Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King
November 22, 2020
You know that clergy are always, always getting in trouble for things they say. It just seems that no matter what, we are going to preach a sermon, write an essay, publish a book that is going to make our lives difficult. We just can’t help ourselves. Sure, our ministries would be easier, and perhaps more people would be in Church, if we just stuck to the script, said all the things expected of us, and kept out of controversies. But where’s the fun in that? As King Henry II noted in the year 1170, troublesome priests are just such a nuisance.
You probably learned about one such troublesome priest in your high school science class. Nicolaus Copernicus, a scientist and a priest of the Church, made the famous claim that the Earth is not the center of the universe. In 1543, Copernicus said that the Earth revolved around the Sun. It was not a popular claim. How dare a clergy person say something so inflammatory? How dare a man of faith seemingly contradict the whole of theology and scripture? How dare a priest say that humanity is not at the center of the universe? This was the scandal that got Galileo into so much hot water a few decades later. Galileo believed in Copernican model of the universe – that the Earth is not at its center – and was eventually rung up on charges during the Inquisition. Five hundred years on, of course, we know that Copernicus, that pesky priest was right. The Earth is not the center of the universe. And in fact, neither is the Sun. We are but a speck of dust in a vastly cosmic system.
So while it is scientifically true that we are not the center of the universe, it is also theologically true. Humanity is the not the center of the universe. Though we behave like we are. Even at our best we are like these little emotional black holes, sucking everything into our orbit. We make our decisions, even our most charitable decisions, based on how the consequences will impact us. We keep trying to put ourselves at the center.
Sadly, this has become true of Christianity, also. We have put ourselves at the center of our faith. It’s as if our whole system of thought and practice has been boiled down to, “how do I get into heaven?” As if the whole mode of our being, our code of ethics, our belief system is just about salvation. We talk about Jesus and salvation as if discipleship is mostly a one way ticket to the pearly gates. This is the height of human arrogance. And little wonder that the world scoffs at us. While the world suffers through crisis after crisis, we seem to only be talking about what happens after we all die. Little wonder the world has stopped coming to church. They can smell our vanity from a mile away. They probably have learned the lesson of Copernicus better than we have. Because we keep putting ourselves at the center of the system. I think that churches and parishes get into trouble when they spent too much time thinking about themselves; and it’s because we have put ourselves at the center of the system. But Copernicus was right. We are not at the center of the universe. To go even further beyond that, we are not at the center of Christianity. God is at the center.
Look at this parable for today, the judgment of the sheep and the goats. Lots of good people have been inspired by this teaching to do lots of good for the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the naked, and the prisoners of this world. And I want to say that is all very good and right and holy. I want to commend all of that, and as a church and a parish family I know that is in our DNA. But I don’t think you would be here if you didn’t think that serving others was at least noble or admirable. There’s more to this teaching and I want to dig deeper.
God, the Almighty One, is at the center. Any Christian thought or belief or action that does not have God at the center is a mere impostor. We see this right here in the teaching on the sheep and goats. Who is at the center of the action? Who sits on the throne? Who has the real power? The Lord God. This is not a story about sheep and goats, this is a story about the Righteous and Holy God who sits enthroned upon Glory. We humans really need to learn to step aside. Not everything is about us.
And once we get there, once we understand that we’re not the center of the universe, then we can really get down to work. Because that’s the key to this whole passage. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Our service, our charity, our advocacy work is not in service to humans only, but it is through those whom we serve that we are serving God. We do not serve, we do not give money, we do not do charity just for the recipients only, we do it for God. Because God is at the center.
Beyond that, the most important humans are the sick, the naked, and the prisoners because those are the humans with whom Jesus identifies. Jesus casts his lot with the poor, the sick, the naked, and those in prison. While our culture adores the rich and famous, treating them as gods, we Christians know that God identifies with the poor, the oppressed, and those for whom it would be easy for us to forget. So if we are going to worship the Lord God who is at the center of the throne, then we must, we must care for the people God cares for.
So rather than giving the simple sermon of exhorting all of us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoners – I want to do say that plus another thing. This passage, our faith, Christianity itself, is not about humans but about God. And our service to the poorest among us is service to the Lord God because Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the prisoners. Do not be so vain and arrogant as to put yourselves in the middle of it all. Put God at the center.
I am reminded of the sheer, absolute truth of God’s centrality every time I look at the new stained glass window at the back of the church. While you all mostly look at the front window, I always see the back window. In that heavenly vision from John the Divine, he sees the Lamb, the Lord God at the center of everything. John says that there is no need for a Temple, because at the center of the heavenly city is the Lord God. John says that there is no need for sun or moon, because the Lamb is the lamp, giving light to everything. And yes, while John does see the servants of Jesus there in the heavenly city, they are all facing the Lord God. The final vision of the holy scriptures is that we are drawn in perfect love around the throne of grace. God is at the center. So yes, by all means, the great hope of our faith is that we are all drawn into the heavenly courts. But it’s not like we spend eternity hanging out with friends and family. The vision is much holier than that – the vision is that we are all facing the Lord God (Revelation 21-22).
So yes, by all means, feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners, but not because that will earn you your salvation. Feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners because that is an image of what heaven will be like. When all of us face the throne together, when all of us face toward Jesus; when all of us see and worship God at the center.
Note: This sermon draws heavily upon Systematic Theology, Volume 2: The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons by Katherine Sonderegger