Feast of Christ the King, Year C
Last Sunday after Pentecost
as prepared for delivery
The prophet Jeremiah wasn't predicting the future in today's reading when he said “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture,” he was just stating the facts of the case. The kings of Judah were, on the whole, a bad group. They were more concerned with currying political favor with whichever nearby kingdom was in power at the time than they were with following God's law or caring for their people. Jeremiah wasn't warning the Kings that great sorrow and distress was coming. They were already there. The scattered flock that Jeremiah talks about was the scattered people of Judah, exiled after King Zedekiah paid tribute to Egypt instead of Babylon.
It was too late to bring the Kings around to better behavior, but the prophet was also called to bring comfort to the people in times of distress, and through Jeremiah, God promises the people better shepherds and a new King.
“I will raise up Shepherds over them who will shepherd them and they shall not fear any longer or be dismayed nor shall any be missing. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a Righteous branch and he shall reign as King and deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
We hear Jeremiah today because this is the Feast of Christ the King in the church calendar. It may sound like an ancient feast day, but it was first added to the calendar in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to increasing secularism and political upheaval in Europe. Like the Judeans trapped between the Egyptians and the Babylonians, the Roman church was trying to navigate a Europe ruled by men like Stalin and Mussolini. The clear statement was that whatever political negotiations the Church might make, they were not subject to the civil authorities, only Christ was King.
Given the large political implications of this feast day, and the strong words of the prophet Jeremiah, it would make sense to have a Gospel reading that reflected a very Kingly Christ, dealing wisely and executing justice and righteousness. Instead we get a very broken, fully human Jesus, already dying on the cross. What friends he had left were silent and powerless. Even one of the criminals at his side taunted him.
“If you're really God, then save yourself, and save us, too.”
But the “good thief” on his other side sees Jesus' God-ship and instead of asking for a free pass off the cross he asks only to be remembered. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus agrees, and because with God there is no difference between thought and word, or word and deed, to be remembered by God means to be brought back into communion with God, and so Jesus promises the thief that he will be with Jesus in paradise, not after some time in purgatory, not after a quick descent to the dead, but that very day. Because God's time is not our time, but instead weaves around and through our time, as soon as the thief asks, the favor is granted.
We're supposed to be like the good thief. Ask to be remembered. Know that we will be with Jesus in his kingdom when the time comes, when God's time comes. We sing that prayer here at St. Andrew's as a Taize during Lent. The repetition of that simple prayer calms me, centers me, reminds me that I am not in charge and that's okay.
But more often than I care to think about, I pray the prayer of the bad thief. I look at the world, full of environmental and political destruction, full of people who are either bleeding to death or starving to death and I cry out “If you are God, save us.”
That prayer is not calming or centering, but I believe that prayer is not a failure of faith, but a cry of sacred frustration caused by the separation we feel between the broken, bleeding starving world, and the Kingdom of God.
We don't live only in this human world. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean that the separation between this world and God's kingdom has been torn and we have been given full membership in God's Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is here, woven around and through this broken human world and we stand with one foot in each place.
We see a broken world with our eyes, but with our hearts we feel what the Kingdom of God is like.
Through the parables we can put the Kingdom of God into words. We know that the Kingdom of God is like a job where you are amply rewarded for your good work, even if you were late that day. We know that the Kingdom of God is like a huge tree grown from a tiny seed. We know that the Kingdom of God is a world without strangers. We know that the Kingdom of God is like being welcomed home with a hot bath, clean clothes, a good meal and the warm embrace of a parent who loves us no matter what.
So when we look with our eyes and see this broken, bleeding, starving world, our hearts cry out with sacred frustration, “Come down and save us, all of us.” We want this world to be a good as the other one. We cry out because we know how much better it can be.
That frustration is sacred because it is a call. If you see how things are broken, and you know they should be better then you are called to be like those better shepherds in Jeremiah.
To see the world both as it is and as it should be is to see the scattered sheep, and to know that we are called to gather them together again.
To feel that frustration is to feel the pull that God puts on our hearts, a pull that cannot be satisfied unless we follow where it leads. We are not all called to the same place. God's lost sheep are on the plains in Africa, and the streets of College Park. They must be gathered back into the fold with food and water, but also with medicine, letters, rallies, money, and ceaseless prayers.
The damage that has been done to this fragile earth must also be repaired. There have been many bad shepherds, and so there is much to do.
It will not be fast, and it will not be easy. but just as Jesus was called to the cross and there gathered in a lost sheep, so we must go to the hard places, to the places full of fear and doubt and pain and sorrow to do the work that pulls at our hearts.
As Paul prayed for the Colossians, I pray for all of us. May we be made strong with all the strength that comes from God's glorious power, and may we be prepared to endure everything with patience.