Love in Translation, Christ the King Sunday – November 26, 2017

[RCL] Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and the season after Pentecost is coming to a close. It is the longest season of the church year, marking the time by reminding us what it means to live as a disciple, be good stewards of what we have been given, and how to grow in relationship with God. Our church year isn’t a normal, linear calendar. Instead, it is circular, beginning with Advent and ending with this day, the last Sunday after Pentecost. “Always, we begin again,” as the Benedictine saying goes.

Many of the church’s yearly celebrations have gone on for centuries, with over a millennium of tradition and history enriching them. They mark the events of Jesus’ life: his birth, his journey to the cross, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and his sending of the Holy Spirit to remain with us. We tell these stories in our church calendar, year after year. They shape us in a multitude of ways as we become part of the stories—and they become part of us.

Now, here we are, at Christ the King Sunday, the feast day that dates back all the way to…1925. Yes! This tradition is not even 100 years old, yet it came at a time in the world where God seemed to be losing ground. As explained on churchyear.net, the devastating First World War had been fought, and the powers of nationalism and secularism were rising. Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King to lend courage to Christians whose faith might be flagging, to remind nations that the Church has a right to freedom and immunity from the state, and in hopes that leaders and nations would be bound to give respect to Christ.

Initially, the feast was celebrated on the last Sunday of October but was then moved in 1969 to its current place in the liturgical calendar to be a vision of Christ to which the rest of the year points. And what a vision it is! The scriptures today help us understand the shape of what the Messiah is to be and it’s not quite what we expect.

There’s a large mural on the side of a building in downtown Spokane, Washington, that is a copy of artist Pat Marvenko Smith’s painting of the book of Revelation’s vision of the King of Glory. Jesus is depicted crowned with many crowns, with fire in his eyes and a light streaming from his mouth as he rides a white stallion, cavalry following behind him through a cloud. It is quite terrifying and at the same time completely expected of a Messiah who is coming to judge the quick and the dead. Yet, our scriptures today speak of God as shepherd and Jesus as a just and merciful king, not a militant figure who looks like a ring-wraith from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Instead, the focus of today’s scriptures is not on what Jesus as the great judge looks like, but on how we, as followers of Jesus, have responded to God’s call in our lives. This is the last Sunday after the Pentecost—the end of the intentional time in our lectionary of exploring what it means to be a disciple. This is about discipleship and so it is about us.

Think for a moment about the churches that you hear about in your area. What do you hear about them? How do you hear about them? What are they known for? Most churches have some measure of the Christian virtues that we all value: faith, love, and hope. They always have since churches began, but some have a reputation and others don’t. Of course, all the communities are supposed to be living out their faith, bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth while they await Jesus. But the community in Ephesus has especially been noticed because of their reputation. The author of the Ephesians epistle has been impressed by the word-of-mouth reputation that the community has for having faith in the Lord Jesus and demonstrating that faith in love. They don’t just get together to do nice things for other people and talk about Jesus on occasion. Instead, they believe that Jesus is risen and sits at the right hand of God and they have experienced God’s power in their lives. They have been changed. They have been transformed. This transformation informs every single thing they do, individually and as a community.

This section of Ephesians is called a thanksgiving prayer, and it tells us something else about what God values in a community: people knowing their destination. They have a goal and because they know what direction they’re going, they have become people of hope. In our modern times, we sometimes get the meanings of ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ confused, but not the Ephesians. They know that faith means you entrust your life to Jesus today, in the present tense; and hope is about the future, about where our present trust in Jesus eventually leads.

This understanding about the Christian life reflects one of the mottos of the Roman Catholic order of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. They are to be contemplatives in action. In other words, to be grounded and centered in our faith in Jesus, so that we would know where God was calling us to action in the world around us. If we are all contemplatives that don’t do anything with the experience of God’s power that we have, then what’s the point? If all we do is reach out to others, but don’t go back to the wellspring of God’s living water and drink deeply, then we’ve missed our call and can become empty shells. We must have both.

Our Gospel of Matthew story of the sheep and the goats asks us a searching question that can be difficult to bear: are we admirers of Jesus or are we followers? The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes the difference like this: “The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires.” Becoming a disciple of Jesus is no easy task. Many throughout the ages have admired Jesus, but far fewer have chosen the sacrifice of following.

There is a sign in a church that has gone around on Facebook for the past few years and it says, “Sometimes I want to ask God why [God] allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when [God] could do something about it, but I’m afraid [God] might just ask me the same question.” As Christians, we believe that God has full claim on our lives. We are coming into the season of Advent next week and are reminded that God loved us so much that God would become human—become one of us—so that we would fully understand what that claim was and how deep the love goes. How do we translate this love to others? Jesus tells us in our Gospel today that when we feed or welcome or give clothing or visit the sick or those in prison that we are, in turn, feeding, welcoming, clothing, and visiting him. When people respond to human need—or fail to respond—they are responding or failing to respond to Jesus himself.

Through our belief in Jesus, we have the power to heal other people’s lives, just by our presence in theirs. We are called to be healers. We receive our strength, not from ourselves, but from God. On this Christ the King Sunday, our scriptures are clear about the “immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe.” As we complete another turning of the wheel of liturgical time, may we renew our commitment to be grounded in this power to seek Christ in all persons and love our neighbor as ourselves, even though we may look foolish to the world for loving so lavishly, and we may fail. With God’s help, we can also, thankfully, begin again. AMEN.

The Rev. Danáe M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFTA is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota, and is currently part-time Priest-in-Charge at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. She is also the Director of The Episcopal Center for Embodied Faith, an online resource for the intersection between our bodies and faith, and a proud member of Thank God for Sex, a psycho-educational group that puts on community education events to promote healing for those who have experienced shame around their bodies and sexuality in faith communities.

Download the sermon for Christ the King Sunday (A).

Reaching out to ‘the least of these’, Christ the King (A) – 2014

November 23, 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100 or Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

There is something terribly sad in today’s gospel reading, something so easy to miss that it eludes most of us. That’s probably because this is such a tempting story. It is one of the most straightforward of all the New Testament’s accounts of judgment; and one of the most fun.

Here, judgment is connected to actively reaching out to those in need, specifically to “the least of these,” to those who are at the bottom, those who are the most helpless and who have no other champions – to those with no one else to care for them. These are God’s favorites, the ones God sees in a special way.

And it’s really clear that those who are condemned are not condemned for doing bad things, or for acting unjustly or cruelly. Instead, they are condemned for the good they did not do. You can’t sit out the Christian moral life. There’s just no way, by avoiding engagement, to thereby avoid judgment. “Well, I never intentionally hurt anybody” cuts no mustard at the Great Throne Judgment.

All of which can tempt just about any preacher to shout, “So get out there and serve Jesus in your neighbor. Do good and save your soul from the judgment of eternal fire all at the same time.” Which can make a heck of a sermon, and one most church leaders aren’t opposed to preaching from time to time. Good stuff. Can’t hurt.

But today let’s talk about what’s so sad in this story.

Notice that those who have been gathered up at the right hand of the Lord – those who are called blessed of the father, the ones we want to be – have only one thing to say to Jesus. They say, “Lord, when?”

“When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”

“When?” That’s it; that’s all they have to say.

This is dreadfully sad because of all the loss, and all the struggle and all the pain that question implies. These folks, the sheep, the saved, the good guys, they were right, they did all of the correct things, but they missed the greatest joy of it. They missed seeing the Lord. They overlooked the hidden presence of God in the faces of those they served.

One of the reasons we have this parable may be to help us avoid that loss, to remind us what reaching out and caring and serving can be about at the level of greatest depth. Because it’s very clear: No matter how right you are, no matter how much you serve the presence of Christ in others, if you don’t pay special attention, if you simply don’t look for the Lord Jesus in those you serve, then, like the saved people in the parable, you won’t see him. And most of the joy is lost. Most of the joy of doing good and being right and saving your soul from the judgment of eternal fire all at the same time, most of that joy, is lost.

After all, reaching out in love to the presence of Christ in others, especially in both “the least of these” and in those closest to us, this is quite often a great big pain. It takes a lot of time, and there’s almost never any indication that anything of lasting benefit has happened.

What’s more, “the least of these” are usually at least partially responsible for whatever problems and needs make them the least. And most of the time they don’t look or act or smell the way we imagine Jesus should.

Frequently, they aren’t very nice, and worse yet, they seldom seem to appreciate whatever good we do try to do for them. So, doing good, reaching out to feed, clothe, visit, heal and otherwise minister to “the least of these” tends to frustrate us, and we tend to get burned, and to get burned out.

And much the same sort of thing can happen when the ones we reach out to are not some distant “them,” but are, instead, the people we live with and around, the people closest to us.

One would think that actually serving Christ shouldn’t be as hard, and as disheartening, as it often is. But there we are. After all, just because we’re doing something for religious reasons doesn’t mean that, all by itself, whatever we’re doing will look or feel religious or that it will effect us in a particularly religious way.

Cleaning the kitchen in the church, or anywhere else for that matter, is still cleaning a kitchen. Being nice to a difficult person because you are convinced that Jesus wants you to, is still being nice to a difficult person. Spending time or money or energy out of Christian conviction still means that you no longer have that time or that money or that energy.

The Lord calls us to serve him, in our neighbors, in our brothers and sisters, in the least of these, and – often the most challenging – in those closest to us. That call is real; there are no excuses. But the Lord also calls us to see him in the face of our neighbors, and of our brother and sister, and – we can’t forget – in the least of these. This is a spiritual call, a call to discernment as much as it is a call to action and to service.

There’s not a secret or mysterious way to do this. Here are two quick ideas: First of all, in order to see the Lord, we have to look. At the people around us. Deliberately. All of the time. We need constantly to look as we remember what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what we hope to come from it. We need look on purpose.

Second, if we want Jesus to show himself to us, it can really help if we ask him to. Sometimes we have to ask him a lot. That’s one reason why reaching out to others in a way that is not wrapped in prayer, any act of ministry that is not consciously and deliberately offered to God with the request to be shown how the Lord is in it, while certainly not wasted effort, is terribly incomplete.

If our prayers during the day and about the day do not beg the Lord for a look at his face, or a glimpse at his Kingdom in all that is going on around us, then we are cheating ourselves, and living barely on the surface of a much deeper reality.

To try to live the life Christ calls us to live without placing all of that in the middle of some disciplined reflection, prayer and study, this is to risk missing the best part of it all. It is to risk missing the presence and Word of Jesus that can transform a mundane task into an opportunity for insight and for joy – that can make doing the things we are called to do a path deeper into the mystery of God’s life, and of our own.

This story of judgment is more than a call to serve. It’s more than a call to be good, and to do the right thing. Sure, it’s that, but it’s much more.

It’s also a call to look, to notice, to devote our days and our lives in the search for the face of God in all that we do. It’s a call, above all, to see.

 

– The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

The call of Jesus to his disciples has not changed, Last Sunday After Pentecost / Christ the King – 2011

[RCL] Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Psalm 100 (Track 2: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Psalm 95:1-7a); Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46 

The celebration of Christ the King Sunday arose when Pope Pius XI found the increasing secularism of modern society eroding people’s faith. This was in 1925, and the Fascists under Mussolini were making their presence felt in Italy. Pius thought it was necessary to remind the faithful that whatever political powers might hold sway, ultimately, it is Christ who is “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

It seems we keep having this conversation. The very first statement of Christian identity, the first creed, if you will, was “Jesus is Lord.” In the first century, the part that no one said aloud was: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

We are faced with a few issues in claiming that “Christ is King.” First, there is the fact that the original subversive nature of Christianity was subsumed into the Holy Roman Empire and made into a part of the power of the emperor, a fact that has colored organized Christianity ever since. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, it seemed perfectly reasonable that Europe should be divided among the Protestants and the Catholics, depending on the faith of the heads of state. The church has not always behaved as agents of the One on the throne in today’s gospel, who judges people by how they have treated the least among us; all too frequently, the church has participated in the political games that create winners and losers, groups with power and groups without. So as Christians, we are called to be aware of our own past and renounce the church’s interest in worldly power.

The second issue we confront is that the world has turned, and there are few kings anywhere. For the Western world, the monarchs who remain have nothing like the power of an emperor; they are figureheads who work cooperatively within constitutional monarchies. In the United States, furthermore, we had a revolution in order to separate ourselves from a despotic monarch, and our self-understanding as a nation includes a proud independence from the notion of monarchy.

So what do we mean when we affirm that Christ is King? What are we celebrating? How is this monarchy part of the Good News?

A quick peek at the headlines would raise some questions: if Christ is King, why is there so much violence and unrest in the world? If Christ is King, why are there children dying of malnutrition in refugee camps? If Christ is King, what are we to make of the world’s current crop of dictators and despots? If Christ is King, why are humans continuing to make choices that endanger and even eradicate other species who share with us “this fragile earth, our island home”?

Either Christ is not king, or he’s a neglectful king; or we’re talking about a reality that is hidden behind the everyday reality we read about in the news.

Today’s gospel suggests that there is a hidden quality we don’t see. Look at the surprise of those who meet the one seated on the throne: “When was it, Lord, that we saw you hungry and did not feed you?”

The Gospel of Matthew, which has been read for most of this year, points over and over to the kingdom of God as a hidden reality obscured by the world of human endeavor, a reality that peeks out occasionally, when Jesus does what Jesus does: he heals, he masters the chaotic elements of creation, he feeds people, he meets and loves people on the margins. In Matthew, Jesus says over and over that the kingdom is visible and available to his followers, as well, when we behave as citizens of that kingdom: when we serve the least, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, and perhaps, above all, emulate Jesus when he speaks God’s truth to the powers that be.

There is, further, a subversive quality to the reality of the kingdom, a sense that those who see and understand it are from the margins of society rather than from the powerful and content center. In Matthew, the list of those who see and accept what Jesus has to offer includes a Roman centurion, a Canaanite woman, and Matthew, a despised tax collector. The disciples themselves are hardly the elite of Jerusalem; they are country bumpkins from the provinces, hardly the sort to set the world on fire. Yet all these people listen to Jesus and follow him, perhaps because the status quo has not given them very much.

While the world has changed over and over in the years since the Gospel of Matthew was written, the list of the vulnerable in today’s gospel has only grown. “The hungry” now means a billion people who go to bed every night with little or no food. “The thirsty,” means millions of people worldwide dealing with severe drought. “The sick,” includes millions of people infected with the most difficult and pernicious illnesses, including AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. And the United States leads the world in its share of “those in prison.” It is harder than ever to see the reality of God’s kingdom and the Lordship of Christ behind these devastating everyday realities. But it is easier than ever to see those on the margins whose needs are overwhelming.

The call of Jesus to his disciples has not changed. As followers of Jesus, we are called to behave as citizens of the kingdom, for love of the King.

The Episcopal Church at its General Convention in 2003 formally endorsed the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, and at each subsequent convention the church has taken further steps, including a pledge of 0.7% of its funds to bring these goals to fruition. Episcopal Relief & Development is involved in work all over the world that aims to help the most vulnerable – the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the poor – and provide not only immediate relief, but assist in creating self-sustaining programs that will raise the standard of living for whole villages and areas.

The notion of the kingship of Christ, over against the reality in which we live, begs the question: are we behaving like citizens of the kingdom? Are the hungry and thirsty, the poor and neglected better off because of us? Is the reality of the expansive, all-encompassing love of God visible in what we do? In the end, this gospel says, that’s what matters in human existence. When we make choices about where to spend our time, our money, our energy, and our best gifts, we are making choices that build the kingdom – or don’t.

We are called by today’s gospel to understand ourselves as those who are called to embody the kingdom in the here and now, so that it can come in its fullness, and Christ will be king – because we choose to dwell in that kingdom.

What this feast day affirms is twofold: that Christ is King, all evidence in the current time to the contrary; and that what we do, the choices we make, matter very, very much.

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Written by the Rev. Kay Sylvester
The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, California. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader, and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

Ordinary time, Christ the King, Last Sunday After Pentecost – 2008

[RCL] Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100 or Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

“Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Today, the twenty-eighth and last Sunday after Pentecost, brings to a conclusion the great – perhaps long is a better word for it – season of time after Pentecost. For that matter, it brings to an end the entire cycle of the church year. Next week at this time, on the First Sunday of Advent, we will find ourselves in a brand-new church year.

In some church circles, the season of time after Pentecost that we have just concluded is called “ordinary time,” perhaps to distinguish it from the string of extra-ordinary events in the life of Christ and the Church recounted in the liturgical calendar from Advent to Pentecost. After all, not much seems to happen during the time after Pentecost. There are few, if any, great feasts or fasts of the Church. And the liturgical color remains standard-issue green for months on end.

But the time after Pentecost has traditionally been a good opportunity for study and reflection in the life of the Church. And that in itself is significant. For while folks sometimes tease that Episcopalians do not read or study the Bible, the reality is that our worship is firmly grounded in scripture, and perhaps never more so than in the time after Pentecost. This past year, for instance, in our Sunday lessons we have been reading the Gospel of Matthew pretty much straight through. Ditto for several other books of the Bible, including Paul’s Letter to the Romans, one of the seminal works of the New Testament and our Christian faith. So while these long months of time after Pentecost are sometimes thought of as down time at Church, they are anything but.

Ordinary time may have another sense to it as well when we consider that we are today still living in the time after Pentecost – quite literally. Let’s see. If the original Pentecost occurred about the year AD 33, give or take, that would make about one thousand nine hundred and seventy-five years of Sundays after Pentecost. So, if the math is right, we have already surpassed the one hundred thousandth Sunday after Pentecost. That is a lot of ordinary time in the ordinary lives of ordinary people like all of us.

But that is also a lot of sanctification. Some pretty extraordinary things have happened during these ordinary times. Great saints have inspired us with their learning and holiness. Bishops, rectors, priests, and deacons have come and gone at thousands of cathedrals and churches near and far. Important movements and reforms have arisen in the Church and brought people closer to Christ.

And we have been born, baptized, fed at the Lord’s Table, and lived out our lives and common faith together. We have fed the hungry – if we have heeded today’s gospel account from Matthew. We have given drink to the thirsty, and clothing to the naked. We have tended the sick and visited the prisoner. We have helped others on their journeys and in their struggles. Not once or twice, but day in and day out. Not bad – for being ordinary people in ordinary times.

Truth is: nothing is ever really ordinary about God’s plan for us. Not our birth. Not our life. Not our work. Not our family or friends. And certainly not our death. As humorist Garrison Keillor might say, “We are all above average in the eyes of God,” every last one of us. For in everything we are and do, we share in the very life of God. And that is pretty extraordinary. Just ask anyone.

As we now bring to a close our liturgical ordinary time, listen carefully to the story of God’s extraordinary love for us as recounted in scripture and in our prayers and hymns. Celebrate the extraordinary in your own life, and know that the uncommon gift of God’s love is yours in every ordinary moment of time.

For when God’s amazing work of salvation is over, and when the last star has dimmed, God’s love will persevere, and our faith and deeds in this time and place will remain forever extraordinary and real. And from eternity, as our Gospel account assures us, “The king will say … ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”

Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim rector of the extraordinary Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Del Mar, California. He welcomes your comments at frankhegedus@hotmail.com.