A Season of Saints | SHEPHERD OF THE SAINTS
It’s Christ the King Sunday, the newest day in the liturgical year across the Western Church. It was first added in 1925 by the Roman Catholic Church in response to increasing secularization movements worldwide, but in particular to the plight of Mexican Christians who were being told by their government that only their government was due ultimate allegiance. The Church in Mexico remained faithful, holding public parades throughout the land (with significant governmental pushback!) proclaiming “Cristo Rey!,” “Christ is King!” Pope Pius XI made that declaration the basis of a Holy Day to be observed throughout the entire Roman Catholic Church, “Christ, The King of the Universe.” After Vatican II, Rome moved the observance of this day from October to the final Sunday of the Christian Year, and many Protestants, including United Methodists, who adopted the Revised Common Lectionary and its calendar have followed suit.
So today our voices come alongside those persecuted for their faith in all times and places, including in Mexico in the early twentieth century and the thousands facing persecution all over the world this very day, and with them we all proclaim in many languages, “Christ is King! Cristo Rey!”
Our declaration of Christ as King as Christians is not, or should never be, a declaration that simply places or underwrites one earthly hegemony over another. Nor can it be an assertion of force and violence over others. The kingdom Jesus proclaimed as we have it in the gospels is nothing like that. And today’s reading from Ezekiel reminds other earthly kings what God truly requires of those who would take on any earthly rule.
The true King, the King God wants to see, the King that Jesus was and is, is like Israel’s second king started out to be: a shepherd.
And not just any shepherd.
This is a shepherd whose flock has been scattered by the actions of typical kings and rulers, religious and otherwise. And this shepherd is, as we say in the South, “fixin ta do somethin’ about it.” This shepherd is one who goes looking for the scattered sheep, wherever they’ve been abandoned or wandered astray, cares for their wounds, and, when it’s time, carries them back to a safe fold where they can find healing.
Here’s the part we may not like as well, but must pay attention to.
This shepherd takes sides.
This is also the shepherd who will choose to ignore or even destroy the sheep who have prospered at the expense of those who have been injured and scattered, those who have pushed or shoved the others out of the way to get all the choicest pasture for themselves, those who made themselves strong on the backs of those who were weaker and whom they made weaker still. This shepherd has no interest in their preservation. They are like a cancer, taking and consuming resources for themselves and their own purposes that were intended to be made available for the good of the whole body. If they will survive at all, it will be without the help of this shepherd.
This shepherd sides with the weak, the outcast, the damaged, the diseased, the abandoned, the marginalized.
This shepherd spends time with them, caring for them.
And not with or for the benefit of the privileged ones.
This is the Shepherd of the saints. This is Christ the King, and this is the way his kingdom works in the world.
And these weak, outcast, damaged, diseased, abandoned, marginalized people-- these are the saints Christ the King, Shepherd of the Saints, tends.
We don’t have to take it just from Ezekiel. We can also take it from Jesus himself. The gospel reading assigned for today lays it out explicitly. Jesus gives his disciples and all who will listen a stunning picture of the last judgment before the the Son of Man and all his angels. Here he clearly identifies who the righteous sheep are, the ones who get to wear the white robes, the ones whose story is of ultimate salvation, the ones whose whole lives are marked by thanksgiving-- the saints. Matthew 25:40: And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these-- those in prison, or sick, or alien, or hungry, or naked, or thirsty-- you did it to me.'
This is Christ the King-- The King of Love, our Shepherd.
And if we are his, we acknowledge who we are and what we’ve done. We’re weak, not self-sufficient. We’re outcasts in one way or another, little as we may want to admit it to ourselves. We’re damaged, and in our damage we’ve probably damaged others. We’re diseased, riddled with sin, some of which we caught from others, some of which we carry to others. We are abandoned-- even abandoned by Christ the King if we try to live out of whatever privilege we’ve been allowed to have or have taken for ourselves. We are marginalized, because in the end there is no center in this world that holds or where anyone can truly stay for long.
If you don’t want to be found by the Shepherd who keeps seeking out the people you think are all of these “negative” things, and you’re convinced you’re not like them and want nothing to do with them, just keep that up. Be strong. Be self-sufficient. Take what you believe is yours. Enjoy your privilege and ignore the cries of those your privilege robs or fails to feed. Consider this shepherd your adversary. Because he is.
Or let him find you. Let him tend your wounds. Let him love you with the love of the Eternal. Let him unmask you for how weak and vulnerable you really are, how much you need others, especially those you’ve been content to ignore or cast aside. Let him lead you to take up your place among them.
Then let him put new clothes on you. Let him and your sisters and brothers he has rescued reshape your story. Let him turn your self-reliance into humility and your boasting into thanksgiving.
Then you will join that throng that no one can number, palm branch in hand.
And you will shout, with joy and wonder, “Salvation to our God, seated upon the throne, and to the Lamb.”
And you will sing,
“Victory, O Victory!
Now we see that victory!
Oh how happy can we be!
Christ has won the victory!”
And you will march with the persecuted of every age who cry:
Cristo Rey! Christo Rey! Cristo Rey!
Christ is King!