Following where the Shepherd King leads

Text: Ezekiel 34 & Matthew 25: 31-46 for Christ the King Sunday

The election season is over and Thanksgiving is right around the corner; the holiday season is in full swing! While that once meant something noble, more often than not today we see how companies and corporations compete economically for our loyalty from now until December 26th. Everyone’s rushing to make a profitable 4th quarter and big profits are the only thing that matters. Black Friday used to begin early Friday morning, but year by year the sales start earlier and earlier. The clock has wound its way back to midnight, then 10pm on Thanksgiving night, then 8pm on Thanksgiving evening, now many major retailers are opening as early as 5 or 6pm –the time many families would traditionally gather around the dinner table. It’s clear the price these retailers are willing to pay to turn a profit –the exploitation of their often under-paid sales associates! Many are forced to work the holiday or risk losing their jobs!  These kings of commerce –kings whom we all pay homage to at one point or another- share some of the traits of the abusive Shepherds or kings of Israel that the prophet Ezekiel spoke out against. “Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.”

In Ezekiel’s time, in Jesus’ time, and even today in 2014, the kings of this world –the kings of commerce and yes the kings of politics get fat off the exploitation of the most vulnerable members of society. Often decisions that benefit the rich and powerful further victimize those who are already struggling to survive. Food stamps are cut and women, children, the elderly scramble to figure out how to survive on limited income. Prisons have become corporate entities which turn a profit with every minor criminal we incarcerate. Immigrants flood across our borders much like our ancestors did, seeking freedom and safety, only to be imprisoned in squalor or victimized by employers taking advantage of their vulnerable citizenship status.

The kings of the world strive to maintain power at all costs, which often means at human cost. They feed themselves, but do not feed the vulnerable. They rule with force and harshness, they scatter people like dust.

Today, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, remembering Christ’s ultimate victory over sin, death, and the devil, but even more so we rejoice that our King Jesus –the one to whom our ultimate loyalty is owed- is nothing like the kings of this world!

Christ our King gathers those who have been scattered in loving embrace. Christ our King through his ministry fed those who were hungry and continues that ministry through us. Christ our King, the living water, provides refreshment to those who are thirsty. Christ our King visited and cared for those who were imprisoned in a variety of ways. Christ our King healed the sick and bound up the injured. Christ our King was a friend to the stranger and the outcast. And still is.

As people of faith, our primary loyalty is to Christ alone. Christ our King is not a Democrat. Nor is he a Republican. Christ our King is a Shepherd and as the sheep of his flock, we’re called to follow where our Shepherd King leads.

Our gospel reading is the climax of Jesus’ teachings in the gospel of Matthew. The last few weeks we’ve heard one parable after another about how we as disciples are to wait for Christ’s long-awaited return, well this week Jesus fleshes out what that long-awaited return will look like. He comes again in glory to sit upon his throne and to judge all the nations of the world. The nations are judged not by how they treated the rules, but by how they treated the people who were most vulnerable in society. There is often fear attached to a parable like this. At first glance it doesn’t seem to jive with our rich theological tradition that says that we are saved by grace through faith and that we can’t “earn” our way into heaven through our actions. However, consider that in Baptism God covenants with us, God promises to be our Parent and our earthly parents promise us to God as child. God promises to be our loving Shepherd and we are committed to God as sheep. We ARE saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone, and we are pictured in this judgment scene as the sheep for whom the inheritance has been prepared. This text reminds us clearly that the fruit of authentic faith is a transformed life, a life of service to neighbor, a life of caring concern for the protection and care of the stranger.

The life of a disciple, the life of a Sheep among the Shepherd King’s flock, means continuing in the earthly ministry Christ started. It means rolling up your sleeves and actively loving the lost and forgotten because they’ve never been forgotten by our loving God.

This past Thursday, our ELCA conference of Bishops released a statement in response to President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration… our Bishops said:

“As people of faith and leaders of the church, we support public policy that protects children, reunites families, and cares for the most vulnerable, regardless of their place of birth.

The treatment of immigrants is a core religious value. To welcome the stranger is to welcome a child of God. In the New Testament, Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger, for “just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.'” (Matthew 25:40)

Each day in our congregations and in our service to the community, we see the consequences of this broken immigration system: separated families, children returning home to find their parents have been deported, and the exploitation of undocumented workers. 

By removing the threat of deportation for many people, we are showing compassion for people who have been here for years, working hard to provide for their families, obeying the law, and contributing to the fabric of our community.”

The Bishops go on to say that these actions represent only the first of many steps necessary to offer dignity, hope, and love to our vulnerable, undocumented brothers and sisters.

Following our Shepherd King means finding him in the faces and places of brokenness in this world. When Christ comes again he’ll sit on his throne of glory, but in the here and now our Shepherd King dwells with “the least of these.” In the here and now he’s crossing the border with his children in search of a safer life. To serve Christ means to serve those who are most vulnerable. Christ is not just calling us to works of charity, but to transformed lives through relationship with the other.  To serve Christ means to love the Christ within those who are totally different from us and in so doing to open ourselves to relationship with the stranger. To serve Christ means to love the stranger until the stranger is no longer strange.

This is what the Benedictines talk about when they refer to the virtue of hospitality. Sister Joan Chittister refers to the virtue of hospitality not as social niceties that the wealthy afford one another, but as living with an unbounded heart. She writes in Wisdom Distilled From the Daily, “Everyone –everyone- is received as Christ… When I let strange people and strange ideas into my heart, I am beginning to shape a new world… Hospitality of the heart could make my world a world of potential friends rather than a world of probable enemies.”

This year, our children in youth group are using this text from Matthew 25 to dive into the places in this world where strangers are hungering, thirsting, lacking warm clothes for the winter, and lacking loving support from society after serving time in prison. Our children are learning about the societal causes and implications of these situations of brokenness and taking on the Shepherd King’s challenge to follow and find him there in the midst of the suffering. Our children are learning how to serve Christ through serving their neighbors who are in some cases very, very different from them. In September and October our children learned about hunger in our community and then put their faith into action by gleaning apples for the gleaning project and packing backpacks for Ruth’s Harvest. Through the month of November our children have been learning about the difference clean water makes in the lives of children and communities in our sister synod around the world, the Konde Dioceses in Tanzania. Many children became angry when they discovered the basic necessities that some communities go without because they lack access to clean water. They became ESPECIALLY angry when they learned that girls are often forced to forego their education because of the need for them to stay home and help collect water for the family from often contaminated sources that are miles away from their homes. Through their youth activities and learning this month, it’s become clear that our children have made potential friends of their brothers and sisters around the world in Tanzania. They are angry that their friends have to suffer with unclean drinking water and angry that girls can’t go to school because of their crucial role as water deliverer. Our children’s hearts have been unbound. They see Christ in their thirsty friends around the world, and they are determined to serve Christ in Tanzania. They are praying for the thirsty and asking the church to support them as they raise money during Advent to build wells in our sister synod. These wells will provide easy access to clean drinking water and opportunities for communities to pull themselves up out of poverty and send their girls to school.

The Kings of the world say “Live for yourself and forget the poor.” But Christ, our Shepherd King, compels us to serve him in the lives of the poor and vulnerable. Christ, our Shepherd King, lovingly gathers those who have been scattered to himself and proclaims as both law and gospel “As you did to the least of these brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” Amen.

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