Homily: November 23, 2014
LAST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, YEAR A; Rev. Theo Park Today’s lessons are very close to my heart.
First there is probably one of the earliest Bible passages I ever memorized:
the 100th Psalm. Did anyone else do this? Early in Sunday School.
So it’s sort of engraved on my heart.
Then there is this signature passage from Matthew,
the culmination of the five great teaching sessions the author gives Jesus in that book.
For weeks, we’ve been hearing this evangelist tell his audience, through Jesus,
what it means to be counted as true followers of Jesus—
we must be people who put our faith into action and not merely into words—
and now he tells us that this will be the ultimate scale by which we will be judged:
how much we have served those in need around us; nothing else will matter.
It’s also a signature piece of Matthew in how it has Jesus portray himself:
he is one with those in need, with those who hunger, who thirst, who are in prison,
who are sick, who are strangers, who lack for basic welfare:
all of these are his kin, all members of his family.
That’s a huge claim for a 1st Century Middle Eastern male to make:
it makes him responsible for the needs of this whole clan.
Truly this Jesus is living up to the name he is given at the beginning of Matthew:
And the evangelist is setting before the community what God expects of all of us,
how the members of the family are to treat one another.
That’s another huge claim, my friends.
One we must examine very closely as those who bear the name of Christian
in a society that more often than not makes a very different claim:
“I am not my brother’s…or sister’s…keeper.
I am responsible solely for my own well-being and for those of my immediate family.
Everyone else needs to look out for themselves.”
Do not be mistaken, this Jesus says: God will judge you by a very different standard.
Which brings me to the passage from Ezekiel. I love these verses.
If they sound vaguely familiar, think 23rd Psalm, which was very probably inspired by them.
We really don’t get to hear from Ezekiel very often, not as often as Isaiah for example,
but his are some of the most poetic images of God in the whole of the Hebrew Bible.
I’ll remind you of a little background.
Ezekiel ben-Buzi was born into a priestly family of Jerusalem in the 7th Century BCE.
When he was 25, the kingdom of Israel tried to rebel against its overlord, Babylon.
Subsequently a large group of Judeans, Ezekiel among them, were taken into captivity.
After Israel tried to rebel a second time, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Ezekiel appears to have spent the rest of his life in captivity in Mesopotamia.
There he spent his days as a priest before Yahweh, and in repeatedly editing his message,
explaining in long passages of judgment why this calamity had come upon Israel
but also preaching in passages of polished eloquence the end of the time of exile,
a time when a new city and a new Temple would be built,
a time when the Israelites would be gathered from the ends of the earth
and blessed as never before.
It is from these passages of hope and reassurance
that today’s verses of God as shepherd come.
Shepherd imagery was second nature to the Israelites, of course.
Much of their economy depended upon shepherds and their flocks.
And the metaphor of the shepherd caring for his sheep was applied frequently,
especially by the prophets, who used it to call the rulers and religious leaders to account.
Those at the top were supposed to be good shepherds, good caretakers,
of those at the bottom.
It didn’t always go that way, of course, and this is where God comes in.
The prophets held that what the people’s shepherds failed to accomplish,
usually because of their selfish greed, God would bring to pass.
God would personally intervene and care for the flock,
judging between the sheep and establishing a covenant of equity and peace.
In Ezekiel’s vision, this promise that God will act is directly tied
to the appointment of a new shepherd over the people,
a righteous ruler with the exemplary attributes of King David of old,
someone in whom the Lord delighted and who triumphed over the foes of Israel.
Later Ezekiel says that this rule will last forever.
The passage is clearly looking forward not just to Israel’s immediate future
but also to her long term future.
The oracle brings a promise of hope:
even if God’s people are scattered and oppressed they will one day receive justice.
It’s easy to see how the early followers of Jesus,
trying to find support for their view that he was the messiah,
the promised anointed one sent by God, looked back to scriptures like these
and interpreted Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophets’ vision.
They, too, were creating a vision of a long term future;
it is no accident that the visions of the book of Revelation draw heavily from Ezekiel’s.
Jesus will return at the end of time to right all wrongs and create a New Jerusalem
and he shall reign for ever and ever, amen.
He is to be our great shepherd, the good shepherd…
and also the one who judges between the sheep.
We understand the promise, so let’s talk for a minute about that issue of judgment.
Notice first that Jesus, or really the evangelist’s community of faith,
will cast out those who are found unworthy; they are called accursed.
Then note too that the gospel places the blame for this fully on their own actions:
“These have separated themselves from God forever.”
Once again, signature Matthew: love of God is demonstrated in love of neighbor.
When we choose not to care for our neighbor we turn our back on God.
And the evangelist is standing on the shoulders of the prophet here,
who in beautifully evocative language makes it clear that God’s judgment
is based on a similar standard of justice and equity and fair treatment across society.
Those fat sheep, who got that way by mistreating their fellow sheep, are going down.
God will seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, and bind up the injured,
and strengthen the weak, and will feed them with justice.
This is who God, the good shepherd of the flock, is.
This is how Jesus, the good shepherd of the flock, will judge us, the sheep.
This is how we, members of the flock, are to treat each other.
As I remind us so often, here is the basis for our baptismal covenant.
None of what I have just outlined should be unfamiliar to us
as Christians in the Episcopal tradition.
When we graft ourselves into the Body of Christ in baptism,
we make a pledge to God and one another
that we will seek and serve Christ in all persons,
loving our neighbor as ourselves, striving for justice and peace among all people,
and respecting the dignity of every human being.
We reinforce that pledge by repeating it several times a year, not only at baptism.
But to be true to the call of Jesus in Matthew, how do we put that into practice?
Again as I say often, because we are people of incarnation,
each of us will embody these promises differently.
There is no one cookie-cutter approach that is prescribed for all of us.
But we are all called to be participants in establishing God’s reign of justice.
All called to give from our abundance, however we define that, for the needs of others.
All called to measure ourselves by the standard of God’s unconditional love
and Christ’s example of transformative self-giving.
When we live into our heritage, my friends, my brothers and sisters,
when we practice putting on the image and likeness of God and make it our own,
then there is nothing we cannot accomplish.
Then we are indeed co-creators who not only await the coming of Christ and his kingdom,
but are instrumental in bringing forth the kingdom in our own time,
and Christ shall indeed rule over all creation,
the good shepherd,
this day and for ever.