Choose to Care, to Challenge and to be Challenged
Nov 22, 2020
Christ the King Sunday
Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
No doubt, the Gospel lesson is familiar to many of you. I know that I’ve given multiple sermons on Matthew 25:31-46, not only on Christ the King Sunday but also for special services when the theme was outreach. We are familiar with its message of mercy and of God’s expectations of us.
Today we are picking up where we left off last Sunday. This is the last of four parables that Jesus uses to teach his followers how to live when he is no longer physically with them. And, what could be more clear than: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the King will answer them, Truly I tell you just as you did for the least of these who are members of my family, you did it for me.” (vs. 37-40)
This call to caring is certainly is one that we can get behind. But what if today, the final Sunday of the church year, we focused not on Matthew, but on the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel? I am fairly certain I have never given a sermon on today’s first reading. Although I did not actually scour my files to find out. It is appropriate that we give Ezekiel some time because in today’s reading, the Prophet holds caring (meeting needs) and justice (addressing the underlying causes of those needs). We tend to be comfortable focusing on caring, but not so much on justice.
We should begin with an introduction to Ezekiel. (I will try not to get too deep in the weeds with this, I promise.) Around 593 BCE, when the Israelites were held captive in Babylon, Ezekiel spoke to his defeated people. He was one of them. He confronts them for their unfaithfulness and idolatry. He also announces the holiness of the one God of the cosmos.
This is how commentator Carolyn Sharp describes him. “Ezekiel is to serve as a sentinel for the diaspora community, warning them that they will die if they do not turn from their iniquity. If he fails to perform his task, God will hold him personally responsible for the deaths of his fellow Judeans (3:17-18). The shocking nature of much of Ezekiel’s prophesying reflects the urgency of his mandate. Ezekiel is desperate to shake his people out of their spiritual complacency.” She goes on to note. Ezekiel offers a searing indictment of Israel’s leaders: they have ruled harshly, enriching themselves at the expense of the people and failing to safeguard the interests of those who depend on them. (1)
His message is harsh until Jerusalem is conquered and the Temple is destroyed; then, his tone begins to change. The worst has happened; the exiles can stop hoping in Jerusalem and the Temple. This scattered Flock needs a Shepherd King. Since the previous Israelite kings (and priests and prophets) were only interested in themselves, God will take care of the Flock.
This is where today’s passage begins: “Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seeks out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep I will rescue them from all places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (vs. 11-12)
God will gather, feed, resettle these wandering sheep. It is a message of caring: “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….” (vs. 16) But, it’s also a message of justice, as verse 16 ends, “…but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
This Good Shepherd will not only care for this hurting Flock but also bring justice against those who have harmed them. This includes external enemies, like the Babylonians and Israelites who have exploited their sisters and brothers.
Another commentator, Margaret Odell, writes that to be a (faithful) king was to be a shepherd, and being a shepherd involves the proper exercise of power. I’ll quote her: “It rules out the exercise of power for its own sake and insists that it be used to support the Flock’s flourishing; the ruler’s responsibility is to establish justice so that the people might flourish.” (2)
Today’s passage ends with David being named as the Shepherd’s shepherd. Remember, though, at this point in history, the original King David is long gone. So it is not much of a stretch to understand this as God raising up another who will be a Shepherd King. Today we celebrate Christ the King; Jesus, the Lamb of God, is also the Shepherd of the sheep. He is the promoter of justice so that the people may flourish.
We are the beneficiaries of, and conveyors of, that justice. But where do we begin? Do you recall that a year or so ago, as we planned for expanding our outreach program, the congregation was introduced to this illustration? It is a tree. The branches represent conditions or situations that we are called to respond to with acts of mercy and caring, like those named by Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. There is crime, violence, addiction, hunger, homelessness; I am sure many other items could be added as branches on the tree.
But the illustration also includes, underneath, that which is at the root, the cause of, these conditions and situations. There is trauma, access to quality health care, childhood abuse, access to quality education, public policy, low wages, access to affordable housing, and racism. We are called to address these roots with acts of justice.
That is not so easy to do. Although we have addressed two of those topics in the collaborative Interfaith Justice Series held in Lent, and will do so again this year. Also, a group of us is learning about the essentialness of multiethnic communities when working together for justice.
As this church year ends, and we gather for our Annual Meeting, I would like to challenge us as a congregation and individuals to consider what it means, for us, to be conveyors of justice, not just caring or mercy. What letters can we write, what phone calls can we make, what books can we read, what relationships can we form, what discussions can we join, what peaceful protests can we attend, how can we vote to address God’s call for justice?
The first step, of course, will be to acknowledge that those in need of justice do not include most of us. Instead, we are the ones who have the opportunity to, as Peter W. Marty writes in the most recent edition of the Christian Century, opt-out. Here’s what he means: “If you own a car, you can opt-out of public transportation. If you enjoy a certain level of comfort, security and means, you can opt-out of the local public school system…minor offenders can opt-out of jail by posting bail.” He notes that we can even opt-out of a conversation about racism or even developing an elemental awareness of the cruel consequence of systemic injustice.” (3)
The challenge for us is not to opt-out, but also not to feel guilty or discouraged, but to choose opportunities to opt-in. We can follow our Shepherd King in the way of both mercy and justice, meeting needs, and addressing the root cause of the world’s pain. As the hymn, Christ is the King proclaims, “Christ is the King, oh friends rejoice, brothers and sisters with one voice, let the world know he is your choice!” Since that’s the case, we choose to care, to challenge, and to be challengers for the sake of justice. May it be so. AMEN
(1) “Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24” by Carolyn Sharp, www.workingpreacher.com
(2) “Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24” by Margaret Odell, www.workingpreacher.com
(3) “Opting Out” by Peter W. Marty, Christian Century, November 18, 2020, pg. 3