Saturday, January 3, 2009

Christ the King Sunday Year A (RCL)

Christ the King
November 23, 2008

Matthew 25: 31-46

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Maybe you’ve been wondering just what it is that I do as a deacon. In church, as you may have seen, I read the gospel, make the call to confession, set the altar for communion, and dismiss the congregation at the end of the service. Outside of the church I have a ministry to the poor and homeless As part of my ministry, on most Tuesdays and Thursdays I conduct intake interviews at Urban Ministries’ food pantry and clothing closet. The purpose of these interviews is to determine eligibility for services. Everyone who comes and puts his or her name on the sign-up sheet is eligible to receive clothing. Eligibility for food is somewhat more complicated. A person must have children in the home, be over age 62, or be disabled. The person must be able to document custody of children, their own age, or official disability status. The system works, if somewhat imperfectly. Usually the truly needy get served. But I have a feeling that some hungry folks go away empty handed. Sometimes I’ll let the documentation go until next time if my gut tells me that the person is telling the truth but just doesn’t have the necessary paperwork. I find making these judgment calls unsettling at times. I feel like I’m in a position of more power than I’d like. I feel uneasy separating the sheep from the goats, in a manner of speaking.
Separating the sheep from the goats isn’t our job, if we heed today’s Gospel lesson. Separating the sheep from the goats is God’s job. And however much doing the separating may make me uneasy at the food pantry, if I’m being honest I have to admit that I fall into doing just that quite often. I certainly found myself doing it during the period leading up to the presidential election, and maybe you did, too. There’s something about dividing people into categories, such as liberal or conservative, so-called real Americans or suspect urban-dwellers, residents of red states or blue states—that can be deceptively satisfying. It’s seductive to think that we can organize the world into categories, and it’s seductive to think that we can make sure we’re on the right side of the divisions that we may deny making but that we secretly cherish.
What we learn in today’s parable from Matthew is that judging our sisters and brothers won’t get us to heaven. The righteous and the unrighteous alike in our reading ask the question, “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?” The righteous and the unrighteous are alike in that neither of them is able to discern who is an ordinary poor person and who is their savior. The righteous and the unrighteous differ, though, in their actions. The righteous, that is, those who will inherit the kingdom prepared for them at the foundation of the world, those righteous folk don’t even try to discern who is who when they are helping those in need. Those who are righteous respond to people in need regardless of who that person is or whether they “deserve” to be helped.
In sharp contrast to the righteous, those who are accursed are sent to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. What’s implied in our parable is that if the unrighteous had only known that it was their lord and savior who appeared needy before them, they would have extended a helping hand. But they didn’t. We can imagine that the unrighteous in our parable were in the business of passing judgments on those who asked for help. The unrighteous took it upon themselves to sit in God’s place and to separate the deserving from the undeserving, to separate the sheep from the goats.
But it’s so tempting to try to separate the sheep and the goats of our world, the so-called deserving and undeserving of help. The intention is completely laudable given the assumptions of conventional wisdom. Our usual assumption is that resources are scarce—there is only so much food, so much money, so much time, and maybe even so much love—to go around. Given this assumption it only makes sense to try to conserve resources so that those who truly need them get them. This kind of thinking has shaped the procedures at Urban Ministries’ food pantry, and while the procedures are slowly being revisited, the assumptions behind them can be hard to give up.
Sara Miles encountered this kind of thinking when she set up a food pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Sara was a new Christian. She’d been raised with no religious tradition and came to St. Gregory’s in middle age. She tells her story in her book called Take this Bread. Sara was struck to her core by the radical welcome she felt at the Eucharist. When she came to the altar she received the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ, without question or qualification. While none of the worshippers “deserved” communion, they still received it every week. Sara Miles wanted to extend that same welcome and hospitality at the food pantry, which she set up around the altar at St. Gregory’s. There would be no intake forms at St. Gregory’s food pantry, no assessment of need or worthiness to receive service. Sara embarked on her project filled with the Spirit and filled with enthusiasm. She expected that others would feel as she did.
Sara Miles had a great surprise in store for her. Though she eventually got the pantry going, she was told that at a parish staff meeting, the first reactions ranged from “over my dead body” to “when hell freezes over.” She was warned by the food pantry director at the San Francisco Food Bank that “very few people trust poor people enough to just give away food without conditions.” Still, Sara Miles persisted in her vision of a food pantry where all were welcome and all were served. A street-wise volunteer warned her that her system of no questions and no accounting resulted in double-dipping by some patrons. She protested, saying “[Jesus said] ‘feed my sheep.’ He didn’t say, ‘Feed my sheep after you check their ID.” Still, there were others who supported her. A former food pantry patron turned volunteer told her, “ I don’t care if we give food to folks who don’t look needy. I didn’t always look like I needed help either.”
Sara continued to meet resistance as her food pantry became established and began to have more patrons than it could handle. Some church members complained that the food pantry patrons dirtied their sanctuary and littered the church grounds with cigarette butts. Other church members insisted that the pantry didn’t make any sense because the needs would never be filled. Some church members protested against the food pantry on the grounds that its patrons might be dangerous. Early on, though, Sara Miles understood that sense, in the meaning of “common sense” or conventional wisdom didn’t apply in this situation. Right around the time she started the food pantry, Sara was baptized. She observed that by being baptized she was doing something that on the face of it didn’t make much sense either. Sara said that in some ways it was crazy. After all, in her own words, she said she was “signing up … for a religion with a tortured man at its center.”
A religion with a tortured man at its center. For us, God took on human form and suffered death on a cross, scorned and mocked as the “king of the Jews.” Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, also called Christ the King Sunday. Today is a day when we feel the contrast between the royal imagery we’ve learned to associate with Christ and the imagery of the Jesus who talked of sheep and goats, the Jesus who was the unlikely king who reigned from a tree. Two thousand years after Jesus’ death on the cross, in our churches made of stone where worshippers sit in polished wood pews and our clergy wear expensive vestments, our vision of Christ tends to be of the “Crown him with many crowns” and “Jesus shall reign where e’er the sun” variety. It’s hard to envision the Jesus whose feet got dirty. It’s hard to imagine that Jesus didn’t always know exactly where his next meal was coming from. For us today it’s all but unthinkable that Jesus was greeted with jeers and stones and worse in some of the places he went during his ministry. Of course, if Jesus showed up here at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church on West Main Street in Durham, we would welcome him. Of course we would. Or would we?
I hope we would. I think we would welcome Jesus here at St. Joseph’s. We do our best to welcome the homeless, the hungry, and the lost in our neighborhood. We don’t ask too many questions as we offer a meal, as we offer a place to sleep that’s at least slightly shielded from the elements, and as we offer an encouraging word. In the eyes of most of the world, our practice doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Our homeless neighbors may well be homeless because of bad choices they’ve made as well as bad luck. But we don’t minister with our homeless neighbors because it makes sense. We don’t minister with our homeless neighbors because we’re any more virtuous than other people in our neighborhood. We don’t minister to our homeless neighbors because we’ve judged them to be worthy of our help. We minister with our homeless neighbors because Jesus has told us that by feeding the least of his family when they are hungry, clothing them when they are naked, and visiting them when they are in prison, we are feeding and clothing and visiting him, too. We’re not to judge. We’re not to assume that we can figure out who’s worthy and who’s not, that we can figure out who’s a sheep and who’s a goat. Things aren’t necessarily what they seem. Remember, we’re baptized into a religion that has a tortured man at its center. Christ is an odd sort of king indeed. And what did he tell us? “Feed my sheep.” So we just feed them, and we don’t bother checking ID. Amen.

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