Saturday, November 22, 2008

Christ the King

November 23, 2008
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

Matthew 25.31-46

I have now been your priest at St. Stephen’s for almost two months. In that time, I’ve confessed a few things during my sermons that seem fairly innocent. Last week, I confessed my laziness in the fourth grade and my love of the film Auntie Mame. A few weeks before that, I confessed that my big mouth got me in trouble a few times in my life.

But today, I’m going to reveal a part of myself that is, let’s say, a bit darker. Now, already I can sense some of you bracing yourselves for whatever this dark revelation might be. Whenever I say something similar to Pastor Mark Strobel from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church he gives me that look of profound and utter fear at what it is I could possibly reveal to him.

Well, my revelation to you is this: I love horror movies. And not just any horror movies. I’m not fond of the slasher, violence-for-the-sake-of-violence kind of horror film. My favorite kind of horror films are the apocalyptic ones.

One of my favorite movies in the last few years is the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs, which deals with an Episcopal priest, played by Mel Gibson, who has lost his faith just before aliens invade the earth and attempt to wipe out the human race. Or, Shyamalan’s newer film (which was universally panned by critics), The Happening, about a neurotoxin released by plants and carried by wind that caused people to commit suicide in mass numbers and in very gruesome ways.

I also like the George Romero Night of the Living Dead zombie films. These zombie really give voice, I think, to the fear we all have inherently of death.

And just last week my good friend Greg recommended a book that I ended up reading in one night. The book is called The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a very touching and moving book about a father and son wandering along a deserted interstate following a catastrophic event that leaves only a few humans alive. All of these deal with the issue of (as the old R.E.M. song proclaimed) it’s-the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it kind of situation.

Recently, as I thought about the guilty pleasure I have in these films, I realized that my love of this genre has its roots firmly in my faith life as a Christian. In the secular world, these films and books are called apocalyptic, or post-nuclear, or whatever. But we Christians have a term for this kind of genre as well. That term is eschatology.

Eschatology, to quote my trusty old Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, is defined as: the study of the “last things” or the end of the world. It goes on to further define it in this way: Eschatology means “Theological dimensions including the second coming of Jesus Christ and the last judgment.” These films, seen, for me, through the lens of my being a Christian and as a priest, are very eschatological. But for others they might not seem so.

At first glance, there is a bleakness to them—a hopelessness to them. For the most part, these films and movies show a kind of evilness—whether it be nuclear evilness or natural evilness, or even extraterrestrial evilness—as prevailing. In most of the films and books that deal with these issues, the perspective is almost always from a seemingly non-Christian perspective. This world of bleakness and purposelessness is seems, on the surface anyway, wholly void of God or Christ.

But for me, I don’t see it as clearly. For me, I love them because they jar me. They jolt me out of my comfort zone and make me imagine—for a few hours anyway—what the end of the world might be like. These films also make me ponder and think about Christ’s place in these situations.

For most of us here this morning, we no doubt remember that fear and shock we felt on September 11, 2001. For those of us who never gave eschatology a second thought, we found ourselves wondering, even for a moment, if this might actually be the end of the world. Certainly we, in the Church, get our glimpses of the end of the world in our liturgical year.

As you probably have guessed, I always love preaching about beginnings. Beginnings are always a time of hope and joy. They hold such promise for everything that can possibly happen. But occasionally, we all must face the fact that, in the Church and in our lives, we also must confront the ending. Now for most people, the ending is a time to despair. Certainly that is where I think so much of the darkness in those films and books come from.

Certainly that’s where much of the darkness we experienced came from in the days following 9/11. Despair reigned. And when despair reigns, it is a bleak time.

The ending is a time to dig in one’s heels and resist the enviable. But for us—for Christians—it’s not that way. For us, the ending is not the ending at all. It is, in fact, the beginning. For us, what seems like dusk to others, is actually dawn, though we—and they— sometimes can’t recognize it.

Today, of course, is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday in that very long, green season of Pentecost. Today, for the Church, it is New Year’s Eve. The old church year of Sundays ends today. The new church year begins next Sunday, on the First Sunday of Advent. So, what seems like an ending today is renewed next week, with the coming of Advent, in that revived sense of longing and expectation that we experience in Advent. So even then, at that beginning, we are still forced to look ahead. We are forced to face the fact that the future does hold an ending that will also become our beginning—a beginning that will never end. And as we face that future, we do so on a Sunday in which we proclaim Christ to be King.

We do so on a Sunday in which Jesus tells us that story of the sheep and the goats—a story that is very clearly eschatological in its message. On the surface, in this story, we meet the shepherd.

In the world of this Gospel reading, a king and shepherd were very similar. For this Jewish culture, which looked so longingly toward the shepherd David who became their greatest king, these roles became enmeshed in their understanding of what a king was. A true king was more than a despotic ruler. A true king was truly a shepherd—one who cared and looked after his subjects. So, yes we meet the king we celebrate today—the king we catch a glimpse of in our reading from Ezekiel—now being fulfilled in our sight—in the person of Jesus.

But there is more going on here. I love this parable—not because of its threat of punishment, not because of its judgment. I love this parable because there is something beautiful and subtle going on just beneath the surface. And that subtle aspect of this parable is this: the reward is given not to people who work for the reward. The reward is not given to people who help the least of their brethren because they know they gain the reward. The reward is granted to those who help the least of their brethren simply because the least need help. The reward is for those who have no regard or idea that a reward awaits them for doing such a thing.

The least of our brethren are the ones who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are naked, who are sick and in prison. In our own society, we find that these same terms have a wider definition. Hungry for us doesn’t just mean hungry for food. It means hungry for love, for healing, for wholeness. Thirsty doesn’t just mean for water. Thirsty for us means thirsty for fairness or justice or peace. Naked doesn’t just mean without clothing. It means, for us, to be stripped to our core, to be laid bare spiritually and emotionally and materially. To be sick, doesn’t mean to be sick in our bodies. It is means to be sick in our minds and in our hearts and in our relationships with others. And we all know that the prisons of our lives sometimes don’t have walls or bars on the doors. The prisons of our lives are sometimes our fears, our addictions, our prejudices. To not go out and help those who need help in their needs is to be arrogant, to be selfish, to be headstrong.

And so, we find a great analogy here in Jesus’ story. For the people who heard this story, they understood what Jesus was saying. They knew that sheep and goats grazed together during the day, but at night were separated because the goats needed shelter during the night. The sheep could take of themselves during the night when it came. But the goats needed special care. And when we are headstrong, arrogant, selfish, what we end up doing to ourselves is what the shepherd in today’s story does to the fold. When we are self-centered and egotistical, when we refuse to help those who need help among us, we separate ourselves. We become the goats who must be separated from the sheep. We bring upon ourselves that eschatological judgment. We bring upon ourselves a judgment that is just as frightening as any horror film we can imagine.

But if we concentrate on the punishing judgment, we have missed the point of the parable all together. The real message of this story has nothing to do essentially with the punishment. The meaning of this story is this: If you do these things—if you feed the hungry, if you give drink to the thirsty, if you welcome the stranger, if you clothe the naked, if you visit the sick and imprisoned—if you do these things without thought of reward, but do them simply because you, as a Christian, are called to them, the reward is yours. There’s no need to think about the punishment. As Christians, we should haven’t to think about doing any of those things. They should be like second nature to us. We should be doing them naturally, instinctively. And if we aren’t doing them naturally or instinctively, then we have no need to despair either. We just simply need to recognize it and work harder and strive to make it part of our nature.

Which causes me to return to those horror moves I love so much. I said earlier that it seems they are absent of Christ. But that isn’t entirely true. In many of those films, there always comes a moment of grace. There is always a moment when it seems evil prevails—when darkness has encroached on the earth and human kind is about to be obliterated. In the case of the zombie films, it is more profound. It seems as though death—symbolized by these walking “living dead”—has prevailed over life itself It is in that moment, that there is a turning point. The heroes of these films, at this point, usually recollect themselves. They find an inner strength. They find some kind of renewed hope that motivates them to rise up and to fight back. And, in the end, they are able to push back—or, at the very least, hold at bay—the forces of darkness, death and evil.

For us with eyes that see and ears that hear, that hope is very Christ-like. For those of us who are hungry or thirsty, who feel like strangers, who are naked, sick and imprisoned, we find Christ in those rays of hope that break through into our lives. It is very similar to the hope we are clinging to in this moment as we enter Advent—that time in which the light of Christ is seen breaking into the encroaching darkness of our existence. And we—in those moments when we feed the hungry, when we give drink to the thirsty, when we welcome the stranger, when we clothe the naked, when we visit the sick and imprisoned—in those moments, we become that light in the darkness, that hope in someone else’s life. We embody Christ when we become the conduits of hope.

So, as we celebrate the end of this liturgical year and set our expectant eyes on the season of Advent, let us not just be filled with hope. Let us be a true reflection of Christ’s hope to this world. Let us be the living embodiment of that hope to those who need hope. And in doing, we too will hear those words of assurance to us: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

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