Sermon Reflection - Christopher Derstine Friesen, November 22, 2020
Today we come to the finish line in the church’s liturgical calendar. Next week Advent begins, and with it, the renewed journey through our faith heritage. In 1925 Pope Pius the eleventh instituted this day as “Christ the King” Sunday - as a celebration of the risen Christ who was a servant leader, shining in stark contrast to the inept, power-hungry, and warring leaders of the day.
So, here as we reach the apex of our annual journey through God’s story, we also get a preview of how the next year will end. We can see the outcome of what we will long for through Advent and celebrate through the strange birth of a powerless baby at Christmas, that the human Jesus of radical love becomes the center - the one destroyed by the powers becomes the anti-power.
The gospel reading for today is the popular story of the sheep and the goats. Like Micah 6:8 and the admonition of Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself, this text is a call to discipleship. To be in the community of Jesus means we should act in ways that care for people who have been pushed to the margins. The challenge is to continuously examine ourselves and our community to decenter and dismantle our structures, our privileges, and our biases in order to live more fully into the just living and right action that is the heart of the gospel.
Here it is shown that discipleship is, at its very core, care and empowerment of the disenfranchised, the poor, the hungry, and all those that society has left behind. This radical justice is the expectation of the gospel and, in this passage, it is clear that it should be as natural as waking and sleeping. If you are not actively working against the structures of power that destroy peoples lives, you are not getting this whole Jesus thing.
I know that our congregation works hard to live out this call. In our personal vocations and our work as a community I see the desire to embody the qualities of the sheep. I am humbled and amazed to see the work that each of you do, and the tenacity with which you do it.
However, we must remember the irony that in reality there is a much fuzzier line between these “sheep” and “goats.” We have all been on both sides of this divide. We have all had times where our developed response to injustice was to give and care and dismantle the powers. We have also had times where our response was to turn away or to remain complicit in systems of injustice. Our goal is to work closer and closer to the “sheep” side.
This text from Matthew also makes me wonder about the mystery of encounter with God. Ever since I was young, I have longed to have a moment of direct connection with God. In my youth, my family was part of a church that could best be described as “charismatic Mennonite.” There was a lot of talk of spiritual warfare, we had a part of the Sunday service where we waited to hear the spirit move people to stand up and share a word from the Lord, and there was plenty of emotional praise and worship singing. I took my faith seriously; I learned and practiced spiritual disciplines. I led youth group prayer nights.
And during these years I envisioned encounters with God as spiritual or mystical attempts to hear a voice or feel a presence. I sought out some form of an altered spiritual state; I listened to hear God audibly speak to me. I tried hard to come face to face with the divine in that setting, but was discouraged when it never seemed to happen.
Later in life, when I was studying theology at Villanova, I think I understood for the first time
the fleshy realness of the Catholic eucharist. For a number of my Catholic friends, taking communion was an act of encounter.
I can tell you that I have had friends who have had real moments of connection with God in both of these ways - in the mystical and in the sacramental; and that there is an overlap between them. But I have often felt a bit discouraged that I have not had a similar encounter.
As I have grown older, I have become increasingly fond of the celebration of Christmas. It is by far my favorite time of the church’s calendar. Each year as Christmas draws closer, I am once again amazed by the idea of the incarnation. I wrestle with myself as to what Immanuel and God-with-us means. I struggle to envision and understand that disruptive event of God fully touching humanity and of equal fullness of humanity encountering God. That moment, when the universe folds in on itself and the most powerful force alive is the cry of an unknown baby. Christmas is the story of encountering God and I soak it all up.
So I was pleasantly surprised when for the first time this week I saw this text as an invitation to encounter. It plainly describes a visceral, sacramental quality to living and enacting justice that brings about a genuine encounter with God. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”
To me this goes a step beyond the statement that loving your neighbor equates to loving God. Instead, it indicates that God is made flesh and is fully present when these types of just actions take place. The space on the margins of society where God’s gospel is acted out is the very space where God is encountered. This seems both obvious and somehow strikingly new to me to consider. I don’t want be reductionist and just say that God is the act of justice or love or empowerment. But, I do want to say that God is the act of justice or love or empowerment.
Of course we need to be very careful here. This text and this line of thought can easily get off the rails. When we speak of privilege, unjust systems, power imbalances, and the hard work of dismantling each of these, we must be very clear to condemn:
The concept that there is some sort of virtue for those with power or privilege “helping” those without
The exploitation of or transactional use of marginalized people in any concept that God is found
The celebration of marginalized and oppressed people because they are “closer to God” or, even worse, bring those who help them “closer to God”
We must be very careful to not somehow celebrate power imbalances, privilege, or systemic injustice as a way to experience God.
Also, in reflecting on this text, Libby Howe cautions “against performative decentering, of being so self-conscious of one’s actions that being charitable, compassionate, or woke becomes yet another way of centering oneself in the eyes of God and others. See me being good? See me doing the right thing? See me giving this drink to someone? See me making it all about me?”
Ezekiel’s message to Judah was harsh. The majority of the Book of Ezekiel is a strong critique of religious syncretism and blatant injustice. It carries harsh judgments for Judah and the surrounding nations and sees the exile and destruction of Jerusalem as divine punishments. But the book ends with visions of God’s restoration. The text today is the vision of a divine shepherd who intimately cares for the lives of the sheep. Seeking out the scattered community, the divine shepherd gathers the sheep together into a nurturing, safe, and healing land. Like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, God is seen as re-enlivening the community. It is a vision of a community that has been torn and scattered, welcomed back home and restored to a nurturing new life.
This is a healing and hopeful vision. No matter how far people have strayed from God, God’s character remains intact. God longs to see all of us safe and comforted. Year after year, this desire of God continues. God must be very patient.
I wonder what God has experienced this year. What has the Shepherd’s heart felt; how has the Shepherd’s heart been broken by all that this year has brought on earth? I think God has wept many times at the sight of 2020. This year the brokenness of humanity is on full display and I know that God has grieved.
In the midst of a year like this, I struggle to understand God’s holy imagination. In such a period of suffering that disproportionately affects people with less access to power, where hope is wearing thin, God is scheming restoration. God intends a gathering.
I’m not ignoring the harder parts of the story here. God is rescuing and returning “God’s sheep” to a safe and promised land. There is an insider/outsider element that must be wrestled with. Also, there is moral accountability and judgment for actions in the separation of the sheep. After gathering in all of the lost sheep, those who have become fat at the expense of the others are separated.
But what I’m most drawn to in a year like 2020, is that God is out there seeking out sheep, still longing as always to gather them home.
During Pastor John’s ordination yesterday, Amy Yoder McGloughlin gave a long litany of the many reasons to grieve the last four years; years that have been marked by a president who has personally voiced support for white suprecists, has abused and denigrated women, has wreaked havoc on environmental regulations, has reduced the tax burden of the wealthy at the expense of the working class and poor, has shown no interest in lives of millions of people who have been directly affected by a public health pandemic, has upended the idea of truth by constantly spouting lies, and who has carelessly and egotistically worked to undermine our country’s political system. We saw it coming as soon as he was elected - as Amy recounted yesterday the poignant memory of pastor John weeping throughout his sermon on the first Sunday after that election. But we never could have imagined how bad it could get.
This morning we heard Ezekiel’s vision of God as the true, good, shepherd. The verses right before this text give a stark contrast - of the shepherds who have had no regard for their sheep. Ezekiel says:
Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
God has a strong rebuke to these leaders, Ezekiel says. Their time will end.
Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.
I had a brief glimpse of such an ending and of God’s restorative gathering this month, and it was beautiful and hopeful and healing.
I have mentioned this often before, but my job has worn me down so much over the past four years. If you don’t know, I work in the field of immigration law, and as you probably do know, the president has waged an all out assault on the immigraiton system. The last few years have seen an exhausting barrage of one pummeling new rule or regulation after another in immigration law. Bans on immigrants from select Muslim-majority nations, increased limitations on employment visas for highly educated foreign nationals in specialty occupations, the increasing whittling down of refugee rights and opportunities, and the general slowing down of processing times on all types of immigration benefits has left me drained and empty. Less people qualify to apply for benefits, and even when they do apply, their approval is far from guaranteed. Once a case is pending, the time left waiting while it is processing continues to increase. I have clients who applied for U visas five years ago who are still waiting to have a feeling of security when they step out the door and the ability safely and legally earn a normal wage.
I know that I have been carrying the built up trauma of what feels like a never-ending slow-waging battle and that raw emotions of anger and grief have been packed down inside. I know that the feeling of confronting constant injustice has tied itself into a lumpy knot that would not leave. But I guess I did not know what the feeling of being free from that would be like.
At least not until the late morning on Saturday two weeks ago when I opened our living room window and heard the constant sound of cheering and honking car horns across the street. Leaving our house and wandering down Pine street, we encountered a mass of cars driving through the city. People were hanging out the windows holding up signs and cheering; and car after car was honking. Block after block was filled with a spontaneous celebration. Turning the corner and walking up Broad street toward City Hall, the street was filled with people expressing pure joy. Some people were riding bicycles in the streets, some were dancing, others were singing pop songs in unison. Later in the day we encountered a parade down Market Street. It was a fitting day - sunny and unseasonably warm - as the day that the president’s term was confirmed over. It was the direct opposite of the cold and rainy day after the 2016 election.
What I witnessed that day was a brief vision of a gathering, a welcoming to a new reality free from a false shepherd and it gave me a glimpse of the restored community that Ezekiel envisions. For in the midst of the celebrations I found myself uncontrollably crying; experiencing a catharsis and a momentary experience of freedom from the past four years of weight that had been crushing me. I know that this was not the coming of the full kindom of Christ; I am aware that the next president will not be the divine shepherd.
But I do feel a sense of refreshment that I have not experienced in four years. I have seen a glimpse of the divine gathering and I feel re-energized to seek God’s divine imagination of restoration.
The work for justice does not end, the fight for equity in all situations has no limit, the challenge to bring the kingdom of Christ here on earth is ever before us. We must challenge our assumptions, tear down our prejudices, actively work to dismantle privileges of race and sex. Jesus was plainly serious when he said leave all you have and follow me and to love your neighbor as yourself. But we also must accept the comfort of knowing that through these actions we are coming closer to our creator; we are encountering the mystery of the very heart of God. And we must remember that, despite all of our strivings, we are still lost, worn down, broken, and tired. Even when we give it all, it is not enough. The work of transformative justice is ever ongoing. And, in that moment may you know, deep in your being, that there is a God who loves you, there is a Shepherd who gathers you in, there is a Christ who welcomes you home.
No matter who you are or where you come from, you are gathered into kindom of Christ.