Sunday, November 26, 2023

Christ the King Sunday, 2023: Refined, remade, and restored

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

(Note: there is no video of this sermon due to the Thanksgiving holiday. This sermon, as part of our service, can be viewed on Emmanuel Episcopal Webster Groves' YouTube channel.)

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Grant O God, that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Jesus’ most gracious rule.

Freedom takes many forms, and when we lose it, we are truly lost – like scattered sheep - and we begin to die. Some of us lose our freedom to alcohol, drugs, food, or gambling. Others lose our freedom to money, power, reputation, or celebrity. Still others lose our freedom to people or churches with twisted theology. Our freedom also can be surreptitiously lost to mental or physical illness or to fear, hate, or hopelessness.

Some of us lose our freedom because it’s stolen from us – by an abuser or an oppressor. This is the kind of thief specifically described by the prophet Ezekiel who said: “…you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with horns until you scattered them far and wide…”

Abuse, in all its forms, is about power… misused power… and the Good News Ezekiel offers is that God sees when the sheep, that is, the people, have been scattered by this misuse of power; and God says, “I myself will search for them… I will rescue them from all the places they have been scattered… [and] feed them with good pasture… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… I will seek the lost… bring back the strayed… [and] strengthen the weak…"

Picking up on Ezekiel’s metaphor, Jesus takes this teaching even further. It isn’t just what God will do, but also what we must do as his followers. The main point of this teaching is about responding to the power of the world using the power God has given us.

This power is something we all possess. It’s a power that has nothing to do with money, or position, or age, or ability. It’s the power of Jesus’ presence within us – a power that can only be used properly when we are living in righteousness, that is, in right relationship with God and our neighbor.

That seemingly scary last sentence in the gospel story is not a threat. The word we translate as “punishment,” is actually “pruning.” While cutting away what is superfluous in us may be fearful and rightly anticipated as painful, the object of pruning is to increase growth and fruitfulness. It is a gift, not a penalty.

The penalty would be self-inflicted: cutting ourselves off from God. Disconnection from God feels like punishment because it is disconnection from the only truth, the only life there is.

I’ve mentioned having experienced hell more than once in my life. What made those experiences hell for me was that I’d lost my grip on my relationship with God. I felt disconnected, existentially alone, and eternally lost.

I wasn’t, of course, because Christ marked me as his own forever at my Baptism. So, while I may have felt disconnected from God, God was not disconnected from me. God was waiting like a shepherd to guide me back to the rich pasture Ezekiel describes - the richness of right relationship with God and neighbor.

While I was in hell, my entire focus was on myself. I was drowning in my own suffering. I felt alone and lost, scared, and angry about it. I couldn’t have noticed anyone else’s suffering because my focus had turned inward. I was in hell and each moment was an eternity.

That’s why this promise from Jesus is so vital: the accursed, that is, those whose attention is solely on themselves, or those who live in such a way that they cause pain, division, or hardship for the poor and vulnerable, will be sent into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the adversaries of good. Since “fire” is Bible-speak for the presence of God - remembering the burning bush that spoke to Moses in Genesis and the pillar of fire that led the Israelites to the Promised Land in Exodus – Jesus is promising that they will be sent back into the eternal presence of God where they will be refined, remade, and restored to right relationship with God and neighbor.

I can attest to this. I have experienced first-hand the refining fire of God’s love and I highly recommend it! It is the gateway to freedom. This freedom that includes us but extends far beyond us and the path to it is right in front of us all the time.

How many times have we walked or driven past a panhandler and ignored their plea for help? We may soothe our consciences saying they are addicts and we don’t want to support their habit - for their sake, or we may reason that they choose to be homeless, or that our little bit of help won’t make a difference in the long run.

The truth is, we don’t want to engage with them the way Jesus engaged the Gerasene demoniac or the woman being stoned for adultery. It’s dangerous and scary. So instead, we find a way to relieve ourselves of our Christian responsibility to respond to them.

Then we hear the prophetic voices call us back to truth, voices like Nelson Mandela who once said, "…to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said, “[Christians] are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Living into our Christian responsibility isn’t easy, but thanks be to God, we don’t do it alone. We do it as the body of Christ.

Just this past week churches from various denominations in Webster Groves gathered together at Webster United Methodist Church for our annual community Thanksgiving Service. We raised awareness of and money for our vulnerable siblings in Christ here and in the Rosebud Indian Reservation in SD. 

This ecumenical group also has spent the last year driving a spoke into the wheel of racism through our efforts to inform about racist statements still present in many of our homes’ deeds from the past and to ensure that racism finds no place in home deeds in the present. We have pushed back on the shoulders and flanks that butt out and scatter the weak as we work for affordable housing options in our fair city.

Each Sunday we gather as a family of faith to be nourished by Word and Sacrament so that we can go out into the world to enhance the freedom of others and drive spokes into the wheels of injustice in our time. When we truly believe that God dwells in us, we can step into any darkness, any suffering, and allow Jesus to do through us what he always does, what the prophets of old said he would do: set us free from all that separates us and guide our feet into the way of peace.

Grant O God, that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Jesus’ most gracious rule. Amen.

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