Proper 29A Revised Lectionary

31 November 2008

John W. Sewell

Saint John’s

Memphis, Tennessee

This is the last Sunday of the Christian Year.   We hear the last reading from Matthew.  For the long season of Sundays since Pentecost we have read and reflected on many parables of the Kingdom.  What is this Kingdom or Commonwealth as it now being translated by some?   Robert Capon says that these Kingdom Parables are like a basket of flashlights: a basket filled with flashlights, turned on and pointing in all directions.  Shafts of light go in all directions but all the dark is not illuminated. These parables do not tell us all that we would like to know, but they tell us enough to know that something wonderful and terrible has come among us.

Someone has said that the Kingdom of God:

·        Is Now — Go and tell John, says Jesus when the Baptizer sent and asked, “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another? That the sick are being healed and the lame are walking. In other words, “the kingdom has come near you here and now.” —- The Kingdom is now.

·        Is a process The Kingdom is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all the seeds of the garden, but it is like Kudzu which when planted takes over and become the greatest plant in the garden.  The Kingdom is like yeast that is put into flour and it leavens the whole.  —- The Kingdom is a process.

·        This process involves dependency on God.  The parables of the kingdom are about those who are in until they insist on being out.  The elder brother, the guests who will not show up at the party, the workers who begrudge the vineyard owners generosity, the servant who saw his master’s giving him a talent to invest as a threat not an opportunity.  Those who are in are those who accept that the gift is already theirs and live their lives based on that trust.  —- The process involves dependency on God.

·        Depending on God involves suffering and powerlessness.  The Kingdom is built not on force but on love.  Force can do many things.  You can do A which affects B that results in C.  It is direct and neat.  But it will not work in relationships.  The most important things in the world cannot be willed.  You can will eating but not hunger. You can will togetherness but not intimacy.  In other words, the sorts of things that the Kingdom of God finds important cannot be forced only given.

Today’s Gospel reading is a scene of judgment when all the peoples of the world are gathered before the throne of the Son of Man and they are to be separated as the sheep from the goats [As a left-handed person let me remark that I have felt for sometime that this pre-occupation with elevating the right over the left is a prejudice that I find unfortunate. But be that as it may …] the goats are on the left and the sheep are on the right.  Let me also point out that being called the sheep is not great compliment. Sheep are stupid and totally dependent on the Shepherd.  Goats, on the other hand, are self-sufficient and clever.   Those on the right hand are those who offered ordinary garden-variety human kindness and courtesies to those who were on the margin.  Those who saw the connectedness between the need of those in need and themselves and they gave what they had.   They found at the judgment that in those very ones was Jesus, who as Mother Teresa of Calcutta puts it, “in his distressing disguises.”  Those on the left, in the goat position, are those who might have done something if they had found it important, but they apparently did not see the essential connectedness of all human beings. Jesus is not playing a game of hide and seek with us.  Everyone is in but some live into it and some choose not to. Some see their essential connectedness with those in the margins while some do not.   We are not to be kind in order to cover the bases and get our be nice to the poor folk ticket punched. What needs converting is our imagination.

Thomas Moore in his book, THE CARE OF THE SOUL, writes,  “Tradition teaches that soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness, and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination.” The imagination of our hearts must be quickened so as to see things as they really are.  Moore continues, “In the fifteenth century, Marsilio Ficino put it as simply as possible. The mind, he said, tends to go off on its own so that it seem to have no relevance to the physical world.  At the same time, the materialistic life can be so absorbing that we get caught in it and forget about spirituality.  What we need, he said, is soul, in the middle, holding together mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world.”

We are amphibious creatures.  We belong exclusively neither to the spiritual realm, not to the physical.  We are not a divided being – a soul here and a body there.  We are an inseparable whole.  This is how were created and God said that this was “good, very, very, good.”   We will encounter the holy one, the spiritual in matter.  We are in this together.

A determined young seeker of truth had searched the world over to find the ultimate meaning of life.  He had visited many sages in many lands to hear their wisdom, yet the seeker was still unsatisfied.  Then one day he heard of a hermit that lived in the remotest part of the Himalayas — a divine who possessed the secret of life’s meaning.  The dedicated seeker set out to find the teacher of truth.  Through gale and tempest and biting cold, he journeyed to the sage’s dwelling in the remotest part of Tibet.  At least, he arrived.  The old master was outside his hut, having his morning meditation, when the seeker arrived.  Barely containing his enthusiasm, the aspirant blurted out: “Good Master, tell me … please … I have journeyed around the world to find you and learn the secret hidden for all time.  What is the meaning of life?”  The sage slowly opened his eyes, stared at the eager young seeker, and replied: “One size fits all.”

One size does indeed fit all.  Jesus has come to make all things one, as He and the Father are one.  All the categories, classes, games of status, of who is in and who is out all miss one essential fact:  God in Christ Jesus has called that whole game off.   Everyone is in until they opt out.  Opting out involves failure to see the oneness of all things and our not living into the gift of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.

The naked, the thirsty, the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, the sick

·        He was there within the naked and came to life within the one who clothed them.

·        Jesus was there within the thirsty and came to life within the one who gave water to drink

·        Jesus was there within the hungry and came to life within the one who gave food to the hungry.

·        Jesus was there within the stranger and came to life within the one who gave welcome to the stranger.

·        Jesus was there within the sick and came to life within the one who cared for them.

·        Jesus was there within the prisoner and came to life within the one who visited those who were incarcerated.

·        Jesus is the clothing, the water, the bread, the welcome, and the visit, the healing.

In very truth we meet Jesus coming and going.

Some had the imagination to see the connectedness of all things and some did not.  It is a failure of the soul.  The failure of imagination made those on the left trust themselves and opt out of what is theirs in Christ Jesus.

Those on the right hear the words “Come into your inheritance”. Amen. “I was a stranger and you took me in.”  The kindness that defines the new covenant is kindness to strangers – like that of the Samaritan to the stranger whom he found wounded and naked and in need of food and drink.  Those who perform this act bind themselves to God and will be rewarded at the Last Judgment. They themselves do not recognize as they perform it that it is a covenant act.  They see it only as a human act.  God, however, who makes no mention of the duty of worship, sees it as something more – something, indeed, rather mysterious more – and it is his view that matters.

What the divine king says to the company of those who, during the entire course of human history, have been defined by; their kindness to strangers is “Take as your inheritance the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world”  [italics added].  What inheritance was prepared for all mankind at the foundation of the world? What else but Earth itself, the open garden that Earth was before the Creator chose to confine the first couple in an enclosed garden?  The king harks back to the moment when Earth was turned over to its human trustees, the moment when God said:  “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …”

The path back to that original kingdom, the kingdom prepared since the foundation of the world, lies, paradoxically, through anonymous and nondiscriminatory kindness.  The just are not to segregate themselves from the sinners.  They are not to attempt to distinguish the deserving poor from the undeserving or an innocent waylaid stranger from a wounded bandit who go what was coming to him.  God can make these distinctions, and he will do so, at the end of time.  But God’s people are not to make then in the interim, no matter how long the interim lasts. [p. 187 CHRIST: A CRISIS IN THE LIFE OF GOD, by Jack Miles]

Those on the left hear the words, “Depart from me, you cursed”

The unlived life, the buried talent, the refused invitation is the cause of intense agony.  Death is more painful for those who did not live a full life. The good news is that new life is ours in Christ Jesus.  We need only accept what is already ours.  But accept it and live into it as if it were the most important news in the world.  Because it is!