Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Feast of Christ the King, Year A: November 26, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Aidan Owen, OHC
Christ the King - Sunday, November 26,2017

To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.

Br. Aidan Owen, OHC
I always find today, the Feast of Christ the King, to be a bit troubling and disjointed. As the collect for the day reminds us, this is meant to be a feast of the final unity of all creation. And yet, at least on the surface, today’s gospel reading is not about unity at all.

At the end of time, Matthew tells us, Jesus will return to separate, not to unite, and to send some into everlasting life and others into the outer darkness.

And then there’s the whole king thing. I went to Union Seminary, so my ears are acutely tuned for the tintinnabulation of patriarchy and empire. Even for those who don’t approach scripture from a feminist, anti-imperial standpoint, it should trouble anyone who models her life on scripture that we celebrate Christ as a king.

Scripture doesn’t have good things to say about kings. Remember when the Israelites complain about how all the other people have kings and so they want one, too? Through Samuel God lets the people know what a king will be like:

“He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam 8:11-18)

The sense of this passage is clear: kings are bad news. They only want to take from you to support themselves in luxury.

Then, of course, we have Jesus, who continually rejects kingship throughout his ministry. After he multiplies the loaves and fish, he withdraws to a deserted place, as John tells us, because he knew the people intended to make him king. Later, when Pilate asks him if he is king of the Jews, he says, “you say that I am.”

Jesus used many names and images to convey the work he was about. He is Son of Humanity, Messiah, the True Bread, Living Water, the Word, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The only time he is King is when his tormentors are mocking him. So why do we insist on using an image and a title for Jesus the Christ that he rejected?

For the early Christian communities, to call Christ King was to assert that Ceasar was not ultimate. In the context of the Roman Empire, to assert the kingship of Christ was a subversive act. But the same cannot be said of us today. We Western Christians are not living as people marginalized by empire. Far from it. We are the empire. If you don’t believe me, look around. This building, as beautiful as it is, is an imitation of an imperial meeting hall. These vestments we wear, lovely as they are, are stylized forms of imperial regalia. And the elaborate form of our Eucharistic feast, again as meaningful as it is to us, has very little of the intimate meal of Jesus’ body and blood that our early Christian forbears would have known. We often still live with the myth that the empire became Christian under Constantine. How far from the truth. The empire never became Christian. Instead, institutional Christianity became imperial.

I believe we need seriously to ask ourselves: In this context, can a feast celebrating the kingship of Christ still be a subversive act? Or does it, as a friend of mine so eloquently put it, merely draw us back into the muscle memory of empire? Is the image of Christ as a king something that can be purified to guide the Church and the world into deeper healing? Or is it an image that needs to die so that something new can be born in its place?

I suspect there is a deeper reason we celebrate this feast of Christ’s kingship. Like our ancestors the Israelites, we, too, want a king. In a world that has been and continues to be devastated by the forces of empire, by racism, hatred, environmental degradation, colonialism, sexual abuse, misogyny, capitalism, and all the rest of the evil that plagues our world, we want a king to set things right. We want a savior who will intervene and bring order to chaos, who will vanquish those who do evil (who are, not surprisingly, also those with whom we disagree). We want the final triumph of good over evil.

But this life is not an action movie. There is no hero who is going to come and save us from ourselves. While I understand the desire for that kind of saving king, it relies on a childish fantasy religion, divorced from the reality we live in. And, furthermore, it is a fantasy that is not rooted in the gospel.

Returning to today’s gospel lesson, though, we see that Jesus has in mind something far better than kings, far better even than himself as king. Jesus offers us his own heart, beating within us, his own blood flowing through us, his own breath lifting our chests, and his own sight lightening our vision. Jesus offers us his very life to be our own.

If we can begin to listen to this story of the sheep and the goats with the ear of our heart, rather than with ears trained to the imperial drumbeat, it takes on a different valence entirely. We seem to read it as prescriptive—as showing us the way to get to heaven one day—but it isn’t. It is descriptive. It reveals to us a deeper reality already present among us. This story is not about what will happen someday. Rather, it is a description of the reality of today that is hidden from our sight. The story serves a set of lenses that reveals reality right here and now.

St. Benedict, in his rule for monks, provides for the excommunication from the community of those who break the bonds of fraternity. When a monk breaks the rule or disregards his relationships to the rest of his community or to God, he is excluded from table fellowship. He must eat at a different time and in a different place from the rest of the community. To drive the point further home, the rest of the community is forbidden even to talk with him. The idea is that, by his actions, this brother has already excluded himself from the unifying fellowship of the community. His punishment, so to speak, emphasizes the choices he has made in order to show him the deeper reality of exclusion he has already enacted by his choices. At the same time, however, that brother is never left entirely alone. The abbot deputes mature and wise brothers from the community to council the errant one and to work to bring him back into the fold.

A similar dynamic is at work with these sheep and goats.

The sheep are those who already live in the beloved community, here and now, because, whether they are conscious of it or not, they live in love with Christ in themselves, the people around them, and the whole created world. They hear the shepherd’s voice calling to them in every molecule of this hurting, bleeding world. They follow that voice within themselves and in everyone they meet. They know that whatever challenges they face along the way, the voice of the shepherd is leading them back home. Furthermore, they don’t rely on their own intelligence and strength. Rather, they understand that the whole is so much greater than they are, and that the fellowship of the beloved community is itself union with God. These sheep already live in heaven, because no matter how brutalized the world they serve, there they find Christ. They are never without God, because they see and seek God in everything, all the time. They not only exclude nothing from their experience of God, but they actually move into deeper communion with the Holy One in the most extreme and horrific instances of life. In other words, there is nothing in their experience of this life that excludes the presence of Christ. Everything draws them deeper into God.

By contrast, the goats, stubborn and independent, refuse to follow any voice but their own. What they love, they call good. They are so consumed with themselves that they never realize that all the time Christ’s life is shining all around them. Like the errant brother in Benedict’s rule, the goats have exiled themselves by their own choices and by their inability to enter, here and now, into the heavenly realm. These are the ones who pick and choose their experiences of God. Who judge good and bad, and seek Christ only where it is comfortable for them to do so. These goats already live in hell, because they deny themselves communion with Christ in the world around them and the caverns of their own hearts.

The sheep know that to get to heaven, you have to go to hell, because that is where Christ lives. The goats never get to haven, because they refuse to go to hell.

We have no need to wait for some future time for Christ’s glory to be revealed. Eternity is right now, and heaven and hell surround us in every single moment. Whether we live in heaven or whether we live in hell has everything to do with our willingness to enter the wholeness of our life right this very moment. If we want to know and love Christ, we have only to look around.

Jesus doesn’t say that when we tend to the marginalized and the poor, he is sitting there, watching, smiling, and approving of our actions. He says that he is the poor and the marginalized and the outcast of the world. Not that he is with them. He is them. This is a very important distinction. And he is us, too, whenever we are weak and vulnerable and hurting.

The throne of glory of which Jesus speaks is the growling belly of an immigrant woman who has less than $5 a day to feed her family. The blood that flows through Jesus’ veins is the dirty water of our inner cities, poisoned with lead and given to poor children of color. His flesh is the scarred and desiccated coal mines of West Virginia and the soot-stained skin of poor working whites in Appalachia.

And yes, Christ’s throne is also our own hearts, broken by whatever afflictions have plagued our lives, by the shame, the fear, the abuse, the unmet longings of our own deep hearts.

But there is another call in this text as well. If we are to be the sheep who see and love Christ in the most broken people and places in this world, then we must begin to see Christ in the goats, too. Can we seek Christ in the brokenness and the disordered consumption of the empire in which we live? Can we begin to recognize empire as a pathology, to understand that the forces of empire destroy and maim the souls even of those who benefit most from its systems of privilege, commodification, and oppression? Can we see that those maimed souls are often our own, and that, Christ lives there, too? Can we depute wise and mature sheep to the goats, to bring them back into the fold?

We have no need to wait for our salvation. Our salvation is already here. We are already saved, now, in this place, already whole, already holy. We have merely to ask for eyes to see and ears to hear Christ within and all around us.

This Christ may be a king, but if he is, we must also remember that his crown is thorns and his throne is a cross. His kingship explodes every meaning of that word, and it looks nothing like any kingship this earth has ever seen. For myself, I long for a different word than king, a word yet to be uttered by human lips, a word that is more silence than speech. And I’ll pray for the ears to hear that word in the searching gaze of my human brothers and sisters, of the devastated and majestic earth we live on, and in the cave of my own heart.

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