By Sr. Elizabeth, SSJD.
Ezek 34:11-16, 20-24; Ps 95:1-7a; Eph 1:15-23; Mt 25:31-46
In the name of God, Source of all Being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit, Amen
I’m sure some of you remember the collect for this Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer which a few of us grew up with.
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen
This Sunday came to be known as ‘Stir Up Sunday’ a Sunday synonymous with making Christmas puddings. The great cry ‘stir up’ was a reminder to congregations to get the Christmas pudding made in plenty of time to mature before Christmas. I can remember my mother making Christmas puddings and, as a child, being allowed to stir the pudding. Of course, the collect isn’t really about stirring Christmas puddings! It’s about stirring up our wills to love and serve our neighbours in whatever ways we can.
After entering the community I learned that this Sunday was known as the Reign of Christ—a title which suggests “King-ship”, but the images from the readings are not of a ruler sitting on a throne but rather of a shepherd caring for his sheep.
In Ezekiel, God says ,
I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep . . . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed… I will bind up the injured, and …strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
This is a picture of a loving, nurturing, caring, healing God — yet the end of the passage is a strong statement about judgment: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. I will feed them with justice. The implication is that the fat sheep ate so much that there wasn’t enough for the lean sheep to eat. That seems to be an accurate reflection of our world today, magnified by the reality of Covid-19 which has affected the elderly, the impoverished, the refugees, the homeless, and the imprisoned disproportionately to those who have enough and more than enough of the world’s goods.
Traditionally the church has tended towards a God of judgment; many people have seen and still see God as condemning them for their sinfulness rather than loving and encouraging them into fullness of life. Perhaps this is because human beings can be very judgmental of one another and project that onto God. This judgmental God was often illustrated with Christ sitting on a throne and horrifying paintings of people being thrown into a pit of fire or tormented by demons, with no hope of escape. Some of you may have seen Michelangelo’s Last Judgement which covers one whole wall of the Sistine Chapel. It is a horrifying scene. This image of a judgmental God was intended, I’m sure, to control people’s behaviour, to “make them good” through fear of what would happen if they did not behave. It may have had that effect on some people’s behaviour but over time it turned many people away from God.
Several years ago I met a woman in her late 50’s or early 60’s who had been brought up to believe in the God of hellfire and brimstone. She believed that on the day of judgement, at the coming of the Son of Man, the good people would be taken up to heaven. She had been taught some of the “judgment” imagery in the Gospels and the Revelation of John. As a little girl she had lived in fear that one day, when she came home from school, her parents would be gone because she was sure that they were good people and that she wasn’t, so they would be swept up to heaven and she would be left behind. She didn’t learn about a loving God until she was 50 years old and attending a workshop which introduced her to the God of love and forgiveness and compassion.
Psalm 95 calls us to sing to God, to shout with joy and to come before God’s presence with thanksgiving.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has this wonderful prayer: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know the Holy One, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
This is not a God of judgement but a God who loves, encourages, guides and heals us. We know that Christ’s mission was to “to bring good news to the poor….to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” This he did in word and action throughout his ministry. And, as it says in Colossians, Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
I believe the Reign of Christ, also called the Kingdom of Heaven, is found whenever and wherever people are showing love to their neighbour through giving food to the hungry, and drink to the thirsty; welcoming the stranger and giving clothing to the naked; taking care of the sick and visiting those in prison. No one person does all these things, but each of us serves our neighbour in whatever way we can.
We’re not called to act out of fear of a God who is going to condemn us to hell and damnation if “we’re not good”. God is not asking us for great deeds of heroism. God asks us simply to treat every person, friend or enemy, as someone who is respected and accepted and loved by God. We don’t divide people into those who deserve our kindness, love or compassion and those who don’t. Every human being is a beloved child of God regardless of his or her race, colour, class, creed, intelligence, physical appearance or sexual orientation. It is not a question of whether we like everybody or agree with everybody; it’s whether we do whatever we can to be fully present to and to help, as we are able, those we come in contact with. We welcome the stranger. We give away what we don’t need to someone who needs it more than we do. We visit the sick. Paul said to the Ephesians: I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints,
Jesus’ teaching is so simple and at the same time so difficult. A few weeks ago we were giving thanks for the many saints from earliest times, both known and unknown, who in some way have pointed us to God through their faith, their love, their teaching or their actions. They were not perfect people but somehow they had understood something of the essence of God and of Jesus’ teachings and had demonstrated that for others. We’re all called to be saints: to practice love through our actions. That is the message of the parable of the sheep and goats. Sometimes we behave like the sheep in the parable and sometimes when we’re stressed, tired, frustrated, in a hurry, or wrapped up in our own problems, we’re more like the goats of the parable. But whenever we reach out in love to someone else, we are helping to bring the reign of God into that person’s life.
God’s judgement is a righteous judgement because God understands us completely. Our loving actions grow out of a love and reverence for God and all of God’s creation rather than out of a fear of God’s wrath or anger. As we become more and more aware of dwelling in God and God abiding in us, we are more and more drawn to a life of loving action. The blessing of living in community is that together we are able to do far more than any of us could do individually. Thanks be to God.