Sermon for theLast Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 29A) . November 20, 2005. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst,Massachusetts.
End-Time and Judgment:
Christ the King
My son Sam is fifteen, and he’s been asports fan all his life. In the summer, he follows baseball, and whenhe was a kid, I’d hear him shout, “The Red Sox rule!” In thefall, because his father grew up in Wisconsin, Sam would announce withgreat satisfaction, “The Green Bay Packers rule!” I alwayssmiled when I heard the exuberance in his voice. There is somethingin the human spirit that is set free when we proclaim what we love.
Today is the last Sunday of the churchyear, the grand finale. The sweep of the liturgical year that beginsin Advent and moves through the birth of Jesus, his baptism, ministry,passion, death, and resurrection, the coming of his Spirit and thebirth of the Church – this whole narrative reaches its conclusion andclimax today, the Feast Day of Christ the King. To put it in termsthat even a child would understand, today’s the day when around theworld the Church gathers to proclaim, “Christ rules!” Today’s the daywhen you and I get to say: we know where we’re headed – we’re headedtoward God. We know where we’ve come from – we came here from God. God is our Alpha and our Omega, our beginning and our end.
It is the ending that we look at today, onthis last day of the church year – the end of time, the moment ofreckoning, the day when everyone will be gathered at last before thethrone of God and everything will be sorted out. Of all the biblicalvisions of the end-time, I can’t think of any more beautiful than thismorning’s passage from the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was among thefirst deportees to be carried off into exile when the Babylonianscaptured Jerusalem in 597 B.C., and thereafter he lived among afrightened, helpless people who had lost everything – not only theirhomes and belongings, but their very homeland and their temple, theirsecurity and their hope. Like the slaves brought to this country fromAfrica, they had, it seemed, no future at all. Into this place ofdesolation and despair a vision came to Ezekiel, a vision of returnfrom exile and restoration in the Promised Land.
I haveno idea if this passage has ever been set to music, but it ought tobe, for its rhythm and repetition read like poetry – and, when itcomes to describing what God is up to, just look at all the activeverbs! “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search formy sheep, and will seek them out I will seek out mysheep. I will rescue them I will bring them outfrom the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feedthem on the mountains of Israel I will feed them with goodpasture I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will makethem lie down, says the Lord God.” And then comes a longsentence where the pace quickens and the verbs almost tumble aftereach other: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring backthe strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak” – and then, listen! The prophet sounds anote of judgment. The fat sheep – or we might say, the fat cats -will be punished: “the fat and the strong I will destroy. Iwill feed them with justice.” I wonder what justice tasteslike? To the hungry and poor its taste must be sweet, but to theunjust and unrighteous its taste is sharp.
These images are carried forward in ourGospel passage, which marks the end of Jesus’ public instruction. Theapocalyptic vision of the last judgment in Matthew 25 is Jesus’ lastpublic word to his disciples. At the end of time, says Jesus, “whenthe Son of Man comes in his glory” – or, as one translation puts it,when the Son of Man comes “blazing in beauty” [The Message, byEugene H. Peterson] – he “will sit on the throne of his glory” and”all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separatepeople one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from thegoats.”
I wonderif this passage was once easier to shrug off than it is today. Inyears past, we might have dismissed this image of the world coming toa sudden end as something fanciful, a quaint relic of Christianbelief. Life seemed likely to go on and on as it always had, onething after another: “same old, same old.” We might likewise haveshrugged off the notion of God’s judgment by saying, “Why bejudgmental? I mean – heavens! I’m from Amherst! I’m not into thisbusiness of God sorting people into sheep and goats, the in-crowd andthe out, the righteous and the damned. Aren’t we supposed to be tolerant?” So maybe we hesitated, or dropped our voices, when wegot to the part of the Nicene Creed where it says that Christ “willcome again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” No ending andno judgment – I think that’s what many of us liked to believe.
But thisyear we hear the Gospel with different ears. We’ve begun tounderstand endings. Endings are upon us. Take, for instance, the endof cheap oil. Experts are telling us that we’ve reached, or are soonto reach, the moment of “peak oil,” the moment when the world’sproduction of oil reaches its peak and then drops off for good. Whether it comes quickly or slowly, we’re looking at the end of thecomfortable way of life that many Americans, along with the rest ofthe industrialized world, have taken for granted. Or, as anotherexample, take global warming. If the so-called “developed” and”developing” nations don’t make a swift transition to clean, renewablesources of energy, we’re looking at the end of the relatively stableglobal climate that the human race has known for millennia. Maybe yousaw the pictures that circulated this week in newspapers and on theInternet: the polar ice caps are melting. In two weeks politicalleaders from around the world will be gathering in Montreal for thefirst international summit on global warming to be held since theKyoto Protocol went into effect. I’ll be heading to that city as partof a delegation of religious leaders from the United States invited tospeak out about the moral urgency of caring for Creation and to pressour own government to take leadership at last. Along with our littlegroup, thousands of others will be converging on Montreal, and theslogan we share is “Time is Running Out.”
Endingscan be disruptive, even scary, whether it is the end of oil or the endof empire, the end of a stable climate or the end of our lives. Wecan feel anxious when we realize that time is running out. ButChristians have always lived in sight of endings. Scripture is clearthat we live here only temporarily: all flesh is grass; the grasswithers and the flower fades [Isaiah 40:8; Psalm 103:15-16]. Christians always live on the edge. As preacher Peter Gomeslikes to put it, “We live in the world with our bags packed.”
One wayor another life does come to an end, and whenever it ends, we will beheld accountable for the choices that we made. There will be a moralreckoning, and today’s Gospel couldn’t be more straightforward andpragmatic in presenting how that judgment will be made. Did we givefood to the hungry and drink to the thirsty? Did we welcome thestranger and clothe the naked? Did we care for the sick and visit theprisoner? In short, did we reach out in love to those around us whowere in need? What we do (or fail to do) to those in need takes placenot in secret but in sight of the King, who has authority to judge. What we do (or fail to do) to those in need is done (or not done) tothe King himself.
Howhumble our King is, and how hidden! The one who sits “blazing inbeauty” on his glorious throne consents to be mysteriously concealedwithin the single mother on food stamps, the prisoner at Guantanamo,the frail elderly with Alzheimer’s, the homeless African-American inNew Orleans, and the citizen of Tuvalu whose island nation, because ofglobal warming, is now subsiding beneath rising ocean waves. Whetherwe know it or not, whether we see it or not, Christ humbly,stubbornly, and persistently makes his home within the very peoplethat society would most like to ignore or cast aside.
This iswhere the vision of the mystic becomes the vision of the prophet. IfChrist is in all things, but especially in the vulnerable and thepoor, the naked and the needy, then it matters what we do as anation. It matters whether or not we choose to engage in thetorture and coercive interrogation of prisoners. It mattershow we choose to structure our federal budget. When we hurt the poor,we hurt more than the common good – we hurt Jesus himself.
And if Christ is in each person who is inneed, then what we do as individuals matters, too. When we take astep toward reconciliation or healing – when we give someone a word ofcourage or hope – when we reach out to take whatever action we can,however small it may be, to make the world a better place – then, asthis morning’s Collect tells us, we share in the life of theeverlasting God “whose will it is to restore all things in [God’s]well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of Lords.”
Yes, we live in a turbulent, violent, anduncertain time – but we have everything we need.
We haveour marching orders.
We haveour moral compass.
Like theslave down South making a break for freedom, we have our own NorthStar. We know who we are and to whom we belong.