Thanksgiving, Apocalypse, and Commitment

A sermon for Proper 29, Christ the King: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

Good morning, on this last day of a Thanksgiving weekend. I hope you have enjoyed the festivities. This morning we have a very crowded docket: we have Thanksgiving, we have Christ the King, and this morning we are looking ahead to next week’s Commitment Sunday. So, let’s start with the oldest of all these traditions.

We have been celebrating Thanksgiving since 1789 after Congress requested a proclamation by George Washington. It has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1863 when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of

Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens, (Wikipedia)”

I wonder, how much attention do we give to divine generosity today?

A priest Face-Book friend was asking “How many churches held a service on Thanksgiving Day?” Almost everyplace I have been held a Community Thanksgiving Service of some sort or another. I don’t think I have ever presided at a Thanksgiving Day service in my 23 years as a priest. I fear the visions of Black Friday, either avoiding or engaging, or afternoon football, or getting to the next function, have overcome any religious notion of Thanksgiving. Truth is it is I wonder how long Thanksgiving will be celebrated, other than a sale on Turkey? There is so very little in the stores about Thanksgiving these days, the merchandising goes from Halloween to Christmas. Another truth is that we should never give up Thanksgiving, because no matter the state of our lives, or the state of our community, or the state of our the nation, or the world, we should be thankful, for our Father, as always, is still here, and always will be, even if we are walking in a shadow.

There is another Thanksgiving experience to ponder. I do not know how long I have been aware of it; however, for a long time, Thanksgiving has been a time of extraordinary efforts to reach out to the least of these, in our communities and in God’s Kingdom. Growing up in Atlanta the Ga. – Ga. Tech freshman squads play an annual charity game under the theme Strong legs run, that weak legs may walk. In West Virginia, a member of the church started a simple thanksgiving meal program, that continues to grow t this day. In Blytheville the Thanksgiving program that formerly feed 800 people a hot meal, has had a change in leadership, due to a work promotion, and this year delivered 1,200 bags of food designed to feed a child for the entire week school was closed this year. I am beginning to see these commitments as an expression of Thanksgiving. And I am thankful to live in a community that celebrates Thanksgiving together, and in acts of generosity that mirrors our Father’s benevolence.

And yes, the celebration of Christ the King is not as old as the celebration of Thanksgiving. The First World War was over; however, nationalism and secularism were rising. Pope Pius XI, called for the celebration of Christ the King to encourage Christians whose faith might be flagging (Ashley). The first thing we should note is that the King that Pius envisions does not look anything like the powerful wraiths of The Lord of the Rings. For that matter Pius’ vision does not look anything like the heroic Aragorn, King of Gondor either. A close examination of the readings from Ezekiel and Matthew reveals impassioned attention on justice and relationship (Epperly; Harrelson). They are overtly political and hold us accountable for the state of the most vulnerable people in our society (Epperly).

Ezekiel’s attention is on Israel’s political leadership. The imagery of Kings as shepherds and the people as the flocks they are to tend is common in the ancient middle east (Keener and Walton; Charles L. Aaron). Unfortunately, at least Israel’s kings are not very good at their tasks, and often do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. Their disastrous self-interest has led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Aaron Jr.). They did what all the other kings did, looked after the desires of the rich and powerful and ignored the needs of the marginalized (Hoezee, Ezekiel; Gaventa and Petersen) In fact, in verse 10, just before our reading this morning, the failed shepherd Kings are accused of eating the sheep that they are responsible for tending (Gaventa and Petersen). The shepherd Kings’ brutality, and self-interest scattered the flock, denying them food, and a safe fold. Therefore, God commands Ezekiel to proclaim that God has rejected them as shepherds over the divine flock, and God will: seek them, rescue them, feed them, lead them to good pasture, bind the injured, strengthen the weak, and feed them with justice. God will do this with one shepherd, a prince from the House of David.

Through Ezekiel God is speaking to three sets of people. First, the leaders of the people, who are in their position by heredity, or by appointment, or election or otherwise. The message is clear: “Tend to the people, all of them, or you are fired.” Secondly, to the people: “Do not despair, your worldly condition is not the consequence of, or punishment for sin you might have committed. Finally, to us. As the people of God, we are God’s stewards’ protecting everything and everyone entrusted to our care, and who belong to God, and who are the image of God. Ezekiel refers to charity events and feed the hungry special events. He also speaks to the disparity of everyday life; no one should be hungry, no one should lack medical care, no one should be denied education, no one should be refused a safe home. As God’s shepherds we are called to use all the kinds of resources we have, from personal work, and money, to social and political capital to tend the flock. And we do so because God loves them, just as God loves us.

Matthew’s apocalyptic vision is a bit more complex. We are all familiar with the righteous sheep at his right hand asking:

And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? (Matthew 25:38-39)

 And we may recall the accursed goats destined for eternal fire at his left hand asking:

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ (Matthew 25:44)

What we might have missed is that both the sheep and the goats don’t realize that the hungry, the marginalized, the poor, the naked, the stranger, and the prisoner are Jesus. We might wonder why Jesus didn’t tell them? Does he tell us, who he is when we meet him? But when we meet him, we should know who he is, because every living person, everyone who ever was, and is, or will be is made in the image of God, and that is enough (Hoezee, Matthew).

None of this is new, Proverbs we are taught

Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker,
but those who are kind to the needy honor him (Proverbs 14:31)

Way back in Isaiah we hear:

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. (Isaiah 58:7-9) (Olive Tree).

In this eschatological, end of time, proclamation Jesus says

  • nothing about confessing faith in him,
  • nothing about grace,
  • nothing about justification,
  • nothing about forgiving sins.

Jesus’ single focus is caring for God’s people, all – of God’s people (Darr).

Like Ezekiel, Jesus is speaking to the dispossessed, the rejected, and the outsiders, reassuring them that the time will come when their fortunes will be reversed. Like Ezekiel, Jesus is speaking to the leaders and people telling them “The marginalized are your responsibility.” Unlike Ezekiel there is an element here that is unique to the early persecuted church, who Matthew wants to reassure (Darr). Finally, like Ezekiel, we are the objects of Jesus’ parable. We need to quit worrying about calculating the end of days, because it is not yours to know. Between now and then, when ever that might be, we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit those in prison. (Matthew 25:35-36) Then you will be blessed and inherit the life prepared for you since the beginning (Darr).

All this, all of this informs the choice we are asked to commit to next Sunday. It has a financial component to it, as it does ask us to prayerfully discern and commit to how we will financially support St. Stephen’s continuing service to Christ’s Ministry. This ministry includes sharing the story of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, especially how that story is a part of our lives. That ministry also includes tending sheep,

  • those who are prone to wonder,
    • or who otherwise get lost,
  • those deemed unworthy,
    • the otherwise undeserving,
  • the hungry,
  • the thirsty,
  • the stranger,
  • the naked,
  • the sick and
  • those in any sort of prison.

We know Jesus is the prince, of the house of David, who is tending the sheep, who is tending to all God’s people. We know we will inherit Jesus resurrection, which also means we inherit Jesus’ earthly ministry. I encourage you, in this coming week, to prayerfully discern and commit to how you will continue to by word, by action and by financial participation proclaim

  • the Good News of God in Christ;
  • seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbors as yourself;
  • and strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of all of God’s people. (The Episcopal Church).

Amen


References

Aaron Jr., Charles L. Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. 26 11 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Ashley, Danáe M. “Love in Translation, Christ the King Sunday.” 26 11 2017. Sermons that Work.

Darr, Katheryn Pfisterer. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Ezekiel. Vol. V. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. VII vols. OliveTree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 26 11 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Matthew 25:31-46. 26 11 2017.

Olive Tree. Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

Wikipedia. Thanksgiving. n.d. 24 11 2017. <(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving_(United_States)&gt;.

 

 

The reign of Chris the King is not there, but here; not then but now.

A sermon for Christ the King

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

If you children are old enough you might remember Fraggle Rock, one of Jim Henson’s many creations. My kids loved it. One of their favorites, and one of mine, is a short little book titled If I Were King of the Universe (Abelson) it tells the tale, of Junior Gorg, whose mom and dad are the Queen and King of the Universe. However, since they are the only Gorgs, Junior gets to all the chores; he polishes the armor, fetches the crowned jewels, stands guard, serves as jester, unless of course he is washing windows and sweeping floors. But is favorite chore is gardening, and chasing the Fraggles who steal the radishes.

Of course Junior dreams of being King, and how the Fraggles would work for him; how he’d eat breakfast in bed, or tickle his toes in the sun, and stay up late. But in the end, he realizes how much he likes doing his chores especially chasing Fraggles. So he’ll just keep on being Junior Gorg, “After all, being Prince of the Universe isn’t all that bad!”

I expect all of us dream of being King or Queen of the Universe, or some such auspicious status. To be honest if I woke up one morning and discovered I was King of the Universe I’d follow Junior’s advice, especially if today’s bible readings were a part of the coronation.

Ezekiel was written in the mid to late 500 BCE when Israel is living in captivity. (Ellingsen) At one level it reads like a divine rescue mission. (Epperly) On the other hand, Ezekiel lays bare the truth that “The disparity between the wealthy, poor, and middle class, destroys the nation, [and] undermines justice …” (Epperly) Margaret Odell points out that the biblical shepherd metaphor is always a political one. (Odell) She reminds us that the oldest recorded legal code Hammurabi’s and notes his belief that “he was appointed by the gods ‘to promote the welfare of the people, to cause justice to prevail’” (Odell) Ezekiel reminds us God’s kingdom is different than kingdoms of our making. (Jaconson, Lewis and Skinner)

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ apocalyptic tale of separating sheep and goats includes an uncomfortable judging story. I’m always uncomfortable of judgment stories, I like to believe I’m among the blessed sheep; but am ever so aware of my own goat-ness.

Like you I’ve helped to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcomed a stranger, clothed the naked, healed the sick, and visited a prisoner or two. I’m also keenly aware of the times I could not, and the times I did not, help the divine image bearer right in front of me. But Kingdom life is not a balance the scales kind of thing. It’s James Liggett’s observation that sets me on edge. He notes that the goats do not know when they failed to help the Jesus in front of them, and we know that. What’s startling is that he points out that the sheep, the righteous ones invited into the Kingdom, did not know when they had helped the Jesus in front of them. (Liggett) They were just as oblivious to the presence of God, in the least of these, as those who walked on by. Like Ezekiel, Matthew also invites us to recognize the Kingdom of God is different. Moreover, we are also invited to take a peek, because of the Kingdom of God is, in part, already here. (Jaconson, Lewis and Skinner)

Truth be known, Matthew is doing more than inviting us to take a peek, he, as Jesus does, is inviting us to participate in Kingdom life right here, right now. Karoline Lewis writes “I absolutely … believe that God needs us for the kingdom to be more that it could be without us.”  (Lewis) In short, we are invited to make a difference, not only in helping those who are in need or oppressed but in eliminating the roots causes of injustice and unrighteous disparity. (Lewis) We won’t easily admit it, but there is such an opportunity blistering across the news media today.

If Jesus were to have told this parable today he would likely include a line that’s something like:

I was an illegal immigrant and you welcomed me;

and I was an illegal immigrant and you scorned, or took advantage of, or rebuked me.

But then again Jesus has already said it. Throughout Old Testament Law, beginning with the Tenth Commandment (Ex 20:10) the law applied to everyone in the household including the gēr or the alien, the foreigner.  (Strong’s) In so much that Ezekiel reminds us that the shepherd is all about politics; and that the oldest legal code we have is established for the welfare of the people and for justice to prevail; and that by Jesus’ parable when we welcome the stranger, the alien, we welcome Jesus; the answer to our immigration problem is a political one that provides biblical justice for all, and prevents the powerful from exploiting the vulnerable.

I invite you to join me in my daily prayer discipline and pray, by name, for all our elected officials.

A closing observation or two. It’s important to remember that though we’ve our part to play in the Kingdom’s presence, we cannot speed up nor impede its arrival. Secondly, judgment is not so much about punishment, as it is about bringing into the light the reality that’s already present; the one Paul tells the Ephesians about, the spirit of wisdom and revelation to know Jesus, as hungry, or thirsty, as naked, ill, in prison, or  ~  as an alien in a strange land.

Junior Gorg got it half right, being King of the Universe is best left to the one so designated from first light. The other half, however; is that we can, by the power of the spirit of wisdom and revelation, bring divine justice to all, and glean a bit more of life in the Reign of Christ our King.


References

Abelson, Danny. If I Were King of the Universe. New York: Henry Holt Co., 1984.

Carey, Greg. “Working Preacher.” 23 11 2014. Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46.

Ellingsen, Mark. Christ the King (Proper 29), Cycle A. 23 11 2014. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 23 11 2014. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fever, Kyle. Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23. 23 11 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Jaconson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 2 11 2014.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher. 23 11 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Liggett, Rev. James. Sermons that Work. 23 11 2014.

Odell, Margaret. Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. 23 11 2014.

Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.

Participate

A sermon  for Lent 5

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45, Psalm 130

The place is his, close cropped bleached perfect blond hair, brilliant contact blue eyes stream malice and hate for anyone not to his standards. The elderly black-woman behind the counter smiles at him, a beautiful smile you can’t help but notice. I’m trying to hate black people, and here’s this black woman smiling at me; I can’t really hate her when she’s smiling like that. [i]

Everyone is at the cave, the rock covering the entrance is still in place. Jesus and Martha are talking, it might sound like anger, if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died; it is true, and to say so is a part of  Jewish piety. [ii] Jesus says take away the stone. Some might remember him telling Martha Lazarus will rise again; her retort about the last day, and Jesus’ proclamation that he is the resurrection and the life. Martha doesn’t seem to remember, she objects: This is going to stink. True enough, Jews do not embalm bodies, some perfume, some wrappings and bodies are laid away. After four days, the power of the perfume gone; the stench reveals the finality of death. [iii] Jesus answers Martha Believe and see the glory of God. Someone does, the stone is removed, and after a prayer of thanks Jesus calls to Lazarus: Come out. He does, Face, hands and feet still shrouded, wrapped in clouth. You wonder how Lazarus walks. Jesus turns to the people: Unbind him, and let him go. The people  ~  are to be a part of God’s work. [iv]

John wrote legō autos – said to them. David Lose writes: Jesus turns and issues a command to the waiting crowd[v] ‘Command’ is a strong word, when so often we’ve heard Jesus invite folks to come and see. Lose is arguing that we expect to little out of our selves. He notes:

Opportunities to unbind and let go abound, but we need to look for them so that we might hear Jesus calling us by name to make a difference to those around us….  In ways little and big, God is inviting us to make a difference.

When we go back to Jesus’ I am the resurrection and the life  recalling it is in response to Martha’s correct answer to his query about resurrection, the full force of the present tense of I am burst into life. Resurrection is not a promise way off in the future, it is a promise for the present. [vi] It is a divine work, in which we have a part right here, right now.

The idea that we have a role in God’s work is not new. In some ways it’s characteristic of prophets. Ezekiel is spirited away, maybe home, certainly to a valley full of dry bones. He is commanded to prophecy. It is clear he knows it is God’s power at work, nonetheless Ezekiel must participate in God’s work, Ezekiel must speak. It’s a powerful vision of a future promise. Except,  ~  it’s not.

Remember the Jews are in exile in Babylon, as a result of their rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. They are cut off,     Jerusalem is destroyed, the Temple is razed, family and friends are dead, it’s the end of the world, they are without hope they are living dead [vii] Zombies. Imagine how we’d feel if Canterbury was gone, the National Cathedral reduced to rubble, Trinity burned to ash, everything gone, no more Eucharist, no access to God’s presence. It’s a zero – point a crisis when all seems lost, really lost.

It all would be lost, except the valley of dry bones is not far off, it’s Babylon and those who are cut off are the survivors in exile. [viii] It’s Ezekiel’s task to pluck the strings of their imagination with possibilities beyond what they can attain on their own … [ix] knowledge that breathing is a measure divine presence, that God is as near to them as their own breath. [x] The valley of dry bones becomes a powerful vision of a current their reality: we are in God’s presence, these bones can … we can live, we are alive.It is God’s work that transforms the hearts of the Jews in exile. Ezekiel participates through obedience to God’s will in sharing the vision of the valley of dry bones. 

God expects no more, nor no less from us. Lose dares to ask, do we expect to little of our selves. 

Time and again, blond hair blue eye menace walks in the door, every time greeted by beautiful smile. One day she asks about his swastika tattoo. He replies It’s noth’n. She smiles: I know that’s not who you are. You’re a better person than that. 

Michaelis later writes: 

I spent seven years trying to forget that that ever happened, but I couldn’t,”… Because when she said ‘I know you’re a better person than that,’ she planted a seed in my heart that remained there and rooted and blossomed despite my best efforts to dig it out and suffocate it. That seed grew until there was no longer room in my heart for the kind of hatred it takes to hurt people. 

It was in part because of her kindness that I made the right decision in 1994 to change my life and leave hate groups….  An act of kindness on your part, especially to someone who doesn’t seem to deserve it could change the course of their life. [xi]

Arno Michaelis spoke last Wednesday at a Nonviolence Youth Summit that attracted hundreds of junior and senior high school students from across Arkansas. The one-day conference was sponsored by the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, with the assistance of the Arkansas Department of Human Services. [xii]

The conference is a possible example of participating in God’s transforming work. The consistent beautiful smile of an elderly McDonald’s counter clerk is an example of participating in God’s transforming work. 

We are not in exile though some may fear we are cut off, all but dead. Ezekiel reminds us to breathe what was doesn’t matter, God is in our very breath. Some mourn the death of what was, John reminds us Lazarus did die, and that we have a role to play in setting free all those bound by: fear, injustice, oppression, even death; including ourselves. There are all sorts of ways to participate in God’s works, some large, some small, sometimes as simple as a smile. Opportunities abound, it’s your choice.

I cannot tell you what St. Stephen’s future will be. I do know that God is present here. I do know God invites you, commands you, to participate in sharing the story. As for the rest, well ~ believe and see the glory of God.

 


[i]  Bill Bowden,  Hate’s end began with smile, writer tells youth session , http://m.arkansaso nline.co m/news/2014/apr/03/hates-end-began-smile-     writer-tells-youth–20140403/
[ii] GAIL R. O’DAY, New Interpreter’s Bible  THE GOSPEL OF JOHN INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
[iii] ibid
[iv] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, Present-tense Salvation Wednesday, April 02, 2014 10:56 AM http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3135
[v] ibid
[vi] ibid
      O’Day, ibid
[vii] Scott Hoezee,  http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching Next Sunday is April 06, 2014 (Ordinary Time) Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Ezekiel 37:1-14
[viii] Margaret Odell, Ez ekiel 37:1-14 Commentary by Margaret Odell – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL) http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2070 ½ RCL|Narrative|Evangelio|Index,  Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14
[ix] Hoezee, ibid
[x] Odell, ibid.
[xi] Bowden, ibid
[xii] ibid