What is there to say about a morning spent with a cup of hot coffee and good music? I’m grateful for the opportunities to listen that come my way. Here’s what I’m listening to in this last week of the Church Year 2020 and the sermon I gave (with quotes from Madeleine L’Engle and Frank Senn) to the fine folks at Highlands Lutheran Church yesterday. Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
11 For thus says Sovereign GOD: I myself will search for my sheep; I will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when their flocks are scattered in every direction, so I will search for my sheep and rescue them, no matter where they scattered on that day of full clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the countries and bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by its streams and wherever there is a settlement. 14 I will feed them on good pasture land, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing ground. 15 I myself will tend my flock and have it lie down, thus says Sovereign GOD. 16 I will seek out the lost, I will return the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and I will watch over the fat and the sleek. I will be a true shepherd to them.
20 Therefore, thus says GOD to you: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, 21 for you shove aside the weak with flank and shoulder; you butt them with your horns until they are scattered in every direction. 22 “ ‘I will save my flock and they will be ravaged no longer. I will judge between one sheep and another. 23 I will set up over them one shepherd to care for them: my servant David. He will care for them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, GOD, will be their God, and my servant David will be their leader. I, GOD, have spoken.
31 “At the appointed time the Promised One will come in glory, escorted by all the angels of heaven, and will sit upon the royal throne, 32 with all the nations assembled below. Then the Promised One will separate them from one another, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. 33 The sheep will be placed on the right hand, the goats on the left. 34 “The ruler will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you blessed of my Abba God! Inherit the kindom prepared for you from the creation of the world! 35 For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me; 36 naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me; in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 Then these just will ask, ‘When did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and invite you in, or clothe you in your nakedness? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison and come to visit you?’ 40 The ruler will answer them, ‘The truth is, every time you did this for the least of my sisters or brothers, you did it for me.’ 41 “Then the ruler will say to those on the left, ‘Out of my sight, you accursed ones! Into that everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and the fallen angels! 42 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 gave me no welcome; naked and you gave me no clothing. I was ill and in prison and you did not come to visit me.’ 44 Then they in turn will ask, ‘When did we see you hungry or thirsty, or homeless or naked, or ill or in prison, and not take care of you?’ 45 The answer will come, ‘The truth is, as often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.’ 46 They will go off to eternal punishment, and the just will go off to eternal life.”
Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you this morning. Yes, that’s a phrase pastor type people are apt to say; it’s also my genuine desire for you, that you would experience Grace, Mercy, and Peace. I want to emphasize this at the beginning because this reading from the Gospel of Matthew may not bring those experiences to the surface initially. The reasons we may not experience Grace, Mercy, and Peace this morning are likely as different and varied as we are. Our context matters; what we’ve experienced over the past hours, weeks, and year matters. So too does the Grace, Mercy, and Peace that God has for you, for us in this community and for this world, so let’s take a moment to talk about the contexts of our scripture readings and this Sunday in the Church year. I’m hoping that just maybe a look into the context of another will help us understand our own context as part of God’s beloved creation.
Context matters, and if you were to have only the corner of this page of the Bible ripped from its context you might think the concern of who’s in and who’s out was the sole concern of Jesus and the early Church, but reading the whole of scripture paints a bigger picture. Though Jesus does speak of a final judgement in this scripture reading, it’s not an overly common topic when placed next to how much Jesus spoke on love and caring for the neighbor which is also part of this reading. Still, this proclamation that the times of hunger, thirsting, nakedness and imprisonment were coming to an end was very likely a hopeful word from Jesus to Matthew’s first readers who were both actively persecuted and experiencing the hardships of a society in collapse on many levels. As you might imagine, if you were experiencing your leaders and rulers complete disregard and destruction of basic norms, the self evident truths which held society together, then you too might welcome the return of Jesus to finally set things right.
And since we’re on the topic, it’s really interesting that the context for the prophet Ezekiel is similar in some ways to both Matthew’s and our own. Ezekiel writes to us and his original audience as his people experience the forced social distancing of exile in Babylon. I am not suggesting that state and city pandemic guidelines are some form of Babylonian captivity. However there is one striking similarity: we cannot gather in our temple as we once did, so what then is left? I’d say quite a lot, but before I attempt to bring any form of answer to that question to this sermon, I want to lift up one more contextual layer.
Christian congregations and traditions around the globe observe this day in the liturgical calendar as the Feast of Christ the King, or Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s one of the newest feast days in the church and its origins are important to note today. “Pope Pius XI [the eleventh] established Christ the King Sunday in 1925 to counter what he regarded as the destructive forces of the modern world: secularism in the west and the rise of communism in Russia and fascism in Italy and Spain, harbingers of the Nazism soon to seize Germany. Pope Pius intended to oppose the rule of Christ to the totalitarian claims of these ideologies.” – Frank C. Senn
While I am not a great student of history, it is extremely interesting to note that the reason we have these specific readings assigned to this Sunday in the Church year is as an act of liturgical battle against harmful political ideologies that still exist today. So how can these contexts from Ezekiel, Matthew, and the rise of fascism in post-World War One Europe* tune our ears to what the Spirit may be saying to us through this scripture today?
First, I see the emphasis on sheep and goats, answering the question of who’s out and who’s in as a profound adventure in missing the point, both then and now. Matthew isn’t writing to a community that is in fear of God’s judgement. Matthew’s community has been shaken by the powers and governing principalities of this world, and would have read this scripture as a prophetic declaration that Christ is coming to set things right.
Secondly, that reading from Ezekiel is worthy of a much deeper dive than this sermon will allow, but the theme of “God’s got this” that we’ve identified in Matthew is present here too. Ezekiel clearly states that God is seeking after those who have been scattered and lost, that God will find them and God will find us. This is good news for us and anyone who’s ever felt that the grace, mercy, and peace of God does not extend to them. It does. God’s got you no matter what, but “God doesn’t stop the bad things from happening; that’s never been part of the promise. The promise is: I am with you. I am with you now until the end of time” (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time). God says through Ezekiel to a people whose land has been stolen and whose existence is based in dependence upon their abuser that God will seek them out, will return the strayed, will bind up the injured, and will strengthen the weak.
Furthermore, when we in our need to take sides want to condemn someone for benefiting during a time of division, for growing fat during a time of partisan exile, Ezekiel says that the Good Shepherd will watch over them all and guide them, guide us into equity. It seems to me that the Spirit does have a profound word for us here that is speaking through the centuries from Ezekiel through Matthew and into the political struggles of the last 100 years and today. God’s got this, and is going to gather the whole world, both the fat and the sleek. This is the good news that I want you to hear: you will not be left out of this gathering. And in that gathering the Good Shepherd is going to teach us all again the law of love that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, and brings equity, which is the Spirit of Christ working through us into the ever increasing fold.
And what will be a sign of the feast that is yet to come? That sign will be how we feed one another, and clothe one another, and comfort those who are in chains; that they and we may one day hear the pronouncement of Christ in our midst even if we were found unawares at the time. To me the most astonishing thing about our reading from Matthew is not that a time of judgement is coming but that Jesus shows up with equity for all and continues to seek us out as individuals and communities that can embody the reign of Christ here and now through acts of service as a foretaste of the kindom that is yet to come.
Grace, and Mercy, and Peace to you in Christ Jesus who meets us here.
*Want to know more about the rise of Fascism in Europe? Here’s a good primer from Rick Steves.