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November 22, 2020
The Feast of Christ the King
I pray that…you may know…the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.
“I think we need to start with the all important ‘sink or swim’ rules. Rules which, if you get a single one of these wrong, you’re not just in trouble - you’re dead.” Thus spoke Ruth, Lady Fermoy, to her granddaughter, Lady Diana Spencer, when she took up residence in Buckingham Palace in advance of the announcement of her betrothal to the Prince of Wales in 1981 - or so the runaway hit series The Crown would tell us. Netflix - the producer of this historical drama - claim that 73 million households around the world have watched The Crown since it was first broadcast in 2016, and as a Brit living in the United States, it is certainly clear to me that there is no shortage of interest in the royal family on this side of the Atlantic.
If, however, you are not a viewer of this TV series, let me very briefly explain that the recently released fourth series traces British history from 1977 to 1990. In political terms this was, of course, the Thatcher era, and in terms of the royal family, it was the era of Princess Diana, and the unfolding of the tragic events around her marriage to Prince Charles. Alison and I have yet to watch all ten of the episodes, but it is plain to me that the affection in which the Queen is held by many has been dented by the depiction of the difficulties Diana faced as she married into ‘the firm’ (as Prince Philip has named the royal family), and tried to adapt to its unique and unyielding patterns of behavior. Behavior which includes the “all important ‘sink or swim’ rules”, as Diana’s grandmother (a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother) explains to her in the third episode - “Rules which, if you get a single one of these wrong, you’re not just in trouble - you’re dead.”
And thus Baroness Fermoy begins a lecture on rank and precedence, explaining in detail to which members of the royal family young Diana must curtsey, and in what order. Joining the royal family is challenging - and if you make a mistake, so Diana is told all too prophetically - “you’re dead”. Suddenly, for all the pomp and circumstance, for all the glamor and charm, suddenly we something rather frightening about the power and authority of the monarch, and suddenly we see something rather daunting about what it might mean to become a member of the royal family.
It feels rather a far cry from what the author of the letter to the Ephesians calls a ‘glorious inheritance’. It feels hard and unhappy, and depicts a ruthless side to royalty that becomes rather threatening - which perhaps is how we react to the king of whom we just heard in our gospel reading.
Some of you may know the silly word game about ‘my friend’ Tilly Williams. A young woman of apparently peculiar tastes who likes beef but dislikes chicken; who loves coffee but doesn’t care for tea. Who has no interest at all in the Chicago River, but who positively adores the Mississippi. Tilly Williams and her enthusiasms are a great way to teach young children which words contain double letters - but until you work out what’s going on, ‘my friend’ Tilly simply sounds capricious and arbitrary in the extreme!
Well, this morning Jesus tells us of a king who likes sheep and dislikes goats. A king whom, so we discover, has rules of a ‘sink or swim’ kind - rules that, as Princess Diana learned, if you get wrong, “you’re dead” - or - and perhaps this is even worse - you are consigned to eternal punishment in an eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
But, I hear you object, there’s nothing remotely arbitrary in the actions of this king. The rule is nice and clear: if you do ‘good works’ you go to heaven - and if you don’t, you go in the other direction. That’s a nice and simple ‘sink or swim’ rule - get it right and you get eternal life, and get it wrong, and, indeed, “You’re not just in trouble…” It sounds like the kind of rule you could demonstrate by asking for a simple show of hands. If these pews in front of me were full, I could ask who has helped out with our feeding ministries, and who contributed to our gala to raise funds for its work. And if I were to ask such a question, I know full well that a very decent number of hands would be raised in the air - and everyone that did so I could set at my right hand. And the rest - well, you get the left hand
treatment saved up for the goats.
But it’s more complicated than that, I’m afraid. And, in its way, this is one of the most challenging, if not chilling parts of the New Testament. Because to talk about a show of hands, it implies that the “Are you sheep or goats?” question can be resolved on the basis of your own self-knowledge. But that is not how it was described in the gospel: “Lord, when was it we saw you hungry…?” That question falls on everyone’s lips, irrespective of their actions. Generous or mean, welcoming or unwelcoming, tending the sick or ignoring them - it makes no difference. “Lord… when was it…??” Both the good guys and the bad guys are left scratching their heads.
All of which, to my mind, raises two major questions. One is about the nature of what it means to depart from the king, “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”, and the other is that ‘sink or swim’ topic that was first and foremost in Diana’s royal education - to whom do you need to curtesy? Conversations about the devil, of course, are complex. The subject came up in a discussion I was having about the book of Job with a learned rabbi. You may recall that Job’s appalling sufferings result from a wager between Satan and God, as a result of which, in rapid succession, Job learns of the death and destruction of his oxen and donkeys and some of his servants; his sheep, and some more servants; his camels, and yet more servants; and finally all his sons and daughters - but no servants this time. And - because this does not appear to break his sinless resolve - he is inflicted with ‘loathsome sores…from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”
Now, the figure of Satan we are presented with in Job is not the ‘devil’ figure spoken of by Jesus. He is a sort of evidence-gatherer and prosecuting counsel, but he certainly evokes a remarkably capricious response from God, who permits and even encourages the afflictions which befall poor Job, just to settle a bet. Just as the sheep and the goats both scratch their heads, wondering what caused their fate, so Job scratches his head for about forty chapters. And by the time the four centuries or so had elapsed between the setting down of this most extraordinary book of Hebrew scripture and the birth of Jesus, talk about Satan and/or the devil has developed - I won’t necessarily say ‘matured’ - to give us the fearsome figure referred to by Jesus in passages such as this. A figure whom my rabbinical friend told me he found very challenging.
Comparatively recently, so the rabbi reminded me, Pope John Paul II set out in a teaching document his clear commitment to the belief of a personal devil, and such a figure will most certainly be found emphatically on the lips of many evangelical Christians. But he - or she - does not figure in Jewish theology, which does not buy into the idea of a personalized devil who is the Joker or Penguin figure to God’s Batman. And on this point, my own beliefs - along, I suspect, with many Episcopalians and Anglicans - are much closer to the rabbi than the Pope! All of which raises that vital question about to whom one should - or should not - curtesy. Because different people have had different definitions of hell. One of the most famous atheists of the last century memorably asserted that, “Hell is other people”. That was the claim of Jean- Paul Sartre in his play No Exit, depicting three rather unpleasant people trapped for eternity in each other’s company. But it was a claim that was rather immediately picked up and refuted by another man of letters - one known for the strength of his Christian faith, and not the absence of it.
Thus it was that only a year or so after Sartre’s play, T.S. Eliot explored some similar themes in his own play, The Cocktail Party, and made the far more theologically satisfying assertion that “Hell is one’s self.” John Paul II might not have agreed with Eliot, but my rabbi friend would, I think, approve of his famous remark, for, in dismissing the idea of a personal devil, he told me that when Jewish theologians want to explain what the devil looks like, they simply counsel their hearers to go and look in the mirror. And if that is where you curtesy - then, as the lady said, “You’re not just in trouble…”
This famous speech of Jesus - for Matthew, the conclusion of Jesus’ entire rabbinic teaching - this passage makes a big and bold point… but it is a complex one. Because, of course, you and I - we are all part sheep and part goat. If you are anything like me - and, in this regard, I suspect that each and every one of you are like me - then you are a complex and often frustrating mix of ‘good’ and, shall we say, ‘could try harder’. There are times when I hope I do succeed in looking out for my fellow human beings, whether in my family, in my city, or across the world. But there are, I’m afraid, times when my own self-interest overtakes any other thought or desire that I have.
And that’s the challenge of dealing with the royal family and knowing to whom to curtesy. That’s the challenge of dealing with the real royal family - the one of which the king in Jesus’ great teaching speaks of, when he says to those at his right hand, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Because this royal family is not just royal - it is divine. That is what Incarnation is all about, and is why so many of the great figures we sometimes call the Church Fathers came out with statements such as ‘God became human so that we might become divine’. And Christ - our King, whose sovereignty we celebrate today - Christ is clear that even the very least are members of my family. And that has implications - big implications.
That’s why, in our Christian liturgical celebration of the membership of this family that is both royal and divine - that celebration we call baptism, we are made to promise to ‘seek and serve Christ in all persons’ and to ‘respect the dignity of every human being’. And it is in honoring all the members of Christ’s family (by which - let me be very clear indeed - I do not simply mean members of the Christian church) - it is by honoring all of humanity (and, indeed, all of creation) that we honor Christ our King. And, when we do so, we can aspire to hear those wonderful words of Jesus that tell us that we are “blessed by my Father” and called into the joy of eternal life.
But when our gaze is captivated only by what we see in the mirror, then it plays out so very differently. If our bow or our curtesy is only to the majesty we think we see in ourselves, then we play straight into the trap that T.S. Eliot identified - we start to discover that hell, truly, is one’s self. We don’t need Satan to trap us, for we are perfectly capable of doing so without any help from anyone else. And if you look properly at our gospel reading, you will note that the sheep are blessed by ‘My Father’… but the goats, whom we are told are ‘accursed’ - they are not condemned by God, by Satan or any other named figure. They’ve simply become too accustomed to curtseying to their own reflection.
Baroness Fermoy, that rather rigid grandmother of poor Diana, was more correct than she knew. For what we have heard Jesus remind us this morning - remind us in his last word before the Passion begins - is that the question about who you curtesy to is truly the ‘sink or swim’ rule. God is neither capricious nor arbitrary, and God is not out to condemn us. We are so very capable of being capricious and arbitrary ourselves, and instigating our own condemnation. But when we turn from the mirror, and allow our gaze to look outwards, when start to see the face of our King in even some of ‘the least of his sisters and brothers’, then we start to hear again the Father’s blessing and that invitation to eternal life. And then, with our heart enlightened, we may know the hope to which he has called us, and the ‘riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints’. For then we will properly have joined the royal family, and then we will know life, and not death. Amen.
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The Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
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The Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost