A sermon from the end of the last liturgical year.
This morning we come to the end of the church year. Over the past twelve months we have celebrated God’s self-revelation in Advent and Christmas and Epiphany. We have recalled the suffering patience of Jesus in the season of Lent. We have walked through the darkness of Good Friday into the glory of Easter morning. We have faced the mystery and glory of Pentecost – the life of the Spirit given to create and equip the church. We have journeyed through ordinary time, listening to the stories of Jesus and God’s people.
And today we come to the last Sunday of the year, which the church celebrates under the banner of Christ the King.
We end the year with a statement of faith.
We end the year with a statement of hope.
We end the year with a statement of Christ’s glory.
We end the year with a decidedly political statement – Christ is King.
This declaration that Christ is King raises all kinds of important questions, of course, What kind of a king is he? What kind of kingdom is he bringing to our world? And the truth is that when we talk about that wandering rabbi, the language of kingship and sovereignty might not be the first thing to come to mind. In many cases kings have been absolute sovereigns – they have exercised power at will – they have commanded vast armies – they have gone to war without just cause – they have been wealthy tyrants – they have only too rarely served their people with integrity and grace.
So against this kind of a backdrop we discover that we must think of Jesus’ kingship in very different terms. He is
a king who refuses to take up the sword to destroy his enemies,
a king who reigns not from a throne but from a cross,
a king who offers his life in service to others.
He is a king – he rules our lives and our world – the political realm is decidedly implicated here – even as Jesus is so clearly not a king on the model of worldly kingship.
When the church has tried to say more about the kingship of Jesus, it has turned to different texts in the Old and New Testaments. And one of those texts is Ezekiel 34, part of which we heard read this morning. That particular text is set in the context of Judah’s exile in Babylon. God’s people have been taken from their homes and their country – their cities and their towns and their livelihoods have been destroyed – and the prophet tries to make sense out of this national tragedy. The prophet tries to give God’s people some sense of purpose in the light of God’s judgment and God’s promises and God’s faithfulness and God’s commandments.
And a part of the message Ezekiel brings is a message of judgment against the kings of Judah. Immediately prior to our passage for this morning, we read these words:
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill… with no one to search or seek for them.
In this passage from Ezekiel, the king actually has two vocations. A king is not only a king. A king is also a shepherd. And Ezekiel is saying that the suffering of God’s people, their exile and their homelessness, results partly from the fact that the kings of Judah failed in their role as shepherds to the people.
The kings did not feed the sheep.
The kings did not strengthen the weak.
The kings did not protect the sheep – so they became food for wild animals.
In the following verses, which we read this morning, God concludes: Since the kings of my people have failed – since they have not cared for my flock – since they have not lived up to their calling – I will, myself, become a king and shepherd to my people.
So at the end of our passage God says. “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them; He shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them.”
Is there any surprise that the early Christians, the first followers of Jesus, began to understand the kingship of Jesus in just these terms. Jesus, who is a descendent of David, becomes this shepherd and king spoken of in Ezekiel. Jesus, who is uniquely the Son of God, becomes this one to feed and shepherd the people of God, in service to his heavenly father. Through Jesus, God himself comes to be king and shepherd to his people.
So we end the year with a statement of faith.
We end the year with a statement of hope.
We end the year with a statement of Christ’s glory.
We end this year with a decidedly political statement.
Christ is king. And every authority and every rule and every government is and must be in service to his compassionate and humble kingship. Every rule and every government is and must be in service to the truly human way revealed in him.
The culture around us, of course, wishes that the church would keep its nose out of politics. The activists and the policy makers and the legislators very often argue that public policy must be crafted in a neutral and objective and secular manner, untainted by faith convictions. And the church has very often been too quick to respond: “Don’t worry, we’ll keep our faith to ourselves – we’ll just proclaim Jesus as king here in our little space, between these four walls. And if we do speak up publicly, don’t worry, we’ll be sure to do so on your terms, without any reference to the way and One we follow.”
This morning I’m going to do something I rarely do, which is to venture into the realm of the political. And I’m going to do so on a topic that has been much in the news thse past couple of years – namely, on the topic of medical aid in dying. That phrase, “medical aid in dying” is the ambiguous and arguably deceptive phrase used by the government of Quebec to refer to physician-assisted death. Medical aid in dying refers to the fact that if a patient asks a doctor to give her a lethal injection, to end her life, the physician must grant that request in certain circumstances. According to the law, the patient’s request to be killed must be granted in certain situations – where the patient has an incurable disease, where the patient is in an advanced stage of decline from that disease, and where the patient is experiencing physical or psychological suffering that can’t be relieved in a way the patient finds acceptable.
In thinking about this law the first thing we need to remember is that there is nothing neutral or objective about it. The legislators and the policy makers, they would have us believe that this new law is purely secular, in the sense that it is not influence by any faith or religion. Most legislators and policy makers would say that this is a secular law for a secular province. It is neutral and objective and scientific – it’s just based on the facts of human life and experience. But obviously that isn’t true.
This law carries within itself certain claims about what it means to be human.
This law is defined by a particular vision of what is true to the human.
The language used in this law is the language of autonomy and the language of dignity and the language of respect and the language of health. But we have to ask: Where does this particular notion of autonomy come from? Where does this notion of human dignity come from? What is the basis of this notion of respect? And the truth is that there simply is no neutral, no purely secular or scientific way to answer any of these questions, as so many legislators and policy-makers would argue. Rather, every answer to these questions will be a religious or quasi-religious answer, necessarily.
So in any discussion like this one, we are talking about competing visions of what is true to the human. And for those who proclaim that Christ is King, it is a question of whether this law of the state reflects the love and care and justice of the one who is the great shepherd and before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
As we think all too briefly about end of life experiences and care, we remember that these are complex issues. And as we think more narrowly about doctor-assisted death, we know that there are lots of important questions we can’t explore. This morning we leave aside the question of what it means that God in Christ gives the gift of life and is the author of every life. This morning we leave aside the question of what it means to approach our death as those who trust Christ’s presence with us through the valley of the shadow of death. We leave aside the question of what it means that we have our life only in Christ, only with his people, and never alone in our autonomous existence.
This morning we focus rather on one narrow aspect of the discussion. This week I watched a few video clips from a recent dinner conference held by the Coalition of doctors for social justice. And what struck me particularly were comments made by Balfour Mount. Many of you will know that Balfour Mount is one of the first practitioners of what we have come to know as palliative care – medical care that aims to manage pain and symptoms while providing support to the patient and the family in the process of dying. Dr. Mount spoke, in this context, both as a palliative care specialist and as someone who has recently been treated for both testicular and esophageal cancer.
One of the things Balfour Mount challenged was the government’s use of that phrase “medical aid in dying.” He asked: Isn’t that what I’ve been doing for the past 40 years – providing medical aid in dying? It’s called palliative care. In other words, Mount was pointing out that the government has appropriated the language of medical care and end of life care and is using that language in a fundamentally different way – the state is using the language of medical care to speak of the legalized killing of patients that puts an end to their care.
But more importantly, and this is what particular struck me in his comments, Dr. Mount pointed out that fewer than 1/3 of patients who need it, have access to palliative care. That means that more than two thirds of those who are dying – more than two thirds of those who are in the last stages of a terminal disease – more than two thirds of us don’t receive the palliative care we need or want. The goal of palliative care is to treat pain and the symptoms of disease – the goal of palliative care is to provide support to patients and their families. The goal of palliative care is to provide some quality of life in the last days of a person’s living and dying. Palliative care assumes that even in our hardest days we might learn something about what it is to be human – a claim that resonates deeply our approach to suffering and death in Christ. Of course palliative care doesn’t make death easy – it rarely is. But it attempts to establish dignity and care in the context where they are most needed. And fewer than1/3 of patients who need it have access to it.
In other words, the government is not funding palliative care to the extent that it is needed. The government is not promoting or providing the palliative care that most of us need and want. Yet legislators and policy makers are more than prepared to co-opt the language of care to provide for the intentional killing of patients in some situations. In this context, is it really that much of stretch to suggest that when the compassionate and dignity-preserving care we need isn’t being provided, it will easily become commonsensical for patients to embrace the government’s deceptively named medical aid in dying.
I can’t help but go back to those words from the prophet Ezekiel we read this morning, and to read them in the light of what we have briefly explored. And I do so knowing full well that it is always easier to point the finger at others than it is to examine our own words and actions. But I go back to these words recognizing that they are inherently political, and that our faith is inherently political. The word of the Lord came to the shepherd/kings of Judah – the word of the Lord came to the legislators:
You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill… with no one to search or seek for them.
When we proclaim that Christ is king, we are proclaiming a fully political message. This is not a pious prayer that rises only above our bed at night or only within the church walls – it is not a confession that can be isolated from the challenges of our shared life in human community. It is a declaration that the truly human way has been revealed, and is embodied in the way of Christ, our risen Lord.