A few weeks ago, we baptized two beautiful little ones – Ella Mae and Eleanor. All of 2 months and 15 months, these little ones, as they always do, strike a familiar chord in our beings. Something we learn to leave behind or cover over because we’re scared it will be hurt. Something sweet and tender and vulnerable – the part of ourselves that saw the world with awe and wonder, where everything is something to discover.
And in that baptismal service we said aloud our Baptismal Vows.
- We vowed to continue our prayers and worship.
- We vowed to try our best and offer forgiveness to ourselves and others when we miss the mark.
- We vowed to teach others about God.
- We vowed to seek and serve Christ in those we meet.
- And we vowed to strive for justice and peace because that is how we honor the dignity of every human being.
That 4th vow – to seek and serve Christ – I’d like to highlight that one today as we mark the end of the longest season in the church year, the Season after Pentecost. Today, we come to the ultimate message of Jesus’ ministry: That true power is found in Love. True “kingship” is found in stewardship. True divinity is found in the least among us, the most vulnerable, the weakest, most defenseless people, the most tender and vulnerable part of ourselves.
Today is Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. Each year on this day we have a Gospel reading that uses apocalyptic end-of-the-world imagery to highlight the reversal of power. But this day acts as a threshold, not an end. A transition from one thing into another. We begin a new church year next week as the Season of Advent begins and we commence our preparation for the return of the Light, the coming of Christ into the manger of our hearts.
The wisdom of the liturgical year echoes the wisdom of the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. We learn about God through the cycle of life in this creation called Earth. The end becomes the beginning of the next. The darkness is pierced by the Light. Winter turns. Death is never the last word because there is always new life.
This is the God of Life that continues through all the comings and goings. The rising of the sun in the East is all the hope we sometimes need to know that life continues past even the darkest, most painful of moments in our lives. God persists.
God is the Hope, the Light that shines in the shadows of our lives.
God is the Forgiveness that moves us through pain.
God is the Mercy that frees us from shame.
God is the Glory that calls us out of hiding.
And God is the Love that reconciles us with ourselves and one another. Over and over again.
The world that we create comes and goes. Institutions and even nations rise and fall. Ideologies grab our attention. Objects and money captivate and, sometimes, enslave us.
But Light, Forgiveness, Mercy, Glory, Love. The constancy of God is eternal.
And we know this most intimately in the tenderest part of ourselves.
We remember that part when we meet little ones like Ella Mae and Eleanor. The question is, can we remember it when we meet those who trouble us?
The focus of Matthew’s Gospel, indeed all the Gospels, is the reversal of the notion of “kingdom.”
There is the obvious meaning of kingdom – the wealth and privilege of those who have wealth and privilege in society. Christ’s presence can never be measured in worldly numbers and it’s problematic when we try. Yet, because the church is a worldly institution, we cannot exist without money and some degree of privilege.
But how we use this money and privilege makes a difference.
Even if we think we don’t have enough.
How we live out our lives in the world makes a difference.
Even if we think we have no power.
We believe in the Incarnation, in God’s in-breaking into the world we have created. Therefore, the spiritual life we live must be lived out in the world.
Do we offer one another Light and Hope? Do we encourage our friends to Forgive? Do we ask for Mercy? Do we take the time to witness Glory? Do we kneel at the feet of Love?
As humans, we struggle so much with needing to be seen or known in a particular way. To have some kind of meaningful identity in the world… caring, smart, capable, attractive, unique, good, or right. Sometimes even weakness or invisibility are ways we prefer to be known in the world.
There is something about these identities that feels safer to us in a world that is scary. It’s a protection, a role we play to make our way in the world. Sometimes we’re so entranced by this that we have forgotten the truer, more tender part of ourselves. The Divine Spark, the Christ within us all.
And this is where that Baptismal Vow I mentioned earlier, becomes so vitally important. To seek and serve Christ is not just about charity and being kind. It’s also about looking for the Glory of Christ in the people we meet. Seeing past the behavior that usually gets our attention and looking for something deeper and truer – the Glory of Christ waiting to shine forth.
To seek and serve Christ in one another means that we actually do the seeking, expecting to witness Glory and kneeling before it in awe and wonder.
The purpose of Timothy Schmalz’s sculpture is to remind us of just that. Homeless Jesus is seen as distasteful by many and has caused controversy in many of the places it has been installed. Because the worldly part of ourselves doesn’t like to recognize the Glory in someone we would rather ignore… or express our outrage or pity over.
Why would we worship a homeless person? It’s almost blasphemous to suggest the notion, even when we read a Gospel passage that tells us this is exactly what we are supposed to be doing. The cynical side of me wonders if it’s because we would so much rather worship a worldly king, someone from whom we can curry favors. After all, what can a homeless person give us?
In Kingston, I’ve noted that homeless people don’t sleep on the streets so the enormous housing problem that I know we have in Ulster County is all but hidden from our sight. So ask yourself, who are the people you find to be troublesome? The people you avoid? Who are the outcasts?
At one time (and this is still true to some degree) it was people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. And St. John’s created a beautiful ministry, amid some controversy from what I understand, because people here recognized that in seeking the person with AIDS, you were seeking Christ. Angel Food East not only fed people, but crossed a worldly boundary of going to visit people who were stigmatized. That is the beautiful, yet disturbing witness of this congregation. After all, what can a person with AIDS do for us? There is no worldly power there.
I use the word disturbing, not in a pejorative way but to highlight that the Gospels disrupt and disturb our worldly understanding and sensibilities. In the same way, Matthew’s Gospel offers a disturbing metaphor for God – the Thief in the Night.
God, who comes into our worldly creation suddenly and without warning to steal our imagined kingdoms away from us. God comes at our most tender hour, when our defenses are down, to change our world and show us the truth.
The truth that we are Beloved. You are Beloved.
And we never needed what the kings of the world could offer us. We never needed to be special or right or smart or witty, beautiful or capable… or any of the other things we think we need to be. These efforts we make in “the world” to get something from “the world?” They are the kingdoms we create.
What would it be like if we stopped trying so hard? What would it be like if we just learned to accept ourselves? What if we saw Christ when we looked in the mirror? Would we be able to see Christ when we look at the homeless person?
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’ Mt 45
This is the ultimate speech in Matthew’s Gospel and it is meant to be ironic, turning our worldly notions inside out. Written to help us realize that we are not to bow down and submit ourselves to worldly power, or to the parts of ourselves that make us feel powerful or smart or capable or any of the other things we think we’re supposed to be in the world.
But to use our gifts in the world to endeavor to make the Reign of Christ present. Here and now. Because as we learn how to honor the most vulnerable part of our self, we also learn to honor the most vulnerable among us.
The constancy of God is found, not in worldly kingdoms, but in the act of bowing down to the powerless, the wretched, the lonely, the lost, the penniless, the homeless, the outcast.
The spiritual path of being a Christian cannot be separated from this image on today’s worship bulletin. Because how we live our lives in this world makes a difference.
Hope. Forgiveness. Mercy. Glory. Love.
This is the eternal Reign of Christ.