Editor's Note: The Rev. Deborah Meister, rector of St. Alban's Parish in Washington, D.C., delivered the following sermon on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. We thought it wonderfully appropriate for today as well. Thanksgiving blessings to all.
Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday in our church year.
I always find it a strange feast to celebrate in a democracy, in which the whole point is that we do not have kings, but shared authority vested in the people and temporarily delegated to elected leaders. What does thinking about Jesus as a King mean to folk like us?
This year it is particularly strange, for, with the exception of the marriage of William and Kate, this has been a bad year for kings. Monarchs, tyrants, plutocrats, and autocrats of every stripe have found themselves under assault from a powerful wave of populism, as the citizens of country after country have risen up to hold their leaders accountable for their stewardship of their nations. Throughout the Middle East and in parts of Europe and the United States, the official narrative of power has been held up and judged against another set of ideas, one that speaks of fairness, liberty, and raising up the poor. Ruler after ruler has heard a cry that translates, roughly: “as you did it to the least of us, so shall it be done to you.”
Christ is a different kind of king, and his authority always calls our leaders to account, whatever the form of our government or our political preferences. Christ embodies a form of leadership that is rarely seen in our world. In the ordinary scope of things, our leaders wear nice suits and inhabit the corridors of power and cut deals with the wealthy and the powerful. Christ, however, threw in his lot entirely with those whom the doors of power shut out. He would talk with anyone, eat with everyone, and, in the end, died among the refuse of his people. He was a leader who led from below.
He spells it all out in the words of Ezekiel: because human leaders have proved utterly unwilling to govern by God’s principles, God himself will come to lead us. Ezekiel paints a grim picture in which the shepherds of the people have devoured the sheep themselves, consuming and destroying the very flock God gave them to protect. “As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey...and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves and have not fed my sheep, ...therefore...I am against the shepherds. I will rescue my sheep from their mouth, so that they may not be food for them.” (Ezek 34:8, 10)
These are hard words to hear today, because they look very much like the front pages of our newspapers. As we all now know, we live in a time of rising inequality. A recent report by the Congressional Budget Office explains that in the last three decades, the income of the top 1 percent of earners in the United States has risen 275 percent, while that of the poorest one fifth rose only 18 percent. The accusation being made in our media and on our streets is that the strong have indeed pushed the weak from the trough and consumed the good things of this world themselves.
All of the hot-button issues of our time seem to line up right along this axis. What is the proper balance between corporate earnings and the need to create jobs, or between the salaries of the top executives and those of the workers in the cubicles or on the factory floor? Who should have access to health care and under what terms? What are the proper limits of government in caring for those who are unemployed, who are hungry, who cannot feed their children without help? And so, when God proclaims, “I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep,” these words are painful to hear. (Ezek 34:21-22) They feel, at this time, like condemnation -- and they are. There are many potential solutions, and faithful Christians will disagree about what they are, but Christ holds us responsible for addressing the issues.
The pain comes, of course, because you and I count, in this world, as fat sheep. Not many in this congregation are seriously worried about where our next meal will come from or where we will sleep tonight. If our children get sick, we can scrape together enough money for antibiotics. Even if we have needed to cut back severely during this recession, for most of us that means trimming voluntary expenses, not doing without the basic necessities.
When I was in seminary, I interned at a parish in New Haven that had a large food pantry. One winter morning, very early, I was driving past the doors when I saw a man standing outside on the street. It was below zero that day and the man wore neither coat nor gloves. He was holding a package of cream cheese, which he had unwrapped and was stuffing into his mouth desperately, without even bread to put it on. I wondered how hungry I would have to be stand in the bitter cold and eat without even waiting to get to shelter. That has never been my life.
The leadership Christ models puts men like him at the center of our world. Against all the pragmatism of power -- the necessary trade-offs, the brokering of deals, the pledges people make to get votes, the slogans carefully calculated not to bind too closely -- Jesus holds up to us one and only one criterion: “as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:40) This is the only time Christ spells out the terms of our judgment, and they are simple: we shall save or condemn ourselves by the way we treat those whose aid cannot benefit us in this world, those who are not in a position to help us, those who cannot fight back if we discard them. We in the Episcopal Church don’t like to talk about judgment. We’d rather talk about the welcome of God, the grace of God, the mercy of God. But that very mercy extends its own form of accountability. Christ extends grace to every human being, but the way we know whether we have accepted it is whether we wrap our lives around those who need us most.
It is the ultimate test of our humanity. A number of years ago, archaeologists discovered the bones of a group of Neanderthals. Among them were the remains of a man who had lived, since childhood, with a severe disability. The scientists were moved with awe. In the animal world, those who cannot keep up are discarded. But so early in the human path, a tribe of people arranged itself around the needs of one who was deeply broken. In their hunter-gatherer world, in which the group would travel between seven and ten miles a day, they had carried him, each day of his life. They had shared their food with one who could not gather any to share in return, tended his body, wiped his bum. He must have been a substantial burden, but, somehow, they believed that he could not be left to die. It was one of the earliest signs we have of the spirit of Christ in us.
There are few better signs of this kind of life today than the L’Arche communities, homes in which people with serious mental or physical disabilities live side-by-side with people who would not receive a label in a normal setting. Most of those who go to L’Arche to serve as caretakers find that the experience brings them face-to-face with their own spiritual woundedness: their impatience, their fears, their need to be seen as successful. They go to help others, but find that L’Arche is a place of mutual cure. Jean Vanier, who founded the movement, writes, “We discover more and more that those who are rejected by society because of their weakness and their apparent uselessness are in fact a presence of God. If we welcome them, they lead us progressively out of the world of competition and the need to do great things toward a world of communion of hearts, a life that is simple and joyful where we do small things with love.”
I seem to have wandered far from my path, don’t I? From the kingship of Christ and the political struggles of our time to the needs of handicapped people. But the truth of Christ is that the least is the measure of the great. Christ reminds us that we are all handicapped people: people who have been shaped by this world in ways which hinder our ability to love, to give, and to sacrifice ourselves as he taught us to do. And the leadership Christ models is not a form of dispensing power from on high, but of walking beside us, taking on our skin, our lives, our problems, and our struggles as if they were his own -- because they are.
In difficult times like our own, there is always a temptation to put our own needs first, to care for our own family, our own kind, and let the rest fall by the wayside. We, in this country, have traveled perilously far down that road. State governments that are running out of money have cut back on food to give to the poor. The ugliest reactions to our political debates -- the ones which make good-hearted people across the spectrum cringe -- call for us to embrace a ruthless Social Darwinism: if people can’t keep up, let them die. In times like these, it is easy to point fingers -- at the leaders, at the weak, at the people who are not in our political party -- and to condemn.
But the Feast of Christ the King reminds us that it is not up to our leaders to redeem our time. The true power on this earth belongs not to any human potentate, but to Christ, who reigns from the cross. And the Spirit of God is not Christ’s alone, but is given to each one of us. We, my friends, you and I, are the shepherds Christ has appointed to tend the sheep. We are the messengers entrusted with good news for the poor. We are the branches of the vine, the wheat given to feed the world. And so we cannot point fingers at other people without also condemning ourselves. This world is given into our hands until Christ comes again.
St. Basil the Great said, “The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.” (Those words have been uncomfortably present to me in these last months as I have unpacked my boxes, filled with far more than I really need.) Basil is speaking, not about leadership as we usually understand it, but about charity, about having mercy on those around us. I believe that if enough of us make mercy our goal, we will shape a culture of mercy. Against the strident voices of division, Christ calls us to be a voice for sanity and peace. Against the bitterness of consuming self-interest, we need to remind the world that we are accountable for one another. We who often feel so disempowered need to remember that the lever on which God moved the world was a homeless child.
In the terms of this world, it is a foolish witness, an impossible charge. But we are not citizens only of this world. Our citizenship is in heaven, and our power is from the Almighty. So do not lose heart, and do not keep silent. “For mortals it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.” (Matt 19:26) Christ embraced what was most broken in our world, our sin, our poverty, our illness, and our death, and crucified them on the cross of love and bore them up into the heart of God – and, my friends, they are still there. That cross is the true throne of the Almighty, the fulcrum of our world, the only place in heaven or on earth from which divine justice can come. Christ reigns from the cross, and so must we.
The Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister is rector of St. Alban's Parish in Washington, D.C. She is the former rector of Christ Church in New Brunswick, N.J., and is a graduate of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.