Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reign of Christ

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

A pulpit is like a well-worn pair of slippers.

How else could you describe a pulpit that is 190 years old? Passed down through the generations, worn by dozens of pulpit-dwellers, this wooden slipper has seen it all.

Now I don’t want to stretch the metaphor too far (pun intended), but my mind does wander from time to time to the people who filled this pulpit and the message they shared.

It was Methodist, so the occasional temperance sermon was likely preached. You can tell me later if that worked. The once great enterprize of sending out missionaries would have been preached, the call to take the Gospel to the so-called heathen masses.

Some topics would have been overtly political, but not always in the way you might think. Methodists in Upper Canada were vocal opponents of the Family Compact that ruled though the early part of the nineteenth century, so we can expect that a sermon or two spoke of democracy and maybe even rebellion.

There would have been sermons on inequality, not just in the more radical United Church era, but from earliest days, when the heirs of John and Charles Wesley praised the hard-working poor and condemned the idle rich. You know who you are.

There would have been sermons against the Baptists (main competitors in the evangelical enterprize), the Anglicans (tribe from which the Methodists split) and especially the Roman Catholic Church, which preachers would simply refer to a ‘papists,’ or those engaged in ‘popery.’

We might even say that this last topic, regarding Roman Catholics, would be among the last real ‘prejudices’ that would be preached here will very little comment or sense that there was something inherently wrong with attacking another group in society. And Toronto (including Weston) took this to the next level, with members of the Orange Lodge dominating city politics. In the 1940’s three-quarters of city councilors were Orangemen, along with every mayor for the first half of the 20th century.

I share all this because I want to talk about Pius XI, the inter-war Pope, who has tended to get lost in all the other events of the era, and how gave is the gift of Christ the King Sunday, as we call it, The Reign of Christ.

Already the pulpit has started to quiver. Preaching popery! Well, not precisely, but it is unusual. For you see, we live in an era of ‘recovered tradition,’ where the parts of the church year we take for granted like Advent and Lent were lost to us for over 400 years. They were deemed too Catholic, and therefore ignored until the 1970’s. We still did Christmas and Easter (and not just for the Christmas and Easter crowd) but that was it for seasons of the church year.

When we recovered this liturgical tradition, Christ the King just somehow slipped in. Lent is old, and Advent is old, but Christ the King only started in the 1920’s, from the mind of Pius XI. He was a rather bookish pope, and like all the other popes of his era, once you were elected, the Vatican become a sort of prison. From the 1860’s until the 1950’s no pope even stepped foot outside the Vatican.

During the inter-war period, the most profound crisis facing the Roman Catholic Church was the persecution of priests. In Mexico, Spain and the Soviet Union, clergy were being imprisoned and murdered by regimes that were virulently ant-Catholic. He preached freedom against both communist and fascist ideology.

And he gave us Christ the King. He wanted to reinforce the earliest Christian creed (“Jesus is Lord”) and remind the governments of the world that Christians have Christ as their king, not the kings (or governments) or this world. Radical stuff, really, and we maintain the tradition today.


11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.

Ezekiel was a prophet in exile. Driven out and sent to Babylon, Ezekiel experienced a series of visions. He revealed them in three broad topics: the judgment on Israel, the judgement on the nations, and God’s future blessing on Israel. It is a word of blessing we hear today, as God promised to tend the lost sheep of Israel and anoint a new king to lead them.

God promises “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” These are promises intended to comfort those in exile, those who long for home. Punishment has ended, and with it will end the pain of dislocation.

But words of comfort do not come to all. In the first part of Ezekiel 34 we hear only judgment: “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”

The very actions that God promises to undertake are the ones that the first group of shepherds refused to do. They ignored the flock, they enriched themselves, they abandoned the sick and the vulnerable. It is only after the bad shepherds are driven off that God will care for them, tend them, and give them a new shepherd.

It seems an obvious reading for Christ the King Sunday. The people to selected the three-year cycle of readings we call the lectionary wanted to reinforce God’s promise to tend us, to give us an alternate government to the governments of this world.

And it seems a perfect ending place as a new church year begins next week, and we look forward to God’s ultimate promise. Isaiah 9.6: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

But before we get lost in the season of lights and bells, I think we would do well to remain a while in Ezekiel, or perhaps Jesus’ sermon on Ezekiel, found in Matthew 25. I decided to leave off reading the passage, partly because most of your know it, but mostly because we seldom hear Ezekiel.

Matthew 25 is a common funeral passage, the one we tend to choose when the person we have lost was self-less in caring for others. Having separated the sheep from the goats, “then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…” and goes on from there.

Now the part we don’t typically read at funerals, the past to we seldom here at all is the opposite of the sentiments we know and love:

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

This is Jesus’ sermon of Ezekiel. The exile, the years in Babylon, was the result of bad kings who led the people like bad shepherd and allowed them to go astray. It was the example they failed to set as hungry went unfed and naked went unclothed and all the rest.

Bad kings, bad shepherds, bad goats, it seems we have arrived in a bad place where neglect and misrule has led to bad things. So what do we do will all this badness? We take a lesson. And the lesson, following in the steps of Pius XI, is to proclaim the government of God. It is to seek the rule that reflects God’s own way, it is to follow the example of the good shepherd and seek the lost.

The ending is never “what are we going to do,” but rather “what is God doing in our midst” and how are we going to respond? God is seeking the lost, binding up the broken, and strengthening the weak. Our task is to tell everyone, and give God the glory. Amen.


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