Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:32-46
The year 2020 cannot end soon enough for many of us. The murder of George Floyd, the stress and outrages of the presidential debates, the election and its aftermath, fires, floods and hurricanes ravaging entire states, and a yet-uncontrolled worldwide pandemic.
Well, 2020 may not be ending yet, but the official church year is. Today is New Year’s Eve — in church time. It is the last Sunday before the new church year begins next week with the first Sunday of Advent. There will be renewed focus on waiting for the birth of Jesus –and we have been well-schooled in waiting for the past nine months.
We have been waiting for a timeline, for a vaccine, waiting for school to resume, waiting to see friends. It’s been the relentlessness of it: the daily statistics about cases and deaths; the Governor’s 2:00 MPR daily updates; the increasing burnout of heroic medical professionals; our fear about doing what used to be the smallest things: getting our hair cut, going to the store, seeing a friend, hosting a holiday meal, and the constant sense of vulnerability these things bring. We have learned that even our sanctuaries such as the church are not invincible, that even the sacraments must be deferred. Thanksgiving—and probably Christmas– will not be as it was. And how wonderful “as it was” looks from here.
To be honest, sometimes I get tired of being told to be a good person, tired of being reminded to “be kind,” annoyed with the frustrating social media articles about forgiveness and frustrated by the commands to “just love,” as if love is a feeling or an action that can be activated at will.
I like to begin Advent next Sunday with something new, something concrete, something grounded in the deepest teachings of Jesus, and it’s right there in today’s Gospel and I hadn’t really noticed it before. But first, some context…
There are many resources that can help us be a good person.
The first is to do things that we probably know about: Go to church and don’t multi-task during the service, study the Scriptures, pray, meditate – clear your mind of clutter so it can rest.
Full disclosure here: sometimes these things work for me, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are transformative; other times they leave me cold. I’m an impatient human and often want to “cut to the chase” so the title of a little book that came out in the Sixties speaks to me: The Tranny of the Urgent (thank you Faith Formation class; thank you Judy Stack).
Sometimes the urgent is truly urgent like a bleeding foot or a screaming child, but other times it isn’t. I can say that it is urgent that I get to the store before it closes but actually I just don’t want to wait for something I can buy there. I may say it’s urgent I return an email or urgent that I send a text but it’s usually a choice. The tyranny of the urgent help us avoid more difficult tasks or other priorities.
The tyranny of the urgent can undercut the gift of our senses. From Psalm 135:
“They have mouths, but do not speak;
they have eyes, but do not see;
they have ears, but do not hear,
nor is there any breath in their mouths.”
Sensory awareness is something I’m trying to slow down enough to understand; I’m used to racing through things so I can cross them off my ever-present list. But since I have moved from a house to an apartment with a screen porch I find I am outside more (on the porch). So I smell the rain and the freshly-cut grass; I see the moon making its way across the night sky and notice that stars really do twinkle; mornings I hear the blue jays bullying the other birds at the feeders outside the porch.
I recently read a book about food which helped me understand how real cooks relate to food: “Lillian put the butter into the bowl and turned on the mixer, the paddles beating its way into the soft yellow rectangles. Slowly in an impossibly-thin waterfall of white, she let the sugar drift into the bowl. ‘This, she said, is how you add air to a cake.’”
Often I just throw things together but I’m trying to appreciate the elements of food – its beauty, its colors, its touch. God is in these details.
In addition to embracing some spiritual discipline and nurturing sensory awareness, to be a good person we may need to reduce the bitterness in our lives, whether it’s from bungled or non-existent federal attempts to get the virus under control or the fact that the presidency has been twisted into a form we may not recognize.
In the spirit of Jesus who often talks about reclaiming what has been lost, what if we did this for the White House, that revered building that has served as home for every president since John Adams but now has been used for political rallies, for fundraising, and as background for a repeated defiance of science and law.
In a 1985 speech honoring John F. Kennedy (assassinated 57 years ago today), President Ronald Reagan wrote this about the White House. I think it is healing for us to hear today:
“I’ve been told that late at night when the clouds are still and the moon is high, you can just about hear the sound of certain memories brushing by. You can almost hear, if you listen, the whir of a wheelchair rolling by and the sound of a voice calling out, “And another thing, Eleanor.” Turn down a hall and you hear the brisk strut of a fellow saying, “Bully!” Absolutely ripping!” Walk softly and you’re drawn to the soft notes of a piano and a brilliant gathering in the East Room where a crowd surrounds a bright young president who is full of hope and laughter.”
Today is Christ the King Sunday, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, after the world had been ravaged by the First Word War and new forms of secularism and nationalism were emerging worldwide. As then, this Sunday is to remind us that God in Jesus is the Prince of Peace, whose dominion is over all realms of secular rulers and institutions.
So what about the promise I suggested earlier has been buried in today’s Gospel?
This is a tough lesson in some ways with threats of judgment and sheep and goats being separated, but we also learn that the righteous are given the Kingdom of God and Jesus explains it is because they had given food to the hungry and water to the thirsty and hospitality to the stranger and clothing to the naked and company to those sick or in prison. They respond, “Well, we don’t remember doing this for you , Lord. And Jesus says, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. “
To the others, Jesus says, that because you did NOT do these things, you did not do them to me. They don’t remember seeing Jesus at all; they certainly wouldn’t have ignored him if they had.
Both groups are equally clueless, the ones who acted and the ones who didn’t. But this is the closest advice Jesus gives us about how to be in the presence of God: to reach out and help the other.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Okay. Suppose that Jesus is present in every single person whose path crosses ours, and particularly the least ones, the lost ones, the last ones we would ever have expected. So how do we live, knowing that? How do we find the courage to get up in the morning, knowing that every pair of eyes that pleads with us that day will be his eyes, asking for something to eat or drink or wear, asking us for recognition, for time, for attention?
“That is the question, but the Bible is not a book with the answers in the back. All I know is that we are asked to wrestle with that fact, to let it challenge us and unsettle us and who knows? – maybe even to comfort us. …The only way to tell if they are really Jesus is to look into them, to risk that moment of recognition that may break your heart or change your mind or make you mad, or make you amend your life. …Sometimes when you look into those eyes all you see is your own helplessness, your own inability to know what is right. And sometimes you see your own reflection; you see everything you have and are in a stark new light. Sometimes you see such gratitude that it reminds you how much you have to be thankful for, and sometimes you see such a wily will to survive that you cannot help but admire it. The goats are not condemned for doing bad things, remember, but for doing nothing.”
So amidst all of the mandates to love, to be a good person, to tend the least of these, we acknowledge that sometimes we see no way to help with the needs in front of us. That is why the greatest gift of love is creativity. Creativity to find a way to respond to the needs before us. Creativity to find what we specifically have to give and do. If we can take nothing else from the needs in front of us, we can take intense gratitude for what we have been given and what we have been spared,
Let me close with one of my favorite stories, from a book called Home by Another Way. The author writes, “Last spring I talked with someone who grew up on a farm about what it was like to raise her own food. ‘The vegetables were fine,’ she said. ‘It was the meat that was hard.’ Once, she said, when it was time to take a certain calf to the slaughterhouse, the baby became so scared that her father asked someone else to drive so he could ride with it in the back of the trailer. By the time they got where they were going, he was in tears, she said, because the calf had licked his arm the whole way.”
Maybe all we can offer is our presence. And that can be everything.
Here’s the main point today: We are closest to God when we reach out to another person who needs something. This is the promise made by Jesus: Each time we do something for someone who needs it we are in the very presence of God. And that is something for which we can be truly thankful.
Finally, regarding creativity. It is good to look at things in a new way, to re-imagine, to re-create…. Like a song from an iconic 1945 musical sung by an operatic soprano bemoaning lost love. So in that spirit, Brittany Howard…..
Video: Brittany Howard – ”You’ll Never Walk Alone”
Sources: Erica Bauermeister, The School of Essential Ingredients, 2009.
Jon Meacham, The Soul of America, 2018, p. 260.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Knowing Glances,” The Preaching Life, 1993.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way.