Sermon For Christ the King, 2014. Year A
It is undoubtedly a good thing that the most fundamental acts of our humanness are almost always entirely unconscious. Since we woke this morning. Each one of us will have breathed somewhere in the region of 3,500/7,000 times, and until I mentioned it, hardly any of us will have given our breathing a moments thought. That and our heart beat, another fact of our embodiedness which pretty much we rarely experience or give thought to, are those things which are at root ‘how we live’. The stopping of the heart often signifies the end of our lives, our last breath is just that. The unconscious actually delineates our lives.
As natural as breathing. Natural. Unconscious. Indeed the neuro scientists tell us this. There is perhaps no such thing as a conscious act, only a consciousness of acting. We become conscious in the act after it has begun.
And we know this in our everyday existence. We are hungry, we go make ourselves something to eat. We are cold, we throw another log on the fire; we are thirsty, we put on the kettle; we feel as if the walls are closing in, we get out for a walk. Without thinking.
Just the other day I was taking time out to try and write up a paper for a conference – when some of that became less than straightforward. Firstly, I noted that I hadn’t taken as much food as usual on my break – I was hungry. I was having to eke the food out. Eating and Food became suddenly a more conscious part of my existence, these things mattered ore than usual, indeed they mattered. Then, thinking to take a shower, I fell foul of a shower that hadn’t been used for a long time and had limed up. As a result, having switched it on, I couldn’t switch it off and it was draining a neighbour’s water supply. So I resorted to switching it on briefly at the outdoor main, filling a bucket. And using that for all necessities – including drink. Again, I was more conscious of that part of my existence – these things began to matter – for me. I woke up to the reality of my existence. It is sobering to note how ‘life’ slips us by
I haven’t any scientifically verifiable evidence to prove this, but I suspect that it is the truth, that we say Grace over fewer meals I sense that this is the case, I may be gloriously wrong, but I don’t think so.
One of the oddities of abundance is that Gratitude disappears. We live unconsciously. When food on the table becomes something utterly unremarkable. How often do we give thanks for our breath or the beating of our hearts? How often for food, drink, warmth, freedom . . . except of course when we are made aware of our lack of them.
There is a rather strange phrase which, on those occasions we give thanks, is often used to modify the prayer – one which I am not sure I am comfortable with. ‘and make us mindful of the needs of others’. Well I suppose that it is a start, but using the discomfort of the other as the occasion of our own gratitude, at the very least is perhaps a signifier of how isolated and separate our existences have become. We are awoken to those who do not have food, or drink or are cold, or those who are imprisoned by their lives . . . and we give thanks that we are not . . . we don’t go out into the highways and byways and bring them in . . .
And I think that perhaps we say The Lord’s Prayer less than we once did. Spending time preparing candidates for Baptism and Confirmation, I am always reminded of the centrality of Prayer. When Jesus’ disciples ask him ‘Lord, teach us how to pray’ his answer wouldn’t exactly fill my one hour session on ‘The Life of Prayer’; ‘when you pray say ‘Father, hallowed be your name. ‘Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’’ What?? Perhaps some in depth teaching on meditation? Or Intercession? What about praying for others?? Is that it?? There is nothing grandiose or large about our asking. It is just for that which we need – bread and foregiveness, the stuff of Life. It is little, and it is everything. We miss the little, we miss everything
It says much we don’t say Grace every time we eat. It says perhaps more that we perhaps only infrequently use The Lord’s Prayer when we pray alone. Again as I think about preparing people for Baptism, I think of this prayer. In the early days of the church, preparation for Baptism took up to three years. And the Lord’s prayer was one of the last things taught . . . strange that. Why leave it to last? Well I guess because it was such a staggering prayer. How staggering to pray ‘Our Father’ One becomes a child of God through Baptism. it was as if just before the baptism, you were let in on the biggest hidden thing, that through Baptism you became a child of God, one of His.
Or perhaps it was because of the politically dangerous nature of the prayer. Hallowed be Your name – no other kings. Or perhaps, that it was so demanding . . . forgive us as we forgive. Give us your breath as the breath of life flows from us – Give us this day our daily bread.
Often super spiritual types ciriticise prayers that we say without noticing, but I wonder? Perhaps they have a point. Do we linger as we pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ – or do we just let the words roll through us.
Of course we must note that in a sense this is a prayer we cannot pray apart from others. We do not pray,‘give me mine’, rather ‘give us our’ In that petition we recognise that this is all about US, not about Me. That we are praying for bread for all God’s people . . . whether we recognise it or not. Do we hear what we pray?
This parable of the End has an element of uncosciousness writ large about it. Neither the sheep nor the goats recognise Christ in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the prisoner. It would be a poor hearing of the text which suggested to us that we might ‘see Christ in one another’, indeed I am not at all sure that that is what in the background. Rather there is an unconsciousness to all of it. If the point were to see Christ in the neighbour and thus act – the point of the teaching would be missed.
Those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner have no awareness, they are not living out some moral code. They’re NOT walking round thinking ‘I see Christ in everyone I meet’. Just as those who do not do these things are not consciously ignoring Him.
One of the metaphors Jesus often uses of those who are his is Child. As I have said several times of late, it is a powerful and significant metaphor. There is something of the entirely natural about a child. A young child does not respond in life as a set of moral codes – rather to use the words of GM Hopkins, ‘What I do is me!’ Their lives are as natural as breathing.
Early memories are funny things and of course notoriously unreliable, but one very early memory I have is of being at ‘kindy’. It was perhaps my first day. I seem to remember it was run by nuns, but those who might enlighten me in that regard are now long gone. I seem to remember being upset – and I remember another child giving me a piece of his chocolate . . . I also remember that peculiar combination of apple and chocolate – but I remember him sharing. It was Grace. Pure gift. Nothing I suggest self conscious – I don’t remember the shadow of a nun telling him to share. I just remember the Gift. i look forward to meeting that boy again one day.
I don’t know how many times we’ve been told to see Christ in the hungry etc. and no doubt many will hear that today, and to any avail?? Others will be called to ‘challenge the unjust structures of society’ that there may be no hungry. The words of Jesus come back to me, unless you become like a little child, you will by no means inherit the Kingdom of God. Are children going to ‘challenge the unjust structures of society’? I wonder why we did not have the boldness to make that mark of mission the words of the prophet Isaiah – ‘to share bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin’?
Nothing less than the radical transformation of our hearts will effect this unconscious response to the need of others. For it is out of the overflow of our hearts, for good or ill come, and no moral exhortation to ‘see the face of Christ the King’ in all will change that.
Of course within the covenant community of God’s people, it was unthinkable – Had not God said, ‘there shall be no poor amongst you’? Surely it is unthinkable that in the midst of so much excess, there should be scarcity?
If they do not hear the word to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’??? Our self love, our self care is unconscious. Transforming society happens not primarily at the structural level, but deep down within our hearts – transformed that we see our kin, whom we feed and clothe and share with them the little we have.
How easy it is to wish the hungry well, to pray to remember them as we eat and to ‘seek to transform the unjust structures of society’, but the eye of kinship, the simple eye of the child, sees only their kin and acts simply. I’m not sure that if we saw the hungry as our kin we would be able to pray ‘keep us mindful of the needs of others’, or having prayed that to eat.
By all means let us seek justice, but let us not tell the hungry and the naked to just wait for the day when it is all sorted out. The church has been playing this game since the dawn of Christendom and indeed often before. Paul berates the church in Corinth for the rich feed well and ignore the needs of the hungry. Then down through the ages,the game of telling the poor and the hungry to wait for heaven – if the hunger of my kin took precedence then perhaps the wider society would take notice. If God’s people identified with one another.
At the heart of this tale of the end of the ages is a radical Identification. The child of God sees their kin. The Son of Man, Christ the King, radically identifies himself with his people that that which is done to them, he takes as done to him. This is the model of Kingship whi He alone embodies, He spends himself for his people, pouring out his life for them. Identifying with them in their plight as those who are lost ‘insofar as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me’ God in covenant Love takes hold of a people and identifies himself with them, and takes their fate upon himself. This perhaps is the greatest wonder of all. He sees himself in his people. It is a staggering thought. They are his Life. We participate in this Life when we similarly identify ourselves with our kin. And this is the childlike faith, the basics of our life together, like breathing
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As 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. 13I 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. 14I 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. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I 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.
All Christ’s sheep will be fed. It is as natural as breathing. It will be so