November 22, 2020

Christ the King A

The Lean and the Fat Sheep

GOSPEL

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘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 that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘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?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-46

 

SERMON

The feast of Christ the King is not an ancient celebration.  It was instituted in 1925 at a time when a sense of the sovereignty of God seemed to be losing ground in a world gone made. The devastating First World War had been fought, and the powers of nationalism were on the rise.  A rise so much like our own experience of these last several years.

The feast was instituted to lend courage to Christians, whose faith might be faltering, and to remind both disciples and the nations in which they lived, that disciples of Jesus have an allegiance and a loyalty that precedes any tribal, ethnic or national identity and commitment.   And that no nation is to claim as its identity the Kingdom of God, as Christian nationalists in the country would do if left unchecked.

The most recent election and its aftermath have made so very obvious the deep divisions that exist within this nation.  On one side there are 72 million disgruntled and disappointed citizens who would undo the results of the election and are willing to spend millions of dollars to that pointless end, even as food lines swell to unprecedented levels and countless families anticipate eviction notices that will render them homeless.  On the other side there are voices that might even be inclined to try to affect some semblance of unity by negotiating questionable compromises, like granting a pardon that would ratify the unhinged fantasy of a man who lives as if he is above the law and accountable to no one.  That he owns the prerogatives of a king.

This feast invites us to focus on Christ as King and the Kingdom He is ever bringing forth, both with our spirit-filled participation, and also in spite of whatever our sinful resistance to it.   It is the Kingdom whose dimensions and parameters Jesus has invited us to imagine in the many parables of the kingdom, preserved in Matthew’s gospel, that we have listened to, hopefully with longing and expectant hearts, during these past twelve months.

As King, Christ indeed is sovereign and has dominion.  Have no doubt about this. But unlike the rulers of this world, His sovereignty and dominion are not established thru brute force but by nonviolent resistance to the brute power of this world.  The only force the kingdom knows is the power of truthful words, the power of mouths that give voice to courageous hearts, and the power of hands that serve the good of “the least among us”. 

From Sunday to Sunday, through the scriptures appointed for each, we are invited to reflect on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus , to be servants of His kingdom, and to respond as fully as we are able to the life and servant ministry to which we have been called.

The first step in that lifelong walk of discipleship, which is always the way of the cross and never the way of worldly comfort and prosperity, is an embrace of Jesus as Lord, as the very ground of our being, as the one who gives our life its center, its purpose and its direction.  He ever remains the still point in a turning and, at times, chaotic world. 

If the many Kingdom parables have not made the nature of the King and His Kingdom sufficiently clear, Matthew has preserved the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. In it, Jesus builds upon Ezechiel’s metaphor of the lean and fat sheep. 

In this parable the contours of the Kingdom and the works that make it real, in any given moment, and that will ultimately bring about its fullest realization, are laid bare in their sheer simplicity.   Compassion, care and advocacy for the least among us, the poor, the oppressed, the stranger and the most vulnerable, and being a voice for those who have no voice in the corridors and halls of power are what it is all about.  

Actions like offering hospitality to asylum seekers and removing the terror of possible deportation from the lives of undocumented parents represents a Kingdom choice.  “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  We live with some hope that the new administration will make significant headway in giving legal status to the many who live in terrifying limbo.  But we know that unless the Senate is flipped this hope will be stymied by the fat sheep.

Yes, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  

We have been responding to many of these directives in our participation as a parish in the ongoing work of UIDN, the Soap Closet, and in our recent decision to commit any funds raised thru the Thrift Shop to the support of our immigrant neighbors and the care of the poor among us.  But such acts of charity cannot be the last word in our response.

Our King identifies himself entirely and completely with those who have been, are now, and will ever be exploited, and to use Ezechiel’s choice of words, “ravaged” by the movers and the shakers for whom they simply do not exist, except as a nuisance, or as objects for casual and always inadequate charity, but never as subjects for real justice.  

Again in the words of the prophet Ezechiel, “the justice with which the Lord wills his flock to be fed.” Christ fully identifies with all of God’s children who are prey to the economic forces – driven by greed and supported by arms – that vanquish their lives and bankrupt the future of their children and all our children.  

The coming of the kingdom will always require us to intensify our prayers, to deepen our solidarity with the lean sheep and to step up our efforts to secure justice on their behalf. 

For this reason, Christians necessarily march to the beat of a different drum. That drumbeat is a song of freedom that the world cannot give and cannot take away.  It most certainly precedes whatever secondary freedoms any state might be inclined to insure.  It is the freedom that elevates the common good over my individual right to carry a weapon or to refuse to where a mask during a pandemic. We are free by God’s grace to live our identity as disciples of Jesus no matter what the prevailing ethos.

Disciples of Jesus do not easily revel in so called derived freedoms, if these are secured by acts of aggression, violence and war.   How free can we really be if we live in fear and leave ourselves, as our only option, the killing of those who would make themselves our enemies?  That is not freedom but rather slavery to the basest expression of our humanity.

Must not disciples of Jesus doggedly take issue with an economic system that favors the fat sheep, and a taxation system that is always reconfigured to their greater advantage – a system that is unrelenting in its progressive disenfranchisement of the poor both nationally and globally?  Unregulated capitalism in not of God and it is not of the gospel.  It is, in fact, slavery to greed – another of the basest expressions of our humanity.

Again, disciples of Jesus may faithfully reject a justice system predicated on retribution and strive instead to implement models of justice that are directed toward restoration of relationships.   Return to community and not punishment must be the end of the story that God wills to have us write with Him.

Disciples of Jesus must raise the loudest cry and engage the most effective resistance to racism and the white privilege and supremacy that support it, directed against both citizens of color and immigrants and refugees of color, as these are yet another form of slavery to the basest expression of our humanity.    

In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul reminds his listeners that in their coming to know Christ, in their engaging a relationship of intimacy and mutuality with Him, the eyes of their hearts are enlightened, and they are sustained with a hope that allows them to bare and plow through even the greatest adversities, always with an accessible awareness of the unparalleled riches of their glorious inheritance

In the powerful words of the prophet Ezechiel, “Those lean and vulnerable sheep, who have been pushed with flank and shoulder and butted by the horns of the fat and the strong must no longer be ravaged.”  

The King who sits upon the throne, Himself became and lived as one of the sheep.   He made himself one with the lean and the vulnerable. He was himself pushed and butted by the fat and the powerful.   And now and forever he sits as judge between the sheep and the goats. 

As we strive to live the discipleship of lean sheep, the ancient image of God as the loving shepherd of his people comes into sharp relief.  We remember that Jesus embraced this iconic image as his own. It is an image that has been a source of comfort for Christians from the very beginning.   This Good Shepherd searches, seeks, rescues, gathers, and brings the sheep back.  He feeds them and gives them water, binds up their injuries and provides a safe and secure place where they can rest and sleep. He strengthens the weak and feeds them with justice and, at each any every turn, calls his disciples to do likewise.

 

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
November 22, 2020