A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - November 23, 2014.
So today is the last Sunday of the Church’s year. And denominations of every flavor all are celebrating with a fairly new common feast that is called either “Christ the King” or the “Reign of Christ.”
It is a feast of hope. That the Risen and Ascended Christ will bring together everything in heaven and on earth and that he will make all creation new.
And the picture we paint in our hymns and scripture lessons all point to God wrapping it all up and bringing everything together in Christ. It really is quite grand!
Now we might want to focus on Jesus’ kingship in terms what being a “king” means, and how that works with our mindset of individualism and our experience of democracy.
But let’s do something else: let’s ask “what kind of Kingdom does Jesus want?” What would Jesus’ reign actually look like? And how do we take part in it?
So before we turn to today’s Gospel, let’s turn to that prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray. And what do we pray? We pray that God’s Kingdom will come and we pray that what God wants will happen on earth just as it happens in heaven.
So what would that look like if what God wanted happened where we live just as it does in heaven? Well, that the trouble. Because it depends on what your idea of heaven is.
If you think heaven is a cloudy, puffy place where everyone has a harp and wings, then I guess then you think heaven to be a really peaceful and quiet (except for all the harp music). How would that show up on earth? Probably in a kind of religion that says we don’t ever talk about hard things: like poverty…or war… or sickness… or ethics… just speak nice, comfortable things.
If you think heaven is filled up with people who think and act just like us, then I guess that both heaven and life on earth heaven will look a lot like our Facebook pages. Everything familiar would be blessed. We would only watch what we like, hang out only with people just like us, and with folks that pretty much believe and act the way we think they’re supposed to.
If you think heaven is only filled up with people who do right or believe right or think right, then you probably think that life on earth should be managed and governed only by people who do, believe and think the right way.
The problem with these approaches is that we turn our biases, prejudices, and assumptions into different kinds of idols. We try to get heaven (and God) to conform to our image not the other way around. It’s easy to do…but not what Jesus has in mind.
If we really believe what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, then our prayer is that God will act and be present right here and right now every day just as God is present and at work in heaven. And that means that we want us—and our world—to match God’s what God imagines for creation. What will that look like?
Well, let’s ask Jesus—or at least today’s Gospel lesson!—where Jesus asks simply “did you do on earth what God does in heaven?”
What I love about this story is that Jesus’ sets it up exactly as how we would expect it. Christ returns in glory surrounded by angels. And he separates the nations into those who will enter to heaven and those destined for eternal punishment.
And what’s the criteria for entrance?
Was it right belief? Nope!
What it belonging to the right religion? Nyet!
Was it doing the right ritual at the right time? Nada!
In this passage, the criteria for entrance into Heaven was simple kindness.
Now some people think that this passage means that the ones being judged are people who cared for persecuted Christians (or not). As if somehow non-believers would have heard and been swayed by Matthew’s Gospel.
I don’t buy that argument. This is not kindness reserved for the club, and “the least of these,” is not a narrowing statement but a broadening of our definition of “neighbor."
All of the Law and the Prophets are summed up this way: Love God with all your being; and love your neighbor as yourself. In addition, it is fundamental to Jewish teaching at the time of Jesus that the faithful care for the stranger no matter who they are. And that is the hinge for this passage: When the opportunity to care for the stranger arrived people acted according to their inner compass. The people being welcomed—or not— in the passage did not even notice that they had the opportunity to act and it was how they chose to act in the moment that became the criteria for judgment.
When did we feed you? When did we clothe you? When did we care for you? When did we visit you? Jesus’ answer: when you cared for anyone who was hungry or naked or sick or in prison or alone or in trouble, you cared for me. And that is how God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
One of my all-time favorite movies is “42”, the story of Jackie Robinson and his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947. Today’s Gospel made me remember a scene in the film when Branch Rickey, the manager of the Dodgers, gets a call from Herb Pennock the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. Pennock wants Rickey to leave Robinson in Brooklyn, saying that if Robinson comes to Philadelphia, the Phillies won’t take the field.
Branch Rickey ask Pennock “You think God likes baseball, Herb?”
“What - ?” replied Pennock. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” shouts Rickey into the phone before slamming it down, “someday you're gonna meet God, and when he inquires as to why you didn't take the field against Robinson in Philadelphia, and you answer that it's because he was a Negro, it may not be a sufficient reply!”
Which makes me wonder what the difference is between standing before the throne of the King…or getting a phone call from an angry Branch Rickey? I’ll take the phone call. Because at least you have a chance to change your mind.
Speaking of change, during Advent, Father Andrew’s Illustrated, Simplified and Painless Bible Study will be look at Charles Dickens’ famous little book “A Christmas Carol.” A most subversive commentary on life in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, and a plea to live God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
As a preview, I will tell you what Dickens idea of hell is. They don’t go to a place where “goats” and “sheep” are sorted out but someplace far scarier. Instead of going to fiery pits, the wailing and gnashing happens right here on earth.
When Marley’s ghost leaves a shaken and startled Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge looks out and see a world “filled with phantoms” all carrying chains, cash boxes, safes, and bags of gold. And they wail because they see very clearly and feel very deeply the suffering of humanity all around them but have lost the power to do anything about it.
Marley’s ghost describes the symbol of his life’s work and focus: “I wear the chain I forged in life....I made it link by link, and yard by yard….”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Every day we pray that simple, radical prayer that Jesus taught and which we learned as children. We pray that what God does in heaven will be done on earth.
Jesus’ lesson today is that God’s reign is now. Jesus’ kingdom is here. Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection, God has cleared away all that stands between us and God. In our baptisms we are united with Christ and marked and his own forever. And if we want to see God’s will happen on earth as it happens in heaven, then it starts now, right here, where we work, live and play in how we care for the hungry, the lonely, the sick and those in jail or any kind of trouble.
This is how know “that Jesus reigns where’er the sun doth its successive journey run,” this is what makes God’s kingdom happen on earth just as it does in heaven. It is so simple that we can overlook it. It is the eyes and the heart and the will to make practical kindness happen, and the will to live mercy, and the faith and humility to let generosity lead us to unexpected places.