Sunday, November 20, 2011
by Ellen Sims
Text: Matthew 25: 31-46
Icon: Christ in the Margins, by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM
Prior to the following brief sermon, the congregation prayerfully contemplated the above icon. Especially on Christ the King Sunday, that ironic title of the Christ seems aptly interpreted in such an image.
Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel is perhaps the Bible’s clearest presentation of Jesus’ understanding of God’s judgment. Although Jesus repeatedly tells his followers (and nonfollowers like the rich young ruler) that God’s love requires us to care for the poor and the lowly, the full force of his radical message breaks through in this, his final, sermon. We serve the Christ by serving the least; that’s what God cares about, he explained. But we humans tend to judge differently than God does. The very next chapter in Matthew’s Gospel tells of the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, who was himself judged by very different standards—judged and condemned. Clearly, Jesus was not a king of this world.
We “inherit” God’s “kingdom” (Matt. 25:34) when we help the hungry and thirsty, the despised and rejected, when we treat “the least of these” as if they are Jesus. We may not be judged well by everyone else. But we are “saved” by “saving” others. It is not our particular religious beliefs that determine how God will judge us, not according to this story and the thrust of the Gospels.
Perhaps “the least of these” allow us to be saved from the egoism and littleness of our lives. Perhaps we are saved from strife that our petty aspirations inevitably bring. Perhaps we are saved from loneliness as we give ourselves to others. By reaching out to others, especially those who have nothing to offer us, we ourselves receive some saving grace that connects us to others and to God. When we visit someone in prison, we are visiting Christ. God’s assessment of our lives depends on whether or not we have recognized that the poor and sick, the prisoners and the immigrants, are Christ. . . . .that Jesus comes to us again and again as the stranger we are tempted to ignore or despise. This may sound as if I’m saying that God’s “saving way” is to do good works through our own effort. But God’s grace is key here. God’s grace allows us these opportunities to open our hearts not simply to do good—but to experience God in the process. Visiting the sick can be done as an act of human will, a duty, and for all sorts of motivations. But meeting Christ in that moment—is grace. We are saved to the extent that we respond to one another as if we are responding to God.
Our daughter lists her occupation on her Facebook page as “Attorney” and “Public Defender” followed by the tag: “Serving the least of these.” That’s a phrase straight from today’s reading. Our daughter spends most of her day with the very folks Jesus called “the least”: Her clients are all poor. All in jail. Many are sick. Most are mentally ill. They are the scorned of our society. She does not condone the harmful actions of anyone. But she and we are challenged not only to treat others as Jesus would treat them—but to SEE them as if they are Jesus. That seems a key to Christian spirituality.
Much has been said about this game-changing spiritual concept. Part of this spiritual truth, of course, has to do with our role in actively being an advocate for those on the margins, a voice for the voiceless. But it also has to do with the ways we are changed when we truly see the Christ in others, even in ourselves. I said earlier we are saved to the extent that see others as Christ and treat them in that way. But it is also true that we are saved to the extent that we become the image–the icon–of Christ and allow others to see Christ in us.
I’m condensing a story Carl Gregg shared recently, which he adapted from M. Scott Peck’s version, which originated from various other sources:
A great monastery located in a beautiful forest once fell upon hard times. Only five monks remained: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a hermitage. As the abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to him to visit the hermitage and ask if by chance the hermit could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The hermit welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the hermit could only commiserate with him: “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in all the nearby towns.” The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?” “No, I am sorry,” the hermit responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the hermit say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just commiserated and read the scriptures together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving — it was something cryptic — was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered these words and wondered whether there was any possible significance. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one?
Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant the Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.
On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.
Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the hermit did mean Brother Elred.
But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.
Of course the hermit didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the hermit’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
What if, my friend, the icon placed before us this evening–the icon we contemplated earlier in this service–was a picture of you? What if we had meditated tonight upon your image? What if YOU are the Messiah?