Sunday, November 23, 2014

not your typical king

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Christ the King Sunday 2014

“And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matt 25:40).

Last week in the forum Bishop Sauls said something that has stuck with me this week. He said, “We do not help the poor to do good; we help the poor to meet God.” This statement reminded me of my very first mission trip. When I was a senior in high school my youth group went on a mission trip to Nashville, TN. I had never been on one before and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Our task was to serve meals at a homeless men’s shelter. When we pulled up to the shelter we were greeted, given a tour of the facilities, and then shown how to prepare and serve the meals. When we finished serving we joined the men in the dining room, sharing stories and trading jokes, where we were amazed to discover how much we had in common. At the end of the week one of the men gave us a poem he had written about how much our group had meant to him; how much we had brightened his day and given him hope for the future. He told us that since he'd been there, we were the first youth group to have had conversations with the men; most kids served them and then left to go sightseeing downtown. He appreciated that we saw them as people, and not just as a project. In our lives one of the best things we can do is be fully present with others and acknowledge that each person is a beloved child of God. It doesn't take any more than this to make a difference in someone's life; even after all these years I keep a copy of the poem as a reminder.

Now, I’m going to be honest and confess that not every experience I have had helping the sick or the hungry or those in prison was as moving as that week in Nashville. 

Last night Daniel and I prepared a meal for the families who are staying on our campus this month as part of the Interfaith Housing Alliance. I must admit that neither Daniel nor I have been graced with significant culinary skill, and so I was nervous about how the meal was going to turn out. Was it healthy enough? Would the children like it? Would there be enough food for everyone? All these questions were running through my head when I walked in the doors. 

As I was working on some last-minute food prep, the first family arrived. One of the little girls ran up to me and asked if she could help. So we warmed up the vegetable dish and she helped me pour and stir it. Then her sister joined us. Then her mom. We all took turns stirring it. I consider it a feat that most of the dish stayed in the bowl; as you know, spills are some of the hazards of cooking with young children.

Things got a bit tricky when I brought out the apple slicer; even the boys wanted to help out now. I had to move the operation to the table so that all of the children could see. I’m amazed we got through that experience without someone cutting their fingers on the sharp blades! 

When everyone finally sat down at the table, we said grace and shared the meal. With 7 kids under the age of 9, dinner was a bit…we’ll go with chaotic. But everyone was fed, and there were even leftovers! After dinner one of the girls tugged my arm and took me to the room where the kids were watching “Frozen.” Then after a while we went back to the kitchen and the children helped clean up.

All in all, it was a nice night. But if I was expecting a life-changing experience, this wasn’t it. And if I’m truly honest, I would have rather stayed at home in sweat pants in front of the TV. 

You see, doing the right thing isn’t always rewarding. Following Jesus’ imperatives is not always deeply gratifying, and sometimes we might not even feel like we get much out of it. But the thing is, we don’t do it for us.

A few years ago, the private letters and journals of Mother Teresa were compiled into a book and released to the public. As people read it they were surprised to find that Mother Teresa, considered a saint by most people, experienced what 16th century mystic St. John of the Cross described as a “dark night of the soul.” Except that in Mother Teresa’s case, the night lasted decades. How could such a devout woman undergo such doubt and inner turmoil? And after going through all that, how could she keep doing her work? A New York Times review of the book explained that, “In time, with the aid of the priest who acted as her spiritual director, Mother Teresa concluded that these painful experiences could help her identify not only with the abandonment that Jesus Christ felt during the crucifixion, but also with the abandonment that the poor faced daily. In this way she hoped to enter, in her words, the “dark holes” of the lives of the people with whom she worked. Paradoxically, then, Mother Teresa’s doubt may have contributed to the efficacy of one of the more notable faith-based initiatives of the last century.” 

Today is the last day of the church calendar year, also known as Christ the King Sunday. As we all know, Christ was not a typical monarch, born into wealth and with slaves at his beck and call. No, Christ had a humble beginning. His parents struggled to make ends meet. For a little while they were homeless; they could not find a place to birth their child but relied on the hospitality of others. Then the Holy Family became fugitives, fleeing to Egypt to escape genocide (Matt 2:13-23). When he grew up, Christ lived the simple, nomadic life of an itinerant preacher. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and quenched the parched souls with his teachings. Christ did not come riding into Jerusalem on a white steed to free his people from the tyranny of Rome and take his rightful place on the throne. No, Christ entered the gates upon a donkey, toward a path that led to his humiliating death on the cross. Christ showed us what lengths God would go to for the love of God’s people. And three days later Christ rose victorious from the grave, conquering death and sin and making us subjects of the Kingdom of God. Christ is not your typical king, but he is most certainly a king.

As Daniel said in his sermon on Wednesday, it is difficult for Americans to truly understand what it means to be a subject. The closest thing we can compare it to is Presidency, but that’s not quite right; while a president can enact laws and deliver punishments, the president ultimately answers to his or her citizens. In a monarchy, however, the queen or king has the ultimate control, and the people are subject to her or his rule. In the States we pride ourselves on our independence, on our ability to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and make our own way through life. But in a monarchy, subjects are expected to be obedient. 

We don't have a vote in the Kingdom of God. We don’t get to throw God out of office if we dislike God’s commandments. And like any earthly king, God commands something of us and we must respond. 

“And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matt 25:40).

We’re not supposed to help people because it makes us feel good; we’re supposed to help people because that’s what our King commands us to do. 

"Christ enthroned"
(Icon by Father Vladimir found here)

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