St. Paul’s – Reign of Christ – November 22
This week the Church celebrates the Reign of Christ, a liturgical hinge between the long Season After Pentecost, and the beginning of Advent. We pause this week to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s reign over the Church, the world, and our lives. What kind of king is Jesus? What does his rule look and feel like? What does it mean to live and thrive under his kingship?
When you thing of kings and Queens…Kingdoms and queendoms…what comes to mind. The royalty Jesus describes in Matthew’s Gospel is of another order, entirely. It is homeless Jesus. Sick Jesus. Imprisoned Jesus. Hungry Jesus. Naked Jesus. It is, in the words of Episcopal theologian Fleming Rutledge, the royalty that stoops.
“Reign of Christ” Sunday is a fairly recent addition to the Western liturgical calendar. Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925, in the hope that a world ravaged by World War I might find in Jesus’s humble kingship a needed alternative to empire, nationalism, consumerism, and secularism.
I fear it has not been realized. As we all know, Covid-19 cases are soaring across the United States, not least because millions of people are refusing outright to wear masks and practice social distancing. What is that, if not a refusal to see and tend to Jesus in our most vulnerable neighbors? Is not our sick king even now lying in thousands of hospital beds, struggling to breathe? Is not our king hungry, thirsty, and naked after months of Covid-induced unemployment? Isn’t Jesus even now languishing in a million prison cells, feeling utterly expendable as the coronavirus rips through our jails and prisons?
What does our lectionary show us today?
This morning we find Ezekiel being outrageous in true prophetic style. If we pride ourselves on being spiritual seekers, Ezekiel insists that it is God who seeks us out and not the other way around. Can’t we prize the maturity of knowing who we are and of finding communities where we feel at home? Ezekiel informs us that we are in fact so lost that God must take the trouble to find and rescue us. Some of that sounds good — the idea that God desires to feed us, wipe away our tears and bind up our wounds — but it also makes us uneasy. Are we really that needy and so unable to help ourselves?
As often happens when prophets speak, closely following on the heels of the good promises comes what we perceive as bad. This talk of judging, of sorting out the sheep, sounds negative and even dangerous. It’s not healthy to think in terms of us and them, of those who pass the test and those who don’t. Yet this touches on what makes Ezekiel a prophet to begin with; he forces us to question whether our discomfort over God’s judgment comes not so much from fear of taking sides, or of being found on the wrong side, but from feeling affronted. Isn’t it our prerogative to label and condemn? We certainly act as if this is the case. Even people who describe themselves as nonjudgmental are quick to adopt the easy polarizing that marks contemporary discourse in America. Before we agree to listen to someone, we want to know if he or she is liberal or conservative; Democrat or Republican; gay or straight, hot or, God-forbid, not.
Ezekiel calls us on our folly. Judgment belongs to God, and God’s concerns are not our own. When God begins the sorting of the flock, it is not to divide the good from the bad or administer litmus tests of faith or political conviction. God is seeing what we have refused to see, seeking out the weak who have been butted around on their way to the feed trough. God pities those whose have been wounded by the selfish actions of others. This is the good news that any prophet worth the title conveys to us. It demonstrates why we need prophets in the first place.
Psalm 95 provides another glimpse of a God who is not like us, a God who made the sea and formed the dry land. We kneel instinctively before the One whose power is greater than we can imagine, and whose tenderness toward us is beyond our comprehension. Imagine a God who rules the universe, yet cares for us as we are. It sounds too good to be true, and our suspicions rise when we look at the gospel, which returns us to the theme of judgment. This God who sees us more clearly than we see ourselves is the One we will meet at the end of days.
On to Matthew’s judgment — always fun to preach as malls and the internet gear up for the Christmas rush and cash registers ring with false cheer. This stark account of the second coming allows us to reflect on what truly matters in this season. It helps to see the gospel in the light of Ezekiel’s witness. Just as the prophet warns us against claiming for ourselves tasks that are reserved for God alone, Matthew tells us that we are to take on other tasks on God’s behalf, chores we may not want. If the judgment in Ezekiel has to do with what God does, the judgment here speaks to what we are to do in the present, if we truly believe that Christ is among us.
We are to act as if Christ is in other people, even the stranger whom we believe we have reason to fear, the prisoner whose acts we find reprehensible, the sick we’d rather condemn because we’re convinced that their lifestyle contributed to their illness, the hungry who should have been able to fend for themselves.
Meeting doesn’t mean fixing problems. When someone’s hungry it’s not fundamentally about the food. The food overcomes the barrier between you by giving you a pretext for beginning a conversation, a connection, initially little more than a transaction. It’s not fundamentally about the drink. Digging wells in sub-Saharan Africa is fine and good but what matters most is the meeting, the ending of a person’s isolation, the sense of touch. When someone’s naked or a stranger it’s not fundamentally about finding accommodation, or vouchers for food. Of course these matter but what matters more is not averting your gaze, recognizing a person’s humanity, realizing it could be you, expecting to discover something wonderful and surprising and true from a destitute or migrant wayfarer. When a person’s sick it’s not fundamentally about the cure, it’s about saying I don’t have better things to do with my time than dwell with you, in pain, in misery, in not knowing, in tiredness, in fear. When a person’s in prison it’s not about organizing a jailbreak or reducing their sentence, it’s about saying I’m going to share your shame and claustrophobia and depression and despair and distress and I’m going to see you as the person you were and will be again. The point is not to get hung up on the precise condition of the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick and prisoner, but to put yourself face to face with the least of these. The point is not to assume these are all casual encounters with beggars on the street, but actively to seek out and commit to regular ways of meeting those in places of need and desperation. As we heard John Huckins say at the Border Summit yesterday: We need to see the humanity, dignity and image of God in everyone. Rather than hear stories about the hungry, thirsty, sick, prisoner, etc…. we need to hear from them.
It’s not that we earn our way to majestic King Jesus by caring for the vulnerable. It is that majestic King Jesus, by his own choice and volition, has stooped and surrendered in such a way that he IS the vulnerable. There’s no other way to get to him. Period.
In some ways, that is pretty scary. What is it in us that turns away when Jesus offers us his whole self in such provocative, unbearable simplicity? This is a real question — one I wrestle with all the time. What am I afraid of? My inadequacy? My vulnerability? My reputation? Jesuit theologian James Keenan defines mercy as “the willingness to enter into the chaos of others.” Is that what we’re afraid of? Other people’s chaos?
The thing is, it’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to have questions. It’s okay to see a huddled figure on the bench, and not know exactly what to do. But at some point, our fears must come face to face with reality: Whatever you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. There is simply no way around it. Not if we take Jesus’s kingship seriously.
Likewise, there is no way around the perplexing fact that our lectionary reading — a reading that describes the final judgment of all humanity — says nothing about belief.
Think about that. Matthew 25 depicts a scene from the heavenly throne room. It’s a scene describing the culmination of history, when all nations will gather before Christ, and Christ will separate his people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Notice the criteria he’ll use for the separation. What will it be? Not our confessions of faith. Not our beliefs, not our doctrinal commitments, not our personal relationships with Jesus. The criteria will be compassion, and compassion alone. Bishop Curry says that Matthew 25 is our final exam.
“When people who build their life on the oppression of others are suddenly exposed to the radical and revolutionary love of God, when our racist policies and postures are replaced with anti-racist ones, when an unjust systems is uprooted and planted with love, specifically for those who have been oppressed, God’s love is the refining fire that burns off all impurities — racism, misogyny, homophobia, an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor fueled by capitalism — we discover that heaven is not some spaceship we’re hoping will beam us up someday, but heaven is a place on earth – as Belinda Carlisle sang about. Heaven is not something we are waiting to show up someday, but a reality that we must actively bring to life here and now.”
Surprised? Yes, this is our king, and yes, we are meant to be provoked and bewildered by his priorities. As Fleming Rutledge puts it, The Son who sits upon his glorious throne with all the nations gathered before him is the same one who, at the very apex of his cosmic power, reveals that the universe turns upon a cup of water given to the littlest ones in his name.
If we’re not at least a little bit unnerved, then I wonder if we’re not paying enough attention.
Next Sunday, we will enter into Advent, a season of waiting, longing, and listening. Soon we will walk into the expectant darkness, waiting for the light to dawn, for the first cries of a vulnerable baby to redefine kingship, authority, and power forever. But on this Sunday, here and now, we are asked to see Jesus in places we’d rather not look. We are asked to remember that every encounter we have with the least of these is an actual encounter with Jesus. Remember that it’s not that Jesus might be one of the sick, lost, prisoner, stranger, etc…., everyone is.It’s not a metaphor. It’s not wordplay. It’s not optional. The person huddled beneath the blanket, the person in our hospitals, the refugee in detention or on our borders, the person going to our food pantries is our king. Let’s go meet him.
Invitation to the Offering
Generosity may come as an impulse,
but it is cultivated by the practice of regular giving.
Let us today move from beliefs to actions
that make a difference in the world.
We give in gratitude for God’s gifts to us,
and we give because we need to live beyond ourselves.
Use this time of offering as an opportunity
to grow and to grow the realm of God.
God of abundance,
we give these offerings of material goods
as our commitment to give back to you
and to care for your people.
Let our giving remind us to see Jesus all around us.
Use our offerings of money and of our lives
for ministry to your purposes. Amen.
Jesus has told us who needs us to care.
As you go out into God’s world,
keep your eyes open for those
who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or imprisoned.
See Christ in them and help them.
And remember you are God’s beloved. The Holy Spirit lives in you. Christ’s compassion shines forth in what you do.
Live as those who know and have experienced God’s goodness.
And know that you are called to live
with the Blessing of God Almighty….