St. Philip Lutheran Church
22 November 2020 + Christ the King
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
Think about the names of churches for a moment – particularly those with names related to Jesus. Immanuel. Lord of Love. Resurrection. Redeemer. Cross of Life. Or perhaps most appropriately for today, Christ the King.
What do you notice? They’re all positive images. I can’t say I’ve ever seen Crucifixion Lutheran Church or Betrayal United Methodist Church or Cleansing the Temple Presbyterian Church.
Those are all important parts of the story, but they’re not the ones we like to dwell on. Growing up, I remember the processional cross at my home congregation that always stood near the lectern – bearing a resurrected Christ. Contrast that with the images of a dying Jesus on the cross, and you can imagine why we like to focus on the positive, feel-good moments.
So it might be surprising then to hear a gospel text like this one used for Christ the King Sunday. The image of a hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned Jesus isn’t exactly the kind of king most of us would expect or imagine.
Instead, today reverses our expectations. The Christ we get is not the Christ we expect but is perhaps just the Christ we need.
American writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”
The same could be said of Jesus’s parables. A parable is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way. Jesus tells stories because a statement would be boring at best and inadequate at worst.
Jesus could’ve easily replaced this week’s parable with a series of statements: Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Care for the sick. Visit the imprisoned and the lonely.
But we have only to look back at the Ten Commandments and the history of God’s people to see how well we do with direct statements. And how many of us like being told what to do?
But a good story? Well, that’s a different…story. People are much more compelled by a good story. It’s in part why a postcard or a Facebook post inviting (telling) someone to come to church rarely works. But tell them a story or give them a compelling reason…that’s different. “Do you know what we did at VBS today?!” “I can’t wait to tell you about this amazing activity we did at GLOW last week…”
Stories are compelling. Or as my high school English teacher would say: Show, don’t tell. It’s much more interesting that way.
In one of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, “Revelation,” we meet Mrs. Ruby Turpin, who has brought her husband in for a doctor’s appointment. Immediately upon entering the waiting room, Mrs. Turpin “sizes up” the place – and all the people in it. It quickly becomes apparent that Mrs. Turpin is incredibly judgmental and critical – not to mention racist.
When there’s only one seat available, she graciously insists her husband, who has a leg ulcer, take it – while vocally drawing attention to the fact that she remains standing. As the waiting room scene unfolds, we learn through her own inner – and outer – dialogue that Mrs. Turpin fancies herself better than those she sees as beneath her. She insists she has a “good disposition” and “a little of everything,” and that makes her better than most of the people around her – though clearly her words and actions say otherwise.
Only one fellow patient in the waiting room, Mary Grace, seems to see right through her facade – as she stares, angrily and silently at Mrs. Turprin…until she finally snaps, throws her book, hitting Mrs. Turpin squarely in the face, and lunges out of her seat to attack her.
In the hectic scene that ensues, Mrs. Turpin asks her now-restrained assailant, “What you got to say to me?” Speaking for the only time in the whole story, Mary Grace locks her gaze with Mrs. Turpin and deliberately responds, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Visibly flustered and disturbed by Mary Grace’s harsh indictment, the story eventually comes to its climax – a revelation – where Mrs. Turpin has a vision – “a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” All the people Mrs. Turpin thought herself better than lead the procession, and people like herself and her husband bringing up the end.
Mrs. Turpin’s revelation is a reversal of expectations. The very people she thought she was better than are the ones going ahead of her into heaven. It’s a reversal that comes as a harsh judgment. But it’s also an experience of grace.
As O’Connor has said of her work, “All of my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it.” Or to borrow words from Pastor Lenny Duncan, “Grace is like a knife sometimes.”
Mrs. Turpin’s experience and the parable Jesus tells are like that – intertwined stories of judgment and grace that show us something we need to see.
Mary Grace’s words cut like a knife at Mrs. Turpin’s worldview and lead her to experience a vision of who is included in the kingdom of God. Jesus’s words are like that, too. They cut like a knife at the limited worldview of where we have come to expect Jesus to show up, or at the very least in the tidy places where we’d prefer to keep him.
There is judgment in this parable – but there is also grace. A powerful, searing grace that invites us into an ever more expansive view of the kingdom of God.
It’s a parable of reversals. The Christ we get is not the Christ we expect but is perhaps just the Christ we need.
Christ who is with the hungry and the sick and the imprisoned. Christ who is with the single mother who lost her job in June to the pandemic and who is struggling to keep her kids connected to virtual learning at home. Christ who is with the grandfather in the nursing home who can’t have any visitors, not even his own family, because there’s been a COVID outbreak in the building. Christ who is with those with one less place setting at the Thanksgiving dinner table this year, and with those who aren’t even having Thanksgiving dinner at all because it’s just too risky right now.
Over and over again, Matthew shows us exactly where Christ the King is, upending our expectations and offering us something much more profound. Christ the King is with the cast out, discarded, isolated, and marginalized. Christ the King enters into the places of despair and hopelessness and death and brings life and fullness and resurrection.
The reign of Christ isn’t always neat and tidy. Sometimes it includes the people we’d least expect or prefer to ignore. But it’s a reign of grace that is more expansive beyond our wildest imagining.