Monday, November 21, 2011

The Shepherd and the Lamb:
Two Images for Christ the King Sunday

Sermon preached on Sunday, November 20, St Christopher's by-the-Sea

This past Monday, November 14, the church celebrated the feast day of Samuel Seabury, the first American bishop of the Episcopal Church.  Seabury was elected by the American church in...anybody know?  1783 and sent, later that year, to London to be consecrated bishop.  The Church there refused to consecrate him because part of the vows required of bishops in the Church of England included an oath of allegiance to the King.  In 1783 that was still something of a sore spot, as you can imagine.  Even though Seabury was a loyalist at the time of the American Revolution, he found himself unable to take the oath.  After being refused in England, he sailed on to Scotland, where a worthy occasion to stick it to King George was warmly welcomed by the people.  Seabury was consecrated in Aberdeen on November 14, 1784.

We Americans have never felt quite at home with kings.  Mixed emotions, clear allegiances, and an indomitable spirit of independence that springs from the day that declaration was first signed. 

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  This morning I want to ask the question: “What does it mean to call Christ King?” - even for Americans.

Now, someone might say, "no problem, Jonathan, no worries.  Christ isn’t a king like King George or even Hussein.  This is different."  Maybe so.  That, to me, only highlights the question more clearly: how ARE we thinking about Christ’s kingship?  Of his kingdom?  Is it poetic license?  Pretty words that no one really means to take literally or all that seriously?  That seems too harsh.  Is it a kind of spiritual metaphor, the kingship of Jesus?  That is, do we at the same time call Christ our King and insist that that kingdom not touch our politics on the ground?  And on what grounds do we do that?  

One of you told me that Smokey made the simple but poignant point on All Saints’ Sunday that to walk with the Spirit is to be out of step with the world.  That’s the area we’re exploring this morning - the land between kingdoms.

No agenda at this point, just unfolding the question: “What does it mean to call Christ your King?"  

Because Americans, as we know, have never felt quite at home around kings.

Specifically, this morning I want to suggest that our Scripture lessons focus our attention on two things that Christ’s being King means for us.  And the two things that Christ’s being King means for us are lifted up in two images: that of shepherd and that of lamb.  The first image, shepherd, speaks to the question: “Is God able?”  The second question, lamb, speaks to the question: “How will this be?”

We’ll start with shepherd.  In the reading from Ezekiel, God presents himself as the shepherd of God’s people.  And of course this is the image that Jesus takes for himself most especially in John’s gospel when he says, “I am the good shepherd.”  It’s a comforting image; read most recently in this space at the Burial Office for Evelyn Lawrence - and read frequently at funerals: God as the one who finds good pasture for God’s people; God as the one who seeks and cares for God’s sheep, especially the lost and strayed and weak; God as the one who brings sheep - er, people - from all countries together - hints here of the new Jerusalem, that glorious heavenly city of Revelation, wherein every people from every tribe and tongue and nation are gathered as one people in praise.  Hints, therefore, that American, British, or even Texan might not be the most important thing someone can say about a person if God means to make a people out of all these disparate people: behold, a new Kingdom.

Lots of comfort in the image of God as shepherd, as provider.  It’s meant to bring us comfort.  But not only comfort.  That God will take care of God’s Kingdom is a promise to those who need care and a warning to those who don’t trust God to do it.  Indeed, much of the work that we’re told God will do for God’s people is undoing the damage of those who have failed to trust the provision of God.  See, for example, our reading from Ezekiel: "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 this is important to name, I think: that even (or especially) for people who desire to trust God, there are lots of tempting reasons to doubt God’s provision.  Lots of anxieties, worries, burdens that we carry: what about my church and its long-term wellbeing?  Yes, my local church, but are those whispers about the decline of Christianity true?  What about our children and the future of the faith?  What about the moral direction of our country?  (And here, depending on your leaning, you could point with equal sincerity in either direction.)  What about my life - my retirement “number” (if you've seen the commercial, my financial pressure, and always, always, my persistently present fear of loneliness?  

These are true worries.  At its (dubious) best, worry can be a way of expressing compassion and concern; but worry can also become a deep chasm of doubt.  Doubt that God is capable and determined to shepherd God’s people, and/or you.  Like when the disciples panic when they find Jesus asleep in the boat.  Maybe we better do it ourselves, you know, without him, if we have to.

Of course, failing to trust God is not something we necessarily set out to do.  Sometimes it just happens.  We just forget.  I remember the confirmation class that was asked on its final exam who was the head of the Episcopal Church in America:

the Pope
the Archbishop of Canterbury
the Presiding Bishop
the local bishop
the local priest
either the biggest giver or the longest tenured member

The answer was g, but more important, g stood for Jesus.  

Jesus is the head of even the Episcopal Church.  He’s in charge.  The upside of remembering this simple truth is tremendous.  When we remember that God will deliver what God has promised, we are able to say the prayer Bishop Frey taught me: “Lord, it’s your church, I’m going to bed.”

[Those of you who know Bishop Frey know that his prayer was not license for irresponsibility or sloth.  But he preached and preaches the Living God who has acted, is acting, and will continue to act for God’s People.]

The God who delivered Israel from slavery and broke death’s back and the tomb’s hard rock, acting now for God’s People, acting now for you: Christ as shepherd, provider, and King.  “Fear not, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

Christ the King is our Shepherd, the leader we follow, whose arm is strong, whose voice calls your name.

The second image of Christ the King is the lamb.  And where the shepherd image means to remind us that Christ is able, the lamb is God’s answer for how this will be.  

We turn to our gospel where the king will come to his throne and set all things right.  ("All things" - that wonderful chorus throughout our readings this morning.)  And he’ll start by surprising people with invitations to the kingdom on account of the way they treated the sick and the naked and hungry and thirsty and the prisoners.  Because, in his words, “in so much as you did if for one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me.”  And this would be tempting to read as hyperbole, the king simply wanting to get the thrust of his point across, but we who hear these words as Christians cannot help but think that Christ DID come naked, and, on the cross, we found him thirsty, that he was killed as a prisoner.  It’s not JUST that Christ cares for the least of these (though he certainly does that); by the world’s standards, he came as one, too.

Jesus as the lamb who on the cross was slain for us.  The powers of the world - the old kingdoms - defeated by the one who would not accept their power; instead, exposing them for the charades of fear that they are.  

But to take the gospel’s connection seriously, we must back up and slow down a bit and linger in the words “he was killed as a prisoner.”  He didn’t just care for the least; he poured himself out as the least.

Death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal has asked, 
“Isn’t it odd that Christendom - that huge body of humankind that claims spiritual descent from the Jewish carpenter of Nazareth - claims to pray to and adore a being who was a prisoner of Roman power, an inmate of the empire’s death row?  That the one it considers the personification of the Creator of the Universe was tortured, humiliated, beaten, and crucified on a barren scrap of land on the imperial periphery, at Golgotha, the place of the skull?  That the majority of its adherents strenuously support the state’s execution of thousands of imprisoned citizens?  That the overwhelming majority of its judges, prosecutors, and lawyers - those who condemn, prosecute and sell out the condemned - claim to be followers of the fettered, spat-upon, naked God?”

Christ comes as Shepherd and as lamb.  The strength of God revealed in the weakness of the cross.  The provision of God found in the blood that pours from his side.  

What does all this mean for us?  What's the take-home, preacher?

At the very least, this should make us look twice for God in places and people we don’t think he’d think twice about.  In God-forsaken places and people.  At the very least, we should look twice for God there.  If Christ the crucified lamb is King, we know God IS there.  

And at more than the very least, we might wonder what it would mean to risk ourselves being least - to risk rejection at the hands of the world with which Smokey said we’d be out of step - what would it mean to risk being least by the standards of the world?  And how would this risk open me to see and understand the new standard - the vibrant, forgiving, merciful life - of the Kingdom with which my world is necessarily out of step?  

I don’t know the answer to that last one for sure.  But I believe this is what it means to call Christ my King.


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