Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon from Sunday, Nov 23, 2014 (Reign of Christ Sunday)

Scripture:  Ezekiel 34:11-24 and Matthew 25:31-46

(Note: In addition to Reign of Christ Sunday, the liturgy also included a baptism of a near-newborn named Ethan, son of Mark and Jenny, whose grandfather Stew read the Ezekiel lesson.)

When I talked with Stew this week about reading Scripture and I told him about the Ezekiel passage, and the judgement God promises to make between the greedy sheep and those who are deprived, between the pushy sheep and those who are pushed away and pushed out, his immediate reply was, “And you’re going to relate this to the baptism?  Right?” 

And I said just as quickly, “Of course.”

Of course.  Because today really is all about Ethan, isn’t it?  And about all the little ones that come into and under our care.

Mark and Jenny, no doubt you have already learned this hard truth, that now you are no longer just Jenny and Mark.  Rather, you are now first and foremost, Ethan’s mommy and daddy.  And that’s not gonna change.  Your house, your routines, your sleep patterns, your lifestyle, your finances, your vacation choices, in time your choice of music and what concerts and parties and entertainments to go to will for a very large part all revolve around Ethan and what’s good for him – because you love him, and from your strength you want to care for him in his weakness, from your abundance you want to provide for him in his need.

And that – that understanding of life is where our readings this morning try to point us – to the understanding that God cares, and cares especially for the weak, the vulnerable, the needy, and the wounded ones of the world – God cares so much that God’s house, God’s routines, God’s sleep patterns, God’s lifestyle, God’s finances, God’s vacation choices, God’s choice of music, and God’s choice of where to travel and where to dwell all revolve around the poor and the weak of the world, around those who are wounded and in need.

One side of our baptism of Ethan is our desire and shared commitment as family and church to provide a safe, supportive place for him in the world.  Jenny, even before you and Mark were able to cradle him for the first time in your arms, you bore him for nine months and you and Mark together did all you could to ensure he was safe and had all he need to grow and mature well.  And now that he is born you will not stop doing that; the commitment to his safety and to what will help him grow well only increases, and your family and friends around you are now able to share more directly in this great work.

And we have committed ourselves as a church to do what we can as well.  That’s why I cleansed my hands before taking him in my arms to baptize him.  That’s why we provide nursery care for when he is older – not to keep him out of worship, but to offer him a place that we hope he can call his own.  That’s the reason for Sunday school and Vacation Bible school and anything else we might be able to offer – not primarily to grow the church, but to offer Ethan and others a good place to learn about God, about love, and about what makes life good and meaningful.  That’s the reason we adopt and place on our bulletin board downstairs the provincial guidelines and church protocols around abusive behaviour, bullying and any kind of assault in this place – not because we have to follow the law, but because we want this space to be as safe, welcoming and comfortable as possible for all.

And in the midst of all this, we also hope – as you do, as parents, grandparents, god-parents, uncles and aunts and cousins – we all hope that Ethan will be able to grow up to a life that is also caring and nurturing of others around him who are weak, or hurt, or in need.

That too is an understanding of life to which our readings want to point us.  In Ezekiel’s time it was a matter of relieving people of the notion that they simply have to put up with greedy or oppressive or blind leaders – with the equivalent of what we would describe today, as leaders who are servants and protectors of the 1%.  That’s the only kind of leaders the people of Israel had known, and they suffered because of it.  In time they lost all they had when their leaders’ misguided policies led to total collapse.

Against this tragic experience, Ezekiel says God will come and will “him-self” be their shepherd.  God will let the self-serving bullies fall away into history’s dust-bin, will not call on their service anymore, and God will gather those who have been scattered and forgotten, those who have suffered and are in need.

And who knows how?  Maybe by populist movement, maybe by insurrection or revolution, maybe by groundswell, maybe by an Idle-No-More or Occupy movement, maybe by little pockets of new community.  However it happens, God will do this gathering and nurturing work out of love for the little ones, and then God will raise up a new prince for them – not a king – God has had enough of kings – but a prince who will act compassionately under God’s direction, and with only the authority that comes from love.

And who is that prince?  Well, we believe it’s Jesus – the one whose birth in a stable, for the sake of life and love and death and new life among and with the poor, we celebrate just a month and two days from now.  

And it’s also many others.  It’s all who live in the spirit and the way of Jesus – all who accept the invitation to be the body of Christ in the world.  It’s all who truly live in the spirit and the way of God – all who live in the world as people of faith, hope and love.

And that too is part of our baptismal prayer and desire for Ethan – that he be able to grow up to become part of that body, and part of that great community of people who live out God’s love in the world.

I saw something recently about parents’ wishes for their children.  In a recent study in North America, when asked what they most wanted for their children, a majority of parents said they wanted their children to be happy.  Those same parents, though, when asked what they most wanted for themselves, replied that they wanted a meaningful life – a life that they could look back on as having been lived to good purpose.  Happiness – as we are taught to understand it, and meaningfulness are not always the same.  Why would we not want for our children the same thing that in our growing maturity we want for ourselves?

I saw a story in The Spectator this summer titled “Teach Them to be Kind” which makes the startling claim that 80 % of young people in a recent Harvard study indicated that their parents “were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others.” 

On one hand, that shocked me, because here for instance that’s not what I see.  I see families and households that do teach their children to be kind and caring for others beyond themselves, and who care that their children grow up this way.

On the other hand, though, I think of my own parenting, and I wonder what my primary concern was when my son was young.   Would I not have said, “that he be happy”?

The article mentions five things that can be done to “teach them to be kind” – make caring for others a priority that you talk about; provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude; expand your child’s circle of concern; be a strong role model and mentor; and guide children in managing destructive feelings so that the desire for caring for others is not undone by anger, shame, envy or feelings of powerlessness.

That’s what we’re about at our best, as parents and family and friends and church around Ethan, and around other children in our care and in our circle.  It’s what we are at our best even just for ourselves, in our own life.

Because we really do believe in what this Sunday is about – the celebration of a new life among us, created and nurtured into being by God; placed in our care to be kept safe and encouraged to grow in good ways; all under what we celebrate as the reign of Christ, the lordship over all the world of the God who cares most especially for all those who are weak and vulnerable, who are poor and in need, who are hurt and deprived – all the little ones of the world.

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