I HAVE NEVER VISITED the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., but I did read a description of it written by Barbara Brown Taylor. Barbara Brown Taylor is one of Phil’s and my favorite authors and speakers, and we were able to see her and worship with her in San Antonio a couple of years back at the Festival .of Homiletics. She wrote a book of sermons; it was the first book that she wrote, “The Preaching Life.” The sermon that she wrote about Christ the King Sunday is extremely appropriate for us today.
What you will hear in today’s sermon is mostly from her book, with a few things that I’ve added personally. On this Christ the King Sunday, we recognize that we’re also walking into Thanksgiving week and know that pastor Keith has plans for a Thanksgiving service next Sunday. So we’re about to hear the words that describe the National Cathedral as Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about it. This isn’t a brief picture; it is an intricate, detailed account that leaves me feeling torn between wanting to go there myself and see what she has described, and feeling as though I’ve already been there. Philip is going to read that description for us. Know that you need to keep your eyes and ears open, ready to sense the splendor of Barbara Brown Taylor’s account that leads us to today in the church calendar: Christ the King Sunday.
“It is a stupendous place perched on the highest hill in town, like something out of a dream with towers so tall they seem part of the sky, adorned with gargoyles. There are three doors at the entrance — two that are merely large and the central one that is huge — with creation scenes carved into the arches above; the birth of the moon on the right side, the sun on the left, and in the middle the first human beings, their graceful forms emerging from the swirling waters of creation, one gorgeous torso at a time. To step past them is to enter a sacred cave filled with whispers and footsteps and three tiers of stained-glass windows as high as the eye can see. When the sun is right, you can walk under them through pools of sapphire, ruby, and emerald light that stain your skin like walking through a rainbow. But even after your eyes have adjusted it is not possible to see the high altar from the nave. That is how big the place is. To see the high altar, you have to travel past all the memorials to human achievement; the long-gone saints, past the statue of Abraham Lincoln, the space window, and the pulpit carved with the profiles of the apostles. Only after taking a walk do you arrive at the high altar, where Jesus sits on his throne at the end of time, surrounded by the whole company of heaven, as he balances the round earth on the palm of his hand, like a ripe fruit. It is Christ the King preparing to judge the world, preparing to evaluate everything that has happened since all things came to be. And that is the brilliance of the cathedral space. Even the most casual tourist enters through the doorway of creation and winds up at the altar of the last judgment. Moving from the beginning of time, to the end, to stand before the one who will sort everything out that has happened in between.”
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AND THAT IS WHERE we stand every year on the last Sunday of the Christian year. It’s not the last Sunday of 2020, yet, but it is the last year in the Christian calendar. The last Sunday, today, is Christ the King Sunday and we stand before the throne to worship Christ the King, the judge who knows everything we have ever done. Sobering, isn’t it?
Barbara Brown Taylor also wrote that there is a sign in the National Cathedral’s gift shop that says, “We may not have seen you take it, but God did.”
God sees, God knows, and according to that scripture that Pastor Keith just read, what God will do with that knowledge is to sort us into two groups — goats to left and sheep to the right! Goats into eternal punishment and sheep into eternal life, depending on how we have behaved during our lifetimes.
I don’t want to spend too much time belaboring the sheep-goat distinction. Sheep were certainly more valuable in Jesus’s time. But since this story comes from Matthew’s gospel, it really does not matter what image he uses: wheat and tares, good seed and bad, wise maidens and foolish ones. Matthew uses all of those, and he is the only gospel writer who uses any of them. He’s very keen on making his point. Namely, that the relationship with God is not a matter of having faith, but of doing faith. Those who do not will be fed like so much trash into the fire that never goes out.
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MATTHEW GIVES ME PAIN. Life is never as clear as he makes it out to be. I cannot sort things out the way he does and what seems worse yet, is that when I’m about to preach a passage like this one, God seems to turn up heat. Barbara talks about being in Washington and standing on every street corner and being pushed around with paper cups put into her face, begging for change. She gives several other examples, but I’m going to give you a few of my own.
■ I was leaving Swift one afternoon when I saw a truck. It was broken down on the side of the road and I decided to stop and offer to help. The man said that he was out of gas and wanted to know if I could give him a ride to the nearest gas station. Which I did and then went back his truck. It started up and we both continued with our day.
■ There was a day that I was leaving my parents’ home, coming off Juniper Place onto Juniper Street, and I saw a family of four walking, And it was pouring rain. I made the decision to pull over, roll the window down and ask if they would like a ride. They had bags of groceries, and one flimsy umbrella between all of them, and they decided to get in. And I gave them a ride to their home, which was only about another mile down the road. But it would have been another mile in the pouring rain.
■ We have a food pantry at Swift; many of you are aware of that. And we have divided support for that food pantry. More people than not support the food pantry, and by that I’m not speaking about financially or bringing food, but the mission of what we’re doing to reach out into the community. Yet there are a handful of people who question this mission. When some people show up in fancy cars, they ask “Why would we give out food to them? They obviously don’t need it.” We don’t know their circumstances. God is the one calling us to do what we are doing.
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ANOTHER EXAMPLE that Barbara Brown Taylor gives is being in the grocery store line and hearing a woman behind her say, “Hello, honey.” She turned around and somebody she had never seen before said to her, “Could you give me a dollar to buy some hot dogs?” She had some stalks of celery in her cart and that was all. Barbara Brown Taylor decided to give her money for hot dogs.
What was the right thing to do, in all these cases? What is the right thing to do? Matthew would have known, which is why he gives me a pain.
But Matthew also gets my attention. He seems so sure about what is right and what is wrong, about who is blessed and who is cursed, that I get anxious about doing the right thing, about getting on God’s good side. So that when my turn comes, I will be sent to the right and find myself, not among the doomed goats, but the favored sheep.
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SO, WHEN I HEAR stories like this, I review my list. First, I read it over very carefully and note that I need at least one hungry person, one thirsty, one stranger, one naked person, one sick person, and one prisoner. So that I could supply, in that order, food, drink, a warm welcome, some clothes, hospital visits, and a prison visit. And then presumably, I will have satisfied all the requirements for ending up with the sheep, instead of the goats. But isn’t that absurd?
But as often as it happens, when I try to make law out of gospel, there’s going to be a problem. Because to read the story carefully is to notice that both groups were totally baffled by the verdicts they received, “When was it that we saw you?” That is what they both said to the King. The sheep did not know that they had done right, any more than the goats knew what they had done wrong. This seems to suggest that God’s judgment will take us all by surprise, sheep and goats alike. We can study for exams all we want, but God only knows what will be on the final.
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FOR THE CHARACTERS in the story, the biggest surprise of all seems to be that Jesus knew what they were up to when they did not think he was around. Sheep and goats alike. They thought that he occupied one space at a time just as they did and that the way they behaved in his presence was all that really counted.
Meanwhile, that left them lots of free time for being with other people in their lives, including the ones who did not count: the little ones, the least ones, the waitress, the door-to-door magazine salesman, the nursing-home residents, the panhandlers, the inmates, the strangers at the grocery store.
The biggest surprise of all is that such people are not unknown to the King. On the contrary. They are so close to the King that he counts everything done for them as if it had been done for him. For sheep and goats alike, the surprise is that Jesus is not somewhere, he is everywhere. And especially with the least important people who populate our days. Whoever they may be. God sees. God knows. And God will judge us according to how we behaved when we thought God was not around.
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“WE MAY NOT have seen you, but God did.” Remember the sign from the gift shop? OK, so say that it is true, say that Jesus is present in every single person whose path crosses ours. And particularly in the least ones, the last ones, the ones we would never expect. So how do we live knowing that?
How do we find courage to get up in the morning, knowing that every pair of eyes that pleads with us for something to eat or to drink that day is asking for recognition, for time, for attention? That is the question.
But the Bible is not a book with the answers in the back. All I know is that we are asked to wrestle with that, to let it challenge us, and unsettle us, and who knows maybe even comfort us.
Jesus is so present with us and we have such unlimited opportunities to meet him and to serve him, that in some way we may never understand everything we do, or don’t do, affects our eternal relationship with him.
One thing is for sure: You cannot win this truth. It is not like a scavenger hunt, checking off one hungry person, one thirsty person, one sick person, one in prison. There, “there’s my good deed for today, my ticket to eternity with the sheep!” You cannot use people that way. The only way to tell if they are really Jesus’s eyes is to look into them. To risk that moment of recognition, that may break your heart, or change your mind, or make you mad, or make you amend your life. Whatever effect it has on you, that seems to be one thing the sheep now how to do that the goats have never tried. To look, to see, and to seek Christ in the last, the lost and the least.
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I’M SURE MATTHEW would not agree with me. But if you ask me, that a good place to start. The food, the drink, the welcome, the visit, all those things will follow in their own good time. They are necessary for life, they are not optional, but by themselves they are just quarters and a cup.
Charity is no substitute for kinship. We’re not called to be philanthropists or social workers, but brothers and sisters. We are called into relationship, even when that relationship is unlikely, momentary, or sad. We are called to look at each other and see Christ, who promises to be there where our eyes meet, and in that glance to teach us something we know.
Samford Turner once — actually many times — said, “We are to see something of Christ in everyone we meet, and they should be able to see something of Christ in us.”
Sometimes when you look into those eyes, all you see is your own helplessness, your own inability, to know what is right. And sometimes you see your own reflection. You see everything you have and everything you are, in a stark new light. Sometimes you see with such gratitude, that it reminds you of how much you have to be thankful for. And sometimes you see such a wily will to survive, that you cannot help but admire it, even when you are the target of its ambitious desires.
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THESE ARE ALL things we need to know about Jesus, about our brothers and sisters, about ourselves. But we cannot know them if we will not look. The goats are not condemned for doing bad things, remember, but for doing nothing. They bore the hungry, the thirsty, and the stranger no malice during their lives.
With the least, there is relationship, that is both the good news and the bad news today and the last day. When we all stand before Christ the King and find out who we are. There is a relationship and it’s up to each one of us to decide what we will do, or will not do, about it. Right or wrong, it helps me to remember that I’m not alone.
Did you notice that the sheep and the goats both speak in unison, “When was it that we saw you?” They are reminding me that I am a part of a community. And that sometimes we can do things together that we cannot do alone.
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WE ARE PART of one flock. I count on your courage when mine fails and I will stand in for you when yours runs low. We can talk about what to do and why and how we feel about it. We can hold each other up and calm each other down. We can welcome others into our fold, pressing our limits, widening our own embrace.
We can do this because we are one flock, tended and fed by the Good Shepherd! Who is also, I suspect, the good goat-herder! When the time comes to sort this out, those are the eyes, that will meet our eyes. The eyes of the judge who sees and knows everything. Who knows when we have looked and when we have looked away. Who knows the last, the lost, and the least. Not only the ones outside of us but the ones inside of us. The one who lays down his life for all of us. Christ the King. Amen.