This is the last Sunday in Pentecost, also known as Christ the King, or Reign of Christ Sunday. We have taken away the color Green in exchange for White for this special day). Starting next week we will display our lovely Saran Blue for Advent and get out the Advent stand and candles as we prepare for Christmas and the Birth of Jesus.
My view of this Christ the King Sunday--I don’t like the earthly symbolism of a King--it limits our thinking about God and Christ. So I decided I’m going to let the rest of our worship today reflect on Christ as our King. Instead, I’m going to talk about Shepherds, and Sheep and Goats.
Shepherds are mentioned many times in the Bible. The very first shepherd was Abel (of the Cain and Abel story—Cain killed Abel because he thought God liked Abel better with his animal sacrifices vs. Cain’s own grain sacrifices). Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses were all shepherds. King David was the best known shepherd of Bible history, a shepherd in the fields as a boy, and a shepherd as king of his people. He even wrote the beloved Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd”--God as the ultimate Shepherd of all!) Shepherds were the first people to see the newborn Jesus Christ. Even the Prophet Mohammed worked as a shepherd when he was 8 years old.
Sheep are mentioned in the Bible more than 500 times, more than any other animal. Sheep were important to the nomads and the agricultural life of the Israelites. The Bible describes close relationships between shepherds and their flocks. Sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd, and follow him (or her). The shepherd protects his flock and would give his life for them. It is known that animals, even sheep, can instantly recognize the voice of a familiar trusted person. Sheep have excellent memories for faces. They remember their handler; they also remember people who inflict abuse upon them.
The Jewish faith tradition and law in ancient times was to sacrifice animals, especially lambs, as part of their worship and honoring of God. Christians now refer to Jesus as the "Lamb of God", as the ultimate sacrifice by His death on the cross for all. Some Christians serve lamb as part of their Easter dinner, and a lamb-shaped cake may decorate the table. Many Eastern Orthodox Christians have pictures of the Easter lamb in their homes.
Our Ezekiel reading today was written in a horrible time for Israel. The land of the Israelites had been invaded by Babylon in 587 BC, and the earlier verses Ezekiel wrote blamed this invasion on their own kings’ poor leadership. From Sumerian kings in the 2000s BC on, rulers of the ancient Near East referred to themselves as shepherds. Ezekiel their prophet blasted Israel’s kings (the shepherds), who had mistreated their people (the sheep) and were responsible for scattering them. They had ruled harshly, enriching themselves at the expense of the people, and failing to safeguard the interests of the people who depended on them. Their people had been dispersed around the Mediterranean, others had been deported to Babylon, and those left at home were treated as the lowest of the low.
Ezekiel prophesied that God would step in as the new Shepherd to the Israelite people. God would seek the lost and bring them home, feed them with rich pasture, and make them lie down in safety. God would protect the people (the lean sheep) from the kings (the fat and the strong sheep) and promised to feed the entire flock with justice.
Psalm 100 today used to be sung as a canticle called the Jubilate for Morning Prayer worship in the old 1928 Prayer Book, and was one of the light and joyful parts of that service. It reminds us that joy and thanksgiving are the proper attitudes for worship. Other attitudes can happen (sorrow, need, intercession, surrender, peace, etc.), but joy and thanksgiving should be our primary one. And, this psalm brings in the shepherd and sheep reference, too as to why we should feel this way: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”
Our Gospel reading today is the last of a series from something Bible scholars call ‘The Olivet discourse’ or ‘Olivet prophecy’. It is found starting in the Gospels of Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21. This discourse, or sermon, is given by Jesus on the Mount of Olives, hence the Olivet name. The Matthew version of this Olivet discourse is the longest, and includes 6 very challenging parables or comparisons—the Fig Tree, the Thief, Faithful and True Servants, the Ten Virgins, the Talents (from last week’s Gospel), and the Sheep and Goats (today’s Gospel). This was all given by Jesus two days before his arrest, trial and crucifixion.
The parable in today’s Gospel talks about the differences in behavior between sheep and goats. Sheep are gentle, quiet, innocent animals. They do not give their shepherds a lot of problems. They are easily led. Sheep are grazers, unlike the goat, which likes to browse. Goats, instead, can be rebellious. While sheep crop at an even height several centimeters above ground level, the goat not only crops much closer to the ground, but also tears leaves, buds and fruit off trees (sounds like the deer we find at our houses daily!). In Jesus’ time, goats were regarded as "armed robbers” who would jump over people's fences and destroy their plants. The sheep are the followers of Christ, while the goats choose not to follow.
Note that the sheep and the goats were both surprised by the statement of the king as to who they had ministered to (or had not!). The good the sheep had done was not to gain favor or position or recognition. It was their response to what God had done and was doing in their lives. Whereas, the goats were guilty of not even seeing the stranger or the need. The challenge is not only to see the people and the needs, but to see them as brothers and sisters--to see Christ in them and to gather them in.
Our faith is a constant challenge to expand our comfort zones in looking outside our church. Many of the needy are not those we usually associate with. I am not/We are not generally that comfortable with strangers, and do not have to deal with them very often. But our recent years’ connections with Rev Sarah Monroe and Chaplains on the Harbor and the recognition of what they are doing to help the homeless and oppressed in Grays Harbor I think has helped us also see needs we can fill and support those who most need help around us.
The purpose of a church and its church community is not to just be a fellowship gathering place, or a place to come to feel good about being Christian. Because of the Covid pandemic, we have also clearly found out this past several months that a church is not the building, as we have had to stay connected using phones, email, social media, recorded worship services, and however else we can still keep in touch.
The purpose of a church community of believers is one that takes seriously its worship and praise of God, one who cares immensely about each other and prays for each other’s needs, concerns, and offers thanks for each other’s gifts from God, and one who listens to and is led by the Holy Spirit to act in the community it lives in to make it one for Christ. The church building is one place to gather for many of these things, but is not where the real ministry lies.
The constant message you hear in this church--in our readings, preaching, worship, and prayers is one of social justice and action--to do for others as you would have it done for you, and in doing this for others you are doing it for Christ. There is a reason for regularly giving this message—it is THE central message of Christ’s ministry. Of everything Jesus said and did, this is what is most important for all of us to understand—we are to BELIEVE in Him, and then ACT in the world to show His love for those less fortunate. The point of this Gospel is that salvation will take care of itself as we (as God’s sheep) minister in love to others and each other. To those on the right, the sheep, the king/Christ says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
The Sunday after Thanksgiving (generally it is Advent 1) we usually collect and bless our annual pledges to the work of Christ in this church for the next year. The fact that all of us here, clergy and lay people, do the various parts of our ministry in this church and receive no pay, means we in $$ have so much more available to be able to do the work in the larger community we care for. Our grateful response shows our collective commitment to God to be a Christian community that takes this message of love and caring seriously. We have had in our budget a strong commitment to outreach each year—at least 20% directly for outreach locally and in the world (in recent years it has actually been 40-50%)--and we seek and respond to other opportunities to give money and other items for special concerns that arise, too. In our last BC meeting for the year in early December we will have the opportunity to finish up what has been another great year of $$ outreach giving.
As we come to Thanksgiving Day this week, it reminds me to give thanks to each and every one of you for your constant and committed support to this community and its ministry at St. Mark’s. This shows our desires and prayers and hopes that we are counted among the sheep--and not the goats! I believe that we show, and will continue to, that we should be counted among the sheep in God’s eternal kingdom. AMEN.