The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary, 43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, Maine 04105 / 207-781-3366

A Kingdom of Priests

  • November 22, 2020
  • 9:30 AM

Sermon for 22 September 2020 (Christ the King A)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Revelation 1.1-8; Psalm 95.1-7; Matthew 25.31-40

Title:               A Kingdom of Priests

“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1.5-6).

What kinds of people has the Lord made us to be? What does it mean for us to be a kingdom of priests serving God?

You know, there are so many times in the Gospels when Jesus speaks, and the meaning of his words is not very clear. Thankfully, here at the end, things get quite clear indeed. We stand here today at the end of this Church Year, and in Matthew’s Gospel, this teaching is the very end of the Lord’s public ministry, immediately before his betrayal.

So it contains a bit more urgency, perhaps, as if the Lord is saying, “Look, I’m leaving you soon. So listen carefully and pay attention, because you need to know this!”

It is not difficult to understand the Lord’s meaning in this great parable of the sheep and the goats. Simple, the message may be, but that does not make it easy.

Have you heard of the term compassion fatigue? It can be used to speak of the exhaustion of caregivers when they become deeply involved in the pain of those for whom they care. But there is also another definition. Compassion fatigue is also what happens to ordinary people like us when social problems are large and complex and, frankly, overwhelming.

How do we feed the many millions who are facing food insecurity today? How do we protect the poor and vulnerable from infection and disease? How do we mourn the death of the 260,000 Americans who have already died from COVID-19?

With compassion fatigue, the desperate needs of individuals become lost in a parade of numbers, facts and statistics. We’ve all seen how this works.

People do not really care about something like ALS until a person close to them is affected. In more immediate terms, I’ve seen dozens of interviews now with people infected by COVID-19 who all said something along the lines of “I’m telling you, this is no joke!” The clear implication is that they did NOT take it very seriously before they themselves, or someone close to them, were infected.

Jesus speaks of visiting those in prison, so let’s apply this to the current conditions of those in our prisons. What we all know with clarity by now is that people who are together indoors for long periods of time, in close proximity with each other, in old buildings with poor ventilation, are much more likely to contract, and to spread, this novel coronavirus. And that is exactly the plight of those in prison.

Is anyone surprised then that among prisoners in state and federal prisons, the rate of infection is four times higher than the rest of the nation, and the mortality rate is more than twice as high?

There are nearly two million Americans being held behind bars today across our nation. And all of them are likely to seem like a blur, like an unfortunate but unreal group of people about whom it is difficult to care all too much – unless ONE of those two million is your daughter or son or your father or aunt or uncle. In that case, you are likely to care a whole lot more about the danger threatening your loved one.

It is easy for some to say that those in prison are getting what they deserve, especially if you do not know one of those prisoners by name.

But this is NOT easy to say this if you are a follower of Jesus, because in that case you DO know one of these prisoners by name. His name is Jesus. And the danger to which this prisoner is exposed, the conditions in which this prisoner is held – well, that is a very real concern to every Christian person.

(https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/21/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-prisons-jails.html, see also Coronavirus | The Marshall Project)

For the record, I am quite cynical about the effort to define any particular nation as a “Christian” one or not. I just do not find this to be a helpful exercise for any person who is actually serious about living as a disciple of Jesus.

BUT if we did ever want to attempt this kind of evaluation, then today’s Gospel would be the place to start!

According to Jesus, what is a Christian nation? It is a nation where the hungry are fed, the thirsty are sated, the strangers are welcomed, the naked are clothed, the sick are cared for, and prisoners are visited. Now THAT would be a Christian nation!

It is an unfortunate reality that SO many of us spend SO much time, and expend SO much energy, talking and thinking and speaking about who is the GREATEST among us.

Just consider the seemingly endless fascination with the royal family! And with the rich and famous all around the world. Or consider how many people hang on every word that comes out of the mouth of our President, or on every tweet that shoots out from his phone!

What if the people of Christ did things differently? What would happen if ALL of us would spend a great deal of our time and much of our energy, talking and thinking and speaking about who is the LEAST among us.

As for the leaders and those who happen to be in charge, those who happen to wield earthly power, in the eyes of Christ, those ones are not worth of our time or energy.

But the poor, the prisoners, the sick, the homeless, the hungry – THESE are the ones worthy of our time and attention! These are the ones who deserve to be the focus of our media attention.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this parable is the response of both the sheep and the goats to the judgment that is spoken over them.

Did you notice how both groups respond to the Lord’s judgment in the same way? Both are surprised and seem to have a complete lack of self-awareness. Both the sheep and the goats say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?” (Matt 25.44).

Both the sheep and goats are unaware that they have done anything out of the ordinary, because, in fact, they have not. They have NOT done anything unusual at all!

Do you see it? Both groups have done what is entirely appropriate to their nature. There is no sense that the sheep, the righteous ones, struggled hard, with determination and perseverance to care for the poor and to visit the prisoners. There is no suggestion that they made a heroic sacrifice to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

Not at all! They simply did what was normal and natural. And for them, for the sheep, it was normal and natural to act with compassion toward those in need. It seems that the sheep are not affected by compassion fatigue.

This last Sunday before Advent begins is called Christ the King Sunday, but that is an odd name. Perhaps we ought to call this Christ the Omega Sunday. As in Christ the finish line, the goal of all creation.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come (Revelation 1.7).

There was a great Jesuit priest and scholar in the twentieth century who was both a theologian and a paleontologist. His name was Teilhard de Chardin and he was quite brilliant. In his mind, these words from the Revelation to John became the key that explained the goal toward which all biological life is moving, the destiny toward which God is pulling all of humanity.

Teilhard de Chardin taught that Christ is the Omega point, the fulfillment of humanity, the joining together of earth and heaven, of natural and divine into one.

In Christ, we see the point behind all the processes at work in the universe, and we see God’s original intention for human beings.

And what does that Omega point look like? It looks like humans who have been so transformed by grace that they naturally and normally act with compassion in every circumstance of life.

What kind of people has the Lord made us to be? What does it mean for us to be a kingdom of priests serving God?

It means that we are people who live and act as Christ did in this world. And the good news is that God is in fact slowly and wonderfully changing us, if we choose to be so changed, into living embodiments of the way of Jesus. A kingdom of priests serving the living God!

I want to conclude with a remarkable prayer from the Prayer Book about prisons and those who live and work within them. If you have a Prayer Book, it is found on page 826.

Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy’s sake. Amen.

(The Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 826).

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43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, Maine 04105 / 207-781-3366