Homily for the Reign of Christ 2008
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
Psalm 100 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
Ephesians 1:15-23 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Matthew 25:31-46 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
150 years ago, people could legally own other people, and ordinary church-going people read the scriptures in such a way, and created laws in such a way, as to justify a practice that we in our time consider inexcusable.
The slave trade brought hundreds of thousands to the Americas by force – transported by the hundreds in dark, sweltering, stinking holds below deck, chained together, usually lacking any sanitary facilities, sharing their tight quarters with rats, lice, and disease – they were starved and parched, and were simply tossed overboard if they died. Thousands of them died en route. Thousands were raped, whipped and crippled at the whims of the sailors, whose moral licence was provided by both Church and State in upholding (and even requiring) the practice of slavery.
The following is a description by the Reverend Robert Walsh, a chaplain aboard a British naval vessel, of a slave ship captured by the British Navy in 1829:
“She had taken in, on the coast of Africa, 336 males and 226 females, making in all 562, and had been out seventeen days, during which she had thrown overboard 55. The slaves were all enclosed under grated hatchways between decks. The space was so low that they sat between each other’s legs and [were] stowed so close together that there was no possibility of their lying down or at all changing their position by night or day. As they belonged to and were shipped on account of different individuals, they were all branded like sheep with the owner’s marks of different forms. These were impressed under their breasts or on their arms, and, as the mate informed me with perfect indifference ‘burnt with the red-hot iron.’ Over the hatchway stood a ferocious-looking fellow with a scourge of many twisted thongs in his hand, who was the slave driver of the ship, and whenever he heard the slightest noise below, he shook it over them and seemed eager to exercise it . . .
But the circumstance which struck us most forcibly was how it was possible for such a number of human beings to exist, packed up and wedged together as tight as they could cram, in low cells three feet high, the greater part of which, except that immediately under the grated hatchways, was shut out from light or air, and this when the thermometer, exposed to the open sky, was standing in the shade, on our deck, at 89′. The space between decks was divided into two compartments 3 feet 3 inches high; the size of one was 16 feet by 18 and of the other 40 by 21; into the first were crammed the women and girls, into the second the men and boys: 226 fellow creatures were thus thrust into one space 288 feet square and 336 into another space 800 feet square, giving to the whole an average of 23 inches and to each of the women not more than 13 inches. We also found manacles and fetters of different kinds, but it appears that they had all been taken off before we boarded. The heat of these horrid places was so great and the odor so offensive that it was quite impossible to enter them, even had there been room . . . They had sailed from the coast of Africa on the 7th of May and had been out but seventeen days, and they had thrown overboard no less than 55, who had died of dysentery and other complaints in that space of time, though they had left the coast in good health . . . While expressing my horror at what I saw and exclaiming against the state of this vessel for conveying human beings, I was informed by my friends, who had passed so long a time on the coast of Africa and visited so many ships, that this was one of the best they had seen!”
This is the history of hundreds of thousands of African-Americans and West Indians. It is almost impossible to imagine the impact that must have had on subsequent generations, not to mention the original victims of slavery!
John Newton, who wrote the beautiful hymn Amazing Grace, was not in the first place a beautiful person at all. In the first place, he was a slave trader – a man so foul and hostile toward God that his fellow sailors named him “The Great Blasphemer.” Newton participated for years in the slave trade, a leader of sorts in one of the greatest injustices in human history. Interestingly, one of the first British slave ships was actually named the good ship “Jesus” – what a witness to the narrow and inadequate kind of faith the slave traders had!
As we celebrate the final Sunday of the Liturgical Year, about to move into Advent and a new season of hope, we celebrate Christ as King, whose ministry was about freeing captives, extending God’s blessing, giving people hope, and enabling people to see with new vision. Ultimately, it was about deliverance from an old and obsolete model and the birth of a new way of being – a new way of relating to God and to our fellow human beings. On this Sunday we remember Christ the King, not as a great victor, wearing the crown of worldly power and success, but the King of a glory that people only dimly see – a king who stands among the outcasts and little ones of the world – the one who wears a crown of suffering.
Jesus equates himself with the poor and the outcast, the overlooked and the insignificant: “I was hungry … I was thirsty … I was a stranger … I was naked … I was sick … I was in prison …” Jesus doesn’t harp on judgement – I don’t think it was one of his major themes. He was more interested in where people might be going than where they’d been, less willing to allow the person to wallow in guilt than to empower them to move forward with a new purpose. But in this famous parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus indicates that our being right with God has to do with our treatment of the poor, the sick, the alien/stranger, and those imprisoned, and his comments about the future of those on the wrong side of the human equation are very harsh.
“He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn . . .”
Jesus’ mission as it is articulated in Luke 4 (and originally in Isaiah) has to do with liberating the captive, and enabling the blind to see. That is the line Newton picks up on in Amazing Grace “was blind, but now I see.” So we might ask ourselves, and consider: Who are the nobodies – the people who don’t count – the people we don’t see – the people we need to see in order to become right with the universe and on the right side of God? The truth is, we don’t know, because that’s the point — we are blind to them – they might be walking right by us, living around us and we don’t see them. A number of years ago, I had dinner at the home of a bishop, whose young son emerged during dinner from somewhere in the back of the house. He stood at his father’s elbow, and said, “Dad, Dad, Dad . . . “ After saying it about seven or eight times, he hung his head and left – the Bishop continued talking, completely oblivious to his son’s presence.
The kingdom of God is virtually invisible when you are blind to it. In Jesus’ story, the condemned people protest to the King by asking: “When did we see YOU in prison or naked or hungry, etc . . .?” They plead their innocence, but it’s like they’re saying, “if we saw someone important to us – someone we recognized — someone we liked – if we saw someone who counted – then we would have helped – then we would have been there.” But apparently they didn’t see anything in those people they identified or sympathized with. And Jesus is saying it’s up to us to do so – it’s up to us to pray, to ask God, for eyes that see, so we may see as God sees, and act accordingly.
With so many people in prison, so many poor, so many homeless, so many lonely and abandoned, what difference can one person make? Is it possible to move from feeling powerless to doing anything that could help? In a word, yes – there is much that one person can do. Let me give you some examples.
In the late 1940’s, a little Albanian nun not even 5 feet tall, went into the worst slums of Calcutta, believing that Christ is visible in the faces of all people, especially the poor (despite his sometimes “distressing disguise”), and created one of the most inspiring stories of Christian ministry of the last 100 years. Her order, the Sisters of Charity, continues to work faithfully with the poor.
Trevor Huddleston, a scholarly, English priest serving in South Africa, one day encountered a black woman and her son, and he tipped his hat to the woman in a simple gesture of respect and recognition. A simple thing, but such gestures were virtually forbidden in those days of racial separation. In the midst of an atmosphere of generalized hostility and separation, that simple gesture of respect was more significant than Fr. Huddleston could have known, because the boy who was walking alongside his mother just happened to be Desmond Tutu. Tutu later said, “I couldn’t believe my eyes – a white man who greeted a black working class woman!” It was one of those moments which become momentous, because Desmond Tutu was both encouraged and empowered by that simple gesture, and all Fr. Huddleston did was raise his hat!
Jean Vanier, believing that all people, even the severely handicapped, have something to offer us, and are valuable in their own right, broke down the barriers between “us” and “them” – between “normal” and “abnormal” — by creating the ministry known as L’Arche, and actually lives with people most of us would find very strange indeed. In doing so he helped create a new norm.
Barack Obama, believing that he was no less a person than a white person or any other person, has just been elected to the most powerful political position on the planet, as President of the United States. Three weeks ago I witnessed an historic moment – a watershed moment – when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Along with millions of people around the world, I was moved to tears by the sense of fulfilment and vindication and new hope this moment represents for all people who have been damaged by prejudice – who have been treated as nobodies — especially African Americans. Talk about things coming full circle!
The idea behind the AMAZING GRACE project is an expression of unity in Christ, as we experience it in the Anglican Church of Canada. All Canadian congregations have been invited to sing this great hymn today, Nov. 23. This project reminds us of the church of which we are a part, not just as an institution or a social connection but as the embodiment of Christ in the world – the ambassador of his love – the conveyer of God’s grace. And it reminds us that, in our struggles for justice and peace – for a better world – we are not alone.
Fortunately for the world, John Newton saw the light. After nearly perishing in a terrible storm at sea in 1748, he came to accept that God’s love and mercy could and did extend even to him – that he too could become a beloved child of God. To a man who had experienced much loss and neglect in his life, a man who had developed a resentment toward God, and a violent self-hatred that he directed outward toward other people, “amazing grace” said it all: Newton was stunned, overjoyed, overwhelmed – not to mention amazed – by the grace of God. As Jesus taught, God does not prefer retribution and wrath – God’s inclination is always in the direction of love and mercy. John Newton eventually left the slave trade, became an Anglican priest, and spent over 50 years serving God as a priest of the Church of England. He wrote hundreds of hymns. Ironically, he became a powerful and important voice in ending the slave trade. One person can make a difference!
You look at the appalling practice of slavery and ask, how could people treat others that way? Through a sense of entitlement and superiority – through ignorance and detachment – through convincing yourself of some kind of God-given arrangement to the scheme of things – through pride and a lack of humility and compassion. There are lots of ways in which that particular poison can flow into human life. The end result is that we say, in some way, “They are not persons in the same sense that I am.”
The Jesus we celebrate as Lord was linked with the despised and the rejected, not among the elites or the privileged. This parable is a pretty clear indication of his bias toward the poor and the vulnerable. Because the kingdom is invisible to many, a key part of Jesus’ ministry was enabling people to see. And he pointed to blindness not just as a physical handicap but as a spiritual issue. Seeing involves will and choice – and we can indeed choose to be blind and oblivious to a great degree. But we can also choose to see.
The point of Jesus’ story is, we don’t know who is important and who isn’t, and the people we deem as least, or as insignificant, may turn out to be much more significant than we might have imagined. So discrimination is a risky business. But whether they turn out to be great people or not, they are meant to be treated with respect, so no matter who they are, our behaviour toward people is guided by love and genuine concern for people’s well-being, not for whether they are important, or our involvement with them brings us some reward. Call it an investment in humanity, but it’s also an investment in our own future. I pray that we might allow God to open our eyes, and that we might choose to become agents of grace.