaits them for doing such a thing.
Now I don’t think I need to tell anyone here who the least of our brethren are. The least of our brethren are the ones who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are naked, who are sick and who are in prison.
I think this ties in beautifully to our own ideas of why we do what we do as followers of Jesus. Why do we do what we do, we must ask ourselves? Do we do these things because we think we’re going to get a reward for doing them? Or do we do these things because by doing them we know it goes for a greater reward than anything we ourselves could get?
In our Gospel reading today, we find that the Kingdom of God is prepared for those who have been good stewards, who do good for the sake doing good. It is prepared for those who have been mindful of what has been given to them and have been mindful of those around them in need.
For us, we need to realize that the Kingdom is prepared for us as well. It is prepared for us who have sought to be good stewards without any thought of eternal reward. For us who strive to do good for the sake doing good. It is prepared for us who have simply done what we are called to do as followers of Jesus.
To love God, and to love others.
That is why we do good.
For us, in our own society, we find that these same terms found in Jesus’ parable have a wider definition.
Hungry for us doesn’t just mean hungry for food. It means hungry for love, for healing, for wholeness. It means hungry, also, for God.
Thirsty doesn’t just mean for water. Thirsty for us means thirsty for fairness or justice or peace. And thirsty for God.
Naked doesn’t just mean without clothing. It means, for us, to be stripped to our core, to be laid bare spiritually and emotionally and materially, which many of us have known in our lives. We have known what it means to be spiritually and emotionally naked.
To be sick, doesn’t necessarily mean to be sick with a disease in our bodies. It is means to be sick in our hearts and in our relationships with others. It means to be sick with despair or depression or spiritually barrenness.
And we all know that the prisons of our lives sometimes don’t necessarily have walls or bars on the doors. The prisons of our lives are sometimes our fears, our prejudices, our addictions, our very selves.
To not go out and help those who need help is to be arrogant, to be selfish, to be headstrong. To not do so is to turn our backs on following where Jesus leads us.
Because Jesus leads us into that place wherein we must love and love fully and give and give freely—of ourselves and of what we have been given.
It means to “feed with justice,” as God tells us in Ezekiel.
I like that because that is definitely what we have all been striving to do here at St. Stephen’s. That is what that window in which we celebrate welcoming all as Christ and which we will be dedicated in a few weeks is all about. We practice our radical hospitality to everyone who comes through our doors. And, I think, we accept everyone who comes through those doors fully.
Here, we not only welcome people, but I think we allow people to be the people God created them to be—without judgment, without prejudice, just as the Kingdom no doubt will be. And is.
Again, that brings us back to Jesus’ parable. The meaning of this story is this: If you do these things—if you feed the hungry, if you give drink to the thirsty, if you welcome the stranger, if you clothe the naked, if you visit the sick and imprisoned—if you simply respond to one another as human beings—if you do these things without thought of reward, but do them simply because you, as a Christian, are called to do them, the reward is yours.
The Kingdom is not only awaiting us in the next world, on the other side of the veil. The Kingdom, when we do these things, is here. Right now. Right in our midst.
As Christians, we shouldn’t have to think about doing any of those things. They should be like second nature to us. We should be doing them naturally, instinctively.
For those of us who are hungry or thirsty, who feel like strangers, who are naked, sick and imprisoned—and at times, we have been in those situations—we find Christ in those rays of hope that break through into our lives. It is very similar to the hope we are clinging to in this moment as we enter Advent—that time in which the Light of Christ is seen breaking into the encroaching darkness of our existence. And we—in those moments when we feed the hungry, when we give drink to the thirsty, when we welcome the stranger, when we clothe the naked, when we visit the sick and imprisoned—in those moments, we become that light in the darkness, that hope in someone else’s life.
We embody Christ and Christ’s Kingdom when we become the conduits of hope.
So, as we celebrate the end of this liturgical year and set our expectant eyes on the season of Advent, let us not just be filled with hope. Let us be a true reflection of Christ’s hope to this world. Let us be the living embodiment of that hope to those who need hope. And in doing so, we too will hear those words of assurance to us:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for….”
I am going to close today with the prayer they pray at All Saints, Pasadena on this Christ the King Sunday. It’s a beautiful prayer. So, let us pray,
Most Gracious God, who in Jesus of Nazareth showed us an alternative to the kings, queens and emperors of history, help us to revere and emulate Jesus’ leadership: To love, and to seek justice for all people. Help us to recognize the true grandeur and life-changing power based in loving you and all of our neighbors. In Christ Jesus with you and the Holy Spirit, may we co-create a world ruled not through domination, but in that radical and all-powerful compassion and love. Amen.