Sermon, Advent III

On the second and third Sundays in Advent, our lectionary, or cycle of Bible readings, always gives us a good dose of John the Baptist. John appears in all four of our Gospels, proclaiming Jesus’ mission and baptizing Jesus at the beginning of his years of ministry and teaching, as told in those books. Matthew and Luke both begin their gospels with stories about Jesus’ parents and birth; Mark and John both begin with John the Baptist, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.

It’s interesting to pause and reflect why our Advent lessons give us so much of John the Baptist.Two Sundays out of four, every Advent! I, personally, always resist it a little. I’d rather be in those first chapters of Matthew and Luke, working our way towards the stable, the star, the holy birth. I think the lectionary brings us John and his words because of the traditional understanding of Advent as a penitential season – a season to prepare our hearts and lives for God’s coming. The collect for the second Sunday of Advent says in part, “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” John stands in that lineage of Old Testament prophets, and with his predecessors, calls us across the ages to renewal of life.

I think, too, that we get so much John in the lectionary to help us avoid the temptation

of a sentimental over-focus on the sweet baby in the manger. The beauty and wonder of the Nativity story draws our eyes and our hearts. John the Baptist says to us, ‘Yes, yes, cute baby, great story; but do you realize who that child is going to grow up to be? The strange, beautiful, challenging truths he’s going to speak? Are you ready to face his violent death; are you ready to see him rise from the grave; are you ready to follow where he may lead you? The baby is only the beginning.’

But John has his own birth story, in the Gospel of Luke. You can read it here; it’s a wonderful story! 

Luke, perhaps the most literary of the four Gospel writers, knows the Old Testament very well. His story of John’s conception and birth – recorded only in his gospel – may be based on stories and memories that were passed on to him, and became part of his “orderly account.”  Luke’s story of John’s birth is quite *clearly* based, in part, on stories of wondrous births from the Hebrew Scriptures: Abraham and Sarah bearing a son in old age; Manoah questioning the angel; Hannah’s prayers and her triumphant song. Luke skillfully weaves together the themes and poetry of those older holy stories, and creates something new, and delightful.

In looking at the story of John this year, in its fulness – from Zechariah in the sanctuary

to his death in Herod’s prison – something dawned on me that I’d never considered before. John… is a PK. A PK – a preacher’s kid, or priest’s kid.

I don’t know how widespread the PK stereotypes are, but I certainly grew up with them.

Here’s the basic gist: PKs tend to be overly serious, and precociously churchy, as children. They’re at church all the time, because their mom or dad is at church all the time. And as kids they actually like it: acolyting, reading, helping out in the sacristy, all that stuff. As teens and young adults, they either stick with that, become youth group leaders, go to seminary right out of college, that sort of thing. OR they go the other direction, throw off their straightlaced youth and get as far away from church as possible; and undertake any number of lifestyle experiments, sometimes reckless, even self-destructive.

I love realizing that John the Baptist was a PK because it fits. It fits so well. Imagine little John shadowing his daddy Zechariah as he performed his duties as a priest. Helping with the incense, the oil, the bread, learning the prayers and gestures, memorizing the Scriptures and the songs. Maybe he even snuck into the sanctuary, the holy of holies, once or twice; surely, surely he peeped in, driven by a child’s curiosity and a PK’s piety. I bet he was one of those kids who played “temple” at home,with sticks and stones and simple clay figures. He grew up steeped in the language and symbols, the formalized holiness, of the Great Temple, the heart of first-century Judaism. John could have become a priest himself. He came from a priestly family. I’m sure he had the skills, and he clearly had a heart that was open to God.

But… John swung the other way. He rejected the Temple, the symbol and center of his parents’ and his people’s faith. Perhaps, as Jesus did, he saw that the faith of the Temple wasn’t moving hearts from despair to hope, wasn’t moving the world from oppression to justice.

And John didn’t just, you know, quit going to church and become a carpenter or an accountant or something.  He set himself up as a prophet of a different kind of faith. He drew upon the Hebrew Scriptures, which he no doubt knew backwards and forwards, and he cast himself as a latter-day prophet. Living in the wilderness, wearing rags and animal hides, eating whatever he could find, thoroughly rejecting his parents’ middle-class respectability and establishment piety. John preached faith without a temple,

without costly offerings of livestock or a priest to pronounce purity. He said: Change your heart. Change your life. Be fair and just and kind. That’s harder than it sounds, but DO IT.  Let your life bear witness that your heart has been transformed. Then you’ll be ready for what God is about to do. You don’t need a huge ornate building; you don’t need priests in fancy clothes; you don’t need particular prayers or songs or gestures. You just need to look unflinchingly at your own daily life, hold it up against God’s call to live with justice and compassion, and do what you need to do.

All of that, I think, makes John an interesting icon for the Episcopal Church in the 21st century. We are a church of formal worship, not entirely unlike the great Temple. We have our songs and prayers, incense and holy vessels and priests in fancy robes, and oh, do we have our traditions. We have been steeped in the rituals of holiness; we have experienced the ancient grace of those patterns and ways of worship. I hope we won’t walk away from them; I believe they have power and purpose.

And yet: the wilderness of our times, the yearnings and struggles of our society, call us, I think, to be like John: grounded in those traditions, but ready, eager, hungry for something new, for the breaking-in of holiness in our time and place.

Can we find inspiration in John the Baptist, the Wild Man, the Prophet? Are we willing to leave the temple to walk the wilderness, sustaining ourselves however we can, while we seek God’s word and God’s call?  Are we open to a faith that goes deeper than words and gestures, that sinks into hearts, touches lives, and fuels the transformation of the world?

Come, Lord Jesus!

Watch Night: New Year’s Eve

bellsAll are invited to an evening of celebration, song, and prayers. From 6:30 to 8-ish, enjoy desserts and board games, and try out our “Photo Booth”!  At 8:15 we’ll begin a simple participatory New Year’s Eve vigil service, exploring the themes of longing for justice, the mystery of time’s passing, and new beginnings. At 9pm we’ll loudly & joyfully declare it the New Year (with the good folk of Greenland and Argentina)! All are welcome.

Location: St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, 6205 University Ave., Madison, WI. Questions? Call 238-2781.

 

This is an alcohol-free event. 

 

Sermon, Advent II

Preached by the Rev. Miranda Hassett on Sunday, December 7, 2014. Here are this Sunday’s lessons. 

Good news. That’s what we’re given. That’s what we’re called to share. Good news.

From today’s Isaiah text: Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings!From today’s Gospel:  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Good news – evangelion in Greek: Ev like the Eu in Eucharist, meaning good; Angello like the word “Angel”, meaning message or news. In Old English, evangelion becomes goodspel – meaning good story, good message. Goodspel gets shortened to Gospel, our familiar word, the word we use for the good news we’ve been given, the good news we are called to share. Good news.

Let’s look at the good news of our lessons today, the second Sunday in Advent. In Isaiah 40, the voice of the prophet consoles a people in distress: Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term.

And a few verses later: God will feed the flock like a shepherd; God will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. Good news!

But lest we forget, the prophet also reminds us: All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. Life is short, folks. We will all wither and fade, maybe sooner than we think. Good news? …

What about our Epistle today? What good news does the second letter of Peter have for us? The patience of God, who longs to give us all time to repent and live lives worthy of the Gospel. The call to live with holiness and godliness, while we await the coming of a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness is at home. Good news! Except possibly for the part about the heavens and the earth being dissolved with fire. Good news? …

And then there’s the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. World’s most concise introduction: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus, the kind healer, the wise teacher, the courageous advocate: Jesus is the Son of God! God’s love incarnate among us! Good news! But Mark’s story doesn’t begin with Jesus; it begins with John, the crazy wilderness preacher. Mark doesn’t tell us much about John’s preaching, but Matthew and Luke do, and by their testimony, John had some sharp words. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near! You brood of vipers! Who warned you flee from the wrath to come? One who is more powerful than I is coming after me. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Change your hearts, change your lives, renounce your complicity with injustice, and then maybe you’ll be ready for the new thing that is being born. Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Good news?…

Let me point out that people had to go out of their way to hear John’s preaching. He wasn’t like the typical campus preacher who stands on a busy corner with a megaphone. His pulpit was outside Jerusalem, near the Jordan River, a muddy seasonal stream. People had to seek him out, to take the time to walk out to hear him. People had to decide that this nutcase, who dressed in ragged hides, who ate whatever he could find, including grasshoppers, that this nutcase was speaking to them, their hearts, their souls. That his extreme and challenging words were something they needed to hear. Were, maybe, somehow, good news.

Good news. Good news in the Bible is… complicated. Good news in our Christian faith is complicated. It has that man on the cross at its center –  hardly reassuring or heart-warming. This good news, this Gospel, has at its heart sacrifice, pain, and loss. The good news of Isaiah 40 encompasses coming to terms with our own limitations. The good news of 2 Peter assumes that we can anticipate with joy the the destruction of everything we know, in anticipation of a new and better everything. The good news of John the Baptist calls his hearers to dive into the swirling brown waters of the river Jordan and cleanse themselves of sin and injustice. Good news is not necessarily easy. Good news is not necessarily nice.

My son’s been playing a song on the guitar lately – Rain, by a band called Bishop Allen – and it’s been stuck in my head for the past couple of weeks: “Oh, let this rain come down and wash this world away, oh let the sky be gray, cause if it’s ever gonna get any better, it’s gotta get worse for a day.” Alan Jones, former dean of Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, said something much the same: “Of all the choices we have to make, there is none harder than having to give up something good for the sake of something better.”

God’s good news asks something of us. Asks us to hold lightly our present certainties and comforts. Asks us to risk the known for the possibilities of the unknown. Asks us to open our eyes and ears and hearts to other voices, new visions, deeper truths and bigger hopes.

And all that… brings me to Ferguson, Missouri. To all the prayer and protest, conversation and debate, reflection and recrimination that has unfolded across our nation since an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer last August.

I have felt like two different people, the past couple of weeks. At work, as Pastor Miranda, I was preparing our Advent liturgies, and writing sermons, and setting up our big crafting event, and checking up on sick members, and casting the Christmas pageant. At home, and on Facebook and Twitter, I was aching, and praying, and weeping, and reading, and posting and re-posting. Ferguson, and everything Ferguson stands for, has been so much on my mind and in my heart. But I’ve barely mentioned it within these walls. It’s hard to talk about, so hard.

I know there are people here right now who are itching for me to preach to this, and when I finish, will wish I’d said more, gone further. I know there are people right now who are thinking, Oh, no; who don’t want to hear this, for so many reasons, some of which I sympathize with. Really. If I could convince myself that I could be faithful to the Gospel, to the good news we’re given and called to share, without touching Ferguson from this pulpit,

I would leave it alone. I would. Because I’m a coward. I don’t like making people uncomfortable. I don’t like being uncomfortable.

But I believe that sometimes God’s Good News is uncomfortable. I can’t avoid this. And if I had any doubts, Mike Kinman set them to rest for me. Mike Kinman is the dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis. And I’ve come to trust the wisdom and clarity of his voice, in these conflicted and messy times. In mid-November he published an open letter to his clergy colleagues who want to know what they can do. And the first thing he says they can do is, Preach about it. Preach about Ferguson.

Kinman writes, “I need you not to let your congregation pretend that this has nothing to do with you. I need you, in your own words and with your own integrity from your own heart, to preach about race and privilege and the deep brokenness we have not just in Ferguson, not just in St. Louis, but all over our nation. To preach in a way that doesn’t jump too quickly to peace and reconciliation but holds a mirror up to your own congregation and your own city.”

Well. Okay. But, having decided to accept this call, what do I say? I wish I could just do what I do on Facebook: Post links to five or ten amazing short essays and articles that say what needs saying, speak to our doubts and questions and struggles, and point us forwards. But here I have to find my own words. Mostly.

Here is one important thing to say: Racism is a faith issue. Racism must be a faith issue for anyone who calls herself or himself a follower of Jesus, because Jesus consistently reached out to those who were outcast, marginalized or oppressed. Because Jesus, our Friend, Teacher, and Lord, was killed for being rabble-rousing scum. Because the first Christians, guided by the Holy Spirit, came to understand that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free; that the social distinctions that matter so much to us are nothing in the eyes of our loving God. Because at our baptisms, we promised, or our parents and godparents promised for us, to renounce all the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; and every time we reaffirm our baptismal vows, we commit ourselves, with God’s help, to seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

If you still don’t see racism as a faith issue, then please, reach out to me, and we’ll have coffee and talk it through. But I can’t stand down from this; I just can’t see the Gospel any other way.

Here is another important thing to say. Some of you probably have questions or doubts about what really happened and who is to blame in Mike Brown’s death or any of the other particular incidents that are part of our current national conversation. Maybe the single most important thing that white observers need to understand is that this isn’t about any given incident; it’s about a pattern. What our African-American brothers and sisters are telling us is, This kind of violence, and less deadly, but equally degrading, kinds of violence, are part of the everyday texture of their lives, in ways that we can’t begin to imagine. In ways so subtle and so entrenched that the people who are part of those systems of violence may have no idea, and certainly no intention to do harm. If that even might be true, doesn’t it deserve – demand – your attention, your concern?

So. What can we do? That’s where so many of our conversations end up, feeling confused, overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless: what can we do?

Here are some ideas for what you can do. I hope they’ll speak to you, wherever you are on all this.

First: READ. There’s been so much wise and sharp and cogent written, in the past few weeks, about race and racism in America, past, present, and future. In voices ranging from world-class Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman to comedian Chris Rock, from legal scholars to cognitive scientists, to the voices of ordinary folk, white and black, sharing their hurts and their hopes. Whether you are thinking about all this for the first time right now, or whether you’ve read every article, every commentary, in the past six months, there is something you can read that will deepen your understanding. I’ve pulled together a list of some links to pieces that have touched me, in the past week.

One helpful suggestion I’ve seen is to diversify your media. Read news sources and opinion pieces by people of color. Read The Root, Colorlines, or our local magazine, Umoja. More generally, read news that isn’t from your usual trusted sources, and broaden your perspective – not necessarily by believing everything you read, but by discovering how current events are seen by others whose experiences and perspectives differ from yours.

Here’s another thing you can do: TALK. Have deep conversations with trusted friends, others who are struggling to understand and to know how to respond. We’ll make space for some of those kinds of conversations here at St. Dunstan’s early in 2015. And have tentative conversations with strangers, people you wouldn’t usually talk with. Don’t dive right into the news; just … widen your circle. Think of someone in your life that you see or cross paths with regularly, but don’t know anything about. Another parent or a staff member at your child’s school. A maintenance worker in your office building. A person you buy produce from at the market. Ask them their name, have a few minutes’ conversation. Make your social world a little bigger, a little broader.

Here’s the third thing you can do: NOTICE. Notice the way things are. Notice the things you’ve always taken for granted. This is hard work; I went to graduate school to learn to do this.But you can do it, with some thoughtful attention. Notice patterns, dynamics, assumptions. For example, if you’ve got kids in a public school… what proportion of the students are people of color? what proportion of the teachers are? If those proportions are way off,  how might that feel, for kids and families of color? … Emily Scott, the pastor of St. Lydia’s Church in New York, writes about running a red light on her bike in front of a policeman – nothing happened to her, but a black man just behind her did the same thing, and got pulled over. Notice what’s happening around you. Notice vocabulary – like when we talk about neighborhoods in Madison, and use “bad” or “dangerous” as shorthand for “high percentage of people of color.” Notice what happens inside yourself, too. If you see a group of teenage boys goofing off in your neighborhood park, what feelings or fears rise up inside you – if they’re white? if they’re Latino? if they’re black?

The fourth thing you can do is REFLECT. Reflecting goes hand in hand with noticing. And with reading. And with talking. When something gets uncomfortable, when you find yourself tempted to deflect the issue or blame somebody else, reflect on your own resistance. Dean Mike Kinman writes, “Feel the anger and the pain and ask Why? and don’t be satisfied with the initial answers that you give yourself … answers which will tend to reinforce your existing beliefs and stereotypes. Let your own anger, annoyance, confusion and weariness guide you to empathy  with the great anger, annoyance, confusion and weariness that our sisters and brothers of color experience every day.”

Use your discomfort as a tool for exploration, for digging deeper, for seeking understanding,  for undertaking change. Emily Scott writes, “Embrace feeling unsure most of the time.  [This work] is going to be messy and feel vulnerable and you’re going to see some things about yourself that you didn’t want to see.  … But that’s where the Holy Spirit does her thing. Wade in, because God calls us into the deep water.”

The fifth thing you can do is ACT. There are so many forms that action can take. I’m trusting that your own seeking will lead you to some steps that are right for you. Some big dramatic change needs to happen – but so much of the change we need is change in tiny, mundane, everyday behaviors and patterns and assumptions and choices… Small actions matter. Small change adds up.

And speaking of small change, one action I’ve seen suggested recently is to make a conscious choice to shift some of our spending to minority-owned businesses. The prosperity of the past seventy years of American life, and the recovery of the past five years, have both largely left African-American households behind. Intentionally patronizing minority-owned businesses is a simple way to try and share America’s promise more broadly.

Whatever actions you take, consider well these wise words from poet and blogger Scott Woods: “Look up what the word incremental means (I’ll give you a hint: it means bit by bit, tiny step by tiny step) – because if you’re holding out any hope and are actually working to create any change, you’re going to need it tattooed to your foreheads.”

And here is the sixth and last thing you can do, straight from Dean Mike Kinman’s list: PRAY. Mike writes, “This is definitely last but not least. Pray for us in St Louis, and know that we are praying for you. Pray not for an easy peace but pray for transformation. Pray for courage.  Pray for God’s Holy Spirit to move us in ways that we scarcely believe possible. Pray that all of us may use this moment in time as a great opportunity to show how deeply we trust in Jesus and the amazing things that Christ can do.”

Remember that we are bearers of, witnesses to, God’s good news. And that God’s good news asks something of us. Asks us to hold lightly our certainties and comforts. Asks us to risk the known for the possibilities of the unknown. Asks us to open our eyes and ears and hearts to other voices and bigger hopes. Pray, then, brothers and sisters – pray in the faith that God’s good news, demanding and complicated as is, is nonetheless, deeply, truly, incrementally… good.

Let us pray.

O God who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(BCP p. 840)

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth. In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.

(BCP p. 815)

Sermon, Christ the King Sunday

Preached by the Rev. Miranda K. Hassett on Sunday, November 23, 2014. 

So this is the assignment I gave myself this week. Compose a sermon that deals with the Parable of the Talents, one of the most complex, elusive, and contested parables in the Gospels; that deals also with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, with its beautiful themes of service to the poor and its terrifying language of damnation; touch on the Kingship of Christ; and keep it short, so we have plenty of time to eat pie/digest. Hah. I’ve always liked difficult assignments.

I could easily have skipped the Parable of the Talents; it’ll come around again. But I’ve become really fascinated by the way these two parables interact. They are the last two parables in this long speech of Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, about being ready, and how to live while you’re waiting. We are on the cusp of Jesus’ arrest and trial here, in Matthew’s narrative, and we should read these stories with a sense of the whirlwind of repressive violence about to catch up Jesus and all those close to him.

Listen.

It is as if a man, going on a journey, entrusted some money to his slaves – huge sums, more than they could earn in a lifetime, even if they were free men. And two of the slaves used the money to make more money; but one buried it, hiding it in the ground for safekeeping. And when the Master returned, he called the slaves to settle accounts. The two who had used the money to make more money earned the master’s praise: “Well done; enter into the joy of your master. ” But the third slave spoke the harsh truth to his master: “I knew that you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow; so I hid the money, to keep it safe. Here you have what is yours. ” And the master was furious, and had that slave thrown into the outer darkness. For to all those who have, even more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

When the Son of Man comes in glory, all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people, as a shepherd separates sheep and goats. At his right hand, he will gather those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited the prisoner. And he will say to them, Just as you did these things for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did them for me; come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you. At his left hand, he will gather those who did not feed the hungry, care for the sick, or visit the prisoner. And they will go away into eternal punishment. It is fascinating to look at these parables together. I’ve never really done it before. The lectionary, our calendar of Sunday readings, gives them to us one at a time. And that week in between gives the preacher the luxury of forgetting or ignoring the ways the two stories overlap, and simultaneously tug against each other. After spending ten days mulling them over, off and on, noticing their resonances and their tensions, I’m increasingly convinced that they need to be told, and interpreted, together; that they are, in some deep sense, paired. At the same time, I’m quite convinced that I can’t begin to do justice to either, let alone both, in the space of twelve minutes or less. So prepare yourselves for some broad brushstrokes and unanswered questions.

First, what these two stories have in common: The message that there will be an accounting, a judgment, a sorting. And what we do with what we have, matters. How we use our wealth, our time, our skills and yes, our talents, will be weighed and measured. Both parables have a strong message that we should live in the present as people mindful of an ultimate future, with an awareness of the impact and import of our actions and choices. But maybe it would be more accurate to say that there will be two accountings. Because the Master of the slaves and the sheep-sorting King are not the same guy. I believe these parables are mirror images, their similarities intended to call our attention to the ways in which they are profoundly different.

Consider the punch line of the Talent parable: To all those who have, even more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. Or as Billie Holiday puts it: Them that’s got shall get; them that’s not, shall lose. Not all of Jesus’ parables are kingdom parables, parables about God’s reality and God’s intentions for the world. Some of them are parables about the world as it is, standing in the tradition of Wisdom literature that sees and names the deep patterns of human life and society.

Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose: does that sound like God’s way of doing things, anywhere else in the Bible? It sounds to me very much like the human way of doing things. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It was sure as heck happening in first-century Palestine. It is sure as heck happening in twenty-first-century America. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. By many measures, we are the most unequal society in the developed world. I see that reality manifest every week in the stories of the folks who come to our doors seeking help. I’m sure our members who volunteer at MOM or Porchlight or IHN see it and hear it, too. If you want data instead of anecdotes, there’s plenty to be found. To look at one heartbreaking number, released this week: nearly one in every thirty children in America is homeless. Those rates have worsened even as our economy recovers. To those who have nothing, even the little that they have will be taken away. Is this God’s way of doing things? Is this harsh master meant to stand for God? Or is the slave who speaks truth to power, refuses to collude with corrupt systems of wealth creation, and blows the whistle on the master’s greed – should this slave remind us of the man who tells us this story, the man who, one chapter later, will himself stand before the seat of power, and be judged, condemned, and cast out? …

This parable has been read as a call to make the most of what you have. That’s a good message; I do believe that God wants us to make good use of our gifts, skills, time, and resources. But that very familiar reading of this parable makes God an unjust and greedy master, and endorses “them that’s got, shall get” as the divine order of things.

I can’t make peace with that interpretation. I don’t believe that was the story Jesus meant to tell. Consider the story he tells next.

In this story, the authority figure, the King on the throne, is identified as the Son of Man: a phrase Jesus seems to use to refer to himself, especially in his role as Messiah, the one who acts and speaks for God,… as God. The judgment here, then, is a divine, not a human, judgment. And the people gathered before the throne are not judged on whether they’ve doubled their wealth. They are judged, instead, on whether they’ve spent their gifts, skills, time, and resources responding with compassion and generosity to those in need.

Preachers and commentators sometimes fret that this parable teaches us works-righteousness – the idea that we can earn our own salvation by our acts of compassion, our righteous works, instead of receiving God’s grace as a free gift. But notice: in the parable, the people who lived with compassion didn’t know they were serving God by doing so. They ask, “When did I do something for you? ” They weren’t trying to get on Jesus’ good side; they had no idea. They just saw someone hungry, and fed her. As simple as that.

I admire people with that kind of spirit; sometimes I need a little more help. I turn to this parable on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis, to remind myself how to respond to those in need. People often call the church or come to our doors, people whose lives have gone off the rails and who don’t know where else to turn for help. Dealing with those requests is one of the hardest parts of my job. It’s hard because I’m busy and it takes a lot of time to hear people’s stories, to let them cry, to negotiate what I can offer and how to provide it. It’s hard because their stories are hard to hear. It’s hard because what I have to offer is so little, if anything. I can’t fix their situation. The most I can do is offer $100 towards rent or a gas card, and a little food from our kitchen, and a prayer. And all of that is demoralizing and painful and sad for ME. When I hear that someone is at the door seeking help, my heart doesn’t leap in my chest at the opportunity to serve a child of God in need. My heart sinks, because the need is so great, and mostly all I can do is say, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry all this has happened to you. And I’m so sorry that I can’t make it better. I can’t find you a place to live. I can’t give you a job with a living wage. I can’t fix your addiction problems, or your bad back. I can’t get your violent ex-husband to leave you alone. Here is the tiny, tiny bit I can do; and I’ll pray for you. It is hard, and sometimes I don’t want to do it. I just don’t want to.

This parable reminds me that in doing whatever I can, as little as it may be, I am serving Christ. It keeps me grounded. It helps me respond when I feel like I have nothing to give. I don’t think that’s the dreaded “works-righteousness”, because I’m not imagining a tally sheet somewhere (and if I did, I’d imagine myself perpetually in the red). The story simply remind me that the person standing before me belongs to Christ. It’s a touchstone for me, because it lays out so clearly what it looks like to follow a Savior who came as a servant of all.

That is not to say that this is an easy parable. Half of this crowd is shuffled off to eternal damnation. Judgment is a tough subject. I will happily put off the topics of judgment and hell for another sermon… and keep doing so indefinitely. And of course I’m running short on time today, so….

Returning to the relationship between these parables: can you see how they line up as twinned opposites, mirror images? There is a moment of judgment, of standing before the one in power and having your deeds weighed, your sums tallied. But one is a judgment in this world’s terms, success and prosperity as we measure it on this side. And the other measures success by having given away time, skill, resources, even self, in service to those who have nothing, and less than nothing. A life lived like that isn’t likely to double anybody’s wealth. But in this accounting, it’s the ones with empty hands who earn the Master’s praise.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the Sunday of the church year when we honor, and puzzle over, the paradoxical sovereignty of Jesus. One of the pitfalls, maybe THE pitfall, of naming Jesus Christ as King, Lord, and Master, is that we tend to project onto him the trappings and dynamics of human power. In life, he had no use for all that. He wasn’t interested in pomp and praise, in wealth or glory. He got on his knees and washed his friends’ stinking feet and told them, This is what leadership looks like. Even in this parable, in which he seems to put himself on a throne, he turns right around and climbs down into the gutter, the sickbed, the jail cell.

But we struggle with his humility. Our images of wealth and power are so entrenched. As often as he climbs off the throne, we put him back on it; as often as he shakes off the purple robe, we wrap it around his shoulders again; as often as he says, Put down your swords, we call up another army to fight for him.

On this Christ the King Sunday, looking at these two parables, I invite you to try a thought experiment.

In Matthew’s Gospel, one parable leads into the next with this abrupt jump: “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. ” When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. ” What if we fill in the space between these two parables, like this? The third slave was bound and thrown into the darkness. In the darkness he suffered and died, at the hands of those who hated him for naming the injustice of their ways. But the story wasn’t over; and the slave wasn’t really a slave. (Philippians 2:6-9) He humbled himself, submitting even to death; therefore God raised him up in glory, freeing him from the power of the grave. In the fulness of time, he returned to the human world, surrounded by angels, aflame with divine power, to claim the throne of judgment and mercy, and to bring to fulfillment that Kingdom in which no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love, and no wealth measured but the wealth of kindness.

Come, Lord Jesus.