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.

A risk to believe, a risk to act, a risk to be a steward.

A sermon for Proper 28

Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Today is the last of the semi continuous readings from the Old Testament until next year’s season after Pentecost. The story continues with the Books of Judges, which is the story of Israel following God as they swore to do, even after Joshua told them they couldn’t. The short version of the story is that Joshua was right. Judges is cyclical set of stories:

  • Israel quits following the promises they made and does what is evil in God’s eyes.
  • The Bible says “God sells them to …” whichever King is available.
  • When the oppression grows too much, Israel cries out, and God raises up a Judge,or military leader, who frees them from oppression.
  • All goes well until the Judge dies and Israel falls back into her wandering ways.

Over time things get worse and worse. Israel’s behavior is worse. The consequences are harsher and harsher. Their reformed behavior, after being rescued, is less and less in line with the covenant both Moses and Joshua establish for Israel. By the end of the book, it is clear the Judges system is a failure. The next step in the Old Testament story is the establishment of Kings.

What we hear this morning is only the introduction to the story of Deborah as Judge. The rest of chapter 4 completes the story, including Barak’s leading Israel to victory over Jabin’s much more powerful, chariot lead army and Jael, the Kenite, who kills Sisera, Jabin’s commander, with warm milk and a tent stake. It is a gruesome story. It’s also unusual, in that neither Deborah, Barak, nor Jael are a judge as all the others are; though collectively they are. It’s unusual that not one, but two women, one of whom is not of Israel, play a prominent role in saving Israel from oppression. And it’s a bit unique, in how it parallels the Exodus story of God leading Israel out of the oppression of slavery by throwing Pharaoh’s army of chariots into confusion. (McCann 6351)

I’ve two take-aways from this story:

  1. It’s amazing what we can do when we work together.
  2. The patience and commitment of God; this is the fourth cycle of Judges, and despite Israel’s deplorable behavior God continues to honor the covenant. (Hoezee)

There is a third piece; when you look at Judges as a whole, the status of women represents the overall health of Israel’s society. (Jaconson, Lewis and Skinner) From here on the treatment of women declines greatly, as does the health of Israel’s social mores.

One more bit. Charles Hoffacker writes:

“The Parable of the Talents” is not really about money or abilities. It’s a story about trust, a story about risk. Life is the same way. What turns out to be important is not money or abilities in themselves, but our decision to use them in ways that show our willingness to risk and to trust. (Hoffacker)

The difference between the first two servants and the third is that one and two reciprocate the trust  their master puts in them and therefore can risk putting the talents given into their stewardship to work. The third does not trust the master, and is therefore not able to risk the talent given into his stewardship. Deborah and Barak exhibit trust in God’s call and are able to risk taking on Jabin’s far superior iron chariot based army. It’s possible Jael, the Kenite, exhibits the same trust; remember the Kenites are Moses’ father in law’s tribe and know something of Israel’s God. Jael risks trusting God and is a major player in freeing Israel from oppression.

One last thing before I finish;  I expect you noticed I referred to the servants in Matthew’s parable as stewards. I hope you did, because these two bible stories together reveal a little discussed dimension of stewardship, risk. Throughout the bible it is a risk to believe in God. There is always some other god’s people round about who will dismiss you or seek to do you some sort of harm for your belief in God. Throughout the bible God asks people to act;  Abram is asked to leave the home of his ancestors, Moses is asked to take on Pharaoh, Joshua is asked to lead the invasion of Canaan, Deborah and Barak are asked to take on Jabin, David is asked to be King in Saul’s stead, Mary is asked to be the mother of God incarnate, and Joseph is asked to ignore social custom and be the human father to Jesus. All of them accept, all of them risk themselves by acting. Making a stewardship commitment is far more than making a promise to give so many dollars to this or that church. To be a steward  is to risk believing in the living creator God, incarnate to us in Jesus, and continually present to us as the Spirit. To be a steward is to risk acting from the moral imperatives that arise from that belief. To be a steward is to risk being a part of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. To be a steward, to commit time, talent and treasure to continuing Christ’s ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of God, is a life defining risk. So, make your commitment prayerfully, discerning God’s call. But more importantly, make your commitment trusting that God has destined you for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, so no matter our state we live with him.  (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10)  Amen.


References

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Judges 4:1-7. 16 11 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Hoffacker, Rev. Charles. Sermons that Work. 16 11 2014.

Jaconson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 16 11 2014. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx&gt;.

McCann, J Clinton. Judges A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. James Luther Mays and Patrick D Miller, Jr., Old Testament Editor. Vol. 7. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002.

Olson, Dennis. New Interpreter’s Bible – The Book of Judges Introduction, Commentary and Reflection. Vol. 2. Abingdon Press, n.d. 12 vols. CD.