Restoring God’s Lost Sheep – who are the least?
May God restore all things through God’s well-beloved Son, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. AMEN.
Welcome to Christ the King Sunday! Woo hoo! Last Sunday before Advent, y’all! In reflecting on today’s collect, God made me mindful of all the types of “restoration” we experience. I hope you feel restored by (or from) your Thanksgiving celebration. As Episcopalians – a part of the Anglican Communion – our thoughts may turn to the English Restoration, in the year 1660. My professor of liturgics – The Rev. Dr. Louis Weill – used to say that history was the greatest liberator. We tend to use the word “traditional” pretty liberally, and sometimes, to open our lens more broadly, to take a broad view of history in our community, our culture, our world, can lend a new and liberating perspective.
After all, Holy Scriptures were not written to be history, yet they refer to events in Israel’s history and it’s helpful to be mindful of their historical context. The prophet, Ezekiel, for example wrote during Israel’s exile in Babylon, at the end of the 6th century BCE. It was, as are many periods in history, a time of “super power politics” and ethnic nationalism, in which the common people – God’s sheep – were oppressed and suffering. The English Restoration came about after the puritan reign of Oliver Cromwel (bum bum buuuuummm!).
As a military dictator, Cromwell swung the pendulum a bit too far, and stripped the Church of any hints of Catholicism, sometimes violently. When the English monarchy in King Charles II was “Restored” to the throne, he ushered in a period of religious tolerance. However, as the Church of English was restored to “power”, and the whole country became required to adhere to the “new” 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The pendulum swings both ways in history!
As in Ezekiel’s time, the poor people in England suffered most, many of them perishing in the Great Plague and the Great Fire (neither of which sounds so great to me!). There were no accurate numbers of deaths, since the poor were not counted, and went unnoticed in history.
Both the English and Jewish Restoration included great rejoicing! Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands! Theaters in England re-opened (after being closed by the Puritans) and now included women; people were dancing around May Poles! Ezekiel restored former religious practices, and revived them, investing them with a renewal of intentions. David – God’s Shepherd – became king, and responsible for the new Israel, establishing the line of shepherds that would someday lead to Jesus. And God, God himself searched for the lost sheep, those who had been forgotten, the least of these, who had wandered astray.mIs it any wonder that Jesus, when he comes to renew the world and restore God’s holy reign of Justice and Peace, identifies with the least of these?
Jesus’ ministry comes first to the poor, the outcasts, among whom he was one. Jesus power was one of vulnerability, who measured influence in love, kindness and generosity. Matthew’s Gospel takes the prophetic tradition – the descriptions of the lean sheep, who were the common folk of God, and the fat and horned sheep who represented the wiley ruling class – and builds upon it, renews it. And Jesus, as Jesus does, turns it inside out! Jesus makes distinctions between people not by their class, or their culture, or their gender, Jesus judges, makes separations, based on people’s behaviors, the fruits of their faith and hearts.
The pendulum of history swings broadly in the Anglican-Episcopal Church; its wide arc defines the outlines of our broad tradition, stretching between very ancient, Anglo-Catholic practices (like the Daily Offices, and chanting), and innovations that reflect a changing world and point the way toward the future Church (things like Christ the King Sunday, which began as late as 1925 to resist growing fascism). In that inclusive embrace, many people, cultures and generations can find a home, a place in which they can feel welcome, loved and nourished as they are. The mistake, I believe, is to become too rigid and stuck, or even to insist that any one point on the spectrum is the only way, and to demand that it must be for everyone.
Here at St. James, as we talked about last week, we are in the midst of a transition, a time of transformation, and the pendulum is swinging away! These past weeks your leadership and I have been listening to your desires, have prayed constantly and earnestly, asking God: upon what shall we focus, on Restoration, or on Renewal, or on Revival. And God answered: YES!
During my research, I came across an article written by a contemplative and evangelist on the Florida coast, talking about the spiritual practices of Revival, Renewal, and Restoration. The idea is that, as God’s being is expressed in a triune entity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so our spirituality takes on a triune nature, through Revival, Renewal and Restoration. Revival as an awakening and receiving of God’s energizing love through Jesus Christ; Renewal as being empowered by the gifts and calling of God through the Holy Spirit. And Restoration.
Restoration is about “restoring our relationship and our life with God the Father, our Creator. Not about restoring any one group or way of thinking to power; not about returning to some wistful “good old days”, but entering into God’s original intention of closeness with him, and right relationship with one another. The people of Israel, when they returned home, they did not, could not, make things just exactly “the way they were before”, because they had changed, they had grown, and the world around them had changed and grown.
Ezekiel – the one who rode a chariot of flames, don’t forget – he spoke truth to the people in love, and asked them to return to God not just in practice, but in their hearts.
Here at St. James, as we enter into this Season of Advent, we are blessed with questions to discern: questions about how to restore our worship space, not only as it “once was” but as it shall be; questions about a worship practice that will not only honor our past, but also make room for our future and “the hope to which God calls us”. Rather than make a hasty decision, based on data alone, I invite us, all of us, to enter into a time of Spiritual Transformation. Together, let us consider how God is calling us to Revive, Renew and Restore our faith. Let us do so, not grudgingly, but generously, with, as Paul writes to the Ephesians, “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” that “the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened”. For in that way we honor Jesus’ “immeasurable greatness of power for us who believe”. And in his powerful name, all of God’s people said AMEN.