Homily for the 25th Sunday of Pentecost – Nov. 23,2014
CELEBRATING THE REIGN OF CHRIST
Every family needs a crazy uncle and my family is no exception. In my family we have two Uncle George’s — one is crazy and one isn’t. A long time ago, I went to a hockey with the crazy one, who was visiting us for a weekend, and at the game I felt obliged to point out a local phenomenon who worked as a caretaker at the stadium. I’m not sure I ever knew his real name, because everyone referred to him as “Hands.” This man had hands a gorilla would have been proud of – they were the size of baseball mitts. Somewhat lacking in impulse control, Uncle George immediately approached this man as if he were the Eighth Wonder of the World. George’s normal-sized hand disappeared into the other man’s hand as they shook hands. George, who was a farmer, continued to marvel, much as he might have admired a prize steer, grabbing the man’s fingers and shouting out exclamations of amazement, many of which were obscene. I’m not sure how this man felt about being seen as a local phenomenon, but since it may have been his only claim to fame, I didn’t worry about it.
The Bible suggests that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made.” Odd as my uncle is, I don’t think he was all that crazy for marvelling at this wonder of creation with the exaggerated hands.
I think it was a line in last week’s Psalm that led me to think about hands this week. The line, from Psalm 123 says, “As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress . . .” Or it could have been a line from our last hymn last Sunday: “shall hearts fail, or hands hang down? Not so! In God’s deep counsel, some better thing is stored . . .”
I was reminded of the multitude of ways in which our hands convey the meaning of our minds and hearts – and our faith, if this week’s Gospel is any indication. I was reminded that everyone is given a pair of hands, and they are marvellous things, but that simply having hands doesn’t amount to much – obviously, it’s what you do with them that matters. “Hands,” the man with the huge hands, always just seemed to be standing there with his hands hanging by his sides.
To watch a great pianist or violinist or harpist at work is to be in awe and wonder about how amazingly we are put together and how incredibly capable we are. To see a surgeon’s precision and steadiness, or to be aware of (and grateful for) your dentist’s dexterity and gentleness is something we can celebrate on a very personal level.
We often look to people’s hands to convey to us what they’re about, and hands are amazingly communicative. There is a huge number of expressions about hands: Lend a hand, give us a hand, give him a hand (applause), hand-off, handout, hands off (meaning don’t touch), hands on (meaning being directly involved or being helpful). We speak of an even-handed approach for someone who is fair, and we speak of being in good hands about someone we trust, whereas someone who is underhanded is a person who can’t be trusted.
We all know at least something of the unspoken but powerful language of hands. Everyone knows the hand sign for OK … for peace … for love, etc.
Thumbs up is a sign of approval; thumbs down, a sign from the ancient world, means condemnation or even death. An index finger raised can mean “We’re Number One;” two fingers crossed can mean we are hoping for the best, or that we’re being deceitful; a middle finger raised is considered a severe insult; two fingers of one hand separated from the other two fingers is an indication that we watch way too much television.
For deaf people, hands can be their ears and their voice — for blind people hands become their eyes, thanks to the virtue of Braille and the perceptiveness of human touch.
To see hundreds of hands raised in a gesture of praise and thanksgiving is a powerful experience – hundreds of hands joined with others in protest against injustice can be an inspiring thing too.
Ever since the ritual “laying on of hands” that made me a priest, hands have been a huge aspect of my life. I was taught that my hands were instruments of blessing – that only a priest can lift his (her) hand in blessing in church on behalf of God; I was taught that my hands were instruments of healing and care; and I was taught that opening my hands toward God in prayer was going to be a critical aspect of being a priest to God’s people.
Certain gestures we make require corresponding gestures. Two people holding hands remains one of the most moving gestures we see. This correspondence appears in waving and waving in return, or giving a high five. The act of shaking hands is quite meaningless without another person’s hand to recognize an agreement being made or a greeting given.
Otherwise any of these gestures is kind of like the sound of one hand clapping.
When a priest or bishop makes the sign of the Cross in blessing, the corresponding gesture is for the people to make the sign of the Cross upon themselves, which at the very least signifies, “message given, message received.”
Every Sunday, every time I celebrate the Eucharist, as I administer the host, I encounter another gesture that is of a corresponding nature – I give Communion and people receive it. Of course, it is meant to symbolize God’s very self being given to us, and our corresponding attitude of openness and willingness to receive the life and spirit and character of Christ.
I am always hugely moved by the huge variety, but also the unity, being expressed in all those hands held out – I am very conscious of the many reasons why those hands are being presented, and the faith, the need, the hope, being expressed.
Part of my vocation is to encourage the people of God to keep their hands open, to help them see that their openness at the Communion rail is meant to be a symbol of a kind of openness to life – to the cries of the poor, to the needs of others, to the presence of God in the world – to encourage people to see that the Eucharist is not just a matter of coming to be fed but of going out and feeding others with the bread of life.
Our hands and the way they express what we are about certainly comes into focus when we are thinking about our personal stewardship. Martin Luther famously said, “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.” We receive in order to give, and we give in order to bring the blessing of Christ to others. Jesus advises people to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, to believe that extending our hands to others is a direct link to the kingdom – to eternal life – sometimes expressed in the simplest and most unconscious of gestures.
Today’s Gospel is a powerful one. According to Matthew, Jesus says: “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.”
The Gospel today is a powerful proclamation that Christianity is not just theoretical – not just something we get together on Sunday to think about. It is lived out in all the concrete, everyday ways that we interact with others, especially in regard to people from whom there is no hope of reward – those whom society pushes to the margins. It’s not just about doing the right thing; it’s about doing the right thing for the right reasons. It is the difference between being righteous, and being merely self-righteous
We are to let our hearts and our hands lead us, because such an orientation is counter-intuitive – on one level, it doesn’t make sense. And God isn’t going to take you by the hand and transport you to where you are supposed to be. The Gospel is a warning that Christ is not necessarily where we assume him to be, and suggests that people often make wrong assumptions.
In this case it’s saying that typically we want to be around those whose hands are full – the talented, the rich, the strong, the morally upright. But Jesus also pushes us toward those whose hands are empty – the poor, those in prison, the sick – those who we tend to think have nothing to give us.
The Gospel is not suggesting a formula – it is not promising a surefire way to be with Christ. It’s not saying that Christ is guaranteed to be found here or there, because people automatically will rush off and start visiting prisons or feeding the poor simply because they want to be on that cutting edge, rather than really doing the right thing, and then it’s really about themselves, not the people they’re serving. The point is you never know where Christ will be, so act as if Christ is present in every and any situation and do not be dismissive or disrespectful of anyone.
The righteous don’t need the promise of a reward or notice or favour to be out there in the world. The unrighteous – the ones who got it wrong – apparently did, so they operated from wrong motives. The ones who are condemned plead that if they knew that the Lord was going to present among the poor, the prisoners, etc. they would have been there – that is, if they knew there was some reward in it for themselves they would have made sure they were front and centre, whereas the ones who are blessed simply acted out of care and concern with no regard to being rewarded or noticed or anything else.
Matthew’s Gospel creates a sharp contrast between the Pharisee-types who like to assume prominent positions, who act out their faith in hopes of being noticed and favoured – and those who carry out their spiritual practices discretely, anonymously. In this chapter, Matthew shows us that the ultimate rewards of the two approaches are drastically different.
Christianity is not primarily about getting; it is about giving, and that applies to every aspect of Christian life. When people complain that worship is dull or life in the parish unengaging, I want to say that depends to a very great extent on them. If they come with a passive and selfish attitude that says “Feed me, entertain me, serve me . . .” the church will inevitably fail because any organism can only hold up so many parasites at a time. When we look instead at what we are bringing or offering in terms of attitude and intention – what gifts we are putting into the mix — we are getting on to the right track.
Today’s Gospel may look harsh and impossible because our society has turned our assumptions and expectations about life upside down, by teaching us that it’s all about what we can grab, whereas the Gospel is pointing us in a very different direction, where it’s more about serving than being served.
This Sunday points us toward our true Sovereign, and urges us to ask ourselves: What does it mean for Christ to reign in my life?
Saint Teresa of Avila had a famous prayer suggesting that we are to see ourselves as the embodied presence of Christ on earth – that we are now Christ’s hands and Christ’s feet.
A few years ago, a song called Safety Dance suggested everyone should look at their hands, and that’s a very good thing to do now and then – just a simple meditation about what our hands can do; what they were made for; whether we are using them to help others and glorify God, or to grab and grasp and cling to power and security. Think about your hands – what they could be doing. How can these hands – my hands – be the hands of Christ? For the Church to thrive in our time, it is a case of “all hands on deck.”
In your hands, at any given moment, you have the ability build up or tear down, to include or condemn; to support or oppress; to hit or to hold; to comfort or coerce. Today’s Gospel reminds us how important it is to make the right choices, to extend our hands toward others in blessing, and in all things to picture ourselves and everyone else in the hands of our Maker.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: 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. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
Ephesians 1:15-23 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Matthew 25:31-46 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘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 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘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.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”