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Sunday 22 November 2020

How then should we live?

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46

 

By Kathryn Fleming

Canon Pastor at Coventry Cathedral

Context: Cathedral Eucharist, for a medium-sized congregation of left-wing retireds, with a substantial fringe of African students and perhaps two dozen young choristers

Aim: to consider how to live as signs of God’s Kingdom in a time of crisis

THE STATE WE’RE IN

During the first weeks of lockdown back in the spring, I was disappointed to discover that being confined to the house did not automatically equate with finally completing all the creative projects I had postponed for years or settling down to read Proust in French. Instead, in an excess of escapism, I took refuge in comfort-watching favourite films on DVD including The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with its encouraging message: `It’ll all be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.’

It may sound trite, but I think we’ve really needed that kind of reassurance as we’ve wound our tortuous way through the long weeks of 2020, seeing plans abandoned, and government guidelines changing with bewildering speed, prompting all sorts of debate as to what good leadership might look like, and how we should live to protect the well-being of all.

HOW NOT TO BE A LEADER

Predictably, there is nothing new under the sun, and those questions were as familiar to Ezekiel as they are to contemporary journalists. Here, too, is a nation in crisis, a nation whose leadership leaves much to be desired. Speaking through the prophet God begins chapter 34 with stringent criticism of those revealed as false shepherds, neglecting God’s people to pursue their own interests. God promises to take control and restore justice until the flock is secure again. It’s a troubled landscape, of heedless shepherds caring little for the lost, injured, and weak - but worse still, that flock is disunited, turning against itself with self-interest driving the actions of too many. If the description hits home for us, that’s rather the point, but help is at hand as God promises to appoint a king worthy of the title: one who will prioritise the downtrodden and oust from the flock those who have no place there: the wolves in sheep’s clothing. There will be a new kind of kingdom in which they don’t belong. God will reorder things to establish the righteous kingdom God always intended. `I will save my flock’, even if that means driving others away.

Deep breath! That probably doesn’t sit well with liberal sensibilities, does it? Can we carry on believing that it will all be alright in the end? I think so, but it’s not plain sailing.

WHO BELONGS IN GOD’S KINGDOM?

Fast forward six centuries and we find ourselves in equally uncomfortable territory as Matthew shares Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. The trouble is that it can be SO hard to tell them apart! Horned, shaggy, and bleating, they are all inclined to waywardness, and as Jesus describes the Last Judgement, it seems that even the creatures themselves are uncertain which is which. Nobody is sure they’re in the right place. They didn’t set out to serve or neglect their King, so the sentence pronounced over them `You did it to me’ causes alarm and consternation.

Turns out that here, as in the days of Ezekiel, it’s not a question of who you are but how you live. To belong in the Kingdom is to live by its rules. Thomas Merton spoke truly, defining the Kingdom of God not through doctrinal niceties or religious practice but as `the kingdom of those who love’.

Love: the heart of parable and Kingdom alike, the nub of the great commandment Jesus gives us. To love our King is to love what he has made, including beautiful, broken, frustrating humanity. Our neighbours. And ourselves. And to love them is to love the One in whose image we are all made, and to recognise that image wherever we encounter it.

That’s what it means to live into the Kingdom. To love, and keep on loving, just as Christ does, regardless of cost, or the shifting sands around us. It takes courage when our personal well-being is not secure, but it’s the only way.

If we want to serve Jesus, we do so in loving service to the marginalised, the outcast, the overlooked. Not duty, but love. In the end, it’s quite simple, really.

As Augustine wrote: `Life is for love. Time is only that we may find God’.

That’s our purpose, so keep on loving and it will all be alright in the end.

We may feel inadequate, weary, bewildered, or terrified, - but keep on loving anyway, and the more we love, the closer we will come to the God who is all love.

More, by God’s grace, we may yet signpost others towards God’s Kingdom. Just keep on loving.

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