Trinity River Church, Minneapolis, Minn.
Readings for Christ the King Sunday (26th Sunday after Pentecost): Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
Turkey. Stuffing. Potatoes (Mashed or Sweet). Cranberries. Pumpkin Pie. Football. Nap. Leftovers. Thanksgiving will be here in a few days, and there is lots to do. And most of it revolves around food. We have hours of preparation ahead of us, just so that we can enjoy of few minutes of eating to our stomach’s capacity, or beyond. There are many pleasant sensations associated with this holiday. The food, the smell of the food while it’s cooking, and the luxury of leisure time. But another pleasant sensation is the feeling of being with your family (or friends, depending on who you consider your family to be).
Most people today do not live near their parents, their siblings, or their adult children. We are a scattered people . We grow up and we leave home. And most of us fly pretty far from the nest. And that’s why we need the holidays. We need the opportunity in our busy schedules to take time out to be gathered together with our families. Sometimes, it feels more like an expectation, or a chore. Especially when you have to divide your time between your own family and your in-laws. Those can be very tricky negotiations! Another pitfall of the holidays includes having to be with your less-than-favorite relatives.
But for the most part, Thanksgiving is an important time to gather together from far and near with people we love and to share in a wonderful feast. And that is exactly the kind of day that God promised to the ancient Israelites when they were living as prisoners in a foreign land. In today’s scripture reading from the prophet Ezekiel, God promises to gather the people together and bring them home and feed them. Sounds a lot like thanksgiving to me. The Israelites were a scattered people, too. They were scattered from their homes, but it wasn’t the result of going away to college or making certain job choices or having to do with their significant other. The Israelites were a conquered people. During the time of Ezekiel, they were forced to move away from their homeland during the Babylonian Exile, and they were scattered from each other. They were in danger of losing touch with who they were, as God’s chosen people. And so Ezekiel, the prophet, speaks the word of God to them in order to offer them hope that God still cares about them even while they are far from home.
And the language that God uses to comfort these people is very familiar language to them and to us. In God’s own words, God becomes a shepherd who will gather the lost sheep and bring them all together again. No matter where they have been scattered, God will search and find them. No one will be left behind. And not only will God find each and every one of them and bring them home, but God will also feed them the best food available, and then, God says, “I will make them lie down.” God even promises them a good Thanksgiving nap, too!
God’s people are still scattered today . We are scattered, physically, all over the globe, but, more importantly, we are scattered from each other emotionally. We have brothers and sisters that live right here in the Twin Cities, but, because of our differences, we don’t see them or communicate with them. Even in our own community. The purpose of the Thanksgiving Eve service on Wednesday night is to gather together God’s people, because our God is a shepherd. Our God is a gathering God. And those of us who have been scattered or pulled away from each other need a time to remember that we share the same God. We have something very important in common with the people at Spirit of the Lakes and All God’s Children. No matter what else it is that separates us or pushes us apart, we all belong to the same shepherd. I believe it is important to be reminded of that, and I believe it is important to lift that up and affirm it as well.
But we are a scattered people in other ways, too . We have sisters and brothers who are not at Trinity River Church on Sunday morning. And they are not at Spirit of the Lakes or All God’s Children, either. The institutional church has caused pain for many of us who are here today. We have been unwelcome in many churches in the past, and we know what that pain is like. But God has not let go of us. God has found new places to gather us in, and one of those new places is right here in this theatre, in this coffee house. God doesn’t require stained glass windows in order to gather God’s people. God only requires that we find each other somewhere, anywhere, and then invite others to come in.
Our job is to follow God’s example of gathering people in. We spread the word that we are here. We invite our friends. We put ads in the newspapers. Some of us even hand out business cards! All these are ways that we help the gathering process.
But even the gathering process has its downfalls. Because when you scoop up a bunch of people, you will inevitably scoop up the good with the bad. As Jesus reminds us in the passage recorded in Matthew’s gospel, there are sheep and there are goats. The sheep are the people who belong to God’s flock. The goats are not of God. You might be sitting next to a goat right now and not even know it! But you know what? That’s not our problem. We don’t have to try and figure out who are the sheep and who are the goats. In fact, Jesus tells us, that’s not even our job. We shouldn’t even try to make judgments about other people, no matter how tempting it is or how much we may claim to be an expert at distinguishing between certain types of animals. That job is reserved for someone else.
Today is the last Sunday in the liturgical year. Next Sunday we begin a new church year. The Church year begins with Advent, and ends with Christ the King Sunday. Today’s readings all point to Christ as our King. And it is the king’s job to determine who are the sheep and who are the goats, and then to separate out the good from the bad. And this will all happen someday in the future, when Christ will rule over all things, including sheep and goats. Christ will be the new Shepherd, the new David. And he will sit on his throne and announce to the world who are the sheep and who are the goats.
It’s really tempting for us to want to do Christ’s job for him, because we think we know how it’s done. It is an attractive power to have, to sit in judgment over others. We’d like to sit right up there on the throne, next to Christ, and point our finger and say, “Sheep, sheep, goat.” The problem is that you and I have very limited perception. We can’t see people the way God can. We can know each other only very superficially. We will never have the intimate knowledge that God has. So we would only be guessing when we say, “Sheep, sheep, goat.” And guessing is not good enough when it is a matter of life and death.
We have to remember that God’s people are scattered, and it is only our job to gather them, not to judge them. But what about ourselves? How do we know if we are sheep or goats? I want to be judged as a sheep when that day comes. How can I make sure God sees me as one? In our gospel lesson, Jesus makes it clear that the sheep and the goats won’t even know who they are until he tells them on judgment day. For example, when Jesus tells some people they are sheep, they will be surprised. They will ask, “When did I see you hungry and feed you? I don’t remember feeding Jesus.” And in the same way, some people will be surprised when Jesus points to them and judges them to be goats. The point is, we cannot predict anything about judgment day other than the fact that Jesus will be doing the judging. We can’t predict what the outcome will be for others, and we’d better not be too arrogant about our predictions for our own verdict, either. It is dangerous for us to become too self-assured about our own judgment as sheep.
This leads us back to the reading from Ezekiel. You see, there are good sheep and there are bad sheep. Actually, Ezekiel says, there are fat sheep and there are lean sheep. But before you get offended, let me translate this into today’s language. There are fat cats and there are poor folks. Or, there are CEO’s and there are minimum wage earners. What Ezekiel is talking about is corruption among God’s own people. And God promises not only to gather all the sheep together, but then to punish the sheep who have bullied their way and taken advantage of the other sheep in a vulnerable situation.
Once again, however, this is a matter for God’s attention. God will do the judging, not us. Our job is to be involved in the gathering process, not the judging process. Today is a time for gathering, not for judging. We are living in an interim period, a waiting time, until Judgment Day. Actually it is quite appropriate to have an interim pastor during this period. In a sense, all pastors are interim pastors because we are only serving as substitute shepherds until the real shepherd returns. And during this interim period Jesus calls us to take care of each other. To feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, etc., because by doing so we will be acting like true sheep.
And in order to take care of each other, we need to provide a safe gathering place. That’s what Trinity River is all about. We welcome all sheep who are lost or crippled or feel far from home. This should be a safe gathering place for all people who have been scattered, for whatever reason. So when you sit at the Thanksgiving table later this week, remember to give thanks for a God who cares about us enough to gather us back into the fold and provide safe places for us to spend our days until the end. And give thanks for your brothers and sisters here who have welcomed you as potential sheep. Amen.