Christ is in All Things Sunday
Sunday, November 22, 2020
In the movie about Fred Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, there is a scene where Mr. Rogers and Lloyd Vogel sit in a restaurant. Vogel is a jaded, but talented, writer doing a piece for Esquire on the children’s television icon. While eating, Vogel betrays a bit of his doubt that anyone could be as nice as Mr. Rogers seems to be, as well as disclosing a disparaging sense of himself. Mr. Rogers stops eating and speaks. “Would you do something with me Lloyd?” he says, “It’s an exercise I like to do sometimes. We’ll just take a minute and think about all the people who loved us into being.” Unsurprisingly, Lloyd responds, “I can’t...I can’t do that.” Rogers responds, “They will come to you. . . Just one minute of silence.” The two men sit without speaking. The camera pans to various individuals in the restaurant who, perhaps overheard what was said, and now take on reflective expressions of peace and happiness. Maybe they themselves are caught up in remembering? When the minute is up, Mr. Rogers judiciously says, “Thank you for doing that with me. I feel so much better.”
It may not be readily apparent, but, perhaps, the very heart of our gospel story for today is all about what Mr. Rogers and Lloyd Vogel were involved in: remembering who loves us into being. We are familiar with the classic text of the sheep and the goats. More often than not, I suspect, judgment is the rule of the day when interpreting this text. Beware! The Son of Man is coming, and he’s going to separate the sheep from the goats! Therefore, be like the sheep! Don’t be a goat! Or so the conventional wisdom goes. And the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Eternal punishment or eternal life are tied to the actions of the two groups. Yikes! However, what stands out when reading the parable is that both groups--the sheep and the goats, those who feed, give drink, welcome, clothe, care, and visit and those who don’t—both groups do not recognize Christ in those whom they helped or failed to help. They both acknowledge that they did these things or did not do them. Yet, they do not see Christ in the need of the other. Thus, while judgment appears in this text, it is not the heart of it.
In truth, for the early church this text was more a promise, for they were the ones who were hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison. The early Christian community was marginalized. The nations that are said to be judged are the world outside of this tiny, fringe movement that followed Jesus. And, in part, what was being said is that how the world treated this community was how they treated Christ. Or, to put it another way, Christ cared for them, was with them, indeed, lived in them.
Thus, this text may be a bit anachronistic for those of us who live in what has become Christendom. Or at least a world where Christianity has enjoyed prominence, power, and prestige for millennia. And while Christianity has lost a good deal of that position of influence, there is plenty in our collective memory to bask in the glow of what once was. So, perhaps we are invited to remember that Jesus comes to us in ways that we least expect, in those whom we discount or can’t even see.
Indeed, the irony of this text read on this Sunday should not be lost on us. Today is the last Sunday of the Church year. We begin afresh next week with the first Sunday of Advent. As we end the Church year, the tradition rejects the teaching of today’s gospel--Christ comes to us in the guise of those in need--for the allure of the power of the world. We observe today as Christ the King. Matthew alludes to this by setting up the sheep and goats text with, “the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” And, we presume, the judgment takes place. The all-powerful King metes out justice.
And while the imagery of the king was appropriate in the time of the early Church, it may not help us today. We have precious few kings in our world. Thank God for that. And the imagery of the king is all about power and domination. Unfortunately, history is littered with the debris created by countries and religions who buy into the royal narrative, betraying at its heart an exclusive mentality, a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers. There are those who are right and the rest are wrong.
Which runs counter to the gospel story and the life of Jesus. In fact, the narrative that follows the sheep and goats where “the Son of Man comes in glory” is Jesus’ crucifixion. Ironically and profoundly, the cross is the throne of Christ. Which seems counterintuitive for our might-makes-right kind of world and the bruising dog-eat-dog environment that we occupy. Yet, the paradox of the suffering of the cross as the locus for God’s ultimate power and presence is the mystery of Christianity, as well as God’s solidarity with any and all who have ever been hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison. Truly, we should change the name of this Sunday. Let’s lose the moniker of king. What the text and the day and the tradition all point to is Christ is in all things. There it is: Christ is in all things Sunday. How about that instead?
And that is what we remember and honor. For the texts leading up to the end of the church year all have to do with the end of things. Unfortunately, the worldview of a reckoning and some going to eternal bliss and others to eternal damnation has blurred the vision of the reality of heaven here and now. We say as much in our Lord’s prayer: thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And elsewhere Jesus says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” (that is, here) and “at hand” (that is, now). As Cynthia Bourgeault writes: The Kingdom of Heaven is really a metaphor for a state of consciousness; it is not a place you go to, but a place you come from. It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place. . . The hallmark of this awareness is that it sees no separation—not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans. And these are indeed Jesus’s two core teachings, underlying everything he says and does. . . .
What we do on this Christ the King, um Christ in all things, Sunday is, ultimately, remember the initial One who loved us into being. So that when we hunger, maybe not for a morsel but for hope, we recognize the holy in the face of another. When we thirst, maybe not for our need to be slaked, but to be filled with courage, we hear calls from the cross, “You are my beloved. Take heart.” When we are alone and unrecognized, the divine meets us in the incarnation of a hand, a hello, a “let me help you”. When we are naked, maybe not without clothes, but stripped bare of any power to change the threats in life, a presence reminds us that we are not alone. When we are sick, maybe even not physically, but sick with worry and concern, there is water and bread and wine to remind us that the divine abides. When we are in prison, maybe not with literal bars, but the bars that prevent us from accepting ourselves, lock us into a place of shame and guilt, we simply need to pause--for just a minute?--and remember the one who continues to walk with us and has loved us into being ever and always.
And when we remember that, then all sorts of ways of seeing and being in the world are opened up to us. We are one with God not on some final judgement day, but now. We are one with all people not when we think the same or look the same, but now amidst our differences and quirks and idiosyncrasies. And that then allows us to reach out to others. Not because we recognize they are in need--hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison--but because they are our brother and sister and that is how family should act. We love each other into being.