Monday, November 21, 2011

Yearning for Unity

Scripture for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, includes Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; and Matthew 25:31-46

The most divided house in America, the United States Congress, was considering last week whether to approve a spending bill that will prevent a government shutdown. Buried in that thick document is one line that defines pizza as a vegetable. You know I’m not making this up. You know this not because of anything you know about me, but because of what we all know can happen in Congress.

The bill’s language would confirm current government policy, which is that two tablespoons of tomato paste spread on a slice of pizza constitutes one vegetable serving. The Department of Agriculture, pushing healthier food for children, has sought a stricter provision, that food must contain half a cup of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable serving. A spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute says that this would make it impossible for schools to serve pizza.

The director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has offered her opinion that pizza ought to be served in school cafeterias with a vegetable, not count as one.

Jon Stewart had his way with this imbroglio: At a time when a congressional super-committee is supposed to be agreeing on spending cuts to the tune of a trillion dollars or more, what our divided government may be able to agree upon is… that pizza is a vegetable.

From another divisive setting, we heard this week that Morgan Management is suing the Town of Williamstown and the State Attorney General’s Office, asking the court to declare that the damage done by Tropical Storm Irene was an act of God.

Of these two astonishing developments, this one stuns me more.

If Irene was an act of God, goes the legal argument by the owners of The Spruces mobile home park, then an act of God has caused the mobile home park to cease. I’m not making that up, either. If the park has ceased, then Massachusetts law —which is extremely clear about the obligations of mobile home parks, inconveniently clear for Morgan Management-- Massachusetts law would no longer apply, and Morgan would be free to walk away from Williamstown with no further responsibilities to its tenants.

And one more painfully divisive experience was felt last week, this in the campus community to which we belong by more than neighborly affinity. Words of racial hatred were scrawled on a wall inside a Williams dormitory last weekend, generating a crisis which, thanks to bold initiatives and wise judgment by students and administration, has become the opportunity for truth-telling. Such incidents have happened before, and may happen again. But what may be unique about this one is that the moment was seized, classes cancelled, and 1500 campus members sat on Chapin lawn, allowing the truth-telling to sink deeper than usual, perhaps deeper than ever, and deep is where it must go to reach those depths where bias and learned hatred linger. A gentle drizzle anointed the crowd near the end of that historic gathering, as if heaven were trying to cleanse us all.

See how many instances of divisiveness can be found in our human community, constantly impinging on our daily life. We yearn for unity, long for what breaks down walls that separate us so we may find what binds us all together in perfect freedom and mutual responsibility. We’re hungry for the antidote to paralyzed government, social segregation, and poisonous words.

And along comes today’s Gospel, the summation of Matthew’s teaching about the return of Jesus Christ in glory to set right a world gone wrong. In recent weeks, he has reported several relevant parables of Jesus—wise and foolish bridesmaids whose one task is to be ready when the bridegroom comes, estate managers entrusted with the master’s wealth investing it well or poorly—and now he is done with parables that tease our minds, and instead spreads out before us an apocalyptic vision unlike any in the other Gospels. But, like the parables, this astonishing mural of the end divides people, sheep from goats, some rising to eternal reward, others being cast into the outer gulags of perdition.

Slim pickings for us who yearn for unity. What’s going on in all this division?

For one thing, the first-century church was pulled in two directions by the question, Where is Jesus? One answer is that he has ascended to heaven, and from there will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is the answer given by the gospel-writer Luke at the end of his Gospel. But there is no ascension in Matthew’s Gospel; rather, his closing scene has the eleven disciples gathered around Jesus on a mountaintop, where he tells them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus is here with us.

But as we see in today’s portion, Matthew crosses the aisle and agrees that there will be a day when Jesus returns to decisively complete his victory over the realm of evil. As year gave way to year and decade to decade, Matthew’s church yearned for something more than the quiet hiddenness of Jesus’s promised presence (had that come to feel like slim pickings?). Surely Christ’s definitive triumphant return would come in a way seen by all, and surely it would happen soon.

Matthew speaks of Jesus Christ as King, sitting on a glorious throne, from which he will admit the righteous to the kingdom of God, the reign of perfect justice they’d long prayed daily would come on earth as in heaven. Perfect justice, of course, is a very sharp sword; and what it will cut away is the demonic this-worldly tyranny of Jesus’s opponents, the counter-kingdom opposed to God’s reign. Listen to my favorite Methodist commentator, Eugene Boring:

“The two kingdoms that are confused and interwoven in the ambiguities of history now stand disclosed at the end of history. There are only these two kingdoms: the Son of Man with his angels and all the blessed righteous, and the kingdom of God prepared from eternity stand on one side; the devil and his angels, the accursed, and the destiny prepared for the devil and his own stand on the other. The kingdom of God is disclosed as the only true kingdom… ultimately only God is King.”

So welcome to Christ the King Sunday, the nickname of this last Sunday in the long season of Pentecost when it seems the Church has no more imagination than to keep numbering its Sundays after Pentecost—this year 23 of them—but oh yes, we must imagine.

Shaped by the realities of his time, Matthew imagined this cataclysmic end of history that would soon close the curtain on a culture of violence and greed, and throw open the long-veiled reign of God’s justice.

Two thousand years later, we can imagine cataclysmic endings, the human race having invented several ways to end life as we know it, one by nuclear technology harnessed to the cause of war, and one by toxic excess in the name of greed. We need to imagine God’s setting-right of a world gone wrong, and it isn’t hard to imagine that in order to unite the human race there must be divided from human community the counter-forces of racial hatred, violence, and greed.

But don’t give up on the pressing need to imagine a dénouement that frees people to find unity, rather than a judgment day that perpetuates division? How does Matthew’s vision of setting the world right help us 21st-century believers? There are three ways.

First, he reminds us that Jesus Christ is the basis for any setting-right that you and I are called to do. We hear that in all the titles of honor given him: Son of Man, Shepherd, Lord, King. And if we are to represent him faithfully in a world where people of other religions—and people of no religion—have different bases for the reconciling work they are called to do, we must remember and practice the basics: to treat others as we wish them to treat us, to be merciful peacemakers with pure hearts, and to act less as teachers and more as learners. All these are Jesus-traits that Matthew urges us to value and imitate, because Jesus Christ is the basis for the reconciling work we have to do.

Second, Matthew says something more astonishing than anything we have heard recently, and again I’ll let my Methodist commentator say it: In Matthew’s apocalyptic vision, God’s “criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ. Nothing is said of grace, justification, or the forgiveness of sins. What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people. Such deeds are not a matter of ‘extra credit,’ but constitute the decisive criterion of judgment… the ‘weightier matters of the Law.’” To say that Christ is King is to say that his ethics rule.

Third, Matthew makes his whole end-time vision depend on his deep belief that between first and second public appearances, Jesus Christ has never left us. The righteous have no idea that they have fed, welcomed, clothed, and visited him—but we must catch the point that he has been there all along, embedded in these least of our brothers and sisters, his brothers and sisters. Or is it more accurate to say that he is alive in the force-field of loving care between the righteous and the least; and he was there in the void between the self-absorbed and the least. One could even say, true to Matthew’s words, that Jesus Christ has been detained indefinitely among the poor and excluded, willingly and strategically imprisoned with the most vulnerable until the time comes for heaven to set things right on earth.

Isn’t it intriguing, this not-knowing, not-recognizing that shrouds Christ in anonymity? And this strange agnosticism is true equally for the righteous and for the self-absorbed and unresponsive. The first do not know what they have done, and the second have no clue what they have failed to do, until he comes again in public display, disclosing the hearts of all. And, until then, doesn’t that suggest the vocation of the Church, to hold him up so clearly that hearts do open?

We really must imagine what it will take to make right this world gone wrong. Here today, Matthew tells us. He seems to long for division of the human race, and this could cause us not to listen. But if we are to play our part and do what we can, what we must, to help people find their unity with one another and with God, we need Matthew’s wisdom.

And, in a nutshell, it is this: Jesus Christ is our basis for action. Action is required. Self-giving love is that action, and Jesus Christ is right there, in the giving and the receiving.

(M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew in volume 8 of “The New Interpreter’s Bible” was useful in the preparation of this sermon.)