Reign of Christ – November 26, 2017

Rev. Lyle McKenzie            Lutheran Church of the Cross of Victoria
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 / Psalm 100 / Ephesians 1:15-23 / Matthew 25:31-46

God, you care so much for the little ones of this world that it is like you are them, and our acts of care are for you. And so also in us, little ones, receiving care from others, from you. Help us embrace this unity and the ways of compassion you summon from us, in the loving reign of Christ Jesus our sovereign. Amen.

Our administrator told me a story from her years living in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. A group were visiting Jericho and they noticed a shepherd herding sheep and goats. They looked at each other with amazement – here’s the Bible before their eyes. They watched as the shepherd led the sheep and goats toward pens, likely for their care and safety through the night, and the shepherd actually separating them, sheep from goats. And she said, “It was total chaos.” The goats wanted to go with the sheep and the sheep with the goats and none of them were following the shepherd. I love that! Maybe as Jesus and the Gospel writer related this story everyone knew it and smiled at how orderly it was supposed to go, even as a last judgement.

I have been in conversation frequently this week about this reading, individually and in groups, at UVic and the Bible this week, and most everyone is troubled by this story that makes the final stark judgement dependent on what was completely unknown, what was done or not done to care for those in need, as caring for God; and once again the merciless dividing between the blessed righteous going to eternal life and the accursed into the eternal fire of punishment. How many of you are uncomfortable with this? Hands up…

What if we suspend the final judgement scene of the story for a moment, and focus on Jesus’ desire that the “little ones” be cared for – hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, in prison; And not as an object for working out my relationship to God, but unknown, only for the sake of the one in need. As some said this week, these works of mercy are central to our purpose as God’s people. They are clearly what God wants and needs us to do and be as followers of Jesus, for the sake of the little ones, who are our neighbours, now and to the end of time.

One person said, “I love that Jesus makes care for the vulnerable God’s greatest and final concern.” Isn’t that good news? The clear invitation to make God’s greatest concern ours. And definitely it is good news for anyone and everyone who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison!

But to make that the basis on which humanity is saved or damned – we’re all sheep and goats in that!; sometimes caring but other times failing to care for the vulnerable and Jesus. Isn’t that just works righteousness, securing our own salvation?

Wait. Leave the judgement out of it for now. And love the simplicity and beauty of Jesus teaching his followers, this is God’s desire, and this is your and our purpose. Awake every day for this purpose. Make every decision as a community for this purpose, God’s ethic of care for the vulnerable and receiving the same from God and others. Who love’s that?

Some suggest the Gospel writer of Matthew is making a clear connection between Jesus’ first teachings in the Sermon on the Mountain, about blessing the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, peacemakers, and persecuted, and this teaching of caring for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, imprisoned, connecting words like, “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Jesus’ unflinching devotion to the commandments of God is clear and consistent from the beginning of his teaching to the end. Bless and care for the vulnerable and righteous as God cares for and blesses these God’s little ones. Who loves that? Hands up…

And the shepherd image in Ezekiel makes an even broader connection to God the Good Shepherd of God’s people, condemning the shepherds/leaders and “fat sheep” who fail to care for the vulnerable, who instead “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.” (Robert Mugabe and the people of Zimbabwe come to mind this week…) But God as shepherd (in words that sound connected) will feed them, seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak.” And God will appoint a new shepherd David, over the people to feed them. God, the Good Shepherd, through David to Jesus, caring for God’s sheep to the last…

And there is another equally beautiful part of this story to love; the connection between the little ones and Jesus/God.

I took the chance to go see the movie “Wonder” on Tuesday this week. The story of a boy with a disfigured face going to middle school for the first time after being home schooled, and of his family and friends and the school community around him. It is based on the bestselling children’s book by the same title, by R.J. Palacio. It’s a beautifully optimistic story about the gift of kindness and the power of one person, to, quote, “lift the hearts of others around them.”

But for me there was another or additional way to see the story, and that was through the lens of the gospel story, seeing in the face of the vulnerable, in the disfigured face of a child entering middle school, the face and person of Jesus, lifting the hearts of those around them, to kindness and caring as God desires. Seeing that, seeing Jesus, seeing God, in everyone, and especially those who are vulnerable, became my focus, or default way of seeing over the week. And I love that.

A young middle school boy I see when I’m driving to the church and he’s making his way to school… clearly on his own time and schedule, in his own world, it seems… hoodie half on his head, blonde hair curling out, never walking in a straight line, one day pulling pieces of bread out of his pouch and feeding crows following behind him, another time reading a book as he walks. What kindness can I show him from my car… except a smile if he happens to look my way, and a word of prayer for him in what seems like a more solitary life than most of the other kids I see walking and laughing with friends… and to see the wonder and delight of God/Jesus in him, that’s a gift I love…

A conversation with the spouse of a chaplain colleague at UVic who recently and quite suddenly died, talking about his very quiet presence, not what you’d think would serve University chaplaincy well, but so did! in his thoughtfulness and integrity and love and commitment to the work and community of Multifaith services… his wry humour. warm smile, bright eyes.  and devotion to his Christian Science practice and in his spouse’s words, absolute trust in eternal life. How I and we will miss his presence and the face of Jesus that we saw and I can still see in his face and presence that I love…

And so also at Pacific Christian School… the student retreat…even a Council meeting…

What’s not to love about this story that so closely connects people who are vulnerable to God/Jesus, that they are, we are, one and the same, and kindness and caring towards one another is one and the same with serving God? Not working out our salvation, but seeing others and caring.

And who isn’t changed by this way of seeing, of behaving toward one another and all others, in both offering and receiving care, all as God’s little ones? Who loves that? Hands up…

So back to the judgement scene of the story… it is a story Jesus tells only in Matthew’s gospel, to teach his followers including us… the vital concern of God for the vulnerable, as though for God’s own self, and to do so or not leads to eternal life or eternal punishment. Even if I don’t so much love that, and we continue to trust in the grace of God in Christ Jesus that liberates us for God’s purpose in this life and the next, that we see and act as God and for God and our vulnerable neighbours is urgent and vital to our living eternal life today. And only God knows, but maybe in the end it will all be chaos, sheep and goats, saints and sinners all together, like we are, all in the very presence of the Good Shepherd and sovereign of us all. Blessed Reign of Christ the King Sunday. Amen.