Sunday, November 23, 2008
Christ the King
'Lord, 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?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'
Today is the Feast of Christ the King. It is the final Sunday of the Church year. The Church year is designed to replicate the ministry of Christ beginning with the anticipation for the Messiah in Advent and ends with the final Judgment. It is why we hear such readings—the dividing the flock into sheep and goats in both the reading from Hebrew Scripture and in the Gospel.
In the minds of a people whose history included centuries of being nomadic shepherds and lives centered on their livestock, the people of Israel did not think of their flocks as smelly critters as many of us do these days. The sheep and goats of their flocks were their livelihood. They were not only their symbol of wealth; they were part of the family. Wool provided clothing and housing, milk provided the protein and fat to sustain them and rarely their meat provided a feast to celebrate the joy necessary for living. The best of their flock were offerings to God as a sign of their fealty and love. Sheep and goats were their most valuable commodity. The could not have sustained life without them. They looked after their flocks with care. As the Israelites became more agricultural and lodged in cities and villages, they expected their kind to look over them as they had their flock.
In Matthew’s gospel, there is a constant conflict between the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking Jews who followed Jesus and the Aramaic-speaking Jews that followed Jesus. These two cultures coming together are a constant tension in the Gospel. This separating the sheep and the goats is not about separating the Hellenists and the Judeans. It is about separating those who have absorbed the mind of Christ and has acted upon it.
It would be easy to see this gospel as a celebration of one’s works than the celebration of salvation through grace. But I think a harder look at the passage is important to us. God separates the flock into the kinds of animals that they are. Goats are goats and sheep are sheep. In the story of those who are welcomed into the kingdom are those who are who they are. They are those who have lived out in truth their love for Christ not because it was going to save them for all eternity.
It is generally a serious mistake to translate the phrase basileia tou theo ‘The kingdom of God’ as referring to a particular area in which God rules. The Kingdom of God is accepting God’s reign in one’s life, not heaven or a specific place. It is an attitude in which we live out what it means to love Christ with all our hearts and souls. Consequently we don’t do good deeds to curry God’s favor. We live in ways that glorify God by honoring the other, the least of our “brothers and sisters", not because we want to go to heaven, but because we have learned that kingdom-living is a way to live out our faith in integrity and truth.
In his autobiography Fredrick Douglas, former slave and one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement of the 19th century tells of the wife of his owner beginning to teach him the alphabet when he is about 12. She was responding to her own innate Christian self when she treated him as a person. She was living out her baptismal vows. When her husband chastened her and reminded her that it was against the law to teach a slave to read and write she began to treat Fredrick as sub-human. Douglas said he watched the woman over the years change from a selfless, open and welcoming Christian woman to a withered and spiteful soul. She had chosen to deny her Christian grounding and did not live into her baptism as she once had. She had become obedient to the culture around her.
All too often we choose not to a member of the flock of God. We choose for ourselves or to go along with those who would separate us from the goodness that is held out to us in baptism. We often ignore the kindness that God provides for us by placing ourselves ahead of others, or tring to take what is not ours. We ignore the needs of those of our flock or family simply because we are focused on our own desires.
Today at St. Luke’s we observe World Hunger Sunday. 854 million people worldwide are undernourished. This is 12.6 percent of the estimated world population of 6.6 billion. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that an additional 50 million people became undernourished in 2007 alone due to higher food prices. The world produces enough food to feed everyone. The world's agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories per person per day (FAO 2002, p.9). The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food.
The primary causes of hunger today are political. Hunger can be abolished if we as a nation along with others have the will to make it happen. We have seen in places in Africa where hunger has gone past malnourishment and become starvation. Often the efforts we try to make to rectify such inequality are denied because of war or political scandal. Even in our own companion synod of Zimbabwe, the political situation has interrupted the basic care we have for Bishop Shava and the people of the Zimbabwe Synod. The situation is grave indeed. They need more than our prayers. Thanks be to God recent letters from him remind us that he is safe but are in need basic food and medicines.
The political situations do not mean that we should deny countries basic care. It means that we must be more creative in our approach to regimes that will not serve their people. We must be bolder in our concern for our brothers and sisters throughout the world. We must be willing to deny armaments to regimes that would spend the country’s inheritance for guns rather than food. We may not allow ourselves to blame others for not doing unto others as we would for Christ.
When I served in Mexico over 30 years ago, it was easy to dismiss the beggars as gold brickers or panhandlers. People were constantly telling me not to “encourage them.” But once I began to know the lives of the people who asked me for money, I had to change my attitude. One woman lived in quite literally a house of sticks. It barely kept out the rain. She was in her 80’s and was the sole support of her great-grand child who was 9. From that time on, I have not been able to write-off a beggar. I don’t know their circumstances. If I did write them off, I would become like the wife of the slave owner—allowing the law of the day articulate who Christ was and wasn’t. To this day, I generally carry a bit of change in my pocket for those who beg. It isn’t much—and it isn’t all I could be doing—but it keeps me from ignoring those who are Christ to me unaware. It keeps me from becoming hardened to the needs of others. I can keep myself from allowing the immensity of world hunger from ignoring my flock—my fellow sheep. It allows me to be nourished by God’s love.
I worry when we as Christians are fearful of “getting taken” so that it keeps us from serving our fellow human beings. I worry that we as Christians are becoming afraid to be generous, because generosity is not a matter of doing good works. It is at the center of our faith—it has to do with who we are. Have we become a nation that cannot care about the needs of those among us who have fallen upon hard times, or have never had the opportunity or training to take care of themselves?
As we celebrate the great feast of Thanksgiving can we be thankful enough to reach out to help others? Can we shop for others for the Food Bank? Can we give to provide for enough for others?
Can we accept living in God’s kingdom right now? It is important to our spiritual health. Caring for the least of our brothers and sisters is the kind of oil that keeps our faith supple---it keeps us knowing the joy of Christ’ love in our lives. Our salvation is not dependant upon it—that is the gift of Christ on the Cross. But it is our returning of thanks to him for all that he has done for us. AMEN