November 22, 2014


Sermon for Year A, Christ the King
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
November 23, 2014
St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral

Good morning to you!
I’m glad to be able to have returned to be with you once again today.
I’m Torey Lightcap, the diocesan transitions officer.
That’s a fancy name for the person charged with helping congregations that have clergy openings
 To find the ordained folks they need to come alongside and serve with you and help to lead.
You are now closing in on the last few, may I say very exciting details
 Of your search for a new Dean.
I’m going to leave the reporting-out of that to the Chapter and the search team.
Let me just say that it has been a privilege to have worked with you on this so far,
 And that when you’re done with this task,
   You’ll be beginning with someone uniquely positioned
     To help you go forward into the future that God has planned for all of you.
It has been so cheering to have seen the Holy Spirit
 At work all throughout this process and even into today.
You’re doing great work; keep it up!

Now, with respect to this reading,
 There is something so difficult, isn’t there?, yet so poetic and lovely about this logic of Jesus
 As it has been recorded in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew:
 If you love “the least of these” --
   That is, if you love the ones despised and discarded by the world,
     The ones accounted as unaccountable, as no-accounts ...
   If you welcome strangers into your land and feed the hungry ...
     If you put clothing on the backs of the rejected, naked ones ...
     If you tend the sick and go into the prisons
       Just to see who’s there, and be with them --
   If you hold onto all these in their dark hours -- if you kiss the leper, as it were --
   If you love them, then you love Jesus himself.
It is lovely. It is poetic. And it is difficult -- a hard teaching.
And it is precisely why, for all its difficulties, I want to follow Jesus:
 Because he has left not the imprint or the mere idea of himself, ghostlike, in the rejected,
   But his very self.
He is the living Lord, and his broken and resurrected body
 Is the living flesh of those dismissed by the world.
He has drawn for us not just some poetic simile, but an absolute equivalence:
 If we serve them, we serve him; we do not serve him if we do not serve them.
Does this give us pause? ... I think it should ... We really cannot run past it ...

And, it’s not only the logic of Jesus. It’s the charge of Jesus.
The way of Jesus. The “go and do this” of Jesus. The thing that lives way beyond lip-service.
“Serve them, serve me,” he says. Or to say it in a slightly different way, “Serve them. Serve me.”

And not for the first time is he making this instruction known. It is no private secret.
Many chapters before, in Matthew, Jesus backs the mucky-mucks against a wall
 And levels an ultimatum:
   As he sits at dinner in the house [of Matthew the tax-collector],
   Many tax-collectors and sinners come and are sitting with him and his disciples.
   When the Pharisees see this, they say to the disciples,
     “Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?”
   But when Jesus hears this, he says,
     “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick [do].
       Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
       For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

“Mercy, not sacrifice.” Quoting the prophet Hosea,
 In saying that God “desire[s] steadfast love and not sacrifice,
   The knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Love, not in some generalized way, but specific loving-kindness and compassion and mercy.
Mercy for the sick, the prisoner, the hungry, the stranger. Mercy for those judged as less-than.
It’s Jesus’ opinion about what constitutes a performance of the law as he reads it.
No matter how erudite or learnéd his rhetorical competitors may be,
 There’s no denying the power of this argument:
   In effect, saying, If you want to follow me, serve me in those society has thrown away.
And as with many of the great teachers, there is no further qualification or need for clarification.

There’s an oft-quoted story that has emerged from the century prior to the time of Jesus’ life.
There were two rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. And as they say, opposites attract.
Hillel and Shammai were like Sven and Ole, or Oscar Madison and Felix Unger.

Hillel was a “loose constructionist” who read the Torah in a liberal way.
Shammai was a “strict constructionist” who read the Torah as immovable and unyielding.
A Gentile came to them and made an annoying and unusual request:
 “I’ll convert to your way of thinking,” he said,
   “If you can you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.”
(In other words, in only a few seconds.)

Shammai was so provoked and incensed that he struck the Gentile with his measuring rod.
Hillel (I’m imagining with a big sigh) -- Hillel just simply said the following:
 “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah.
   The rest is commentary -- [and now] go study.”

“That which is hateful to you, do not unto another.”

I guess Hillel phrased it in the negative
 Because he’d just watched Shammai reach out and hit the poor man,
 And he was offering Shammai some teaching about gentleness
   In addition to teaching to the Gentile. A two-for-one. Pretty sage.

Even so, the point holds, doesn’t it?
If you despise it, don’t do it.
The so-called Golden Rule.
And I will venture to say Jesus was well aware of this tale of these rabbis
 And the existence of the Golden Rule
 When he brought it into his conversation with the Pharisees at the tax-collector’s house
   Or to his disciples, in Luke, when he told them,
     “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.”
Or as Tobit says, “Do to no one what you yourself dislike.”

So. If you dislike receiving injustice or a bad break in life;
 If you dislike the effects hunger and poverty would have on you;
 If you dislike the alienating sensation
   Of being a stranger in need of welcome and assistance in a foreign land,
     Or even in your own homeland that has been annexed by occupiers, as Jesus’ was;
 Then fulfill the law: Welcome and feed and visit and clothe the rejected, the sick, the prisoner --
     The ones who have been spurned and cast aside;
   And in them you will find Jesus Christ himself.
This, it seems to me, is the law, resting firmly on one foot.

Ah, but why? -- why is the most important law also the hardest one to fulfill?
There’s the rub.
We’ve all had various opportunities to serve the poor at one time or another, haven’t we?
And what do we find?
We find, and not to anyone’s great astonishment -- we find that it can be incredibly difficult;
 That we tend not to last very long at it before we burn out;
   That what the poor lack in basic services or food or clothing
     They make up for in abundant stories of tough luck that are anything but pleasing to hear.
We find that whatever good intentions we may posses for wanting to serve “the least of these”
 Often cannot withstand the pain of hearing people’s horror stories
   Or abiding any other aspect about them we don’t like.
Poverty and pain, sickness and prison, naked rejection --
 They don’t play easy or nice with us, with our conventions about what should be --
   They bump into our assumptions and play around with our expectations;
   And they remind us, starkly,
     That sometimes we’re only a few missing paychecks away
     From being right there in the same spot as “they” are;
       And we turn away, because it’s hard to think about,
       How paper-thin that line is, between quote-unquote us and quote-unquote them.
Sometimes the lens rotates a little, and we see that those distinctions can really be dangerous.

That it’s easier to imagine a concrete wall of distinction between “classes” of people
 Than it is to imagine that all people, quite simply, are much the same in so many respects.

 Serving “the least of these” is not only serving Christ himself who lives in others --
 It is a chance, in a weird way, in a hard way,
 To see myself, to see your self reflected in another --
   To be confronted by the truth of a thing --
   Not out of some narcissism,
     But only in acknowledgement that the differences between us are never so great
   As to permanently tear us apart from one another.

And so, hard as it is, we perform the law that Christ has handed us.

If you have been waiting for a reason to get in the game,
 Here it is:
   God, in Jesus Christ, so loved the creation
     That he gave us one another to witness to his presence.
Not only these things, but it is the commandmend of Jesus to do this.
He tells us how to be, and then he lives his life,
 And with his life he backs up everything he said about how we should be.
We have the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit to accompany us in this work,
 And we have one another.
God will be our guide.

What more do we need?

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