November 23, 2014
Christ the King, Year A
The Rev. Rob Fisher
St. Dunstan’s, Carmel Valley
Last Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Matthew 25:31-46
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
I’m not a huge sports person, but the other people in my immediate family are. My sister was a cheerleader for the Washington Huskies, and I remember on big game days how we would watch the team play on television and sometimes catch a glimpse of her cheering on the sidelines. She married another cheerleader from Washington, and it is no surprise that their kids now wear Huskies clothing with the big “W” for Washington.
Yesterday I didn’t even realize that my own college team was playing its biggest game of the year until my sister sent me a text. She saw that it was going to be on TV, which almost never happens for my college’s football team.
The game yesterday was the big rivalry between Harvard and Yale. We called it simply “The Game,” as in, it didn’t matter how many other games we lost in the season as long as we beat Harvard. It’s among the longest running football rivalries in history, but not continuously so—because there were a few years in which the two teams were not allowed to play against each other due to the amount of bloodshed on the field. This was in the 1890s when they had not added very much safety equipment to the football uniforms yet.
Because the Ivy League does not allow sports scholarships at all, most of the top football players are snatched up by bigger football schools each year. So even the star players on the Ivy League’s best teams mostly do not go on to the major leagues. For almost all of the seniors playing in The Game, this will be their last game ever.
Now this is really sad news, but in spite of playing their hearts out yesterday and coming back from behind, the Bulldogs lost in the last minute of the game.
Even more sad is that we’ve now lost 13 of the last 14 games against Harvard. (But in the 131 games played so far we’re still ahead with 65 wins to their 58, and 8 ties.)
Yesterday, even though I had no intention of watching The Game, I did watch it, and I was very surprised at myself how much I cared. It’s just a silly game. But in that moment, I admit that I just really, really wanted to beat Harvard.
Isn’t it odd how we all do this?
We square off against each other so naturally. It’s part of our nature somehow. It’s how we define ourselves.
I know who I am, because I’m not you.
And so we break into tribes. (“Break” is probably the right word here.)
One of the earliest stages of childhood is having a sense that the whole world revolves around your own bellybutton. It is not until we grow a bit into maturity that we human beings are even capable of compassion.
Compassion, therefore, is a mark of maturity.
Sadly, not everybody matures.
Today in the scripture readings we hear a lot of talk of division. We hear about separation and judgment.
The theme of this Sunday is Christ the King, which points to an image of Jesus as divine monarch, choosing who will be on his right and who will be on his left. Separating the sheep from the goats.
And don’t you hope you’re not a goat!
How can anyone be sure?
The imagery here seems poorly suited to our human nature, as in the animal world you are either a sheep or a goat. But in the human world, I believe, we are all a bit of a mixture. The best we can hope for is to be mostly sheep.
At the beginning of the passage, Jesus speaks of the “nations” gathering before the throne of the king. When he uses the word “nations” the Greek word happens to be ethne.
It’s like the word “ethnic” in English.
Ethne refers to people that are usually not one’s own tribe. So as Jesus spoke this to ethnic Jews, they would have known he was talking of other ethnicities being included beyond themselves—the various nations of Gentiles—which would have been a threat to them and to their world view of God being only theirs.
Jesus is threatening their comfort zone, in which an attitude of only tribal inclusion is pushed out toward an even more expansive vision.
And this is really interesting: The definition of who is in and who is out hinges on who has been merciful to the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, and the strangers.
Throughout scripture there is a tension between God’s sense of righteousness and justice on one hand, and God’s sense of mercy and forgiveness on the other. Righteousness is about making a judgment between what is good and what is bad, and punishing the bad. Mercy is about forgiveness, in which even what is wrong can be passed over because the lord is merciful.
Here Jesus says that the people of the earth who show mercy will be called righteous.
The two come full circle.
And so I believe there is reason to hope that we are all destined for a good end in spite of the scary imagery we just heard. I happen to believe this because I am an optimist. Also, I know Jesus not just through the words I have read in books, including scripture, but I have known him in my life. And based on that I have an optimism that ultimately love wins, and that darkness—including that which resides within us—will be scattered by God’s light.
Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, in the 19th chapter, Jesus’ own disciples were perplexed about who could meet God’s high demands. They asked, “then who can be saved?”
The text says that Jesus then looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Perhaps the impossible surprise for us to discover is that we are all on the same team.
And the badge of the kingdom is not a flag or a crest or special insider colors or traditions.
The badge of the kingdom is compassion.
The sad barriers that create false groups are not limited to Yale versus Harvard…
Nor to Giants fans and Dodger fans, Protestants and Catholics, Sunnis and Shiites, Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention Democrat and Republican.
We are challenged by Jesus’ words to love not only those who are nice to us, not only those who are pleasing to us, not only those who see the world like we do.
We are challenged by Jesus to love all people—even our enemies.
We are challenged to recognize the sacredness of our common humanity in every person we meet. As we say in our baptismal covenant, we are to recognize the dignity and worth in every human being.
This is how we live in Christ’s reign, holding his example of how to live as the way, the truth and the life of the kingdom.
Jesus himself breaks not just earthly barriers, but he breaks what may seem to us like the greatest barrier of all—those that separate God and humanity.
He is a heavenly king who humbled himself to be one of us, with the dirt and pain and sweat and tears and laughter of really living life with us—Emmanuel.
For this king, love is the coin of the kingdom.