Taking the Pledge

Reign of Christ  and White Ribbon Sunday             November 26, 2017

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

Today is the last Sunday of the church year, the Reign of Christ. As is appropriate for the last Sunday of the year, we focus our attention not so much on the stories of the past, of God’s mighty deeds, but on the promise of the future: how our Christian story – our human story, in fact – is supposed to end. It is a reminder that we do not just drift aimlessly through life, but that our existence has a shape and direction and meaning. The arc of the human story bends towards justice, and peaceful coexistence, and kindness, because that is what we have been created for.

It was a reminder that the people of Ezekiel’s day badly needed to hear. Ezekiel is speaking to the people at the very low point of their history, the time of the Babylonian exile. They find themselves scattered and dispossessed, traumatized by the violent disaster that has overtaken their country. And, clearly, they are hopeless and disappointed, discouraged not only by the power of the Babylonians, but by the incompetence of their own leaders who have gotten them into this mess. Perhaps that’s a theme that rings true to many of us in today’s world. For too many years their kings have failed at their basic task of providing justice to the people; they have allowed the pushy and the powerful and the arrogant to prey on the weak and the disadvantaged. God’s vision for Israel was in tatters long before the Babylonian armies camped around Jerusalem.

Passages like this – and there are many in the Old Testament – remind us that Jewish and Christian faith is never a private, individual matter. God wants to bring health and salvation to every aspect of our lives, and that can only happen when that health and salvation is brought to our social and political lives. In the Old Testament, God does not just call individuals, like Abraham or Moses – God makes for himself a nation, calls forth Israel as a place where God’s intention for all human society can be shown. The New Testament extends that promise beyond Israel to all nations, but it does not forget it. The Biblical vision remains a social vision where justice, peace, and concern for the weak remain central: where the fat sheep will not butt and kick the lean, and steal the best pasture, and muddy the waters for everyone else.

We are a long way from this Biblical vision of a redeemed human society. There are of course any number of ways we fall short, any number of places where power and arrogance and bullying mar our common life. One aspect stands out today: this is not only the Reign of Christ, but also White Ribbon Sunday, when we remember how pervasive violence against women remains in our society. Perhaps for that reason it is a good topic to focus on when we think of God’s vision for our society: because it is not something far away or removed from our experience, but runs right through our community.

This topic has been very much in the news lately. The revelations against powerful figures in Hollywood and in the political realm have been coming thick and fast; there is a feeling that powerful and protected men are now being called to account. The #MeToo movement has gained momentum, reminding us that sexual harassment is not just a problem in Hollywood, but one that runs right through the lives of ordinary women.

One particular testimony shocked and moved me this week: an article entitled “I have never been sexually assaulted” in which a young woman talks about some of her experiences growing up.((http://www.feministcurrent.com/2016/11/21/never-sexually-assaulted/)) There was the older boy back in daycare, who was always trying to lure her into another room and pull down her pants – and the nagging question, what else might have happened that she doesn’t remember. There were the obscene catcalls on the street before she had even entered puberty, which shamed and traumatized her. There were the boys in high school who groped at her in the hall or at parties. There was the boyfriend who made their relationship about gratifying his own needs. The ironic refrain to each of these stories was “I have never been sexually assaulted” – because she was too young and ashamed and lacked confidence and the incidents seemed too minor to report, but yes, clearly they were sexual assaults. They were incidents that left her feeling ashamed and sickened – instead of the perpetrators, the ones who should have felt shame.

And the kicker for me was to read the comments of friends of mine on social media, strong, competent, intelligent women, remarking: “yes, that’s about par for the course. I could tell several similar stories myself.” That is what I found, well, not exactly surprising, but shocking – how very ordinary these stories are, how very common this kind of thing is. It leaves me in no doubt that the women in this room would have many similar stories to tell. Perhaps you might say “It was no big deal” – though in many cases it was a big deal – but it is always demeaning, shaming, belittling – a form of bullying designed to make you feel small and worthless.

And I can only say as a man that I need to hear these stories, to share the anger and outrage that they deserve, to feel shame at what men continue to do to women – not only men to women, but yes, mostly. And to take that pledge, to renew that pledge with all of us here today: “I will not condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls.” Not the big and obvious incidents of violence, but also not these less obvious, ordinary acts of aggression. I will not ignore or belittle or fail to take these stories seriously.

Our gospel reading takes us to a place of judgement, as Christ returns in glory to judge the nations. We don’t like to speak about judgement – it sounds so harsh and, well, judgemental; we would much prefer to hear about God’s mercy. And God’s mercy is real, it is the heart of the gospel – when that judgement comes, it is on God’s mercy that we must all rely and hope. But that does not take away judgement. Because God too has taken the pledge: the pledge not to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women – or against any of God’s creatures, for that matter. God will not pass over these incidents in silence, will not collude in allowing us to believe they are not such a big deal: each act of aggression, however minor it may seem to the one who is committing it, needs to be named and held up and condemned as unacceptable.

The basis of every act of aggression, I think, is the conviction that the victim doesn’t really matter – that my desires, for example, trump anything my victim might be experiencing. That is why these kind of incidents can be so devastating: they convey to the object of my unwanted attention that they are insignificant, worthless, they just don’t matter.

But God’s judgement is different. Here again those familiar words of Jesus, and this time, let us try to hear them in the context of the creepy stare, the unwanted touch, the demeaning word: what you have done to the least of these, you have done to me. Jesus’s judgement is that no one is worthless and insignificant; that those who are treated as such are just as important as Jesus himself. That whenever someone is demeaned or made to feel ashamed or worthless, that it matters: and it is not the arrogant perpetrators who get to decide whether something is a big deal or not. We are held accountable for how we treat one another, as the Harvey Weinsteins of this world are finding out. There is no place, no person who is so insignificant that we are not accountable for. That is what God’s judgement means. We are accountable for how we treat one another, without exception.

In that knowledge, and in the hope of God’s kingdom of justice, respect, and kindness, let us take the pledge: I pledge never to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls.”