November 23 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-36
Theme: This Sunday is "The Feast of Christ the King", so there's one very suitable theme. Alternatively, we might choose to celebrate it as "The Feast of Christ in All Creation", which, to my Teilhardian ears, is the same thing in different words. (It's also, apparently, Aotearoa Sunday, for those who can't cope with grand visions.) A little more creative (ha, ha) would be to take any one of many amazing phrases from St Paul on this theme, particularly from Ephesians or Colossians (or Romans 8, come to that). What about "Christ is All in All"? To emphasise that this is the Feast Day for summing up the story so far and also for looking ahead, I'm going for "What is the World Coming To?" (Clue, the answer is a three-letter word beginning with "G" and ending with "D".)
Introduction. We start this week with Ezekiel; and we might notice immediately the gentler tone after some of the more bloodcurdling stuff we've had recently from Amos and Zephaniah. Yet the message is the same. Whether directly or indirectly, God will judge between his sheep – there will be a drafting gate through which some will pass to finer pastures and others will be on the trucks to the works. Somewhat counter-intuitively for sheep, the test will be how they have behave towards other members of the flock. Our second lesson is from the wonderful first chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians. It's impossible to do it justice in a brief summary. My only suggestion at this point is that if you opt for the "Christ in All Creation" theme it might be an idea to substitute some earlier verses from this chapter, particularly verses 9 and 10. We finish with what is often referred to as the "Parable of the Sheep and the Goats", although there is nothing in the text to suggest it was taught as a parable. Rather it seems to be a prophetic passage, warning again of the coming judgment, and somewhat putting St Paul's nerves on edge with its James-like dalliance with a gospel of works. More about this anon.
Background. Two seemingly unrelated events have dominated my reflections this week, the first sublime, the second ridiculous. The first concerns the astonishing achievement of landing a mini-laboratory called Philae on a comet with the rather less catchy name of 67/P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (if you're into pub quizzes, watch out for that one) after a journey of 10 years on the mother-ship Rosetta (now there's a name with a bit of history!), the meeting between comet and laboratory taking place at some vast distance from earth, while the said comet was cruising at thousands of mph! If I've got this right, it is believed that comets date from the beginnings of our solar system about 4 billion years ago (don't take my word for it, figures are not my strong point, but it was a long time ago!). But as I read the press reports on this into my mind came something about the sacramental bread being the supreme symbol of the unity of God and humanity, the Creator of the wheat and the creator of the bread. Here, at some vast distance from earth, yet only a tiny way into the heavens, the Creator's comet is united with humanity's little lander in a sacrament of awe-inspiring praise and worship. Christ in all creation indeed!
And now from the supreme to the ridiculous (and there are a lot ruder words that I could use to describe it). In Fort Lauderdale, Florida a ninety-year-old World War II veteran, named Arnold Abbott, and his two "accomplices", both church pastors, were arrested for giving food to homeless people in a public place. According to the story in a journal called Mother Jones (don't ask, I have no idea, but Google will find it for you), the arresting officer actually called out to Mr Abbott, "Drop that plate immediately!" Apparently, Fort Lauderdale is one of over 70 cities and towns in the USA who have made it an offence to feed homeless people in a public place. (Before we get too excited, we might recall that a similar provision was enacted in New Zealand during the Waterfront Strike in 1951, when it was illegal to give food to striking workers or their families.) Although the "justification" for such legislation varies from place to place, the general theme is that free food attracts the wrong sort of people to the area and is bad for business: it is usually the local chambers of commerce or equivalents who promote such bans.
Putting these two events together can give rise to all sorts of lines of thought, particularly with today's readings in mind, and again the language of St Paul ringing in our inner ears. Something about the height and depth? Somewhere up there is our token offering to the God who created our solar system of which the comet itself is but a small token. The words of the psalmist seem to me to have a whole new ring to them as I ponder all this: When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet. [Psalm 8:3-6] Teilhard de Chardin, in the absence of an altar in the conventional sense, famously consecrated the whole world as an altar on which to place his priestly offering of bread and wine: how he would have loved the idea of placing an offering on the altar of a comet!
Of course, there will be many who will bemoan the cost of the whole project, and perhaps link these two events by suggesting that if the money "wasted" on sending Philae to the comet were instead spent on providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, and health-care for the sick the good burghers of Fort Lauderdale (and elsewhere) would not have had to enact such heartless legislation in the first place. True, perhaps, but as I read through this week's gospel I had little doubt how chilling it would sound to any of those burghers who really listened to it. Even Jesus' most determined critics never tried to stop him feeding people in a public place, so long as he didn't do it on the Sabbath, of course. Come to think of it, it's not too hard to see how our lesson from Ezekiel might cause a few red-faces among those burghers, particularly those of a somewhat portly build!
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. The whole of this chapter 34 needs to be read together. It opens with an indictment of the leaders (shepherds) of Israel. In brief, they have been looking to their own interests instead of caring for the people. Verse 4 does not pull any punches as the failures of the leaders are laid bare. Accordingly, God will remove the people from the care of these shepherds and assume direct responsibility for the people. The first part of today's readings is largely taken up with God's promise to take good care of the flock, but it ends with a stern warning to "the fat and the strong" – God "will feed them with justice" (a wonderful phrase!). The details of their crimes are summarised in verses 17-19, the excluded middle of our set reading. The second part of the reading ends with the "ideal shepherd-king" installed as head shepherd under God.
Taking It Personally.
- Read slowly through verses 11-16a. Make a list of the specific types of care that God is promising. Notice how "site-specific" some of them are: mountains, water-courses, and inhabited parts of the land (that is, excluding the deserts and wilderness areas). How might this all-encompassing package of pastoral care be translated into the specific geography, history, and needs of this country?
- Now ponder verses 20 and 21. Who are the fat sheep in our country, and who are the lean sheep? What sort of sheep are you? With what kind of sheep is your local faith community most identified with?
- If this chapter were applied to this country at this time, what changes would be required to avoid the 'truck journey to the works'?
Ephesians 1:15-23. Notice the slightly unusual 'order of service' in the opening chapter of this letter. We might have expected St Paul's compliments to the recipients, and his assurance of his prayers for them, to come earlier than verses 15-16; but he has been so overcome with his high thoughts of Christ that his usual brief doxology has flowered into the extraordinary paean of praise we find in verses 3-14. Read those verses before starting on this week's set text. Notice now the content of St Paul's prayer for the Ephesians. The emphasis is on continued spiritual growth. Yes, they are facing persecution, and, yes, they are suffering hardship, illness, and all the same challenges that other faith communities were facing at that time; but St Paul does not directly address those needs in his prayers. He asks for them "a spirit of wisdom and revelation", that more and more they may come to know Christ as he has been revealed to St Paul. And St Paul then summarises just what has been so revealed. Once again, we can only marvel at the depth of his mystical insight that the man who died in such agony and ignominy on the cross is the one to whom "all rule and authority and power and authority" has been given by God. And all the rest!
Taking It Personally.
· Using verses 17-19 as a guide, pray such a prayer for yourself, asking God for "a spirit of wisdom and revelation". Pray similarly for your faith community.
· Using verses 20-22 as a guide, offering your own prayer of praise and adoration to Christ. Use "Christ is all in all" as a mantra this week.
Matthew 25:31-46. I love the heading to this passage in the NRSV edition that I use: it reads "The judgment of the Nations". First it reminds me that what follows is not "The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats"; and secondly, it reminds me that it is not about me and my sins, but about my country and our sins. It is the nations that are gathered before the Son of Man on his return in glory. Faith is a community affair, and it is as a community that we will be judged. The basis of the judgement, therefore, becomes, not what I did or didn't do, or what you as an individual did or didn't do, but what sort of a community you and I and all our fellow citizens have built together. Have we built a community where the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given safe drinking water, the strangers are welcomed, the naked are clothed, the sick are given good health-care, and even the imprisoned are remembered and visited? Or have we built a community that is the very opposite – one in which we each look after number one and the devil take the hindmost (to coin a phrase)? The structure of the passage makes it clear that wrongdoing is primarily a failure to do right. Failing to feed the hungry, etc is itself sinful, even if we do not actually prohibit anyone from doing so.
Taking It Personally.
· How do you react to the "national collective" interpretation suggested above? Reflect on your feelings about it.
· Re-read the story of Arnold Abbott above. What was your initial reaction to it?
· Suppose a "free food stall" was set up opposite your house, workplace or church, or in your favourite park, which drew a large crowd of homeless people? What would your own reaction be? Would you be more likely to object, ignore them, or volunteer to help?
· How well or otherwise would this country fare if judged in accordance with this passage?
· How well or otherwise would your local faith community fare if judged in accordance with this passage?
· How do you feel about the condemnatory language used in verses 41 and 46? Does it strike you as over the top or "un-Jesus like"? Or even "un-God like"?