Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 20, 2011
Year A: The Last Sunday after Pentecost – Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
New Year’s Eve
Well, we made it back in time for the last Sunday after Pentecost – the last Sunday of the church year – the feast of Christ the King. In a way, today is like the Church’s version of New Year’s Eve.
Of course, people have all sorts of New Year’s Eve traditions – maybe getting together with family and friends, or going to Times Square (which seems like a nightmare to me), or watching Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve on TV or maybe just skipping the whole thing and going to bed early.
And New Year’s Eve is a natural time for reflecting on the past year and making those quickly broken resolutions for the year ahead.
In today’s lessons the Church has given us a pretty clear and appropriate theme for reflection: God’s judgment.
Now, I know very well that this is a wonderful church made up of very fine people so maybe thinking about God’s judgment doesn’t bother you too much. But, I’ll be honest, thinking about God’s judgment makes me really nervous.
Thinking about God’s judgment makes me remember my personal failings, the ways I’ve fallen short, the ways I’ve hurt people, the ways I haven’t been as loving or as generous as I could have been.
And God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hid, knows my failings even better than I know them myself.
Then there’s our collective responsibility and guilt. We humans have created a world in which a few live in great comfort and nearly everyone else lives in desperate poverty. We humans have literally trashed the good creation - from the huge garbage patch swirling in the North Pacific to space debris orbiting the planet.
Fortunately for all of us, God’s mercy always trumps God’s judgment.
I don’t know whether it made him nervous, but the Prophet Ezekiel definitely thought a lot about God’s judgment. He lived during one of the bleakest periods of Israel’s history. In the 6th Century BC, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, including the Temple. Since it was believed that in a sense God lived in the Temple maybe we can only begin to imagine how traumatic this was. And then most of the people were taken from their home and exiled in Babylon.
I’m sure many people felt that somehow God was absent. Ezekiel believed that God was punishing the people, yet, even in the midst of this disaster, Ezekiel didn’t think that God had abandoned the people. Ezekiel believed that God was still very much at work doing what God always does, turning fear into hope and death into life.
In the passage we heard today, God speaking through Ezekiel declares that since it’s the leaders who have caused this calamity, God is going to step in and personally take control of the flock.
“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down says the Lord God. 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, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
I will feed them with justice.
Despite our individual and collective failures, God doesn’t give up on us. Instead, God’s justice feeds us by showing us and reminding us how we are meant live. God’s justice feeds us by showing us and reminding us that we are born to love one another, especially the poorest and the weakest, and we are born to take care of the creation that God has entrusted to us.
At the end of the passage we heard from Ezekiel, God promises to set over the people one shepherd. And of course we Christians recognize that one shepherd as Jesus.
And in today’s gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus has a lot to say about judgment.
Probably this passage was originally about judgment of the gentiles – not Jews and not followers of Jesus. And it’s interesting that Matthew quotes Jesus as seeming to say that these non-believers aren’t going to be judged on their lack of belief but on their actions. These non-believers will be judged on how they treated Jesus’ followers!
Did they offer compassion to Jesus’ followers who were hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned? If yes, then Jesus says that these non-believers will enter the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. If not, well then the news isn’t so good.
Now, if this passage really is directed at non-believers then what does that mean for us?
Certainly we are all called to feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, house the homeless, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned.
There’s always a lot more we could and should do but we don’t have to look too hard to see people here in this community answering that call when we drop items into the Food for Friends barrel or spend the night at the homeless shelter or take a tag or two off the Christmas angel tree or sit at the bedside of a dying friend reading from the prayer book or some lines of poetry.
But, as followers of Jesus you and I are called to an even higher standard.
And we hear that higher standard in the Baptismal Covenant.
As followers of Jesus we’re called to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.
We’re called to resist evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
We’re called to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
We’re called to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.
We’re called to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.
It’s quite a tall order and if you’re like me you may be starting to feel nervous again as you consider just how far short we fall from striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being.
The truth is that we can’t do any of these on our own but only, as the response says, “with God’s help.”
And although they’re daunting, by setting these high standards God is feeding us with justice. God’s justice feeds us by showing us and reminding us how we are meant live. God’s justice feeds us by showing us and reminding us that we are born to love one another, especially the poorest and the weakest, and we are born to take care of the creation that God has entrusted to us.
It’s the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of the church year. It’s the Church’s version of New Year’s Eve.
It’s a good day to reflect on God’s justice and judgment and the ways that we’ve all fallen short of both the minimum standards of taking care of one another and how we’ve fallen short of the high standards set by Christ the King.
But, since God’s mercy always trumps God’s justice, there’s no reason to be nervous. No matter how much we’ve fallen short, next week a new church year begins and we get another chance.
Right here at Grace Church, we get a new year to pray together and to support one another when, like for the people of Israel in exile, it seems like God is absent and our whole world is falling apart.
We get a new year to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned.
We get a new year to take better care of the good creation that God has entrusted to us.
We get a new year to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.
And we will - with God’s judgment, God’s mercy, and God’s help.
Happy New Year!