It’s not unusual, historically speaking, for the church to be at odds with the surrounding culture. Today is a perfect example. Ask most people the significance of today, Sunday November 20, and you will most likely get an abundance of answers. For those of us in the United States, it is the Sunday before Thanksgiving. And that also means, just a few more days to shop and prepare for the Thanksgiving dinners many of us will share with our loved ones. And for those whose families are far-flung, for whatever reason, it might mean that there are just a few more days until we see those loved ones, in the flesh.
But I would also have to say: just five days from now the Christmas shopping season goes into high gear with “Black Friday,” a day my mother was convinced was named because in her South Philadelphia neighborhood, the nuns would emerge to shop in little clusters of black habits. (I was an adult before I learned that most people believe it’s the start of the season that will help businesses to end the year “in the black,” as opposed to “in the red.”)
Here’s something you may not know: Last night there was a candlelight vigil outside the Unitarian Church in Our Town, because today is the 13th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to remember those who have been killed because of their gender expression.
Here’s something else you may not know: on this day in 1877, the great inventor Thomas Edison constructed the first working phonograph in his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The first record ever made was the sound of Edison shouting, “Mary had a little lamb.” In this week in which it was announced that the major label record companies will stop manufacturing compact discs in 2012, it’s good to take a moment to nod in appreciation to the grandmother of these items which will soon become extinct. It’s good to remember.
It’s good to remember, and it’s notable that Edison’s phonograph was the inauguration of technology that has made it less necessary for us to remember, to develop our memories. Memory is strengthened by repetition, and by association, and it is the sad truth that, as technology has blossomed, our memories have suffered, because we have not needed them so much. Most people’s memories, in 2011, are far inferior to the memories of the people who lived thousands of years ago, when knowledge was retained through the power of our brains.[i]
Which brings me back to my original point: the church is often at odds with culture. For the church, today is the Sunday on which we honor Christ as King, and ponder the Reign of Christ. Today also marks the end of the church year, which begins again next Sunday with Advent. To help us to mark the Reign of Christ, and to remember what that might mean, I think it might be good for us to look back over this past year, by which I mean the particular way in which Jesus Christ was revealed to us in the gospel of Matthew, our main gospel text these last twelve months.[ii] Who is this Jesus Christ, whose reign we proclaim today? How do we know him? What does the gospel of Matthew, in particular, reveal to us about him?
First, Jesus was born. Remember that? And immediately we were confronted with Matthew’s reminding us of “the dark side of Christmas.” Remember that terrible story, the story of Herod being tipped off by the Magi that a royal baby had been born? Remember what he did? He sent out armies to find and kill that baby. Their instructions were to kill all the children under the age of 2 in and around Bethlehem. The coming of Jesus, which we celebrate with all joy and fanfare, was greeted as a threat by those in power, those whom today we might call “the 1 %.”
Fast–forward thirty years—the lectionary always does this, because the gospels do this—and Jesus is being baptized by John in the Jordan River, an event marked by both the reluctance of the Baptist and the opening of the heavens, the dove, the sign of God’s Spirit descending, and the voice of God speaking out: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Next thing we know, John has been arrested, and Jesus is on the move, preaching, teaching, healing, and proclaiming the gospel. This dangerous baby has grown into a man who is ready to do God’s work, whatever the risks.
And then, just in case we haven’t caught the associations already—a baby threatened by a ruler at birth, who grows up in a dangerous environment where his people are being oppressed—Matthew further makes his case for Jesus as a new Moses by having him climb a mountain—just like Moses—to deliver to the people a new understanding of God’s law. Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the beatitudes, as startling a reversal of conventional wisdom as has ever been set forth. The poor? They are the ones who are blessed by God. Those who are mourning? God will comfort them. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? They will be filled. And on and on—Jesus naming those who are the most oppressed, the most aggrieved, the most set-upon, and saying: look for God here, in these lives. You want to know what and who God is concerned about? Look no further.
The sermon is filled with some of the most well-known sayings of Jesus. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” It also contains some which, even if well-known, are not so well-loved, and even less well-observed. “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” And much of what we now know as “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus’ prayer, comes to us from the Sermon on the Mount And one of my favorites, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
After he finishes preaching, Jesus continues to draw a community of followers to him, and they hit the road, together and separately. One of the most striking things about Jesus, one of the things I think we in the church still fail to appreciate and emulate, is how very much on the move Jesus was at all times. He did not build a building and go inside and wait for the people to come to him to hear his wisdom. He went out and met the people where they were, listened to them, healed them, and then taught them and preached to them. On this day on which we mark the Reign of Christ, we remember the model Jesus was for us, what he did do and didn’t do.
Of course, Jesus argued. Or rather, Jesus responded to arguments. He never actually picked a fight with anyone, but Matthew certainly shows us a Jesus who, increasingly, is at odds with those in charge, that 1 % if you will, and they come out in full force to challenge him, to try to trip him up, to get him to make a false move that will cause the people to turn their backs on him, give them reason to arrest him.
Now, we come to the last words Jesus spoke publicly. For the last several chapters of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been in the Temple teaching, and responding to these reproaches and challenges, and talking about a day to come when God’s judgment will be made known to all people. Jesus shares what might be called an apocalyptic vision—a vision of the Son of Man in glory, surrounded by angels, seated on a throne, and proclaiming his words of judgment. Only, it sounds less like a courtroom and more like a homely seminar on animal husbandry. There are sheep, and there are goats, and they are divided, some on the right (which in bible language is always good) and some on the left (which in bible language is always bad—sorry lefties. We don’t believe that any more, of course.) The sheep are separated from the goats and the basis of that separation has nothing to do with who is a Christian and who is not. The sheep are separated from the goats, and it has nothing to do with politics, or anyone’s position on school prayer, or marriage equality, or anything except this: how did they treat one another? Or, more specifically, how did they treat those who were hurting—the most oppressed, the most aggrieved, the most set-upon? The hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, those in prison? Did they take care of one another? If so—welcome to the sheepfold, come on in. If not—they are goats, and, by all appearances, they are not welcome.
One of the most interesting things about this story has to do with the unknowability of it all. Would it interest you to know that, in ancient Palestine, you really did have to be an expert in animal husbandry to tell sheep from goats? Wild sheep and wild goats looked essentially the same, were not at all easy to tell apart. And that is reflected in the story Jesus tells—for heaven’s sake, even the sheep do not know they are sheep, and the goats do not know they are goats! “When did we do that?” they ask. “Us? We did that?” Or, more sadly, “When did we not do that?”
Uncertainty would appear to be the nature of the reign of Christ, in this respect. It is not easily discernible who is “in” and who is “out.” In fact, the story throws the whole “in” and “out” dichotomy into disarray, by this one simple fact: all the people we are told we should be caring for are the most “out” of all. They are so out they are in. If that makes any sense. This reminds me of a line from a sermon I read years ago, in which the preacher said, “I start to suspect the Good Shepherd and the Good Goatherd are one and the same.” The day anyone asks you the question, “Are you saved?” you have my permission to smile pleasantly and think of this story, in which no one knows the answer to that question. And Jesus word to them is, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Who is this Jesus Christ, whose reign we proclaim today?
The Christ we know is a threat to those in power.
The Christ we know is a new Moses, leading his people out of slavery and into a new life of freedom.
The Christ we know teaches through storytelling, and never stays in one place very long.
The Christ we know upsets conventional wisdom and shows us a way to live that is counterintuitive.
The Christ we know is to be found among the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, the prisoners—those he calls “the least.” The littlest. The lost.
The Christ we know asks us to show that we follow him, that we have a “personal relationship” with him, not by what we say or what we pray, but by what we do.
This is the Christ we know. This is the Christ whose reign is here and yet not here—who is coming in glory even has he has already come to inhabit our world and our hearts. This is the Christ who invites us to be with those who are hurting and know: we will find him there. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Edward Hays, “Birthday of the Phonograph, 1877,” The Old Hermit’s Almanac: Daily Meditations for the Journey of Life (Leavenworth, KS: Forest of Peace Publishing, 1997), 330.