Sunday, November 26, 2023

Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

“Reigh of Christ” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24)

Gospel Reading (Matthew 25:31-46, NRSVUE)

Now, I’ve been told that I was a pretty good kid for the most part — but I definitely wasn’t on that particular day. I must have just learned a new word on the playground at school — a really choice one that I certainly shouldn’t have been running around the house shouting at the top of my lungs, but that’s what I decided to do anyway. I won’t bother telling you what that word was — because we’re in church and because it really isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. Let’s just say it was a pretty bad one and leave it at that.

My father was at work and I was at home with my Mom. I don’t really know that things would have turned out any differently had been there too; indeed, there didn’t seem to be anything capable of deterring me from taking the newfound entry in my vocabulary out for a spin at that point — or so I thought.  After a few hours of my inappropriate verbal barrage Mom was at here wit’s end. And then the reinforcements showed up.

My grandfather had just finished his eight to four shift and decided to swing by our house for some reason (to this day I’m still not sure whether Mom had actually called him). Pop was a larger than life figure to me — and in many ways still is. He just had a sense of gravitas about him — one that didn’t require him to raise his voice to get his point across. I mean I don’t recall ever having heard him yell — well, except maybe that one time when he cut off the end of his index finger with the electric hedge trimmer. And even then he managed to drive himself to the emergency room (albeit with one hand).

His authoritative presence beyond our family was augmented by the fact that the man I knew as “Pop,” was known to most other people in the area as Sergeant Bogert of the Ridgewood Police Department. In retrospect, I think it’s kind of hilarious that my Mom may actually have called the police on her five year-old son for the high crime of swearing though, like I said earlier, I can’t confirm that this is actually what happened. But while the trappings of his office may have lent him a certain air of credibility around town, Pop didn’t need any of the formidable trappings of his sworn office in order to get his point across to me.

According to the prevailing account that has been passed on regarding the events that supposedly transpired that day, Pop simply sat me down, looked me  in the eye and said, “Come on, you’re better than that.” I allegedly cried a little and nodded my head in agreement as he hugged me and, as he did, my foul-mouthed adventures came to an abrupt end. I guess I just didn’t want to swear any more. I can’t help but think in my heart of hearts that this is what real justice and true judgement actually look like. Our reading today from the book of Ezekiel seems to paint a similar picture, on a slightly different scale.

Tucked away here amidst Ezekiel’s bizarre actions and strange prophecies we find this beautiful passage, one that reminds us what God’s reign is really all about. Israel’s leaders have once again failed to lead Israel’s people; previously in Ezekiel’s prophecy, these leaders are compared to shepherds who have tended only to their own needs, and have not taken care of their sheep. Certain privileged people (both Israelites and foreigners) have run roughshod over society, benefitting themselves at the expense of others and of the greater good. Today we learn that it is high time for a fed-up God to intervene, to show them all how a good shepherd really behaves. 

And so Ezekiel tells his readers what things will be like when God takes over, when God steps in and judges “between sheep and sheep” (which, of course, are not actual sheep; they represent us, God’s people). For these neglected sheep, things are starting to look pretty good. God will rescue them, God will bring them into their own land, God will feed and water them, and God will give them a safe pasture in which to lie down. God will seek the lost, God will bring back the strayed, God will bind up the injured, and God will strengthen the weak. This sounds really promising.

And then the focus changes to what God has in store for the sheep. Ezekiel’s meandering description of pastoral paradise changes abruptly into something far different and far more judgmental.  We are told, in one clause that seems to be a throwaway at the end of a sentence, that the strong will be destroyed. And then we are told immediately after this that they will be fed — fed with justice

At first blush, this sequence of phrases may not strike us as being particularly strange; in fact, it’s one that we’d generally gloss right over. Yet, upon closer inspection, we can see that it is definitely odd. Sitting right out there in plain sight, if we only choose to look, is an obvious contradiction, which is this: Why on would God need to feed something that God has already destroyed?

Now I must admit that I am as guilty as anyone of jumping right over this point. I mean, when I sense that God is fixing to bring judgment upon whomever or whatever, my mind automatically goes right to the fire and the brimstone, to the thunder and the lightning, to the vengeance and the anger. But there doesn’t seem to be any trace of that here at all. Ezekiel’s prophecy about how God will exact justice appears to be quite restrained.

So I can’t help but wonder whether God is not actually talking about destroying the well-fed and strong sheep here, but rather about simply destroying their privilege and their strength — the unfair advantages that they have gained at the expense of the other sheep. I, for one, like thinking about it this way because I have a real problem coming to terms with a creator God who would willingly destroy what God has created. But I have no problem envisioning a God who works to destroy the inequities that exist in God’s creation — problems that we ourselves have generallycreated. 

God definitely states right here that God will judge “sheep from sheep,” but is also quite clear in asserting the desire to save the entire flock. Because, for God, justice is not about separating sheep from one another, it is about bringing all of them back into the fold.

So what might the implications of God feeding us with justice be? First and foremost, true justice is something far greater than punishment; true justice sustains us as we right wrongs, as we resolve misunderstandings, as we take responsibility for what we do and who we are. It also takes the terror out of judgement by rendering the process a constructive and not a destructive one. Because God’s judgment is not about writing us off but rather about setting us right. Because God’s justice is not about retribution but rather about repentance, reconciliation and the restoration of right relationship. And these things are a whole lot better than fear.

This, of course does not mean that judgment and justice are easy things for us to deal with — either when we are wronged or, perhaps even more so, when we are in the wrong.  Reckoning with our shortcomings — as individuals and as groups — is challenging. But it is important to remember that we are never alone in this process; it is a community activity — amongst ourselves and between us and our God. This work is so essential that God sent Jesus to forgive us and to feed us, to challenge us and to care for us, to heal us and love us through it all. And God did all this for one basic reason: Because despite all our failings and imperfections, despite all our misdeeds and transgressions, God always loves us — we never stop mattering to God.

We need to figure out how we’re going to respond to that love — in our relationship with God and in our relationships with each other.  It is not about earning our way into heaven through a life of good works. It is about answering God’s call to be in community, it is about seeking justice for all God’s people, it is about addressing the need that is all around us. Because these are the only appropriate responses to the grace God has given us. If we are truly grateful for all that God has done, is doing and continues to do, then how could we do anything else?

When it is God who says to us, “Come on, you’re better than that,” two things become clear: first, we have some work to do and second, God believes in us. And if that doesn’t motivate us to do better and to be better, I don’t know what possibly could.

And so as we close the books on another liturgical year, with the fresh start that is Advent now upon us, it seems right for us to think again about the tremendous responsibility we bear because of the confidence God has in us and the love God has for us.

So how are you going to respond?