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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100:1-5 OR Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46


This Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year.  The name given to the day, Christ the King Sunday, is of recent origin, established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, to counter rising nationalism and secularism.  From the very beginning New Testament Christianity was seen as a threat to the power of earthly kings and authorities.  Our loyalty is to a higher power.  As Pope Pius XI put it, “He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone.”   shua 24: 24:1D Psalm 78:1-7 OR WIn 1969 Pope Paul VI moved the day to its present location at the end of the church year.  It is a celebration of the consummation of all history when the ideals of God’s Kingdom will be realized.  The Revised Common Lectionary calls it “Reign of Christ Sunday” since references to kings are challenging in democratic societies.  “Reign of Christ” connects with the notion of “The Kingdom of God,” so central in Jesus’ teachings, shifting the focus from the “King” to the community of those who try to live by Jesus’ teachings. 


Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Sweden, by the way, calls this Sunday the Sunday of Doom.  I’m not about to try stealing that title from them, but it is true that the lectionary readings for the Sunday, including some of the ones before us this week, focus on judgment.  Instead of focusing upon the judgment per se, I found myself sifting through the texts for clues about the values shaping this community in which Jesus’ teachings prevail.


The primary image that comes through is that of equality and justice, mutual caring and support.  In all but one of the texts there is an image and sheep and/or shepherds.  Both Psalms speak of us as “the sheep of his pasture.”  “We are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”  (Psalm 100:3)  “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”  (Psalm 97:7a)


The picture of a caring shepherd and his sheep has been heart-warming for many.  Think of the popularity of Psalm 23 and its picture of the Lord as our shepherd, or the images of the shepherd in some of Jesus’ parables (Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the one who seeks out the lost sheep and carries it home in his arms).  The reality is much messier as the shepherd deals with smelly and rebellious sheep, but the image is also quite removed from what we often associate with kingship.  Whatever the reign of Christ means, these are not images of a dictatorial overlord.


Two of the readings show, in fact, how relationships in the kingdom can get out of whack.  In Ezekiel we start with the warm image of a shepherd seeking out and taking care of his sheep.  God says, “I myself will search for my sheep . . . I will feed them with good pasture . . . they shall lie down in good grazing land . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep . . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak . . .”  (Ezekiel 34:11, 14 -16)  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  Then comes a turn in the story.  Surprise!  Relations among sheep can even go astray, or among the people who claim to be God’s sheep.  The reading from Ezekiel turns out to be a judgment story.  There are fat sheep and lean sheep, weak sheep and strong sheep.  The fat sheep are under judgment because “you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns . . .”  (verse 16, 20-22)


The biblical vision of the reign of God is one in which the weak are protected, where things are set right, where justice prevails.  “I will feed them with justice,” God says in Ezekiel 34:16)


We spent most of our time at our weekly breakfast discussion this morning talking about the Gospel lesson, another of the series of judgment parables we’ve been looking at in recent weeks.  In many ways it has been a favorite of those who are more liberal or progressive, who espouse a “social” gospel.  The basis of judgment is not being able to recite the right creed or fulfill every detail of right ritual, as many who first heard the parable may have believed (and many today seem to continue to believe).  The basis of judgment is service to those around us---feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison.  (Matthew 25:34-37)  A prominent feature of relationships where the reign of Jesus prevails is this kind of mutual caring and inclusion.


In this parable it is sheep and goats who are separated, rather than warring sheep abusing those who are weak.  Some may want to find some significance for the goats representing those under judgment.  It’s probably more a matter of drawing upon the reality that sheep and goats were often herded together.  In the parable, there comes a point at which the sheep and goats ask when it was that they were observed performing (or not performing) these acts of kindness.  The answer is worth pondering.  It’s hard not to notice the reference to “the least of these” and to “members of my family.”  (vs. 40)


Just as God is looking out for the weak sheep in Ezekiel, God observes those who are of service to “the least.”  Life under the reign of Christ is not a matter of bowing down in humble obedience; it is a matter of bringing justice to the least.  Our discussion this morning noted that this may require systemic action as well as personal kindness.  Whole systems get out of kilter so that the least drop off the grid or are walled off so we do not notice them.  Notice that it is “nations” which are gathered for judgment.  (vs. 32)


In the parable we also find that the least are included as part of the family.  The king speaks of them as “members of my family.”  (vs. 40)


I have less and less patience with parables of eternal punishment, as apparently do most of those who participate in the breakfast discussions.  If one can move beyond a literal interpretation of the judgment, however, it is clear that we are being presented with values that are central if we claim to live in the reign of Christ.  Mutual service and inclusion, justice that touches the lives of even “the least,” are the basis for quality of life in the here and now.  Someone in the discussion suggested that heaven and hell may be experienced in the here and now.  To live in a society where injustice prevails, where we may be part of the practice of injustice, may feel like hell.


That leaves the reading from Ephesians.  It makes no mention of sheep or shepherds.  Its main connection to the Reign of Christ Sunday is its image of the great power of God who seated Christ “at his right hand in heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and has made him head over all things . . .”  (Ephesians 1:19-22)  The reading ends speaking of “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  (vs. 23)


Living in the Reign of Christ means aligning ourselves with a power of love and life that fills all things, all relationships, starting within each one of us.  The reading begins with a prayer.  “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you . . .”  (vss. 17-18)  Wisdom, revelation, knowledge of God, hope, living according to our calling, having enlightened hearts---all values that can fill us as we work together and serve one another in the shaping of a community that thrives under the reign of God.  Can you see it with the eyes of your heart enlightened?


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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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