by Bill Carroll
Part 3: Christ the King (November 20, 2011)
The lessons appointed are here.
Two weeks ago, on All Saints’ Day, we heard the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry with this programmatic statement of its meaning and purpose. Think of it as his first inaugural address. Luke has a version of this as well in the sermon Jesus preaches in his hometown synagogue in chapter 4. In that sermon, Jesus proclaims the jubilee year, in which debts are cancelled, captives released, and the oppressed set free. Here in Matthew, as Jesus pronounces the joyful blessings of the Beatitudes, he is also showing us the kind of kingdom he came to bring. In God’s Kingdom, the poor, the merciful, and the pure in heart, to name but a few, find themselves blessed with the divine abundance. They find themselves with pride of place. That’s something for us to ponder today, as we celebrate Christ the King.
But, on this occasion, I’d like to draw our attention to the fourth beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
That reminds me of something we read this morning, though it was written some six hundred years before the Advent of Christ. The words of the prophet Ezekiel were in fact written during the exile of the children of Israel in Babylon. Ezekiel is a priest, one with particularly strong loyalties to the House of David and the Temple. And yet he finds himself carried off into a strange land by invading armies.
Like other prophets before him, Ezekiel discerns God’s judgment in historical events. Again and again in Scripture, prophets confront the idolatry of Israel’s kings, as well as their society’s exploitation of the poor, particularly widows and orphans. Again and again, they remind the children of Israel that they were slaves in Egypt and that freedom, life, and land came to them as the gift of God. In God’s Name, the prophets call the People to repent and keep God’s commandments. They remind them of the requirement to be holy, just as God in the midst of them is holy.
And yet, in the end, even a prophet like Ezekiel, for all his profound sense of the holiness of Zion and its sacred places, finds himself far, far away, longing for the courts of the Lord. He finds himself in exile, trying to be faithful to God in a new situation.
But he doesn’t give up hope. Rather than giving in to cynicism or despair, he preaches a message of hope. He hears and proclaims a promise to sustain the People in their exile. In his bones, Ezekiel knows that God is about to act. “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep…I will rescue them from the places where they have been scattered…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.”
And—here comes the part that recalls the fourth beatitude—“I will feed my sheep with justice,” says the Lord.
I thought about these words last week at our diocesan convention, when I heard Bishop Breidenthal preach to us. He spoke with great pride about the many ways that our local congregations reach out to those in need, including here at Good Shepherd. But the bishop didn’t stop there. It would have been easy for him to stop, but he didn’t. The bishop went on to say that although “we must never slow down this outreach or step away from it…the task that now lies before us is to move from outreach to systemic change.”
“For example,” he said, “how do we move from providing school supplies to needy children every fall.” (as many of our churches do) “to combining our voices and our collective political clout to addressing Ohio’s failure to support public schools?” It was a very brave thing for him to say. And, in an aside, he noted that Cincinnati had just failed to pass a levy—a badly needed levy. We might think about this in more detail here in this parish. We might also ask ourselves how our many efforts to feed hungry people connect with the struggle to remove the root causes of hunger and poverty, or how our prison ministries connect with efforts to reduce recidivism or reform conditions within the prisons and for those who are seeking to reenter society.
“I will feed my sheep with justice,” says the Lord. How often do we really think about that, here in this parish church named for Christ the Good Shepherd? In the Scriptures, shepherd is a royal image. To shepherd the flock means to rule God’s People. And the Good Shepherd, who “lays down his life for the sheep,” is unlike the idolatrous and unjust rulers who came before—and many since. Jesus is the King, the Son of David, in whose Name the prophets spoke, condemning injustice and announcing the coming day of the Lord. In Jesus the Messiah, in God’s anointed King, God has drawn near to us in love, to seek the lost and strengthen the weak. And he will feed all those who hunger and thirst for justice.
In Ezekiel’s vision, the shepherd judges “between sheep and sheep,” strengthening the weak but destroying the strong. It’s not hard to see how this image lies behind the vision of the last judgment that Christ presents in today’s Gospel. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” Jesus says, “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.”
The basis of this judgment? It’s how we respond to the needs of the least of these—to those who are hungry or thirsty, to immigrants and strangers, to prisoners and sick people, to those who lack clothing and their daily bread. For we are to seek and serve Christ in all persons, especially those who have no other helper. And we will find Christ here, in these brothers and sisters—or not at all.
And, though we may hope in the mercies of God, which are wider than this stark vision of judgment suggests, we dare not ever presume that this is so. How dare we presume the blessings of the Kingdom will be ours, if we do not follow the King? We who drive away those whom God would gather, who harm those God would heal and starve those God would feed, or who turn a blind eye to any form of suffering will have to answer to Christ the Lord when we stand before his judgment seat. The very thought of it makes me tremble. For we all fall short by his righteous standard. Every political party. Every candidate. Every platform, manifesto, and plan. And every last one of us—ALL of us. The gate is indeed narrow that leads to life. Thank God the mercy of Christ has opened it.
Some ninety years ago, in his closing address to the 1923 Anglo-Catholic Congress, Bishop Frank Weston gave a rousing sermon entitled “Our Present Duty.” I’d like to close with part of it today, because I think it points us to the implications of today’s Gospel in times like these, with hungry people everywhere and people taking to the streets. The final section, in particular, speaks to what it might mean for us to seek and serve Christ in all persons today.
If you say, Bishop Weston writes, that the [Christian] has a right to hold his peace while his fellow citizens are living in hovels below the level of the streets, this I say to you, that you do not yet know the Lord Jesus in his Sacrament. You have begun with the Christ of Bethlehem, you have gone on to know something of the Christ of Calvary — but the Christ of the Sacrament, not yet…I am not talking economics, he said, I do not understand them. I am not talking politics, I do not understand them. I am talking the Gospel, and I say to you this: If you are Christians, then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly — it is madness — to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.
There then, the bishop continued, as I conceive it, is your present duty; and I beg you, brethren, as you love the Lord Jesus, consider that it is at least possible that this is the new light that the Congress was to bring to us…Now go out into the highways and hedges…Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.
I speak to you in the Name of Christ, the King. Amen.