When I was a child, to make sure that my brother and I were paying attention in church, my parents would quiz us about what the sermon was about.
(Much learning came about in church, as it happens. How to read music from the hymnal. How to read, period, from the prayer book. How to drive, from my mother, in an effort to panic my father enough to make him stop talking and hurry up and get in the car, already.)
The quizzing, though, had varying results. I really can’t tell you what any of those sermons were about, but gosh darn it, at one point there was a story about baby turtles having a high infant mortality rate, and in another sermon, Jesus Christ Superstar was misquoted.
I’m sure the actual point of these sermons was very edifying. I did grow up in the sure and certain knowledge of a loving God who wasn’t inclined to damn me to the fiery pits of hell, and that had to come from somewhere.
But there are times when the illustration sort of trumps the actual God part. Or the story just takes on a life of its own.
I’m working through a back-log here, but this is the sermon I preached when I went back to the church where I interned during my discernment process in college. They were kind enough to invite me when they heard I would be back in town, nice and generous people that they are.
Long story short, after each service, I found myself shaking a lot of hands and trying to talk many well-heeled Virginia Episcopalians out of trying the Oreo-CheezWhiz combo. Possibly this will be the next culinary fad to hit the East Coast.
Anyway. Here it is.
November 20, 2011
Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King
Matthew 25: 31-49
First things first– thanks for having me back! It’s wonderful to see you all again, and always good to come home for a bit. So thank you for this opportunity.
One of the more pleasant jobs I’ve been tasked with as a roving young priest in Arizona, has been the chaplain for summer camp. For the past two summers, I have gotten to be the chaplain for both the week of counselor training, and for a week of children’s camp.
And it’s gone pretty well. The discussions about the parables were fruitful, the kids seemed intrigued and on board, the staff seemed happy, the counselors seemed content and remarkably engaged.
Except for one.
There was one counselor that I just couldn’t get a read on– Skylar. He just wouldn’t talk. No matter the topic, no matter what, he would sort of sit and gaze at whatever was happening– counselor meeting checkin, bible study, whatever. He wouldn’t do this with his cabin– with the little kids he was fantastic, and they’d follow him around like tiny little ducks. But with me, and the other counselors, he was incommunicado.
He’d just come into the daily checkin meeting, sit down and very deliberately apply a large portion of Cheez-Whiz to an Oreo, and consume it, then repeat,
Daily I watched this. For about a week and half of my time there. I couldnt figure it out. I tried to explain it to myself– Had his taste buds met with a horrible accident? What was the draw of this taste combination?
But every day, there it was.
Skylar would come in, silently. Oreo, Cheez-Whiz. Take a bite. Oreo, Cheez-whiz, take a bite. Every meeting I had with the staff. Every day.
Finally, I couldn’t take it any more. Out of sheer curiosity, the day before camp ended, i finally asked him. ” does that taste good?”
Skylar was perplexed that I was speaking to him. “Yes. It is the best thing ever.”.
“fine.”. I said. “Can I try one?”.
Skylar got this look on his face like I had suggested that he could get a pony for his birthday. He wordlessly handed me an Oreo laden with a goodly supply of fake cheese food product, and I took a bite.
Well, if you’re wondering if you’ve been missing out on a hidden culinary experience, let me set your mind at ease. It was horrific. I mean, it was just plain awful. I will die happy if I never taste that vileness again.
But also? The next summer, Skylar was one of the most talkative counselors we had. Outgoing, opinionated, suddenly he was one of the counselor leaders. He made a point of telling everyone he could that there was this one time that I had eaten a CheezWhiz Oreo, and therefore was one of the cooler chaplains. He also spent about a week trying to come up with a new horrible taste combo for me to try. No dice.
It’s Christ the King Sunday, Reign of Christ Sunday. So today has been set aside by those who know about such things in the church to remember that Christ is, among other things, in charge. In charge of us, yes, but also in charge on a more grand, big, cosmic scale. Today we remember that Christ is also in charge of the universe.
Which is an exciting thought, in some ways. Christ as ruler! Up on the throne, nations gathered before him, judging and ruling and deciding things….we have a lot of images in our world associated with kings and this sort of ruling power. All this stuff is familiar trappings of power to us
But then, the lectionary sort of throws a twist into the works. Because on this Christ the King Sunday, we have this end time vision of Matthew where the Son of Man comes in all this glory, and gathers the nations before him, and sits on his throne, and judges them,…so far so good.
He says When I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was naked, you gave me clothes, when I was in prison, you visited me.
And you know, were Jesus running for president that at this point his advisors would be hearing this and popping the antacids.
Because this is not the way that traditional leaders speak. You don’t admit weakness! You don’t admit vulnerability! You don’t show the kink in the armor! What sort of talk is this for the King of all the earth? Everyone is understandably baffled. And when exactly did this happen, again?
Jesus says: when you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.
Other words, the king on the throne, with all the power in the universe— is with the vulnerable, the weak, and the outcast. Is, in some real way, the hungry, the poor, the vulnerable.
An astonishing, unsettling, thing to assert! But that is precisely what separates this Christ from all the other rulers on the earth. Jesus has authority over our world and our struggles precisely because he went through them. He was down here too. He’s not away and aloof, making scary pronouncements from on high to make our lives harder. Jesus came to earth to be one of us, and to live with us, right in the places where our lives are already hard.
So that means for us, who follow along in the footsteps of Christ, our job is to do likewise. We need to be showing a Jesus who advocates for the vulnerable and the downtrodden. When we go into the world as Christ’s hands and feet, that’s the sort of work we need to be doing, the sort of God we need to be incarnating.
It’s not always comfortable. There are some attractive things about being a normal, earthly-type king. You get a throne, you get a scepter, there’s lots of money involved, and generally people don’t crucify you.
But that is not our calling. The world has enough distant kings already. What it needs is Christ. It needs Christ, seen in the vulnerability of each of us. Affirmed in our willingness to go into the world and say, “You are loved, more than you know, just as you are, and if you need proof to believe that, here we are.”