The Rev. Scott Walters
Christ Church, Little Rock
Nov. 18, 2011
Last Sunday of Pentecost
A book as old as the Bible is bound to refer to things that are unfamiliar to us. We don’t do much girding of the loins these days. Most of us don’t draw water from wells, or store our wine in skins. We probably don’t have a lot of experience with mustard seeds or burial perfumes or camels. We don’t wash the feet of guests when they arrive for dinner.
And then there are all the shepherds. They’re scattered across both testaments. But the truth is that for you and me, it’s not terribly helpful to hear that Jesus is kind of like a shepherd. Because, let’s face it. Nine out of every ten images of shepherds that you and I have ever encountered have been of Jesus. So for us it all works backwards. Someone says the word “shepherd” and we think not of a wind burned rancher on a Wyoming sheep farm, but of a white robed guy with dreamy blue eyes, long sandy brown hair and a lamb in his arms. A guy who, come to think of it, was supposed to be Jewish. An unhelpful image on so many levels.
On the other hand, trying to translate such things into modern life and experience is awkward too, if not impossible. Updating loin girding to putting on supportive athletic undergarments, drawing water from a well to hiring a plumber, and a bursting wine skin to a de-corking tragedy doesn’t quite work. Making Jesus a cattle farmer like the ones who traded lies at the Siloam Springs sale barn every Tuesday isn’t helpful. So maybe we just have to do the best we can with images we know almost nothing about firsthand.
But our world has changed. So shouldn’t our religious metaphors and pictures and symbols?
It’s a reasonable question. And the stakes might get even higher when we start talking politics. What are we to make of all the monarchy language? The kings and queens we know of are usually either cruel tyrants or elegant fodder for People Magazine articles. Can’t we come up with a better image for Christ than a king after all these centuries? Couldn’t we at least draw something from more enlightened forms of government?
Many Christians refer to the last Sunday before Advent as Christ the King Sunday. Maybe it’s time to update the day to Christ the President or Christ the Prime Minister or Christ the Secretary General. Wouldn’t one of those make for a compelling stained glass window up above the altar?
What I want to suggest today is that the notion of Christ being our king is useful precisely because we have no use for kings. We have no helpful frame of reference for kings, really. But everything would be lost in a translation to something more modern, more liberal, more democratic, more familiar.
Whatever your theological leanings and regardless of how literally you take the idea of a final judgment, what lots of us quickly assume is that this judgment is personal. Even the cartoonists agree. After the death of Steve Jobs, St Peter made the cover of the New Yorker where he was checking his iPad for the name of the thin guy standing in front of him in Levi’s and a black turtleneck. This is the image we carry, even if only in our jokes. In the end, it’s the state of each individual heart or life that matters. Each of us wants to know whether our name will be inscribed in the Book (or the iPad) of Life, to use another image.
But the parable in Matthew 25—and I do think we should read the story as a parable since Jesus was actually talking about a judgment of us, not livestock—the parable about the sheep and the goats is a political parable. It’s more about something we share in common as a “polis”, a city, a community. We tend to read it as a parable about personal virtues, a sort of immigration test each human must one day take to gain entrance into heaven. But look closely. This parable isn’t about the end of the world. It’s about the beginning of a world. It’s a parable about the creation or the fulfillment of a kingdom. Christ is the king (and the shepherd, it seems) who gathers the nations of the earth and assembles a kingdom out of the sheep that he finds—a kingdom of people who show mercy to the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner.
The language of the story is overtly political. It’s about a king, right? And take note. The politics of this story look nothing like those of liberal democracy. This king builds a political order not on the freedom of markets or the inalienable rights of individuals but on a collective attention to the vulnerable, the weak, the outcast. There is no suggestion at all that Gross National Product or a welfare state or military strength or gold medals at the Olympic Games might be the measure of this kingdom’s success.
The parable changes a bit if for once I can break out of my modern mindset and consider that it might not be all about me and my personal relationship with Jesus. Ever since the Enlightenment at least, we’ve been obsessed with the individual. If salvation comes at all it must come in individual sized portions just as those inalienable rights do. But this story is about a judgment of the nations more than individuals. And this story is about how Christ’s nation or community is formed if and when he comes into his kingdom. The questions is, “With whom and what would he build that kingdom, and what are its essential values, its self evident truths?” And, my fellow Americans, they’re not the ones listed in the Declaration of Independence.
What really seems to fire people up in public discourse today is the desire to be left alone. Personal freedom is everything. Just leave me alone with regard to my economic life or my civil liberties and everything will turn out for the best. It may be a little messy, but it will be for the best. But how many people are left alone to do as they please is not the measure of success for Christ’s kingdom.
Christ named care for the people most reliably excluded from the life of a community as what’s most essential. Which suggests that he’s pressing us toward a common good, not a private one. And note that he names a practice, not an ideal. Neither the sheep nor the goats realized they’d been living according to or contrary to the ways of the kingdom. Living as people of Christ’s kingdom isn’t about possessing some virtue or some liberty. It’s about practicing mercy and welcome.
Christians have long run soup kitchens and prison ministries and hospitals and clothes closets in very appropriate obedience to Jesus’ clear commands. But I think there’s something else, something deeper about this kingdom that Jesus is pointing us toward as well. By reminding us of the need for mercy to those who are first excluded, Jesus is reminding us that we don’t get there alone. And we don’t get there by leaving each other alone.
Miracle and Stacey and Gus are being baptized today. And baptism seems like an utterly personal sacrament. They’re the only ones who will get wet, after all. But baptism is a political act for Christians. Baptism is a sacrament that announces in part that salvation is a community affair. It is an initiation into a community committed to making Jesus’ kingdom our true home and our defining reality. A community committed to living according to that kingdom’s norms and values and practices.
That’s a big commitment. And if there’s any good news about the bankruptcy of our current political process, maybe it’s the death of the illusion that baptizing someone as a citizen of the kingdom of God is the same thing as making that person a good citizen of this realm. Christ’s good kingdom is not built if all we scream about are my taxes and my privacy and my rights. It’s not built from suspicion and exclusion of the alien and the immigrant and the prisoner. It’s not a kingdom built on the freedom to let my sick neighbor die, nor is it one in which I just give her a personal insurance policy and wash my hands of the matter.
To live according to Christ’s kingdom is to put its essential values into practice. Those values are crystal clear, and they are not the values of any political party or system this world has ever known, liberal, conservative, or otherwise. Which means that the Church bears witness to the good news insofar as we embody an utterly different order. One with a strange king who appears to us not just on a throne, but like this:
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
You know, maybe there’s even something that those corny paintings of the Good Shepherd get right. If we want to live as citizens of Christ’s kingdom, whenever we look at anyone in this world, the prisoner, the stranger, the sick, the hungry, and even the shepherd, I suppose, we should see Jesus. We should see our true king, strange as it sounds. If we can become a community that sees the world this way, God’s kingdom is truly close at hand. Amen.