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This Week's Commentary
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 23, 2014Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 | Psalm 100 | Ephesians 1:15-23 | Matthew 25:31-46 | Psalm 95:1-7a
This final Sunday of the Church Year bears many names. To some it is the Last Sunday after Pentecost. To others it is the Feast of Christ the King. While others still call it The Reign of Christ. And some simply know it by where it falls in the lectionary cycle — Proper 29. It will be an important decision for us as preachers to mindfully decide which name for this day we will emphasize for our congregations. What is in a name? Power. The names which we give to our various celebrations as people of the Christian faith empowers them to carry images for us and for the adherents of our faith.
The image of a king can be a disturbing one, as it carries the weight of hierarchical baggage with it, regardless of the noble intentions of many who would argue otherwise. Kings are people of absolute power; all citizens of a kingdom are subjects of the king; what the king says is the law of the land; and to question it is to butt up against domination. As process-relational people, we argue that the characteristics of domination, subjugation, and coercion are contrary to what we believe about God, who is relational, cooperative, and persuasive.
The idea of Christ reigning over the world is contrary to the main agenda of the Gospels. It may be true that Jesus used kingdom-based images to describe what he believed to be true about God and God’s purposes. But he was offering those images as being contrary and counterproposals to the imperial rule of Rome, Caesar, and all those who colluded with Rome to prop up an ungodly world of domination and subjugation. The idea which Jesus was promoting was to provoke people into imagining how they themselves would experience life differently if they were to behave as if God’s beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, love, and justice were the “law of the land” instead of the oppressive ways of Caesar and the Roman Empire. Jesus’ intent wasn’t necessarily to place himself (or even God) on a throne to replace Caesar. Rather, Jesus wanted us to behave in such a way that would reflect an inner reality of what it would be like for us if we were to be citizens of a realm in which God’s law of love was primary. Jesus’ use of kings and kingdoms weren’t about the person on the throne, but about each of us being empowered to walk and work in the world in such a way to create a new world order.
With all that said, the scripture commentaries for this day will not point to or uphold the king, kingdom, or reigning models. They are written from the belief that the biblical images of kings and kingdoms are intended to inspire us to look towards our own relationship with God, self, and others, instead of looking for One to “rule” over us in the same way that human political and monarchical people strive to dominate others.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures the image of shepherd is alternatively used to describe both God and the king of Israel/Judah. In both cases, the emphasis is intended to bring about a heightened awareness and sensibility of relational ways of living and moving and having one’s being. In this passage, the prophet is placing words in God’s mouth about the idea of relating to others in such a way that some are “fat” and some are “lean.” In twentieth-century parlance, the prophet is speaking about the “fat cats” and the “wobblies” — in current events lingo, this is about the 1% and the 99%. This passage is intended to point to the way that we all (whether we perceive ourselves as powerful or not) are called and empowered to act in such a way that we are never exploiting others or leaving them outside the resources with which God has blessed us for life and livelihood. To put it in social terms, this is all about striving for the common good.
In a process-relational approach to life, whatever anyone does (for good or ill) has an impact on everyone else (for good or ill). This passage is calling upon us all to examine the ways in which we are behaving (or not behaving, as the case may be) to allow all those around us to have the same access to the blessings of life which God has intended for all people to have — food, clean water, housing, equality, voice, healthcare, and more. In fact, it’s more than simply “allowing” others to have these same blessings of life, it’s all about adopting a lifestyle in which we actively work with God to bring this kind of world into existence.
The judgmental section of this passage (how God intends to punish the “fat sheep” for their deeds) is disturbing because we don’t believe that God truly wants to destroy or exclude anyone from the “flock.” With that said, whenever we embrace a lifestyle which benefits ourselves at the expense of others, we are robbing ourselves of the rich opportunities of being in healthy and healthful relationships with those whom we are exploiting. We miss God’s lure toward relationships which can creatively transform the world by serving only what we perceive to be our own self-interests. Our own use and abuse of power becomes our own deprivation of the rich diversity of humanity and creation. The “David” placed as “prince” over the flock is simply the governing ideal of self-awareness, mindfulness, and intentional interdependence. With God’s help, we can become our own shepherd, and intentionally discern and embody God’s lure toward the common good.
Psalm 100 or Psalm 95:1-7a
Whichever of these two choices for the response to this week’s first reading may be used by a congregation, it will contain a festival of intentional interrelated imagery! Humanity is God’s; God is humanity’s. God is the shepherd, and we are the sheep; the Holy Shepherd guides us into relational living — intentionally affirming and nurturing our relationships with God, with self, with others, with creation. God is the creator who is beckoning us to enter into partnership with God for the purpose of continuing the work of creation. It’s no small wonder that ancient poets burst forth into singing these hymns of joy and praise and wonder. Let us imagine, with our congregations, what our lives (and the lives of those around us) would be like if we were to intentionally live life in such a way that we were always grounded in the awareness that we are God’s and that God is ours, and that together we can transform the world.
For those who would argue that this final Sunday of the Church Year is about the dominion of Christ as King of the Cosmos, this passage from Ephesians provides an alternative view. Though the author (whether Paul or someone else writing on his behalf or in his name) mentions that God raised Christ to be seated “at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come,” Christ’s “enthronement” isn’t the subject of this paragraph — the members of the Church are! The author is cheering on these early followers of Jesus by urging them to come to an awareness that the same “power” which God placed in Christ was also placed in them. The author of this beautifully written treatise of encouragement is urging all who read it to see in themselves the “immeasurable greatness” which lies in the human capacity to partner with God in transforming the world. The “spirit of wisdom and revelation” which the author prays will come to the Ephesians is nothing less than a spirit of discernment — the ability to, in every moment, recognize God and God’s purposes luring us into creativity, truth, love, and justice. If this final Sunday is to be a celebration of power, let’s have it be a celebration of the power of discernment, creativity, imagination, adventure, and partnering with God and God’s purposes in order to transform the world in which we live and move and have our being.
Two weeks ago, in comments for the first thirteen verses of this chapter of Matthew [see Proper 27, Year A], it was suggested that the Gospel of Matthew is held between two bookends that help to shape all that is between — “‘and they shall name him Emmanuel’ (which means, ‘God is with us’)” [Matthew 1:23b] and “...I am with you always, even to the end of the age” [Matthew 28:20b]. If the theme of God’s presence being with us is the theme of the Gospel, the climax of Jesus’ teaching on that subject could arguably be the three parables of Matthew 25, which each demonstrate how “God is with us” above and beyond how we experience God’s presence in and through the message and ministry of Jesus. In the parable of the bridesmaids, we saw that “God is with us” in the moment-by-moment lure of the initial aim and in our work to be mindful of God’s presence. In the parable of the talents, we find that “God is with us” in human creativity as we partner with God for creative transformation. And, finally, in the parable of the sheep and goats, we find that “God is with us” in human need and vulnerability.
On this final Sunday of the Church Year, we do have an image of a kinglike ruler sitting on a throne. But the power of the One on the throne isn’t in the pomp of the court, the might of the military, or any other attribute ascribed to human monarchies. Instead we see the One on the throne identifying with those who are most at risk in society — the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, those too poor to buy clothing, the sick, and prisoners. Of course, we need not limit those “at risk” to just this list found in Matthew 25.
There are so many others in our own day who could be added. All those who are not able to provide for themselves, and/or those whose voice has been denied so that they cannot advocate for themselves, are those with whom the One on the throne is identifying.There are a number of Churches (both local and denominational) that use a dismissal at the end of services which speaks to the spirituality which Jesus taught in this parable: Our worship has ended, let our service begin. Worship is often framed in a way that points us to the idea of humbly coming before the One who is seated on the throne of the cosmos with praise and acclamation. This, of course, isn’t a bad thing — it’s very much a part of the Christian tradition. But it is only part; there is so much more that we are called and empowered to do as people of faith. And in his parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus was reminding us that our greatest acts of worship are not aimed toward God, but towards those members of humanity who are most in need; for it is in the lives of these people that we can find that “God is with us” in very special ways.
In process-relational theology, we assert that God is not omnipotent; but we also assert that God is omnipresent. For thousands of years humanity has tried to demonize those who are vulnerable and powerless; and at times we have been very successful in our endeavors. But the great spiritual leaders of all religious traditions have pointed out to us in various ways (such as this particular parable of Jesus as only one of many possible examples) that we ought not to be demonizing the weak and vulnerable, but we ought to be revering the Presence of God within them. But in so doing, it is important that we are intentional about not ministering to these people in a top-down or condescending manner; we need to intentionally be ministering with them, in such a way that we, like Jesus, are identifying with them and entering into their lives with them.
On this final Sunday of the Liturgical Year, we can celebrate with the author of Matthew the reality of Emmanuel — “God is with us” — in many and various ways. But most especially on this day, with this particular parable, we celebrate how “God is with us” in those who have the most needs among us. In the coming weeks we will observe the season of Advent, and we will prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who (like us) was born as a baby who was hungry, thirsty, and very, very vulnerable. As we close out the Church Year, we do so mindful of the fact that we are followers of the One who taught us that entering into the midst of human vulnerability is entering into the very Presence of God. The One who sits on the throne places the crown of divinity on the humble, the vulnerable, the outcast, the powerless — those whom we are called to seek and serve in the Name of God.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and is currently doing a residency in Clinical Pastoral Education at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Delaware, where he is the Chaplain Resident for Pain & Palliative Care. From early 2008 until July of 2014 he had been the Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Penn Yan, NY (where he was ordained), in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, where he is still canonically resident as a priest. Prior to his ordination to the priesthood in 2008, David had a career as a lay professional in church music. In addition to his interests in weaving process theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and spending time with family & friends.