By The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy
On this Sunday we proclaim that Jesus is our King, the King of Heaven, and we may wonder what on earth that means and what it has to do with us in our lives. The whole idea of kings is not one that has much meaning of us as 21st century Americans. We might think it strange to think of the whole idea of God having a “kingdom” and Jesus “reigning” over it like a monarch. But if we look at today’s scriptures, it seems that isn’t what we are talking about at all. What scripture seems to be telling us is about a different kind of kingdom and a different kind of king, starting all the way back in the Old Testament readings. We are reminded as we hear Ezekiel just how ancient some of these themes are between God and God’s people. Ezekiel lived in Babylon from 593 to 571 BCE. He prophesied among exiles and often had to say things in the name of God that he found incomprehensible, painful, and hard to bear. In this morning’s reading he is called to give comfort to the exiled people by promising a vision of a new kind of shepherd king, one who is not only powerful but nurturing, one will seek the lost and bring them home, feed them with rich pasture, and make them lie down in safety. God's rule as the shepherd king is a rule of justice not exploitation. God will protect the people from "the fat and the strong.” This is a different use of power than the exiles were accustomed to, and perhaps than we are. It might have been easy for them to say, “oh good, we will be able to rest now, we will be safe from ‘them’ picking on us.” But there is more to what God has Ezekiel say. Yes this is a loving shepherd king, but this also a just King, and Ezekiel does give a warning. God is determined to save God’s people whom God loves and there will be justice. If anyone is unjust to another, this shepherd will call them to be accountable. “I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” God is not simply saying that the powerful from without will not be allowed to hurt one of God’s beloved people, but that even one of God’s own will be called to account if there is injustice done, if the kingdom message is not lived out.
This morning’s Gospel is Jesus’ final talk with his disciples before his passion. In it we hear a theme that echoes strongly the one from Ezekiel and one that has run strongly through all of Matthew’s Gospel, that of discipleship, of following Jesus in living the upside-down, counter-cultural shepherd-king life that he lived. The life that he talks about again this morning in serving those who are least, of including the outcast, of feeding and welcoming and healing and nurturing. In standing up against injustice, in speaking truth to power, no matter what the cost.
Discipleship. Following Jesus in living this Gospel life. It’s what God asks of us and expects of us as a result of our having made and renewed our baptismal covenant. It’s pretty clear. There is accountability in this kingdom of God’s. If we do not meet the expectation there will be a price. Both groups in this morning’s Gospel seemed a little baffled, “Where did we see you…?” I think we get confused sometimes, too. About where we see Jesus and where we are called to respond. It’s maybe easier for us in a way to see the need in the actual poor and homeless and ill and such and to respond to that. Sometimes, it’s easier, at least for me, to see those leasts as “them,” to have a little safe distance, but you know….”they” are also “us.” God is the shepherd of us all. Maybe it’s kind of hard to admit sometimes, we too are all hungering and thirsting for something, that we too are sometimes powerless, lonely and in need, we too can feel a sense of absolute naked vulnerability at times, we too can be sick in body or mind or spirit, we too can be in our own prisons. And this means that as sheep of our shepherd we are called to reach out to that need in each other. As you consider your community this morning, what is it that you have to feed another? What warm garment of concern do you have in which to wrap someone? What good medicine of concern or wisdom might you have to share? What key might you have that could unlock something that has been imprisoning someone’s heart? And as you consider this, also take a moment to ask yourself, what is it that stops you? Is it the fear of the cost? Because we know that this kind of living has a price. Look where it took the King of the Jews. But the cost of not doing so is higher still. It is the price of our very souls, because to follow Jesus is what we were created for. As Paul puts it in Ephesians it is “the hope to which he has called us… the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and…the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” Perhaps then it is a question of faith. Perhaps, like the slave in last week’s Gospel, we are too fearful to step out in trust, believing that we can flagrantly cast what we have out there, so we bury and hoard and hold on tight. But clearly this is not what God wants of us. Clearly this is not what God asks. In God’s Kingdom where Christ reigns, the shepherd assures the safety of all the sheep that the sheep too may care for one another. May it be so.