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Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
One of the great things about the liturgical, or church, calendar is that it takes us away from the passing goings-on of the world and our lives and, instead, positions us in the mysterious flow of time eternal and deep spiritual meaning. And one of the not-so-great things about the liturgical calendar is that it as even it draws us into the gift and mystery of God’s ongoing work in the world it may not address the particular realities and challenges of our own lives.
Reign of Christ Sunday, for example, is observed by Christians the world over as the last Sunday of the liturgical year. If we were truly rooted in the liturgical calendar, which begins on the first Sunday of Advent, this might make some sense. We would understand that the church year had taken us from the theology and story of God-with us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the origin and struggles of the church, to so-called “ordinary time,” when we are encouraged to consider the connections between faith and life.
This is all well and good. There is a method to it, and a repetition that draws us ever deeper into the mystery of God.
And it is not so well and good. Because life keeps happening, and sometimes the scripture lesson for the day or entire seasons of the church year may seem to have nothing to do with our daily rounds. One might think, for example, that the theology and meaning of Reign of Christ Sunday is utterly irrelevant to Christians in the United States, who always have either just returned from or are preparing for Thanksgiving celebrations with family and friends, celebrations that, for many, are emotional minefields.
And so it was that after spending much of yesterday writing a Reign of Christ sermon at 36,000 feet (while flying back from Texas), I got home and got into bed and realized that I needed to start all over. Because the original sermon said nothing about tense family situations, nothing about growing children, aging parents, emotional wounds, political divisions, illness and aging, or loss and loneliness. Because that first sermon said nothing about how to get through one day and then another when times are hard, how to balance the thousand and one demands on our time and interests, how to bridge bitter divides between family members and races and political parties, how to live with meaning and purpose, or how to hold things together when the world and, sometimes, even our lives seem to be falling apart.
Because what does the Reign of Christ have to do with any of those things? What does the Reign of Christ have to do with real life?
Well, I can’t be sure that I know the answer to those questions, but I am pretty sure they are, for Christians, some of the fundamental questions. They are the questions Jesus’ followers asked when he walked with them and after he was gone: Even as they proclaimed Jesus as lord—the ruler, the one authority—of their lives, they didn’t always know what that meant. Following the way of Jesus became a way to figure that out, to make it real, to reject the idols of self, power, wealth, and control, and worship nothing and no one but God.
I wonder how our lives might be different—richer, deeper, and more meaningful—if we were more aware of the Reign of Christ, if we looked for the Holy and Hopeful in every situation, if we professed that Jesus the Suffering Servant, Jesus the martyred healer and teacher, is the boss of us. I wonder how our relationships might be different if we were more aware of the Christ in our partners and friends and enemies. I wonder how our nation and even our church might be different if we valued the trouble-making, feather-ruffling, soul-searching, boundary-crossing ways of Jesus more than politics or ideology, if we pledged our allegiance not to a flag or nation or activist groups but to Christ alone.
What would that look like? Would it look anything at all like our current lives, our present structures and ways of doing things, or would it be riskier, edgier, more direct, more truthful, more compassionate and more justice-oriented? Would it set us apart; might it make our light shine brighter?
Our scripture readings for this day portray times of comfort and upheaval, compassion and justice, confusion and clarity. These scripture readings tend to make us uncomfortable because they speak of judgment. But while we tend to think of judgment as punishment or the threat of punishment, what it’s really about is setting things right. While we tend to think of a loving God and a judging God as two separate entities—or else we reject the notion of a judging God all together—all good parents know that discipline is part of love, that justice is part of caring. At the same time, judgment without love is little more than tyranny; power exercised without compassion creates injustice, suffering, division, and inequality.
These parables of fat sheep and starving sheep, sheep and goats, the brought low and the raised up, remind us that God has forever been the God of the poor, that Jesus will not let one of his sheep be lost, that while our present world is ruled by injustice and inequality, the reign of Christ, the realm of God is about setting things right, caring for the hurting. These stories would steer us from our culture’s worship of power and self toward the realm of a tender God who shepherds us through life’s hard times and a Christ who rules our broken world by living among us.
The fat sheep of the world like things just as they are, but it is though the lean sheep—the lost, the least, and the left-out, the oppressed, the invisible, the discriminated against—that God is remaking the world.” 1 Because God is their shepherd, because God will not let even one be lost, because Christ is in the midst of them, because Christ is the lean sheep, the forgotten prisoner, the homeless woman, the hungry child, the persecuted immigrant, the suicidal trans person.
Because love and justice go together, because there is no love without justice and no justice without love, unjust empires will fall, the poor and oppressed will rise up, tyrants will be toppled, justice will be done, and the lost be brought home. Because Jesus is Lord, because Christ the King is a servant, because love conquers all—even death.
This is the faith of the lean sheep. This is the hope of the lost.
And this is the question that the church asks us to consider on the last Sunday of the church year: Are we the fat sheep or the lean sheep? Are we the sheep or the goats? Are we living as God’s partners in loving and healing the world, or are we, like so many, more concerned with enriching ourselves than caring for the poor? Do we see Christ in our midst—in the persecuted immigrant living in our building, in the homeless and the poor eating at Not Bread Alone, in the sick and the lonely? In this life where everyone serves something or someone, whom do we serve? Who do we love? How do we live so as to set things right? What are the guiding values and questions of our lives?
On the eve of our preparations for the coming again of God-with-us, Emmanuel, the church invites us to embrace the good news that our God longs to live with us, to lift up the poor and oppressed, and to shepherd us all into green pastures and lives rich with love and justice, hope and peace. As we prepare to prepare the way, to make room for God to do still another new thing in our lives and in our world, let us seek to welcome the Christ who is not so much a baby as a savior, a disrupter, the Lord of all, the one who will separate the blind and selfish from the caring and compassionate, the one who will destroy the fat sheep if that’s what it takes to restore the lost and nourish the starving.
Let us invite this Christ into the muck and the mess of our lives, into our relationships and families, into our church and our politics, into our spending and saving, into our hopes and fears. Let we who hate letting anyone be the boss of us discover the good news in letting Jesus be Lord of our lives.
1 Steve Garnaas-Holmes, www.unfoldinglight.com