Reflection based on Ezekiel 34: 11-16; 20-24 and Matthew 25: 31-46
Opening Prayer: Holy, gracious and amazing God, may the words on my lips and the thoughts and feelings we carry as we reflect together on your word for us, may all of it be acceptable in your sight. Amen.
This morning our readings offer us first a lovely pastiche of images of God as shepherd who will always guide and sustain as per the first few verses of the reading from Hebrew scriptures from the book of the prophet, Ezekiel.
At first glance, the reading offers us a word of pastoral sustenance with poetic images of a shepherding God who cares patiently, tenderly, and faithfully for the flock of sheep, seeking out the lost, bringing back those who stray, building up the injured, and strengthening the weak.
Reading a little further in the passage, we find, over and against this pastoral imagery of a shepherding God, Ezekiel’s prophetic voice reminding his listeners of something else. That something else is this: the self-same loving pastoral, shepherding God will be sending a new king to judge between the fat and the lean, holding the fat accountable for depriving the lean of what’s needed for living well and abundantly.
What must it have been like, I wonder, as a gathered community living in exile some 600 years before Jesus walked the earth to hear these messages? Scholars suggest that some of Ezekiel’s listeners would include those longing for restoration while others would have long capitulated their own values to blend in with those imposed by their Babylonian captors.
Given that mix of folks, how would it have felt to have their leaders judged as ineffective and to be told that ultimately, God is in charge, and God will establish a shepherd descending from David? For some it might have offered a word of comfort and hope while for others it would have surely been a jarring message causing great consternation at the thought of being fed with “justice”.
Resonating with the judgment theme found in the Ezekiel passage, here in Matthew’s gospel we are privy to a message of accountability, of separation of sheep from goats, of lean from fat, and of the heartless from the compassionate.
In this, the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus reminds his listeners that those who follow in his ways, those who heed his call to leave their personal comfort zones will be blessed while those who shirk the call to compassionate living will be accursed.
In the context of offering farewell instructions to those gathered together one last time before he faces his death on the cross, indeed this seems a very jarring message for our consideration on this the last Sunday of the church calendar year, and perhaps that is as it should be.
As we move from readings that speak to ‘Signs of the End of the Age” or what we might call end times readings to the season of Advent and the stories connected to the birth of a newborn king starting next week, this morning’s passage is intended to cause discomfort, quietude, dis-ease. After all, it follows on from all those “the kingdom of heaven is like….” parables Jesus offers as invitation to turn the world upside down providing us with the blueprints for new ways for simultaneously being and becoming the people of God.
That said, let’s take a little closer look at our reading from the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew that Helen read for us this morning that is also referred to occasionally as “The Final Judgment” or Matthew’s “Great Surprise”. Some scholars like to think of this reading as the third of three parables following on from the story of The Ten Bridesmaids and The Talents while others prefer to describe it simply as a story describing the Judgment of the Gentiles (see The Harper Collins Oxford Study Bible, 1993 p. 1905).
Beginning with “When the Son of God comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, there he will sit on the throne of his glory” we are treated to a dramatic rendering of what Judgment Day might look like. Here Matthew relies on the disciples’ memories of other apocalyptic end times stories that we, too, might recognize from our Sunday School days found in passages from Deuteronomy (33: 2), Zechariah ( 14:5), and Daniel ( 7: 13-14) as well as in earlier readings from Matthew.
The guiding principle here in this morning’s reading is that Jesus, the longed for Messiah, also be known as The Son of Man, or of Adam, will come to preside at a court of accountability where faithfulness will be measured against deeds.
Who is it that is going to be held to account? Although the words in the passage tell us that “all the nations will be gathered”, it seems acceptable to be translated as all the Gentiles or all those not of the tribes of Israel or we might say even more loosely-everyone’s faithfulness will be measured against their deeds.
In the next few verses, we learn that though the sheep seem to have a slight edge on the goats in their extravagant hospitality for the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, and the sick, both groups appear to have missed the mark, unless… Unless that is, Jesus tells them they can begin the work of seeing the presence of Jesus within between and among those to whom food, water, welcome, clothing, or compassion are given. Or to put it another way, Jesus says: ‘Truly, I tell you, just as you did (or did not) do it one of the least of these, you did (or did not) do it to me”.
This to me is the essence of our call to discipleship-to move beyond charity to a model of social justice that helps us to see the face of Christ in all we support and to see it shining back at us in response and in the midst of all that, to do so with a sense of gratefulness that knows no measure for the presence of the Risen Christ.
Providing extravagant hospitality in the sharing of food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, visitation, and consolation is what the United Church has prided itself on for generations and generations and as the gap between the rich and the poor in our world continues, we will be called upon to continue to do so more and more and more both locally and globally.
How you might wonder does all this connect with this morning’s theme being Stewardship? If we begin with the premise that Stewardship is EVERYTHING we think, say, and do after we say ‘I believe’, then this morning’s passage is not only foundational to our self-understanding as Christian, it’s also a Stewardship passage!
If Stewardship is how we spend our time, how we care for and manage our individual and our church family relationships, how we make priorities and choices around how we manage and share our financial resources, how we choose to put our talents and gifts to work on behalf of this church, and how we care for the environment, then we are well on our way to being the body of Christ in this time and in this place. We are well on our way to seeing the face of Christ in all we might meet reflecting that face to one another.
Since my arrival into your midst two and half months ago, I see much evidence of Stewardship at work in programs that offer both physical and spiritual nurture both inside the walls of the two buildings and also beyond their doors. I see Stewardship at work in the efforts of the staff, music leaders, and the choir. I see Stewardship at work in the creative planning and leading of regular and special worship services and programming for our children and youth. I see Stewardship at work in our governing bodies and teams that support the board and each other. I see Stewardship at work in the monthly Community Lunch, the Time for Tea with Seniors, the Prayer and Share, the Men’s Breakfast, and the Opera Preview Groups, and the bi-monthly Healing Touch program. I see Stewardship emerging out of your recent time of self examination and discovery as you begin the work of probing more deeply what it means to be a good neighbour both locally and globally, as you continue to develop and now maintain the church website and the emerging church logo, and I see Stewardship in the pooling of ideas and resources at the music task force meetings.
Stewardship is everything we do after we say ‘yes’ to God. Is it enough?
Only God knows.
If there is ever a final exam up in the sky or a Judgment Day as described in this morning’s reading would suggest, I know this: We are called to be about the business of bold and enterprising Stewards of the gifts given to us by God. The same God who will hold us accountable for our faithful living is the same God who walks with us as we sang about together in the 23rd Psalm this morning; the same God who counts all the hairs on our head; and the same God who has known us from before we were knit together in our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139) will be with us always. May it be so. Amen.