November 20, 2011



Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 20 November 2011

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24

Reading for the Gospel:                                Matthew 25: 31-46


Today we reach the end of the Church’s year and appropriately we celebrate the Kingship of Christ.  We all have an image of what a king should be, whether we were born and brought up in a kingdom or in a republic, and our views of kingship are coloured, if not jaundiced, by the circumstances of our upbringing.  For many brought up in a republic, the concept of royalty is often seen as rather quaint and very out of date, but if what we saw at the end of April this year is anything to go by, there are those in one of this world’s great republics who have a soft spot, to put it mildly for things royal and even for princes and their brides.  Perhaps it is all part of what might be called the “Cinderella syndrome”, something that the Disney conglomerate learned how to exploit commercially many years ago.  All that talk and knowledge concerning royal paraphernalia, even and especially when it is incorrect, displays an imagery of royalty and kings that even some of the most ardent of republicans may possess. 

Yet that imagery is often far from the reality of what royalty is to those who are regarded as royal.  It varies, of course, from royal family to royal family and among members of those families.  Most royals, while recognizing the perquisites of their position in society and their nation, go about the task of being what they are with much the same attitude as people in other walks of life.  It is their job, and some do it very well, and some perhaps should look for other employment!  But all that being said, how many royals come anywhere close to the terms of reference as laid out in our reading from Ezekiel this morning? 

Ezekiel lived at a time when the Kingdom of Judah was governed by a skein of kings who fell far short of what a king should be.  And this reading from his prophecies reminds us as to what it means to be a sovereign, one who rules over others – and I would go so far as to suggest that were Ezekiel to be alive and active today he would argue that within a republic those who are called to govern should live by the same standards as he lays out in this passage. 

And let us be clear that when Ezekiel writes about “shepherds” he is referring to those who govern and not to the members of the priesthood, whether the sacrificial priesthood of the Hebrew Scriptures of the Presbyterate of the New Testament.  People might like to think of their clergy as pastors, another word for shepherds, but in the Scriptures the term shepherd or pastor refers to kings and governors. 

Let us look at some of the tasks that Ezekiel has the Lord God of Israel describe as being part of the role of the shepherd.  He will see that the sheep are properly fed and that they have adequate and appropriate accommodation.  He will seek the lost until he finds them, he will rehabilitate those who have strayed, he will provide treatment for the injured and he will give strength to the weak.  He will see that everyone receives justice, which in Biblical terms means receiving what they need, and he will do this at the expense of “the fat and strong”, that is, those who have an excess of goods and wealth, often at the expense of others.  And Ezekiel stresses this last point.  

“Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them ‘I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  Because you pushed and shoved with flank and shoulder, and because you butted all the weak with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock so that they are no longer ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.  And I will set my servant David over them and he shall feed them and be their shepherd.’”  

These words clearly define the role of the monarch and his advisers, what we might call the King and Parliament, or, in a republic, the President and the Congress.  In a country that claims to be God-fearing, it is not the accumulation of wealth that should be the main preoccupation of those who control the access to wealth, but the adequate distribution of it so that all receive what they need.  And since the Lord God is the God of all, these principles apply beyond the artificial boundaries that nations create. 

Now let us look at the parable which forms our reading for the Gospel this morning.  We all know it very well, or we should.  According to Matthew, from whose Gospel our reading comes, Jesus told this parable on the Wednesday of what we call Holy Week, and it is the last parable that he told before his Passion.  For Matthew, this parable sums up in very practical terms all that Jesus said about the Kingdom, over which he, as Son of David and Son of God, was being called by the Lord to rule.  Matthew has Jesus conjure up the court of judgement about which Ezekiel had written.  However, this time it is not just the governors that are on trial, but all of us, rulers and ruled, governors and governed. 

And once more, as in the story in Ezekiel 34, it is not a matter of how often we have been involved in religious, church-focussed activities that matters.  Here Jesus is portrayed as standing in the very same lineage as the prophets of Ancient Israel, men like Isaiah whom we are learning about in our Wednesday Bible studies, who taught that what really counts in the Kingdom of Heaven is how we treat our fellow human beings.  It is not simply a matter of the worship undertaken in church or chapel or temple or mosque.  It is also a matter of feeding the hungry, bringing adequate water supplies to those in need, welcoming aliens wholeheartedly into our midst by accepting them as they are, seeing that people are adequately clothed, have proper health care, and are treated with impartiality before the Law.  And if that means giving up some of our creature comforts so be it. 

As one who is described in New Testament terms as a presbyter, the Greek term from which the English word Priest as used in the Anglican Communion is derived, I am called to preach the Gospel and teach the Faith and how the Gospel and the Faith are to be worked out in our relationships one towards another.  And as a presbyter I am very concerned about how those who hear the Gospel and are taught the Faith live out their lives.  For in the Kingdom of Heaven we are all called to that royal ministry described in the passage from Ezekiel, for we are all part of the Body of Christ.  How we live our daily lives does matter on the eternal scale, and here in the affluent West we need to keep that very much at the forefront of our minds.  And Jesus makes it very clear that we, especially we who are the Church, the Body of Christ, we have no excuse in the Court of Heaven. 

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  We live in a world of instant communication, so much so that the mass media, including television are often in position to record events even before they occur!  Yet how do we see this great gift being used.  Each night we watch BBC World News on channel 42.  It runs for half an hour. Then we watch ABC World News on channel 25. (We don’t have cable!) It also runs for half an hour.  But there are differences.  The first programme is almost thirty minutes of news, while the second is closer to twenty.  The first programme recounts stories from around the globe, but the second is filled with much gossipy tidbits from within the United States and mostly New York, Washington, DC, and perhaps Los Angeles.  

If Matthew were writing his Gospel today and telling this parable in twenty-first century terms, which programme might fall into the category of the sheep, and which would certainly fall into the category of the goats?  We have become so saturated with the mores and customs of the affluent society of Western culture, whichever language we might speak, that we forget and ignore the mores and values of the Kingdom of Heaven.  All too often we put our faith in material riches, and we place our spiritual beings in jeopardy, by ignoring the very real needs of those who for whatever reason do not have access to material affluence.  In his last parable to the people of Jerusalem Jesus spoke of reaching out from our treasury of spiritual affluence to use material wealth for the benefit of those who are in real need.  And then he allowed himself to be arrested, tried, and executed wearing a crown of thorns.  Such is the Kingdom of Heaven.