“To Be a Blessing”
Christ the King Sunday — Nov. 23, 2014
St. Matthew’s Parish (Pacific Palisades, CA)
George H. Martin
As many of you know this my last sermon as your interim rector. Having preached six other last sermons in six other interims you’d think I’d be pretty good at this, but not so. It has gotten a lot harder. I know I’m leaving while they’re is still another part of the interim to do. Please know that I have no doubt that the leadership here is fully capable of carrying on of the during the last part of this interim time. You will be well served with the experienced hands of Michael Seiler who becomes your acting rector. A part of me really wants to stay; the other part tells me to be a husband, dad, and grandpa and yes to shovel some snow.
I’ve loved being with you. My regret in leaving now is countered knowing that “in between time”—the time that remains— even the next short period for St. Matthew’s can be full of blessings and possibilities. Let me begin by telling you a story of a church that entered an interim time that actually blessed all of us.
It’s what happened at old North Church in Boston in the year 1775. You have probably heard these lines.
Listen my children and you shall hear
The midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the 18th of April in 75
Hardly a man is alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
Thus began Longfellow’s poem. There’s another story you may not know about that night. The first Rector of old North Church was Timothy Cutler—rector for over 40 years. He had come from the Congregational church and converted to Anglicanism. As he reached the end of his ministry the church had an associate but no one liked him or wanted him to be the Rector. So they went searching for another Congregational pastor who would convert, and they found him in The Reverend Mather Byles. Upon his arrival around 1773 he immediately started to complain about his pay. Members of the parish were dismayed that he owned slaves.
Byles was there to preach on Easterday, April 16, 1775, and then came the annual meeting—always held on the day after Easter. The congregation had heard that he had had an offer to take a job at St. John’s Church in Portsmouth and they told him to take it. I think it was assumed that he might have had sympathies with the British as well. The wardens got the keys to the church back. They were then starting an interim time looking for the next rector.
The next night, April the 18th, one of the wardens and the sexton used the keys of the church to open the belfry tower from which they hung out not one but two lanterns. “ …and the rest of the story you know if you read your history books. How the British fired and fled and the farmers met them ball for ball.”
Conclusion: For wont of an interim there may not have been a Revolution.
St. Matthews parish is going to be just fine. Your vestry is in the process of interviewing some amazing candidates. My confidence in our vestry comes from words that we heard from Ephesians this morning. I’m going to twist those words just a bit as I pray that our vestry “will have a spirit of wisdom” as you as a parish discover with the leadership of your new rector “the hope to which God has called you.”
Those of you who know me understand that I hardly ever make idle quotes from a letter of Paul. As I leave you I am sincere about my intention to write a book making St. Paul’s letters more accessible and understandable. I also want to retrieve him from a misreading that is taken place at least for 500 years. For way too long the assumption is that Paul was explaining how we get to heaven through Jesus. In the crudest sense it’s almost as if our job is to get out of this world, or at least get through it in such a way that we have an insurance policy that gets us into heaven. The problem is that for way too long people have looked at the letters of Paul as if they were about theology, when in reality the focus was on a story of God in Christ—yes what God had done—but, the real emphasis was how it was meant to impact humanity—how we are called to live with one another, and how we are to see the world in which we are living as the world being restored through Christ. It’s not that the ethics of Paul trumped his theology. But the focus is on a faith to be lived out in relationship to one another and as a witness to the world proclaiming this is how humanity is supposed to look.
It’s clearly there as well in our last reading for this liturgical year of reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew wasn’t a gospel written to convert people to become Christians. Those in Matthew’s community already knew the Jesus story. Thus in so many of the stories contained in this gospel the emphasis was on developing habits of life, a vision of common humanity, and refusing to adopt any presumptions of superiority in relationship to anyone else—with the intention to embrace and live out a life that showed the presence and love of God as they had seen in Jesus.
So today we have the parable in Matthew 25 that concludes a long teaching section in Matthew’s Gospel that began with the Sermon on the Mount starting in chapter 5 when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” And on to seeing that “…you’re blest when you’re persecuted on his account.”
Then comes the misnamed parable, “The Judgment of the Nations.” I say it’s misnamed because using the word judgment places the focus on some last final event. Somewhere today some preacher, maybe many, will try to use this parable to scare people away from hell into heaven. You won’t get that message from this preacher.
I think there’s a deeper mystery at work inside this parable. Here we can discover a marvelous invitation for us to have a kind of community and a common life that speaks of the generosity and love of God as we really have seen it in Jesus crucified risen from the dead.
Consider the way it begins with the vision of the kingdom of God. It begins with these words “Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you get 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.”
And it begins with an invitation to those who are blessed by God.
As a little aside for a moment. Some of you may have noticed that many times I sign off a short note or an email with the words “Blessings, George.” Why?
I use that word because it’s very profound in our common life with one another inside the Jesus story. Yes we bless our food—blessing in the sense of thankfulness— then we are giving thanks for one another and, finally, and hopefully always being mindful of the needs of others. I like what the scholar N.T. Wright says: “Blessedness,” however, is what happens when the creator God is at work both in someone’s life and through that person’s life.” Blessedness also relates us to the entire covenant story of God beginning with creation. In turn it is a word inviting us to continue to recreate the world, but by being blessings to all everyday.
Thus the power in that line that opens the parable “Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation world.”
And then notice that they weren’t trying to manipulate God, they were not trying to obtain credits to get into heaven; they weren’t playing some religious game; and they didn’t even know in any conscious way of this inheritance of God’s kingdom. But they had met those human needs. They had habits of life not born out of a competitive, “I win you lose world.” They had habits of life not borne a world of boasting or emphasizing my worth in comparison with somebody else’s.
And notice that they were not being praised for doing some stupendous, noteworthy inventions or solutions to massive problems. These were little ministries rewarded. There were ministries that met three basic human needs: food, shelter, freedom.
So how will we ever meet Christ? This strange, way too relevant parable, tells us we will meet Christ in someone who is hungry or thirsty. We will meet Christ in someone who is a stranger. And we will meet Christ in someone, who for whatever reasons of sickness or of something they did wrong has caused them to lose their freedom.
You and I might choose to go on a mission trip 1000 miles away to find Christ. But we don’t need to. If you and I are asking “Where is Christ?” we don’t have to look very far. Christ is in our world — daily, sometimes living right across the street, sometimes in our own homes. Even at a corner waiting for a light to turn. At least we ask must always ask this troubling question: “Is that the Christ?”
And yes this world seems to be as dangerous as ever. The violence rooted in ethnic conflict leaps out at us on a daily basis. But please remember this: it was the world in which Jesus lived when he told this parable. We haven’t changed much except, except some of us choose to follow Jesus as King. Some of us want a church community just like Jesus described it to reflect God’s kingdom. And what will it look like? It will be a people who are gentle with one another. It will involve a kind of suffering patient love. It will involve forgiveness. And it will involve the admission of failure.
So it is that we are called to inherit the kingdom of God, knowing that we are inside a world of blessings. As we are blessing one another, we are forgiving one another. As we are blessing one another is means we are serving one another. As we are blessing one another, we see Christ in one another.
In conclusion we cannot dodge the nagging questions about the presence of Christ knowing that in the words of this parable: ‘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.’
I’ve seen that this message is grounded in the life of this parish. People of privilege and promise may come here, but again and again in this congregation we are called to seek ways to minister to “the least of those who are members of God’s family.” May this ministry continue to be a blessing to those most in need, and in a profound way to bring all of us to our knees seeking an answer to this question: “How can I more truly pray? ‘…thy kingdom come on earth as it is heaven.’” If’s to be on earth, we are God’s hands and feet. And meant to be that blessing.”
I thank you for the privilege I’ve had sharing the gospel with you this past year and half. Thank you for your love, your support, and for the way we’ve worked together to prepare this congregation for the next chapter of ministry in the name of Jesus.