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Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 AND Psalm 100 or Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1;15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

November 20th is the last Sunday of the Church Year. The following Sunday begins the next Church year with the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. The last Sunday of the Church Year traditionally celebrates the culmination of history when God’s Love through Jesus Christ comes to full fruition. Scripturally it is spoken of as Christ ruling over all in a Kingdom in which Love has triumphed.

When I ask the question, “Where Are We Going?”, I think less of an eternal destination (say heaven or hell) or a final judgment. I’m asking about divine goals that may be operative giving us guidance as we move through history. What is it that we are working for, living for?

This is also the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the Sunday on which many pastors preach a message of the meaning and/or importance of giving thanks. Since I will be preaching, I have chosen the Thanksgiving Sunday emphasis, although my comments in this blog entry will include some broader observations.

Most of the readings include the image of a shepherd and sheep, so that the “reign of Christ” may be compared to the relationship of a good shepherd to his flock. It is an image that recurs throughout scripture. Both Psalms contain the line. “We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” (Psalm 100:4) “We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Psalm 94:7) Both Psalms are appropriate expressions of praise for Thanksgiving. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness . . . Enter his gates with thanksgiving . . . For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever . . .” (Psalm 100:1-2, 4-5—with similar phrases in Psalm 95) To be cared for by a good shepherd, to be God’s people, is reason to have thankful hearts.

Ezekiel presents a more extended image. The shepherd is one who gathers and “rescues” the sheep. (Ezekiel 34:11-13) “I will feed them with good pasture . . . they shall lie down in good grazing land . . . I will seek the lost . . . and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” (vss. 14 & 16) We find, though, that not all is sweetness and light. The sheep are to be judged. (vs. 20) One would think that the lean and weak sheep that might be culled from the flock. Instead, we find that the fat sheep are the problem, “because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.” (vss. 16 & 20-22)

If this is a picture of the “kingdom,” it is one in which sheep and shepherd live together in harmony, without taking advantage of one another. “Fat cats” are not allowed to take advantage. The powerful are not allowed to foster division and dissent, to intimidate the “weak.” It is a peaceable kingdom where all live in harmony.

The Gospel lesson is also a judgment scene. Here the nations are gathered before “the Son of Man” who “comes in his glory.” They are separated “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:31-32) Central to this parable is the basis of judgment. Even without the “eternal punishment” that comes at its end, the parable offers insight into the nature of the reign of God. The king proclaims that those who are “blessed” are the ones who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, visited those in prison. (vss. 34-36) The “goats” are described as those who “did not” do those things. Both groups want to know when it was that they did or did not act in these ways.

In what is the key verse for me as I approach this Thanksgiving Sunday, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (vs. 40) Progressive/liberal Christians, those interested in peace and justice, have been particularly fond of this scripture, usually focusing on the phrase “the least of these.”

What caught my eye this time was that the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned, are described as “members of my family.” The stereotypical image of Thanksgiving is a family, feasting together around a table. People in their rich diversity gathered around a banquet table is a scriptural picture of the reign of God, the goal of history if you wish.

So—Sunday I’m going to be talking about family, remembering our own experiences of family celebration (good and bad) and thinking about the great variety of people seated at God’s inclusive table. Family connections aren’t always defined by whom we like or get along easily with. There’s the alcoholic uncle and the rebellious daughter. There’s the obnoxious sister-in-law who talks non-stop and the macho cousin whose manhood is defined by the size of the motor in his truck. One hopes there are also a lot of pleasant, loving, well-behaved people present as well, but when we gather for Thanksgiving there are ties that transcend the differences and problematic behaviors. Nobody said being a family is easy—and don’t you dare discuss politics or religion.

To talk about the “reign of Christ” is to talk about being such a family on a grander scale. The parable tells us that God includes the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned as members of his family. We are part of a family that is inclusive, where the fat sheep sometimes need to be reminded that the “weak”sheep are part of the family too.

If we were to explore the imagery of sheep further, we would find that they are often dirty and smelly creatures, not what we would immediately think of as ideal to symbolize the reign of God. Those, however, are the creatures God reaches out to include.

Dirty sheep, dysfunctional families, those who are weak and needy are all included. In the parable, taking care of one another in such a family means we are “blessed.” My Thanksgiving message will call upon us to give thanks for the blessing of being included in such a family. Such inclusiveness, I believe, is the goal of history. It is, I know, the ideal that Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ tries to embody.

Finally, the epistle reading from Ephesians more directly addresses traditional understandings of the reign of Christ when all things are fulfilled. It speaks of that time as one filled with “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” (Ephesians 1:18), i.e., of the family inheritance at the end of time. It speaks of “the immeasurable greatness of his power.” (vs. 19) Christ is pictured as seated with God “at his right hand in the heavenly places.” (vs. 19) “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him head over all thins for the church.” (vs. 22)

I don’t find much comfort in such images of power and submission. It almost makes me think of one of the worst images of the abuse of power—the victor with his booted foot resting on my head. The last phrase of the reading, however, seems to change the image, speaking of “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (vs. 23) It is less an image of power from above and more an image of an indwelling presence that empowers us all, who gives the family an identity and holds its disparate parts together.

Where are we going? Toward participation in the fullness of such a family. Someone has said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” There’s plenty to debate in such a “sound bite,” but the going is not just about the where. It is about the principles and the spirit that guide us along the way. We are on the way to the fullness of God’s inclusive family. On the way, we are building and experiencing it now, and that is part of the reign of Christ.


Ron said...

I'm having Thanksgiving with you, so now you've got me wondering about where I fit in to your description! ;-)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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