November 20, 2011
“Standing at the Foot of the Throne” by Rev. Stacy Swain
Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
The first time I remember meeting God was when I was four years old. My family was living outside of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. We lived in an old farm house, with a bright red barn out back and several acres of pasture stretching out all around it. I remember my dad had an old tractor that he would use to mow the meadows and I loved nothing more than to stand on the back hitch and hold onto his shoulders as we made long sweeping circles around the fields.
It was there in the back field, the one that stretched in a gentle slope up to a rise and then down again to the forest beyond, where I met God.
My sister and I were laying on our bellies with elbows propped up chin in hands waiting silently in the tall grasses. We had hauled a large block salt lick up from the barn and placed it on top of the rise in the field. We placed it there in the late afternoon sun knowing that that was the time that the shy deer made their way out of the forest and into the pasture to graze. We lay hidden in the lush green grasses warmed by the sun full of fragrance of late summer.
Now as vivid as this memory is, the strange thing is I do not remember if a deer ever did come meet us that day. But what I do remember so clearly, what has held my heart all of these years, is how completely at peace I felt. There by my sister’s side, warmed by the afternoon sun I felt so safe, so deeply contented, watched over somehow, protected by the universe. Lying there in the grass, I felt the care of God.
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. AMEN.
In the sweep of the yearly cycle of worship, this Sunday is known as Christ the King Sunday. This is the Sunday when we are reminded that at the end of all things, we will pass under the judgment of Christ who is seated on a throne of glory, Matthew tells us. Our ancestors of faith, who built this church wanted to remind us of this as well. Now we may have thwarted their intention a bit exiting the sanctuary as we do through the side chapel for reception. But it is no accident that there on the back wall is enshrined Christ the King in the stained glass. Christ the King is there so that every Sunday, we will be reminded that when we leave, whether it be this time of worship, or this liturgical year, or this earthly life, all of us leave passing under the judgment of Christ the King.
Judgment day, this time of reckoning when the people are called to the foot of the throne and separated out one from another, sheep from goat, the righteous from the condemned has gotten a lot of play in Christian tradition. I remember visiting a beautiful little church on one of the islands off Venice in Italy. It was over a thousand years old and as I entered the peace of the place was palpable. But after sitting for a while in the stillness I turned to go and was shocked and horrified by the grizzly scene of judgment on the back wall. There was Christ seated on the throne of glory, the righteous looking smug on his right and those on his left, well let’s say, the scene made my blood run cold. The message could not have been clearer. Be afraid. Be very afraid, for you never know where you will land.
So every year when we come to this last Sunday in the worship year, this last Sunday before we start again next week with the first Sunday in Advent, I turn to the biblical text with a certain degree of trepidation.
I read the criteria for being among the righteous; one must have fed the hungry, given the thirsty something to drink, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited the one in prison and I don’t know about you but I immediately start running through my “own how to get to heaven” check list. Feed the hungry? Check, we are collecting food for the Newton food pantry. Clothe those in need? Check, we are collecting coats for cradles to crayons. Welcome the stranger, Check, we had our community thanksgiving dinner. Visit the one in prison? Check, we visited prayers upon the inmates through the Kairos ministry. Ok, so I may get by this year… Maybe…
But there is a rub for me at least. Is uncertainty and fear really the emotion we are to feel at the end of it all? After all we have experienced this year as we followed Jesus from the manger to the cross, and through the cross to the empty tomb, is fear and uncertainty really the emotion we are to feel as we live into Christ’s example?
I think not. Not only has time and time again, Jesus told us “Do not be afraid” but listen again to the scripture from today! Jesus is speaking these words to the disciples on the day before he is betrayed. He knows that his earthly end is coming to a close and that the disciples are going to go through some really tough times and that they most likely will be really afraid. He tells them, that at the end of it all, Jesus the Christ will be there on the throne of glory, but he will not be as a stern judge the text tells us. He will be as a shepherd, separating the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Now I am sure that there was a collective sigh of relief from the disciples that day, those gathered around Jesus when they heard these words, for they knew what they meant. They knew how a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. It is not by score card. It is not by tallying it all up and seeing if one is good enough.
It’s by calling that special call, whistling that special whistle, when hearing that the sheep’s ear’s perk up for they know the one that calls them. So the separation of goats from sheep is something that the goats and the sheep do themselves. It is not based on some divine score card, but on a deep seated response of the sheep to their shepherd. When the shepherd calls they leave the common water spring where all have come to drink and they gather at the side of their shepherd. They come because they know what it is be under the care and protection of the shepherd. They know what it is to be hungry and then to be fed; what it is to be thirsty and be led to fresh water, to be afraid and then to be comforted; to lay down on their bellies in the grass and to know that they are watched over, protected, to be contented and at peace.
This is the promise Ezekiel speaks. Can’t you just feel it? To lie down in good grazing land and be fed on rich pasture. To be found when we are lost. To be binded up when we are injured. To be strengthened when we are weak.
At our Thanksgiving Dinner yesterday, after we had eaten together, and laughed together, and told stories together, as we were cleaning up and getting ready to go, an elderly guest from the community came up to me. She took my hand and with tears brimming in her blue eye she said, “You know, when you get old, it is easy to feel like you don’t matter really. But I really felt at home here today. And I thank you!”
As I hugged her goodbye, I felt that same peace that I felt that day as I lay on my belly in the fragrant pasture with my sister at my side, so long ago. For that moment, in the vestry yesterday, I caught a glimpse of the deep contentment of which Ezekiel speaks. I felt that deep peace of being held in the care of God.
Why do we collect food for the Newton food pantry and the food pantry at Andover Newton Theological School? Because we know what it is to be fed not just in body, but even more in spirit and we want others to know that as well. Why do we welcome the stranger at our Community Thanksgiving Dinner? Because we know what it is to be welcomed not just into this community but into the embrace of God and we want others to know that as well. Why do collect coats for Cradles to Crayons? Because we have known what it is to feel the warmth being cared for by others and by God when we are cold and exposed and we want others to know that as well.
In the days and weeks ahead, May the kindness and care that we extend to those around us be our heart felt response to the kindness and care that has already been extended to us through Jesus.And when we gather at the throne of our King, may be do so not with fear but with faith knowing that we will be judged not on whether we are good enough, but on whether we have heard the call of our shepherd and followed the example of the one who leads us all to good pasture and deep peace.