Feast of Christ the (Shepherd) King

Christ the King Prop 29 A

Ezek. 34:11-16, 20-24 (and Mt. 25:31-46)

November 23, 2014 Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket RI

The Rev. Gillian R. Barr

So today is the Feast of Christ the King—but we have all these images of sheep and goats and shepherds in the readings, more actually than royal images.  In fact, I don’t know how or why it has appeared, but there is this lovely new statuette of Christ tending a flock of sheep which is suddenly on the organ console today.

Why all these sheep on Christ the KING Sunday? 
Because in biblical times, one of the main images to describe what a ruler was to do was the image of a shepherd. Rulers weren’t imagined as being in large castles or in bureaucratic offices.  If you asked someone what a good king or ruler looked like, either in Israel or Judah or in the surrounding pagan societies, one of the most common answers would be “he is to be a good shepherd of his people.”

The most ancient law code in the world, the Code of Hammurabi, c. 1700 BCE, describes Hammurabi as the “shepherd of his people.” It was he “who cared for its inhabitants in their need, provided a portion for them in Babylon in peace; the shepherd of the oppressed and of the slaves; whose deeds find favor before the gods…. [he found favor because he ] brought about the well-being of the oppressed.”  [i]

It was understood that to be a good ruler was to care for all the people in the land, and to care for the well-being of the people as a whole.  The metaphor which fit that duty best was that of a shepherd, who was to care for the whole flock, not just particular sheep within it.  Many of the leaders of Israel were literal shepherds of sheep at one time in their careers, before becoming shepherds of the people.  King David is the most well-known example, but there are many others.

So the Feast of Christ the King, Christ the Ruler, could also be considered the Feast of Christ the Good Shepherd. It is as if the two metaphors are simply opposite sides of the same coin.  In fact, look at the Good Shepherd window over our altar. There, above Christ cradling the sheep, is a crown.

Today’s passage from Ezek 34 comes after these previous verses:
Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: 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. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. [Ezek. 34:2-6]

Then Ezekiel goes on with the words we heard a bit ago, concluding with, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 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 I will judge between sheep and sheep.”  God will feed them with justice.  Tending the flock means paying attention to justice, and making sure that the relationships among the flock are rooted in justice, and dealing with those who cause harm.

We often hear the Good Shepherd image in personal terms.  God will minister to us, or to our loved ones, as the tender shepherd.  Jesus knows us by name, seeks us out when we’re lost, binds up our broken limbs and wounds, lays down his life for us, walks with us through our dark valleys, feeds us and gives us an overflowing cup.  Ps 23. “Pastoral” care is thought of as one on one care with the sick or those in distress.   All of that is true, and wonderful, and important.

But being a good shepherd, following the model of the Good Shepherd, isn’t just about caring for the individual sheep, although it is definitely that. It is also about caring for the whole flock, and the interrelationships w/in it, to prevent the situations which lead to sheep being attacked, made lame, driven away.

There is the old folktale of a group of fishermen standing by the side of the river when a series of drowning people come by.  Busy pulling people out of the river when one of the fishermen leaves the group and begins running up the riverbank.  His friends shout, “Where are you going? We still need help pulling these people out!”  “I’m going up stream and figure out who’s throwing them IN the river in the first place!”

So the image of the good shepherd, the model, the job description, is multi-faceted.   It has both an individual component, focused on the wellbeing of individual sheep, and a corporate component, focused on looking at the health of the overall flock and the things which damage and threaten it, and the interrelationships among its members.

I think each of us naturally gravitates more to one part of this than another.  For some of us, collecting and distributing food for the hungry is a natural, obvious thing to do, or volunteering in a soup kitchen, or at Church Beyond the Walls, or working with an addict as they fight for sobriety.  The individual, personal, interaction.  And as today’s Gospel reading describes, that is absolutely essential.  Others of us find that sort of work extraordinarily challenging, even though we know it is essential and work to become better at it.

On the other hand, there are those who see the inequalities and systemic issues, whose eyes and hearts and minds are touched and moved in that way.  People who can be just as passionate about asking hard questions and fighting for big picture change as are those working on the individual scale.  They are also tending to the flock.

If Christ is the Good Shepherd, and we are to be ministering as he does, then we are to be:

  • Caring for the family w/ the daughter with mental illness, AND asking why mental health care is stigmatized and hard to access.
  • Caring for the family whose loved one is dying, AND wondering about the lack of affordable high quality care, and the poor pay and hard working conditions of caregivers in health care facilities.
  • Helping at the soup kitchen, AND wondering why someone who works hard at one or two jobs can’t afford to eat.
  • Visiting the prisoners, AND inquiring as to the finances behind the prison-industrial complex, and what kind of rehabilitation and training prisoners do or do not get.  I just read a story about the state of California objecting to the courts asking them to increase their early-parole program for non-violent offenders because it would break the economic model of how the prisons function, as they depend on the labor of those prisoners to run the prisons and fight wildfires.[ii]
  • Raising money for St Mary’s Home for Children AND inquiring about the state of our foster care system, and the interrelationships of childhood sexual abuse, and sex trafficking.  Did you read the story in this week’s ProJo about the young woman who had been trafficked for sex, and her previous experience of sexual abuse in her family and in the foster care system?[iii]  All these problems are interrelated, some in horrible ways.

There was a Roman Catholic Archbishop in Brazil in the ’60s, Abp. Hélder Câmara, who was known for his work in the slums.  He said,”when I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

There was a Roman Catholic Archbishop in Brazil in the ’60s, Abp. Hélder Câmara, who was known for his work in the slums.  He said,”when I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”[iv]

The current Abp of Canterbury, Justin Welby, worked in high-level corporate finance and banking before he became a priest.  He realized that many of the poor and hungry people who show up at doors of churches are there because their only options for cash are from payday lenders and loan sharks and they are trapped in debt.  There is no political will to fix this situation through regulation of lenders, but, with his financial acumen, he realized that he could leverage the financial assets of the Church of England, and its location in every village and town, to set up a credit union system and to support existing credit unions.  If the church can’t get the payday lenders legislated out of business, they will drive them out of business by running credit unions.  He saw that the individual needs of the poor individuals who churches were helping were tied to a larger issue of justice, and using his knowledge and credibility on financial issues, he took advantage of his particular situation to make a difference.[v]

Each of us has our own strengths and those areas in which we need to grow.  Each congregation has its own gifts.  Some congregations and priests focus on large-scale advocacy—I know of several Episcopal priests who have been arrested over the past month protesting for racial justice in Ferguson, for example—and others, on personal-scale help. This congregation probably focuses more on the personal-scale. That is our particular gift.  Just on Friday we had a parade of children from the school across the street bringing us canned goods to fill the Thanksgiving baskets that we and our partner church Harvest Hope Church of God in Christ will be distributing on Tuesday.  That is wonderful.  Put together, those of us who do direct aid and those who question and advocate about larger issues to create change, together, as the whole Church, we are all tending the flock. Each of us is called to imitate the Good Shepherd. Know that if you are someone who sees immediate needs and then looks at the bigger picture, and asks “Why?” and wants to work for change at that level—whether through the church or partner agencies or in other ways—that is also part of tending the flock.  As is handing out food to the hungry and clothes to the needy.

By doing any, and all, of these things, we show ourselves to be tending to the flock, and that we are subjects of Christ the King, the shepherd king who rules from a cross and an empty tomb. Amen.

_ _ _ _ _

[i] http://eawc.evansville.edu/anthology/hammurabi.htm

[ii] http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/11/17/3592964/how-californias-program-to-have-inmates-fight-wildfires-could-be-keeping-people-behind-bars/

[iii] http://www.providencejournal.com/news/police-fire/20141115-fighting-for-her-soul-a-sex-trafficking-victim-s-story.ece

[iv] http://www.theguardian.com/news/1999/aug/31/guardianobituaries.alexbellos

[v] http://www.christiantoday.com/article/justin.welby.launches.credit.union.scheme.to.defeat.payday.lenders/42977.htm

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