St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church over on Bon Aire Drive is the first Episcopal Church I walked into 20 years ago. One of the first things I noticed was the crucifix at the front of the church. Grace has one just like it over in the parish hall, and so does St. Alban’s in their parish hall.
I was raised in a very Roman Catholic part of southeastern Iowa. In fact, the county paid tuition for my siblings and me to attend a Roman Catholic parochial school because it was cheaper than busing us, the only protestant kids in the neighborhood, to the nearest public school.
So I was plenty familiar with crucifixes. Moreover, the ultra-protestant church of my childhood taught against them as both idolatrous and emphasizing Jesus’ death over his resurrection.
Thus to encounter Christ the King, crucified but alive; on the cross, but wearing kingly robes and a crown, spoke volumes to me. It was one of those features of the Episcopal Church that invited me in.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, when we celebrate an aspect of Christ’s identity—his kingship—separate from all else.
The majority of references to Jesus as king in the New Testament occur in the Passion narratives in the Gospels. What a sharp contrast—to juxtapose Christ’s kingship with that moment when state and religious authority seems so powerful and in charge.
But of course we know that Christ becomes king—not by the usual earthly methods—but by way of the Cross. Jesus himself made it quite clear that his kingship is like no other. His ministry on earth was one of peace, liberation and above all service. Jesus the Christ radically redefined and transformed the concept of kingship.
So today’s Gospel lesson has Christ the King on his throne with us—the human family—assembled before him. But this king is not concerned with the state of the economy, or taxes, or foreign trade or immigration policy. This king is concerned with one thing alone: Have we been taking care of each other?
Like the lessons of the past few weeks, it contains that disturbing concept of judgment, and the possibility of being thrown into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So I wonder… where do you locate yourself in this story?
Notice the surprise of the righteous: WHEN, Lord, they ask, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?
I am delighted by that. What a lesson in humility and selflessness: to have done the work of the kingdom without even realizing you were doing it. What a moment of joy to hear Jesus say, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
But I am also taken aback by it, for it requires me to come to terms with my own little morality problem. You see, I am both a sheep and a goat.
The problem isn’t wanting to do right, take care of people, feed the hungry, visit the sick and befriend the stranger… I’ve always wanted to do right.
The problem is wanting to BE right—which so often comes with built-in judgment of others who won’t accept my charity with sufficient gratitude, who make poor decisions about money or lifestyle that get them into trouble all over again, or who dare to criticize the system that has served me well.
Or judgment of those who insist on calling God by other names. Or who do good even while insisting that God doesn’t exist! Sooo many ways to pass judgment on other people!
The moment I see myself among the sheep, I find myself glancing over at the goats… and there’s my own face looking back at me.
Looking back over the past few weeks of parables, I am the servant given five talents who doubles them. But I am also the one who gets one talent and fearfully buries it in the yard. I’m even the master who relentlessly punishes the timid one, even though I know Jesus said, The meek shall inherit the earth. And I’m the poor schmuck who shows up at the wedding feast in the wrong clothes, as well as the crazy king who goes ballistic and throws him out over a mere wardrobe malfunction.
We humans are expert at throwing ourselves into outer darkness—and passing judgment on each other is one of our most popular ways of doing it.
But the moment I say that, I must also recognize that we humans are called to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. And to do that requires resisting evil. And resisting evil requires making judgments.
We must take stands against wrong, even when we do not agree on the definition of “wrong.” Or maybe we agree that, for example, racism and white supremacy are wrong, but we do not agree on what constitutes an example of it. Or we agree that poverty or people dying for lack of health care are wrong, but we do not agree on the best way to fix the problem.
These disagreements about really basic and important things are high profile today for a couple of reasons. One is the internet and social media, but I’m going to leave that to another sermon. (I sometimes think they should be called “anti-social” media.)
Another is a culture of relativity that says, “All opinions are created equal.” I have done my share over the years of promoting that culture in trying to make room for some of my favorite but unpopular stands.
But it’s not true.
Some opinions are based on data, historical facts, fair and thorough analyses of competing claims and points of view. Others are based on ideology or wishful thinking.
Some opinions are based on the actual experience of being oppressed by virtue of one’s skin color, or gender, or sexual orientation. Others come from the perspective of being mainstream, a member of dominant social groups. That would be me, most of the time.
Some are based on the experience of living on the socio-economic margins, dealing with the panic of a major car repair when the paycheck barely reaches from one to the next under the best of circumstances. Others come from the point of view of a savings account that can be raided on a rainy day.
To evaluate a human opinion, a human perspective.., to take a stand on what is right or wrong and how to fix it, we must—of course—listen to each other. You have heard that before. But we must also examine ourselves. We must ask, Who am I in taking this stand.
I have no easy answers. Welcome to the conundrum of my daily life: How to listen, take stands, show the way of Christ as I understand it—without shutting down conversation—especially when my instinct is to grab people by the shirt front and scream, “What is wrong with you?” Expletive deleted.
Here we are, the last Sunday of the church year, celebrating Christ the King.. and heading into Advent—a perfect season for doing some soul searching.. in preparation for God to come among us once again.
And so I invite you to spend some thoughtful, prayerful time with the question, Who am I in the stands I take? Who am I in this interaction, with this person, at this moment in time? How is my story, my perspective, my challenges and, yes, my privileges, making room—or not—for the other person’s story?
But Advent also directs our hearts and minds beyond the babe in the manger.. to that completely outrageous and utterly glorious hope that Christ is King and will come again in power and great glory to reconcile and redeem us all in the end.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.