November 23, 2008
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Reign of Christ Sunday
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
Have you noticed how we ritualize things. Watch the Grey Cup today and you will see ritual writ large. Or in hockey, how some have to put their equipment on in a certain order. Or the commercial of the guy who does not want his lucky sock washed.
Well the ritual in the church is designed to cause us to stop and quiet ourselves, reflect, and be open to the creative adventure of God. We move from ordinary space and time into sacred time and space. We move from the busyness of the world into reflection time - to prepare us for the aim of God to burst into our consciousness.
This Sunday is one of those experiences.
The rhythm of the Christian year is always purposefully out of harmony with our conventional calendar. Often we don’t notice this but this Sunday is the end of time and the beginning of a new time - Christ The King Sunday ushers in the Christian New Year. Next Sunday is the new year, Advent. This day is a time between time where we are waiting for the in-breaking beauty of God, to be open so we are touched. A time to let go of conventional ideas and be willing to be surprised.
Ritual and reflection on the texts are ways to call into question the way we have structured our daily experience. there is a shock value that wakes us to inner reality and expose our surface experiences for they are, surface and trivial. Ritual asks us to examine our walk through life to see if its worthy of us and God. At its best it is just like God is looking right at us, just for a second. Asking who and what is King in your life, what rules your activity.
This ending of a year and preparing us for a new one is a time to ask the question of who are we to serve? Are we ruled by the wisdom of God?
In Matthew we come to texts full of reversals. A text that challenges our taken for granted views and actions. It asks us to take a hard look at our living- what is it we commit ourselves to. It asks if our living reflects what we believe? Is our talk lived out in our walk?
Simply put, the test of faith is not what we say or believe. The test is whether our beliefs send us out into the world. Does our faith lead to hospitality to all? Faith without works is not faith at all.
The text is full of twists and turns, surprise and reversals. What we thought was obvious isn’t. Those thought crucial aren’t. Those thought disposable aren’t. Those found at the margins are now at the center. Those thought excluded find themselves honored.
This text of sheep and goats can be dangerous. It is dangerous when we use it to beat up on ourselves and others. It is dangerous in the sense it can point out our warts and hypocrisies. It works when we engage in self reflection. It is not a call to judge others for the judging is up to the King - the judge. And those judged by the conventional means are not the ones who are condemned. It takes a wise judge who has the knowledge of the inner workings of each person to judge. We are not the judge for there is only one judge and this is God who brings compassionate justice.
Let me stop and go to the texts, because how do we see the surprises, twits and turns in the story? How did I get this reading of the story of goats and sheep?
It helps to understand the meaning of the goats and sheep. For one thing the goat is more valuable in economic terms. They provide milk, food, and clothing. Sheep only food and clothing. In utilitarian values, then, the goats stands for the what is considered by society worthy. It is a cost benefit analysis and thus to have the sheep being the metaphorical hero would be a challenge.
Remember in the honor system of the time shepherds were the lowest in honor. In part it is because sheep were vulnerable while goats were of more value. How then is this idea of the good shepherd going to be understood? Through out the bible it the vulnerable ones who are at the heart of God. Those of lesser value are the ones the king desires. The story moves value beyond production and commodities - There is intrinsic value in all life and that is what God honors. So the reign of Christ affirms that the image is hope comes from the edge of respectability, it is found in the outcast. Christ is to be seen in unexpected places and the story calls those who listen to see Christ in all things, especially those at the edge of our reality. It is to look at those we reject and see Christ.
Now the story gets better when we understand the time of the story. Sheep and goats were hard to tell apart. They looked alike. From a distance you cannot tell them apart. To tell the difference requires intimate knowledge for the only difference are their tails. Sheep have fat tails. Goats have tails that stand up. You have to really get down with them and be intimate to tell them apart. No casual judgments here. It really takes walking in the other person’s shoes to know them. To judge you have to live in the other's reality and know their situation to judge them. A built in warning here. Don’t be too quick in your judging.
Because of the earthiness of the images the listeners would have got the double meaning of the judgement. The judgement is actual, real, decisive, hanging over humanity like a thunder cloud. Like all trails, it passes judgement not on thoughts but actual deeds - in this case the deeds done to the judge. And not to be quick in your judging.
The question is simple. Where did you do deeds of compassion to the marginalized, the outcast, the weakest and neediest in society? Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Any religion which professes to be concerned with the souls of people, but not concern with the slums that damn them, the economic condition that cripple them - such a religion is dry -as- dust religion.” This is a time to pause - to examine ourselves to discover how well we walked the talk.
This story of reversals reminds us that we can judge ourselves and know we are not condemned. Those in the story who thought they were outside the Grace of God are surprised that they are not. It means we can take a realistic assessment of our lives. We can change. We are renewed. We can be transformed. This is to grow in faith. In faith we find the beauty of God in unexpected places. This is found in compassionate actions.
So in this time between times we pause to ask “When did we do this?”