Proper 28 (33) 16 Nov 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Proper 28A/Ordinary 33A/Pentecost +27 November 16, 2008 Textweek

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

I had a thought as Peter was reading: there must be a part in all of us that is tempted to play the sheep-and-the-goats separation bit. And when you sit up here and look to the right and the left, it’s quite tempting; and I realised, there’s an occupational hazard for priests and it’s an occupational hazard that’s promoted by the church, and that is, that priests can think of themselves as the Son of Man sitting on the throne; they actually think of themselves as being in this Gospel narrative the separators of the sheep from the goats. Probably evidenced in the extreme in the Spanish Inquisition, but nevertheless alive and well today. Look at the Lambeth conference and things like that, and if it wasn’t for the fact that most bishops cannot get off the fence, then there would be this separation constantly going on into sheep and goats. Now, given that that is the occupational hazard the church has slipped into: me as the Son of Man on my throne of glory, and in my own self-righteous state, then start at separating the sheep from the goats – those on my right hand and those on my left, very easy. But if you do a course correction, and say ‘yes, but you’re not the Son of Man, you’re not up there, you’re here with us, the priest is of the community’, and I turn around the other way, then all of a sudden all on the right are on the left and the left are on the right. It’s amazing how wrong the church has got in its separating; it’s completely back to front, so it would be good for us at some point to go back to look at, what are the separations the church has made and flip them over and just see what the world would look like.

The readings today are quite amazing. Obviously they are picked for the festival of Christ the King and they start with Ezekiel, and again if we’ve been following the Old Testament, we went through the very early, the beginnings of the faith journey of the people of Israel, our faith journey. We’ve now got into the reign of kings: Israel is now a land where the kings hold the authority. We’re celebrating the feast of Christ the King, and just that context enables us or invites us to look at a comparison between the two. Where do we find our rule of life? The three readings from Ezekiel to Paul to Matthew, I think all illuminate the same point they’re addressing the same issue.

Ezekiel is talking against the rulers of the day; he’s speaking against the kings and the rulers who have misused their power; they’ve abused their people and in fact, caused them to scatter. We now have the people of faith exiled and spread throughout the known world. Ezekiel speaks in a time of great distress, a time when much has been lost, only the kings seem to enjoy the fatness of the land. This is what Ezekiel speaks into. It’s also a turning point in the history of Israel, so it illuminates a turning point in our faith journey.

For the first time in scripture we begin to see the importance of the individual, the place of each in relationship with God. To a dispersed and discouraged people, Ezekiel speaks the divine word of hope, a hope that God will restore them to their homeland and to their temple. That’s the context and then there is a language that is then used. Ezekiel speaks in terms of the mountain heights of Israel. Later on we’ll hear Paul speaking the same but in different terms. Paul uses ‘the eyes of your heart enlightened, knowing the hope to which you have been called…. at God’s right hand in the heavenly places’. Matthew speaks the same again, using different terms: the right hand of the throne of glory where we will come as inheritors of the kingdom, eternal life. They’re not destinations they’re speaking of, they’re orientations. They’re speaking of that in which we invest ourselves. We’re not looking for a journey to the mountain heights of Israel, we’re not looking for a journey to the right hand of God up in the heavens; rather this is an orientation of life, pointing us towards eternal life, a life that is quite different to the life that the world speaks of. Ezekiel says that the Divine will seek and search us out: God seeks for us. No matter where we are or what we’re doing the Divine is seeking out us; there is an orientation that the Divine has towards humanity. It is a prophecy that Ezekiel gives, it is an illumination of God’s word: for Ezekiel the penny has dropped and he’s sharing that with us. God’s word is filled with hope, as the Divine seeks to invest that hope in us, we will be ‘rescued on a day of clouds and thick darkness, brought out from the peoples and the countries’. It is a universal message of hope, not a hope that has conditions attached, it is not a hope that is bounded by church rules, by visas; this is a hope for all peoples and for all countries. ‘And God will bring us into our own land’, into the common, into a place of community that lives for each other, again without boundaries. Then Ezekiel talks about the Divine activity: ‘I will feed them, I will seek the lost and strayed; and I will bind up the injured, I will strengthen the weak, the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will judge between sheep and sheep.

Now we just heard the Gospel reading, and you would think that Ezekiel had read that, there are so many parallels and similarities. Ezekiel is speaking the Gospel message some six hundred odd years before it was written. There’s a clue in that – it says that the same Gospel message is timeless and so spoken into the present moment. ‘I will judge between sheep and sheep’; ‘I will separate the sheep from the goats’. In the early texts if we pick up scripture and read it, you can really appreciate how the church got hooked on the judgement of God. You read this text and you think at some point this divine magistrate is going to come in and call out the charges and make a judgement. It’s easy to see how we’ve soaked up that view of God, but Christ reveals God with us. Next Sunday we’re going to start singing ‘O come, o come Emmanuel’; Emmanuel is ‘God with us’. We need to look again at the judgement that we find in these texts and perhaps find in them a discernment. They’re not about someone else judging us, they’re not about God sitting on the throne dividing us up based on what we’ve done, rather they’re about the choices we make. God with us – the divine activity that we make as we conduct the divine activity. ‘But we don’t do what God does, we’re just human’: yes we do –‘ God with us’. We shape tomorrow; from this moment onwards we write the book of Genesis, we create tomorrow. Forget the Big Bang that happened a long time ago – tomorrow will be shaped by the actions we engage in today. The divine activity, that’s the work of God, creating tomorrow and creating forever.

So as we engage in the work of God, so we need to engage in the separation of the sheep from the sheep. But separating the sheep from the sheep or the sheep from the goats is again not an ‘out-there’ activity but rather an ‘in-here’ activity – it’s separating the different animals within ourselves that seek to draw us toward a different tomorrow. And the context Ezekiel provides is just like today – a time of distress, a time when so much has been lost, only the kings enjoying the fatness of the land. In the last few weeks 50% of the value of Australia has been lost; the dollar is worth roughly two thirds of what it was a coupe of weeks ago. It is a time of distress, it is a time when so much has been lost, only the kings seem to enjoy the fatness of the land.

I was reflecting on a couple of articles in the news: the vice-chancellor of a university is paid in one year what a priest earns in ten years; the CEO of Telstra is paid in one day what a priest earns in a full year; it actually means he is paid more than all the parish priests in the diocese of Perth put together. Now take the likes of Michael Jackson and Elton John, and they earn in as much as the Telstra CEO probably in two or three one-night concerts. How did we lose a sense of proportion and perspective? How did we create a future that has taken to the place that those sorts of figures illustrate? Well in one month, I earn more than many families have to live on in a full year. That’s the penny that drops, that’s where Ezekiel speaks from – the realisation that each of us has a part to play in the divine activity of creation. We have to separate the sheep from the sheep, get ourselves sorted. This is the divine activity – it is not what God will do to us, it is what we can realise within ourselves.

‘Come you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.’ In Christ is revealed the fullness ‘the fullness that fills all in all’ It’s a lovely phrase, and there are no sheep to be separated: the fullness that fills all in all.

Jesus talks about sheep and goats as Wall Street talks about bears and bulls; Paul calls us to know the immeasurable greatness, to know the hope, the hope to which we have been called, filled with the riches of our glorious inheritance. As we build the body of Christ so we seek the rule of a divine king, and as we do that I think we will find ourselves like sheep, flocking into a new community that echoes a kingdom of prophecy, a kingdom of hope. We can and we will develop a new share market, a place where we will share that which we value.

The Lord be with you
Peter Humphris