Sometimes it really is for the birds.
Swallows and sparrows are on the side of nurture,
making their nests by the side of God's altars.
And maybe, as our prayer book suggests, teaching begins with nurture:
nourishing God's people from the riches of God's grace.
26 November 2017 | Matthew 25:31-46
Lauren Flowers Byrd+
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.
Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, and do so by coming to the Supper of the Lamb: the Eucharist. By another name, Holy Communion. Our gospel, though, commends instead a kind of holy separation. In the words of Jesus, the day will come when he’ll separate [us] one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
These words give us a communal picture worth remembering. And here I don't mean Jesus is employing the language of photography, lining us up for a holiday group shot. No, he clearly invokes the language of separation and judgment, lining us up for a final sentence said over the way we live. While we can take those words to mean we’re the sheep among the goats, Jesus leaves open the possibility that we might also be goats among the sheep. You never know. And between those two distinct possibilities, I’m guessing most of us imagine we’re a little of both, good enough goats in the end to pass for sheep.
What strikes me, though, isn't the stark separation Jesus draws among us today, but the way he suddenly changes his perspective. If you’ll notice, in today's reading he begins as the king in glory set apart from us as judge from on high. But he ends as the suffering servant: hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, heartsick, imprisoned.
I was a stranger, he says, and you did not welcome me. Meaning, I was that stranger, the one you ignored, the one whose hunger did not move you at all. These are hard words to hear in the wake of Thanksgiving. We did our best to judge between one turkey and another, and Jesus has to go and spoil it for us by naming the many who live outside the practice of our feasting.
I have a friend named June who called last week to say she was dreading the holidays. She’s a widow, has been for well over twenty years. For her, holidays are days of acute separation, days of longing for when no chair at her table was ever empty. June lives alone and lost her husband when their two boys were still in grade school. It took her years before she could look through her family photographs.
In a recent phone call, she told me, Whenever I look at those pictures, I notice what’s missing. I see the years just after Jim died when I never took a picture at all. It’s like, for a while, not only Jim went missing, but we did too. And then one day there we were, back in the album, going to ballgames and having holidays without him.
She went on to say, What’s interesting is how even in the pictures from our early years together, back when he was still living, there’s hardly a single picture of Jim and me together. When I first noticed this, it made me sad, as if there was no record of our how much we’d loved each other. But then I realized how I hardly made an appearance in any of the photographs. I had pictures of Jim holding our babies, but very few of me. And I know I held them.
It’s because I took the pictures, she said. I was the one who saw the love that needed to be remembered. That’s our job: seeing the love that needs to be remembered. And you know what? I’m thinking next year I’ll invite somebody who lives alone to come sit in Jim’s chair. I’m thinking maybe our job is also being the love that needs to be remembered.
Generally speaking, there are at least two perspectives in every photograph you take. There’s the life in the picture, say a family you love lining up for the group shot looking back at you. And then there’s you, the one who stands outside the picture and snaps the photo.
Today when Jesus gives us a picture of sheep among goats that’ll one day be separated, one from the other, he’s telling us he’ll remember the way we love. Or don’t. But here’s the thing: it’s not where he ends up, is it? Somehow, as he moves toward the cross of his sacrificial love, he finds a way to land inside the picture, a way to land right next to you. And it’s not like he’s taking a selfie or photoshopping himself into your life.
No, it’s like he really was one of us all along. And still is. Like you can know him whenever we come together. Like he is hidden away in his given away life whenever you meet the stranger, or whenever you love like he loves, whenever you (in the words of Compline) tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, and shield the joyous, much as you can. And Jesus is telling you, You can.
Our Lord invites us every Sunday to the Supper of the Lamb. It’s our job to answer that invitation, remembering his precious death, mighty resurrection, and glorious ascension. Holy Communion is how we remember the love of Jesus. Holy Communion is also how we become the love of Christ sent out to do his will.
The God we imagine so far away from us, set apart on his glory throne, through Christ is always staring us in the face, standing right next to us, inseparable, one of us. In the end it’s not what God will do to us that matters so much as what we do to other people and to each other.
Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb. Blessed are you.