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The Rector’s sermon for November 26, 2017   


                                                                                                                                    

 

What are you supposed to do if you are the king?  What would the resume of a king look like?  

 

In the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Lucy tries to imagine what it would be like to be a queen. Judging by her actions in the play, being a queen means living in a big palace and owning plenty of beautiful dresses, as well as a fancy coach with horses.  Then there’s the cowardly lion in the movie The Wizard of Oz.  For him, kingship means getting to lord it over all the other creatures, in part by establishing his reign through a show of might. 

 

            In the ancient world, examples of kingship were anything but funny.   It was customary for ancient rulers to erect monuments in their honor, and these monuments listed in grisly detail the torture, death and destruction they inflicted on others.   Assyrian and Babylonian rulers bragged about the misery and suffering they caused.  Alexander the Great was praised in the First Book of the Maccabees with these words: “he fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth.  He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations.  When the earth became quiet before him, he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up. He gathered a very strong army and ruled over countries, nations, and princes, and they became tributary to him.”

 

                  Is that what a king should be?  Today’s passage from the gospel suggests that God judges a ruler not by the misery they inflict, but the justice they uphold.   In Psalm 82 the songwriter imagines that the nations of the world are placed under judgment.  It is believed that the writer, when referring to “gods” is simply using another word for “king” because these rulers claimed to be descended from the gods.   So what does God expect kings to do?  Here’s what the psalmist writes:

 

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods [kings] he holds judgment:

“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?  Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.  I say, “You are gods [kings], children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”

 

This biblical passage makes it clear that the kings, who claimed god-like status, failed to measure up because they did not provide justice for the weak, the orphan, the lowly, the destitute.  A true ruler—a true nation —is not judged for how many people are left dead in their wake, but by the way they protect the most vulnerable members of society…which brings us to today’s Gospel from Matthew, which in many ways is like Psalm 82. The nations of the world once again come before the divine presence and are judged.  Jesus is speaking words that sound like a story or a parable.  Or is it a prophecy?  Perhaps all of the above?  Whatever the intention, the king speaks!

 

            The opening line, about the coming of the Son of Man in glory, is reminiscent of the scene in the Book of Daniel in which the Son of Man “... was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” (Daniel 7:14)   Then, in his best storytelling mode, Jesus describes the judgment of the nations, using this elaborate visual.  He could easily have said: “When you took care of the lowly, you took care of me. When you failed them, you failed me.”  But anyone who tells a story knows that stringing a series of parallel statements together stretches out the suspense and the satisfaction of the story.  The Eternal King will reward those on his right, “... for 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.”  Those who are saved seem surprised. “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, etc., and took care of you?” they ask.  Notice that it’s not a matter of having proclaimed loyalty to the king, or saying that the Son of Man is Lord.  Rather, people are being judged based on what they have done for the outcasts of society.

 

            Take hunger and thirst.  There were those, like the Sadducees of that era, who did not believe in an afterlife.  According to their beliefs, those who were rich were loved by God.  Those who were poor probably deserved it.  Even today, aren’t the poor a popular target among some people?  They are blamed for not being able to get a job or save their money.  Most people who are not poor don’t realize that poverty is a full-time job.  The simplest things take much longer and the cost of goods in stores in poorer areas tends to be higher.  A king who cares for the poor might seem to be backing a losing cause.  But…this cause is God’s cause.

 

            Strangers—resident aliens, as the word might be translated—have few rights and fewer advocates.  Throughout history people have distrusted foreigners in their midst, often giving them work that no one else will do and often being mistreated.   But one of scripture’s greatest heroes, one who demonstrated the gift translated as “steadfast love” in Hebrew, was Ruth the Moabite—a foreigner in Israel.  As for the sick, people isolated them in the ancient world, cutting them off from all who might give them comfort.  Jesus, on the other hand, healed and restored people to their families and their faith community.  Then there are the prisoners.  How many people say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” a way of saying they wouldn’t be in jail if they didn’t deserve it?  Whether they deserve it or not, the Son of Man praises those who ministered to the outcasts.  Jesus’ final word is: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

 

            As with many of Matthew’s passages, such as the Sermon on the Mount, we are called to act out of sync with the culture that surrounds us.  We’re called to see through the eyes of Jesus.  Now some will try to find wiggle room.   They’ll say that Jesus is speaking to nations, or to kings, not to us.  They’re getting judged based on what they do or don’t do—not us ordinary people.  What could we do about those things?

 

But let’s not forget, who we are and where we live; we live in America…a nation of plenty in comparison with a significant part of the world.  Together, as followers of Jesus, we are called to act as king…the kind of caring, gentle, loving king that Jesus is.   Just as Jesus chose the least likely to accomplish his work of getting his people back, so our task is to care for the least likely people in the kingdom who cannot help themselves. Have you ever thought of yourself as a “least likely person?”  We are, you know.  To be a “least likely person” you simply need to be human.  We are all afflicted with the same condition: sin and imperfection.  That’s why we are all Jesus has to accomplish his work of bringing others into the kingdom. 

 

On Tuesday afternoon a half-dozen of us meet in the library for a video and discussion on The Story.  Every week we are shown once again how God chooses and uses the least likely people to do his work.  This was the foundation of how we are to live today.   God chose the uneducated and the sinners—the “runts” as Randy Frazee calls them—the least likely individuals to deliver God’s message—to act as “king” in his stead, if you will.  We are to do as he did—care for, love, lift up the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoners—and raise them up to the place where they were meant to be.

 

I leave you with the lyrics to a contemporary song called “Broken Things.”  It’s made a difference in my life and I believe it’s meant to remind us of who we are and who we are meant to be:

 

            If grace is a kingdom, I’ve stopped at the gate, thinking I don’t deserve to pass through

                after all the mistakes I’ve made.  But I heard a whisper, as heaven bent down.

                        It said, “Child, don’t you know that the first will be last and the last get a crown.”

            Now I’m just a beggar in the presence of a King; I wish I could bring You so much more;

            But if it’s true You use broken things, then here I am Lord, I’m all Yours.

 

            The pages of history… they tell me it’s true, that it’s never the perfect; it’s always

                 the ones with the scars that You use.

            It’s the rebels and the prodigals; it’s the humble and the weak.

            The misfit heroes You chose tell me there’s hope for sinners like me.

            Grace is a kingdom, with gates open wide;

            There’s a seat at the table just waiting for you…so, come on inside.

 

We are imperfect, sinful, incapable of anything significant on our own.  But the King has chosen to lift us up out of our imperfections to be “Kings” to the lowly in this world.  We would not be the choice of a worldly king, for sure, but the heavenly King has determined that even us—the least likely—have been blessed to care for those who cannot care for themselves.  So what is kingship?    It isn’t about palaces, and closets full of clothes, and lording it over others.  And it isn’t about hell, fire and brimstone. 



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