Sermon for 26 November by Rev. Rilla Barrett

11/26/17 SSE

Proper 29 Reign of Christ

Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24

Psalm 95:1-7a

Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25:31-46

 

            Many of us, I’m sure, have visited our nation’s capital and while there, paused for a walk or even worship at our National Cathedral.  Perched on one of the, if not the highest hill in town, it is a remarkable structure.  Towers that seem to stretch into the clouds are adorned with all sorts of scrollwork, including obligatory gargoyles and other artistic and architectural wonders.  One can enter by way of three doors, all very large, but the central one is the largest, and most interesting, I think, because just above the doors is a bas relief depicting creation. The birth of the moon is depicted on the right side, the sun on the left, and in the middle, the first human beings.  Half-formed figures of men and women emerge from the void, and beneath stands the figure of Adam, his eyes not even yet open, his body not fully freed from the surrounding stone.  Creation – as we enter.

            To step through the doors is to enter an enormous sacred space, filled with whispers, footsteps, the smell of more than a century of God’s people at worship and at work.  If we’re lucky, the organist is practicing, contributing to the sense of awe and worship, the sense of the divine.  Stained glass windows, through which light from outside is filtered, reach up, as high as you can see.  But, I remember the size and length of the nave… and that the high altar is just barely visible from the entrance.  To reach it, we must travel through history really, because there are many reminders of human faith and human achievement, of saints over the years, and even a statue of Abraham Lincoln.  We pass the space window and the pulpit that is carved with the profiles of apostles. But, once you reach the high altar, one can’t help but notice the astounding carving of Christ the King, sitting on his throne…at the end of time.  Christ, in this statue, is surrounded by the whole company of heaven, and is preparing to judge all things, all things that have happened. It is the culmination of the Cathedral’s narrative that begins with creation, and traces God’s relationship with the Israelites and transitions to the Christian story.    In that brief but meaningful stroll, one enters through the doorway of creation and winds up at the altar of the last judgment , from the beginning of time to the last judgment , standing before the One who will sort out everything that has happened in between.  The beginning and ending of all things is in God. 

            We stand in much the same place each year at this time, the last Sunday of the Christian year, the feast of Christ the King.  There are other days during the church calendar for worshiping Christ the baby, Christ the teacher, Christ the physician, the healer, and Christ the friend.  But today, we stand before the throne to worship Christ the King, the judge, who knows all, and that’s a bit sobering.

            Above the Cathedral’s gift shop says, “We may not have seen you take it, but God did.”  God sees all and knows all, and reflecting on today’s gospel reading, what God will do with that knowledge is to sort us into two groups, goats to the left, and sheep to the right, goats into eternal punishment and sheep into eternal life, depending on how we have behaved during our lifetime. 

            I’m not going to spend a great deal of time talking about the distinction between sheep and goats.  Matthew used many images in his writing to make the distinction because he was very interested, it seems, in making the point…the important point that relationship with God is not a matter of having faith but of doing faith. Further, those who do not will be fed into the fire that never goes out…the place of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

            The kingdom of God is our end, and I’m not talking about the afterlife here.  Matthew was describing the reality of a present-day, for him and for us, Kingdom of God.  This is the reality of Emmanuel, God with us, and living in the way that Jesus taught.  For Matthew, Jesus is enshrined in the church.  How do we and how will we mark that presence?

            “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

            “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  When did we do all those things…

            “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, members of my family, you did it to me”

            Profound and radical words spoken by Jesus.  Every day, you and I see very needy people, asking for money or help…and we grow weary.  An article I read by a Methodist pastor accounted for such an incident.

            “Each day I walk by half a dozen people, poor people, asking for money.  Recently it was a family – a mother and three children.  Another man said, ‘I just had a surgery and I’m hungry” as he lifted his T-shirt to reveal an ugly surgical scar.  “Come in,” I said, “our social service center will help you.”  He swore.  “I don’t need their help; I need money.”  Matthew 25 makes me very uncomfortable when I think about it much, the pastor continued.  I cannot help everyone.  I do not have either the money or the time.  Besides, who can tell who is really needy and who simply wants a bottle of cheap wine?  What can I do?”[1]

What can I do?  I often doubt if I have all that it takes…or if the person asking is authentic.  But, notice Jesus didn’t say, “please notice, just the certifiably hungry and truly deserving.”  No, Jesus simply said, “the least of these.”  The least of these means those who are weak and vulnerable, the little ones, particularly the small ones, the children.  We’re called not to judge and assess, but to look into the faces of other citizens of this Kingdom of God and see Christ’s face….that’s what he was talking about. 

Near the end of the fourth century, John Chrysostom, St. Chrysostom, spoke about the abuse of wealth and personal property.  He said, “Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: "This is my body" is the same who said: "You saw me hungry and you gave me no food", and "Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me"... What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well. [2] From love, then, comes our actions.

That carving over the great doors to the National Cathedral, depicting creation, reflects God’s love.  God created the world out of an abundance of love.  Like an ever-flowing fountain, God’s love for the creation fills and fuels us.  In sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God repeatedly and generously pours love out upon all people, showing us God’s own self, as well as who we are meant to be.  We are created in God’s image, and so we do faith, by loving those conventionally considered unable to give back, and we do this not to curry favor from God or other humans, or so that we are a sheep and not a goat during the last judgment.  We give as an expression of the love that is inside of us, bubbling over, just like that fountain.  That is how we mark God’s presence in this Kingdom of God.  We act in love.  This is Kingdom ethics…acting in love, doing for the least of these. 

Charles Colson was special counsel to President Richard Nixon during the Watergate incident.  With characteristic horn-rimmed glasses, he was known as the “evil genius” of the Nixon administration.  Colson once said he’d walk over his grandmother to get the president elected for a second term.  He was a tough-as-nails special counsel, and he went to prison for his role in the Watergate case.  He was described by the Washington Post as “One of the most powerful presidential aides, variously described as a troubleshooter and as a ‘master of dirty tricks.”

Al Quie was, at the time, the governor of Minnesota and he remembers not liking Colson very much. Many didn’t.  Then a friend called Quie,  who was, by then, a congressman, with a request. Charles Colson had come to believe in Jesus Christ.  The friend asked if there were anyone he knew who could mentor him down in Washington.  Years later, Quie reflected, “I said yes only because about two and a half years earlier, I had an encounter with the Lord and He said that I shouldn’t turn my back on people who committed crimes.” And so Quie, with a group of other men, some liberal, some conservatives, started going to the Lorton Penitentiary.  Quie remembered that Colson took a look at his visitor and said to him, “What are you doing here?  All my political connections have dropped me like a hot potato.”  And Quie, reportedly, then   quoted Jesus’ words, from Matthew 25, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  And a relationship between the two men began.  Over time, there was a substantial transformation in Colson.  He helped thousands of other convicts turn their lives around, and he started Prison Fellowship Ministries and invited Quie to go on the board, which he did once he had retired from government.[3] 

The ethics of the Kingdom of God then are formed by love, the love that flows from the heart of God.  Christ the King reigns over this kingdom and its citizens, you and I, formed in the image of God, act our faith.  Like Christ, who came to seek what is lost, bind up what is wounded and strengthen what is weak, we too do the same thing, and with joy.  And to God be the glory as we do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

[1] Buchanan, John “Pastoral Perspective:  Matthew 25:31-46” in Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press) 332.