Alertness and Vigilance
A Sermon preached by Lay Reader Eleanor Childs
26 November 2017 – Christ the King
Readings Ephesians 1:15-end;
I wonder if you try to spot connections between the various passages in the liturgy every Sunday. I sometimes wonder if there are any. And this was one of those occasions!. Anyway, after a bit of thought I think I’ve spotted a connection – you can tell me afterwards if you agree!
It’s fairly easy to see the connection between the Old Testament and the Gospel because both passages are about judgement – judgement for those who have oppressed or ignored the weak and needy. In the Old Testament reading, God, through his prophet Ezekiel is rebuking the bad shepherds – that is, the leaders of Israel- for their neglect and abuse of their flock (his people). God is going to judge them. Not only that but he is going to judge between the sheep – the fat and strong ones, who have taken advantage of the weak ones and ousted them. He cares deeply for those who who are poor and marginalised and suffering and abused. Some people mistakenly think there is a big difference between the God we meet in the Old Testament, who they think appears stern and punitive, and the God and Father of Jesus Christ who is utterly loving. All I can say, is that mistaken picture of God is based on very selective reading of both the Old and the New Testament. Yes, we learn here in our Old Testament lesson, that God is going to judge and punish those who have abused his flock in this passage, but look at the love and tenderness with which he speaks of his sheep. ‘I myself will search for my sheep, I will rescue them, I will tend them in a good pasture… I will search for the lost and bring back the strays… I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak…’
In the Gospel, we have a very sobering passage. Jesus is speaking of the Last Judgement , when he returns to earth and divides the sheep from the goats. It’s very fashionable nowadays, even in Christian circles, to avoid all mention of judgement and imply that judgement is alien to a God of love. But our God is also a God of justice and justice is simply the outcome of judgement. The words ‘judgement’ and ‘justice’ come from the same root. Jesus warned people repeatedly of judgement. He warned them of the consequences of their actions and choices. Just as a good parent is not someone who permits everything, but who lovingly warns his child not to put their hand in the fire and not to thump his sibling or there will be unpleasant consequences. Judgement is integral to how our universe operates and is the basis of our legal system. Jesus did not get crucified for saying ‘God is love’. We all like the sound of that. But he was crucified for saying ‘God is love, and He is not pleased with your actions and behaviour which have harmed your neighbour. I am his Son and unless you repent there will be terrible consequences.’ That’s what got him crucified.
In today’s passage, the criterion by which we will be judged does not appear to be whether we have kept the rules, or gone to church, or said our prayers but rather how we have treated our neighbour when he was in need. Social justice has always been at the heart of our Christian calling. How we respond to our neighbour is an indicator of how much we love God and share his heart of compassion.
But it’s always good to view Scripture passages in context and let one illumine another. This parable – though it’s more a pictorial description than a parable – is the fifth in a succession. Jesus told in this and the preceding chapter and they are all warnings, calling to alertness and vigilance. The criterion by which the people are judged and excluded is actually different in each, but they all involved blindness or neglecting to do something . You can look up the other warning parables in your own time. We’ve lost a lot of urgency in our discipleship since we have lost sight of the eternal consequences of our actions. And Jesus constantly reminded his hearers of these.
So what is the connection between our Old Testament lesson, our Gospel and now the Epistle? Well, I would suggest they are all about alertness and vigilance because we are accountable to God for our actions. In Ezekiel the shepherds, ie the Jewish leaders, were accountable to God for their treatment of others and their disregard and abuse of those he has entrusted to their care. As were the fat sheep who had bullied or taken advantage of the weak ones. In Matthew’s passage people are accountable to God for how they have treated the poor and the suffering and the marginalised. They have not recognised God in their neighbour or in the poor and dispossessed. They have been blind to God’s presence in his world and his people and blind to his commands to love their neighbour.
In Ephesians the situation is very different. Paul is writing to a church which is known for its faith in God and its love for people. He doesn’t warn of judgement or call to account because these people are not blind or oppressing anyone. They truly trust and love God and each other, yet Paul prays passionately for further enlightenment for the for growth in their relationship with God… Following Christ is beginning a journey towards increasing enlightenment and sight. He asks for them that ‘God will give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know him better.’ He prays that ‘the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so you may know the hope to which he has called you… the riches,… the incomparably great power for us who believe. Christian life is a journey towards God, a progression and there is always more to know and experience, so alertness, vigilance, awareness are vital, or we can fall into a rut or stray from the path or be blind to the needs of our neighbour. If the shepherds or the goats in our Old Testament and Gospel readings had truly known God, and his heart of compassion they would have had their eyes open and would have behaved differently and not come under judgement. And coming to Christ is just the beginning of opening our eyes to God and what he wants for his world.
Mindfulness as a practice has made it onto the modern secular world’s agenda. It comes from Buddhism, and it’s all the fashion now. My daughter is a psychologist and she has recently done a short training on mindfulness. But you know, mindfulness has been part of Christian training since the time of Christ and Paul. But the focus of attention and the aim of this practice is radically different in Christianity from that of modern secular mindfulness. I looked up the NHS website and it defined mindfulness as ‘paying more attention to the present moment, to our own thoughts and the world around us.’ The aim of this increasing awareness is – and I quote – ‘to enjoy life more and understand ourselves better. ‘ Now I’m not saying there is anything wrong with a practice which helps people de-stress and live more balanced lives. It’s much better than being heedless and un-reflective, but the problem is that the lens for viewing ourselves and the world can be distorted and we can make big mistakes. As a practice I think it falls far short of Christian mindfulness for its focus is usually limited to the self and the world and, as I said, the lens for viewing it – that is, our own limited perceptions – can be distorted. Christian mindfulness is about the renewing of our mind by a focus on God, coming to know him better, and grasping more of the hope and the rich resources that are ours in Christ and experiencing his power to heal and transform lives. As we focus on that, God will show us ourselves and our world from his perspective. And, believe me, that is what we need – to see ourselves and our world as deeply loved and valued by God and to rejoice in the hope, the riches of his love and his power to renew and restore and forgive and enable us to love our neighbour as we look to him.
Fine, you say, but how do we practice this mindfulness of our God which Paul longs to see in the church in Ephesus and for which he prays? Well revelation and enlightenment are gifts from God but they are also the outcome of a discipline which we must practice regularly. Are we willing to spend time soaking our minds in Scripture? We are responsible for directing our minds. We can choose where we direct them – to the phone or iPad, to work problems, to that person who has annoyed us, to worry about our health. It’s up to us whether we want to put time and effort into tuning in to God. He is longing to hear from us and shower blessings on us. I have a little book of daily readings and I want to quote from the other day’s reading: ‘Shift your focus from your performance to my radiant Presence. The light of my Love shines on you continually, regardless of your feelings or behaviour. Your responsibility is to be receptive to this unconditional Love. Thankfulness and trust are your primary receptors. Thank Me for everything; trust in Me at all times. These simple disciplines will keep you open to My loving presence.’ Thankfulness and trust do indeed keep us mindful of God’s presence. As does meeting with other Christians who encourage us. The love Christians have for one another not only builds them up in their faith but should mirror Christ’s love and acceptance to the world. This love, of course, extends to the poor and needy.
We shall not need to worry or fear God’s judgement if we stay alert and faithful to him. The more mindful we are of God and of our risen, reigning Christ the more we experience the hope to which he has called us, the riches available to us and his ‘incomparably great power’ at work within us and within our world.