The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Christ the King A 2020
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Sheep, Goats, and Good News
Over the past weeks, months and year, we have all become acutely aware of limits and limitation, those imposed by the pandemic, such as quarantine and the restrictions of social interaction, and our own ability to cope, adapt to and tolerate them. Our personal capacities have been sorely stretched and tested by the global crisis of COVID-19, and here in our own country, by divisive politics, civil unrest, and a highly contentious presidential election. In the avalanche of collective anger, grief and fear, information and disinformation, how do we locate our deepest humanity, and that of truth?
Perhaps, and I hope, some clarity and traction can be gained on this Feast of Christ the King, or as sometimes alternatively titled, the Reign of Christ, or the Sovereign Christ. Gendered language aside, kings, and queens, royalty and crowns, are not something most Americans pay much heed to—other than at British royal wedding time—guilty as charged! Though these images and symbols of king, kingship, and kingdom lie rather fallow in our consciousness, they are deeply embedded within the Christian narrative and the Bible, in which the word “king” appears well over three thousand times.
As followers of Jesus, we are indeed subjects of Christ the King, and subject to God’s sovereign authority. But as we live in a culture that prizes rugged individualism and self-determination, an inherent challenge is posed to the notion that we are subject to anything other than ourselves. I once heard a priest ask his congregation if they identified primarily as American or Christian. Good question. For we must realize that while a revolution was fought and won against the British crown, God’s kingdom is not synonymous with American democracy. God is not elected by a popular majority and cannot be voted out of office. Nor does God follow the will of the people. I think it’s the other way around.
Christ the King Sunday was in fact instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI when Mussolini was the leader of Italy and a young agitator name Hitler and his Nazi party were rising in popularity. The world lay in a great depression that would only get worse. The Feast of Christ the King intends to oppose and confront the evils of worldly power run rampant, proclaiming instead the mercy, justice and truth of God’s sovereignty and kingdom.
As Bob Dylan aptly sang: it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. And indeed we do. We pay homage to the Lord but also to the false kingdoms of self-sufficiency, indestructibility, and unaccountability. We bend our knee at the altar but bow down to other gods, such as almighty pride or ambition, the almighty dollar or the gun. We make idols of our rights and freedoms.
But as Christians we belong to a living pattern of divine reversals in which the least and the last are the first. Jesus radically upended the nature of power, authority, and kingship by being poor and itinerant, a humble shepherd to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and in the end as Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. Our scriptures this morning are thus appropriately, though perhaps surprisingly for a feast day, replete with the imagery of cloven-footed ungulates.
From the prophet Ezekiel: Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats.
Know this, the psalmist sings, the Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he speaks to the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles—or sheep and goats—through God in Christ. Paul prays that with a spirit of wisdom and revelation, and the eyes of the heart enlightened, we may come to see and inhabit this new humanity, a flock of God’s own freed-from-sin sheep, undivided, with no need of sorting.
Then, in our gospel parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus tells of his future return at the end of time. In the last judgment of all of the nations gathered before him, he will separate the peoples from one another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, placing the sheep at his right hand, and the goats at his left.
What we hear in our lessons today is the “good news” of divine judgment, oxymoron though it may seem. The good news is that God is among all of his sheep and goats, fat and lean, and knows the heart of each, no matter our kind and sort, our lot in life, the judgment of the world or our own against ourselves. The good news is that God is with us in the thick and outer darkness, where we ourselves have cast the world by way of our hubris and the choices we do or do not make. For all of our wailing and gnashing of teeth, the good news is that ours is not the final word. Thank goodness, for we are all, to varying degrees, part sheep and part goat. Thank goodness, because though a COVID-19 vaccine is in sight, humanity cannot be vaccinated against sin and gain immunity from evil. Praise God! for the sweep and pull of salvation and the grip of judgment that renders the faithful true, for these are the coordinates of new life in Christ and our location in the merciful heart of God.
From the Jewish prayer book Gates of Repentance:
Let there be no forgetfulness before the Throne of Glory;
Let there be remembrance within the human heart;
And let there at last be forgiveness When your children, O God,
Are free and at peace.
Over the past year, the church has journeyed with Jesus as he walked some three thousand dusty miles through desert, hillside, seaside, and city. Today is the last Sunday of this journey for this year. Next Sunday, Advent 1, we begin our liturgical and spiritual journey again—to remind us of where we are in time, space, and soul—and whose we are. We begin again, knowing that we belong to Christ, and to a present future that is uniquely ours but God’s alone.
Here at the end of the Christian year, in ordinary time, we encounter the extraordinary: a king who is before all things yet dies upon a cross that we might have life and life abundant. Jesus traversed the gulf between life and death, and laid down a bridge between two worlds, between the beginning and the end, between infinite grace and the limits of worldly power and progress. Christ the King is the “Pontifex” or Bridge-builder. We don’t have to build the bridge—Jesus is the Way—we have only to walk it and hold in view the other side. So let us pray to the Lord, give us today our daily walk.
Though the path of life is often obscured by our frustrated hopes, and the heavy burden of our limitations and finitude, let us take encouragement in these beautiful words from the Talmud:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
As bridge-walkers, we are living symbols of renewed hope in the Spirit, ever pointing to that which we have no control over but are strangely evocative of—a kingdom of boundless compassion, mercy, and love—whose king is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, not only in this age but in the age to come: Jesus, the Christ. Amen.
Blessing and Prayer
Be present with us O King of Glory; whenever we your restless people tremble at earthly, temporal tumult, turn us again toward the Kingdom of our Christ, the flower of your Love, in whom we have eternal life.