Sunday, November 23, 2008

Holy Ignorance

Good morning! And welcome to worship here at First Presbyterian Church! Welcome friends and visitors to worship this Christ the King Sunday! “O worship the king!” we will sing! “Alleluia” we have declared. What a glorious celebration to which we have been called! What an honor and privilege we have to gather in the name of Christ, the sovereign of all earth!

As Americans we’re not so familiar with traditional royalty, so we have to step into our imaginations and history a little to try to recall what worshiping and serving a king to his usual standards should look like. The National Geographic issue that arrived at our house this week was PERFECT for this sort of remembering. The cover story is about King Herod, the king of Judaea in power at the time of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, and tonight (hopefully after you’ve attended the Advent Celebration) you can catch a special on that same channel about him.

Herod, while well-known for his murderous plots and ruthless hunger for power, was also, it turns out, an architectural genius. His palaces (there were several) were built into the sides of mountains and atop precarious cliffs. He designed an extraordinary city and was even an architect of the sea in creating a deep ocean harbor from a piece of land jutting into the Mediterranean. His palaces by all accounts were luxurious beyond most imaginations. The author of the National Geographic article tells how Herod tried to perfect creation by raising “a low knoll into a towering memorial of snowy stonework and surrounded it with pleasure palaces, splashing pools, and terraced gardens.” The king lived high on the mountain, and high on the hog. Servants abounded and his every need and want were met.

This was a man who knew what it meant to be king, who enjoyed the finest things the world had to offer, who relished his status, and expected to be honored, revered, even worshiped!

But we know the secret, right? He may have held the earthly title of “king,” but he only wore the crown temporarily. This is Christ the King Sunday, not Herod the King Sunday! Herod’s reign is over, but Jesus’ endures forever! Jesus, our Christ, is the one who sits on the throne in the realm of God. Jesus, our Christ is the one who dwells in the midst of all of God’s riches. Jesus, our Christ, is the one who enjoys servants and palaces and throngs of worshiping masses! Jesus, our Christ, is the King! Alleluia!

Hear now the word of God about Christ our King, as it comes to us from the gospel according to Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31-46

Hmph. Well. What happened here? What happened to Christ the King? It started out alright. The Son of Man was coming in glory. The angels accompanied him. He sat on a throne. The nations gathered before him. The makings a beautiful regal scene!!

Everything was going well in Jesus’ parable until the mighty king turned into a measly shepherd, out in the field dividing up the flock between sheep and goats. He couldn’t possibly be wearing robes of the finest cloth doing this dirty job. Then somehow the king isn’t even the shepherd anymore. It’s worse! The king is all mixed up with the hungry, the naked, the prisoners…

And wait a minute! Let’s go back there a little. What’s this about separating anyway? I don’t think I like that piece about this God-king-shepherd-savior doing any separating! That part doesn’t seem so loving. Why is he separating anyone and what’s this about some being blessed and coming with him, and others being accursed and departing. I’m pretty sure I don’t like this.

I mean, I feel bad for those goat-nations, those other folks. It must be kind of hard to hear that kind of news, that kind of judgment. It sounds like they didn’t even know what’s coming to them. When did we see you hungry, Lord? When were you thirsty or cold or lonely? We never saw that. How could we help you if you never told us you needed help? It must feel horrible to be that clueless about what’s going on!

The sheep at least, seemed to know what’s going on didn’t they? They were confident and thankful, and knew what they were doing right? Right? I mean, right here it must say they heard the Word and followed it and did everything they were told because they knew it would bring…. (looking at Scripture)

But, no. That’s not the way it is, is it?

I think in the past when I’ve heard this passage, when I’ve read it, and taught it, I’ve just thought about it as a lesson to be learned, or even a holy checklist to be completed. I am more than aware that I lean toward goat-dom and need to make an effort to do the right thing, but other than a trip to a soup kitchen every once in a while or serving a couple of hours at Grace Place a few months ago, it can be really hard to remember to do some of these things. So, thankfully, I think, Matthew has given me this check list. Feed hungry – check! Give a drink to the thirsty – check! Welcome stranger – check! Clothe the naked – oh, I guess it’s time to go through the closets again for goodwill. Visit prisoners – really? I’m a mom of young kids; that doesn’t sound safe. Maybe there are some people who are prisoners to their fears or are trapped in their bodies. I’ve made a few hospital visits lately, and somehow my offering supports a mission in a prison somewhere doesn’t it? If it doesn’t, it should. I’ll check on that. Prisoners? – check!

I know that when the checks have all been made, or at least are in the works, I’ve worked my way toward sheep-dom again. Then I can rest easy for a while.

It’s been my usual reading of the passage, but a few things I noticed this time around have challenged my thoughts:

First, it’s not individuals stand up their before the God-king-shepherd-savior. It’s nations, communities, groups who are being separated, not people one and a time. In other words, sometimes it’s not just about me ‘n’ Jesus. Actually, a LOT of the time in Scripture it’s not just about me ‘n’ Jesus. It’s about us. It’s about the church, or the community, or the country, or the whole world. Jesus came as a person, certainly, so we could relate to God personally, but he also came as a king, a ruler, so that he could relate to us collectively, so he could guide and redeem whole communities of the world.

I am NOT calling for what some people would call a Christian nation. But I do hear in this Scripture that God cares not only what we do personally, but what we are a part of collectively. We in the western world in general, the United States of America particularly, and mainstream Protestant and middle or upper class society specifically, need to hear that God cares about what happens on earth collectively.

We are blinded by a skewed view of reality that doesn’t see ourselves as connected to or responsible for the well-being of others outside of our family or immediate community. We don’t ignore others intentionally, usually, but we have been fed a message from before we can even remember that we need to look out for number one. We need to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps and others need to do the same or they aren’t doing their part. We need to push ourselves ahead to get our piece of the pie because if we don’t take it for ourselves, someone else is going to take it from us. We are fed this goat-like message, and whether we realize it or not, we have internalized it, and we ignorantly live it out in almost everything we do.

The second realization that has challenged my thoughts about this passage is that NO ONE has a clue what they’re doing. The goats can’t figure out what they’ve done wrong, but at the same time the sheep didn’t even know they were doing anything right!

As easily as the goats internalize a message and a drive toward individualism, the sheep live a lifestyle of compassion and attentiveness to all without even realizing what they are doing. They have clothed so many bodies, and filled so many bellies, that they haven’t even noticed the king’s was one of them. It could sound like they don’t pay attention, but I think it’s that they just see human beings, not people needing pity, not people whose sins or pasts or responsibility on which they dwell. Maybe they saw so many KINGS and QUEENS, so many people deserving of love and tender care and time and attention that they couldn’t pick out THE king in the crowd.

Their ignorance is just as strong as that of the goats, but it moves them in a completely different direction. They aren’t following a holy checklist, but instead have internalized a holy ignorance.

But if all of this is internalized, if it isn’t supposed to be about holy checklist toward salvation, and well, frankly it just DOESN’T come naturally, where then does that leave us? Are we left just walking away from Jesus because we have no other choice? Are we left separated from him because we just can’t measure up, and we just never will? Have we punished ourselves with our inherited ignorance?

Well, yes and no, yes in the ideal world, in the kingdom of God, in the reign of Christ, this all comes naturally to us. When we can live as God created us to live, we won’t need to plan when we will serve others, because we will serve others with our time, energy, talents, and treasure without even thinking about it. It will be natural. We will live out of holy ignorance. Our faith, our discipleship will be so internalized and a part of who we are, that it will just flow from us without us even being aware.

But, the reality is, we aren't there yet. We can thank God that in the parables we have a picture of what it is, but truly as a society, as the church, we're not there yet. So right now, it might not be so natural. It might not be so internalized. So right now, because of who we are (fallen human beings) and where we are (living in a fallen world) we do have to try. We do have to make checklists. We do have to schedule time and write down pledges and set appointments to serve God and serve others. We have to actively try to change the way we have a tendency to act - individualistic, controlled by money instead of controlling money ourselves, self-preservers instead of other-servers.

Maybe in paying attention, we will internalize it, and someday we won't have to pay as much attention. Maybe in paying attention, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and visiting those in prison will become a part of our own holy ignorance. Maybe in paying attention we will come to lose ourselves in worshiping Christ the King in all that we say and do, and in everyone we meet. Alleluia! Sing to Jesus! Amen.

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