It's Reign of Christ Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian year. Today we reflect back upon the mighty acts of God proclaimed every Sunday of this year. We celebrate that, because Christ emptied himself of the authority of God and humbled himself to the point of death on a cross, God has highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name. Therefore every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth should bow to him. (Philippians 2:6-10) He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. (Revelation 19:16)
The Church through the ages has gotten a lot of mileage from this regal imagery. The royal pageantry, the cathedrals, the robes, the brass, even the crown: "All hail the power of Jesus' name, let angels prostrate fall. Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of All!" This powerful imagery captures our collective imagination.
I grew up with and must confess I love this imagery. It still stirs my heart and makes me want to throw myself prostrate before the throne, lost in wonder, love, and praise. Yet I also know that all images have their shortcomings and grow stale with overuse. I know many have challenged this king image because it can inaccurately describe the full reign of God. Some call it patriarchal and offensive. Others claim that there have been so few good kings that the image has been irreparably damaged. Volumes have been written about how Jesus undermines and redefines our very understanding of kingship.
Many years ago I served a small family church where the members always described themselves as the "church family." That image was so predominant that the church took it literally and extended little hospitality to those who were not their blood relatives. Their focus on church as family limited their outreach and growth.
It got so bad that I finally suggested that we not refer to the church as a "family" for a year. We shifted our emphasis to a more open, expansive and joyous understanding of the Church as the body of Christ. We celebrated that every person is called to be part of the body of Christ and that every person has gifts needed by the body.
It worked. A year later they were more welcoming, they were more open, they had their behavior and their actions changed by a change in image. They did it so well that a few years later we could call ourselves family again. Their understanding of their identity as a Church was richer and deeper.
Ezekiel 34, today's Hebrew Bible lection, describes the reign of God without king imagery. This text is a good corrective: it challenges us to move beyond the throne and consider God's reign afresh. It also challenges our churches to consider how we may have used regal imagery in unhealthy ways. God is not merely a king, safely ensconced in the palace, safely separated from God's subjects, carefully guarded by security. It's time to broaden our understanding of what scripture teaches us about God's reign.
We have in Ezekiel 34 another image, a powerful image and one that will perhaps serve the church better in the years to come: the image of shepherd. We notice in Ezekiel 34 that God comes as a shepherd. God's shepherds have failed to do their job. God's shepherds have not gathered in the weak sheep. God's shepherds have not sought the lost or healed the sick or done what God called them to do. So God, out of great love for humanity and powerful compassion for the lost, goes forth. "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and I will make them lie down," says the Lord God. "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...." God takes off and joins the search. God has left the building.
We need to follow God out of the throne room, and we need to confess our reluctance to go. In my role as district superintendent, I've observed that our churches are really comfortable staying in the throne room, sanctuary, or worship center. Where often everybody kind of looks like us. Where we aren't threatened. Where it's clean and beautiful and safe. We like the safety of the throne room, often a place of privilege and riches. We like to sing and pray and go home. We like our faith neat and tidy.
But to live into God's reign, to obey God's call upon our lives, we must join God in the search, in the great shepherding work. Our God is a wandering God willing to engage in the nasty, challenging, dangerous work of shepherding. God wants God's followers to get out of the building. To go and search for the lost. To wander every part of the community. To go where most people would not dare to go. To go into situations that most people would avoid.
I think that, deep in themselves, folks resonate with this image of God. I think that is what explains the popularity of Pope Francis. For Francis has gone out. He has added people to his staff whose sole job is to go out into the community, go out to the hurting, go out to be his eyes and ears, to see where the church should be at work. That's the image we need today in the church.
Pope Francis's actions remind me of my favorite literary model of Christ, Bishop Welcome in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. When Bishop Welcome, who is given this nickname by his people in honor of his gracious hospitality, finds that his elaborate episcopal palace is next door to a tiny, cramped, single-story hospital, he says, "...There is evidently a mistake here. There are thirty-six of you, in five or six small rooms. There are three of us here, and we have room for sixty. There is some mistake, I tell you; have my house, and I have yours. Give me back my house; you are at home here." The switch is made; the episcopal palace becomes a hospital for God's sick sheep.
Bishop Welcome spends little time at his now-modest episcopal residence. He decides to visit every parish in his region. One of his parishes is in a very dangerous part of the country and requires the Bishop to travel treacherous roads frequented by bandits and robbers. The mayor of his town begs him not to go and warns him that he is risking his life to a "flock of wolves." Bishop Welcome replies that perhaps Jesus had appointed him shepherd of this flock of wolves and that they too need to be "told of a good God." He adds, "I am not in the world to guard my own life, but to guard souls."
Bishop Welcome makes it safely to the remote parish, and the people greet him warmly and excitedly. They lament that they don't have the appropriate vestments or episcopal ornaments for communion. Before it's time for the mass, a box is delivered; and in the box are vestments woven with gold, a mitre decorated with diamonds and other priceless ornaments. You see, the robbers had found out that Bishop Welcome needed these things and so they left the box out of respect for him! God splendidly adorns the humble shepherd who bravely went forth to gather in both the sheep and the wolves. We, like him, need to get out of the building.
God not only leaves the building to gather in the lean, weak sheep; God also brings to judgment those who have taken advantage of these sheep. In Ezekiel 34:16 God says, "...the fat and the strong I will destroy." God gives the grounds for judgment in verses 21 and 22: "Because you pushed with flank and shoulder and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep."
Then God "will feed them with justice" (verse 22). I love this image. I picture the thin sheep sitting down and feasting sumptuously at a fine banquet of due process, civil rights, economic justice, and equal protection, served on fine linen with toasts to equity and human dignity. The fat sheep choke on the same fare, for as they consume, they will be consumed by God's justice. This day of celebration for the thin sheep will be a day of destruction for the fat sheep.
God calls us out of the throne room not just to gather in the weak sheep, but to challenge and speak out against the fat sheep who are ravaging and taking advantage of them. We cannot hunker down in the throne room to avoid the fray. We have to guard against joining or supporting any person, institution, or power that preys on God's precious sheep. God calls us to follow God's lead and speak out against power misused.
This is a huge corrective. The temptation is to use religious language and religious affiliation to amass political and corporate power. All too often we seem to presume that the Lordship of Christ should convey to us lordship in other arenas. We are blind to the corruptive influence of worldly power, how it co-opts us and blinds us to the plight of thin, weak sheep all around us. When this happens, our prophetic voice is silenced.
Peter Storey, a Methodist minister who fought to keep the Church from becoming a mouthpiece for the government of South Africa, issues this warning, "The Church must be different from, and often over against and in contradiction to, the ways of all nations. That alternative identity must be cherished and guarded as the most important characteristic of the Church. The richest gift the Church can give the world is to be different from it. It must be a constant irritant that the world doesn't want, but cannot do without." (Storey, Peter. With God in the Crucible: Preaching Costly Discipleship. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
We need to remember that the Church is the bride of Christ, not a handmaiden of any particular political party, institution, or privileged group.
Oh Church, we are called to leave the building, to go and search in the worst places for the weakest sheep. We are to defend them at our own peril against the fat sheep who trample them underfoot. It's no surprise that this prophetic vision of Ezekiel 34 is lived out by Jesus the Christ. It's no surprise that when God came in the flesh he spent all of his time gathering in the weakest sheep and speaking words of warning to the fat sheep. It's no surprise that when Jesus describes his own judgment in Matthew 25, his standard for separating the sheep from goats is How well did you go forth and tend to the weak?
On this Reign of Christ Sunday, yes, Christ is King, but that image needs to take the back seat for the Church to have a new day. Let's focus on the image of God as a shepherd on a relentless search, speaking truth to power and gathering in the weakest. Leave the building, go forth, and shepherd well!
Let us pray. Lord by your Holy Spirit, give us the courage and the desire to be your shepherds in a world that desperately needs shepherding. Amen.