Read Martha’s Sermon from Sunday, November 20, 2011
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St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for November 20, 2011
Reign of Christ Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ps. 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
How do we tell the sheep from the goats? We act for all the world as though we know for sure who’s one and who’s the other, and then we discover – sometimes horribly – that we do not. In these last two weeks there have been painful reminders of how wrong we can be in sizing each other up. Joe Paterno. Jerry Sandusky. And, closer to home in Bangor, the Reverend Bob Carlson. Revered people, admired and respected, people who seemed to be doing a lot of good in the world, came crashing down as they are accused of appalling crimes, or of knowing about them and doing far too little. And, as much as these people were elevated, it appears that their victims – children — were ignored, considered unimportant,…? . Heaven help us. So there’s anger and grief and betrayal. And I fear the pain and suffering has only begun. So this week’s texts about sheep and goats seem acutely on point.
The gospel text from Matthew we just heard speaks of a time when the goats and the sheep will be judged by God and separated. These are the last public words Jesus speaks. Note that the sheep and the goats (speaking metaphorically) themselves don’t know which they are. This is key. When Jesus says “I was hungry and you fed me,” the sheep reply in surprise “when did we do that?” The goats too are surprised. “When did we not feed you?” One assumes they mean “well, if we’d known it was you, Jesus, of course we would have fed you!”
I think this is at the heart of the matter. Those who are judged by God to be righteous don’t recognize Jesus either. They don’t know they’re feeding someone “important.” They are just going around feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, visiting the prisoner, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, apparently without making any judgment about worthiness or importance or anything else. They just do what is needed. The goats, on the other hand, are those who found some reason not to feed the hungry. Which meant that some kind of assessment/measuring/judging was going on in their heads.
The key here, the problem is not judgment, or elevating the right people, or guessing right or wrong about someone’s righteousness or worthiness. The central problem — and it is a core human failing — is differentiation. On this Reign of Christ Sunday, this gets to Jesus, who Jesus is, what Jesus teaches us, and what Jesus models for us.
Episcopal priest and author Cynthia Bourgeault offers some insights on these questions that I have found to be profound and revealing. She argues that for all of our emphasis on Christ’s divinity and his unique place as the son of God, there is more, and it is foundational. It is the idea is that Jesus of Nazareth was a wisdom teacher, and, as other wisdom teachers in the great traditions, he came as a teacher of inner transformation. Jesus wants to change us from the inside out, so we change how we perceive the world. We start with the disciples. Bourgeault reminds us that Jesus’ first disciples didn’t have the crucifixion or the resurrection event as a basis for following Jesus; that all came later. When they met him on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, all of that lay ahead. They put down their nets and became Jesus’ disciples not because of what they’d been taught or the things he said he believed, but because they saw something they recognized deep within themselves. Over and over again in the gospels Jesus asks “who do you say I am?” or, to put it another way, “who or what in you recognizes me?”
In the words of Ephesians, it is a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know Jesus, as we see through the eyes of the heart enlightened. The point here is that we’re not supposed to simply admire Jesus, we’re supposed to see through Jesus’ eyes, feel through Jesus’ heart, and respond to the world with his same wholeness and healing love. This is what Jesus was teaching. How do we do that?
Bourgeault argues that we already have this capacity; it is what Jesus is talking about when he says “the kingdom of God is within you.” It’s not an external acquiring so much as an internal uncovering. We do this when we perceive through the eyes of the heart. The “heart,” as here understood – and as understood by the ancients – is not the organ of emotion. This is not the “head/rational/male versus the heart/emotion/female” thing. Forget that. The ancients located emotions not in the heart, but in the liver! How about that – “don’t wear your liver on your sleeve”! In wisdom traditions, the heart is not the center of emotions, but rather the organ of spiritual perception. And as for science, we are reminded that, contrary to what many of us learned in 7th grade science class, the heart is not primarily a mechanical pump, but operates and communicates through electro-magnet resonance. The spiritual claim is that it is the heart that functions as a homing beacon to God. It resonates, perceives and picks up subtle signals from all levels of reality – intuitive, imaginative, a sense of unity, aesthetic, symbolic – faculties that work best in concert with each other and with the rational mind. It’s not an either/or but a both/and thing.
Through this we become aware that we move simultaneously through two planes — the vertical plane of timeless reality and our connection to God, and the horizontal plane of life in this time and place, and it is the heart that centers us in meaning, value and conscience. – in other words [when I discovered this I shot out of my chair ]– [sign of the cross]
And we are blessed, when we are centered and aligned with God in the now of our lives, not torqued off base stewing about the past, worrying about the future, or having our head in the clouds and out of touch with earthly reality, or so caught up in our earthbound concerns – my wants, my needs, my opinions, my identity, my story — that we drown out the signals of heart’s resonance with the Holy Spirit.
When those signals are clear, the wisdom teachers tell us, when we are aware of God in the time of now and the place of the heart, at the intersection of the timeless and this time, we understand something. When we see clearly through the eyes of the heart we have a transformed awareness that is a whole new way of looking at the world. “The hallmark of this awareness is that it sees no separation between humans, the divine, and creation. It is a complete, mutual indwelling. Jesus says I am in God, God is in you, you are in God, we are in each other. No separation between human and human. When Jesus says “love your neighbor as yourself” we tend to understand it as “love your neighbor as much as yourself.” But what if it means “Love your neighbor as yourself – as a continuation of your own being? A complete seeing that your neighbor is you? That everything that happens to her happens to you, and vice versa? Not two people competing with each other, trying to get the goods, or even one extending charity to the other, but “two cells of the one great life.” Each one is equally precious and necessary. Seen this way, laying down one’s life for another “is not a loss of one’s self but a vast expansion of it—because the indivisible reality of love is the only True Self.”
We don’t see things this way of course; at least most of us don’t. This Jesus knew, and this is why this essence of Jesus’ teaching is so important, so radical, and in many ways so difficult. What gets in the way, what distorts and blocks the signal to our heart, is a two-sided view of the world that separates into “I” and “other.” Our brains perceive through differentiation. This is this and not that. A young child learns the difference between a dog and a cat, a table and a chair. And from this we derive our identity, experience ourselves as having distinct qualities and attributes, and our ego sets about protecting itself. And everything in our culture reinforces this.
But all the wisdom teachers tell us that such separateness is an illusion. It is simply a function of our having to break the world up into bits in order to perceive it. We operate in differences and fail to see that nothing exists separate from anything or anyone else. And when religion, for its own purpose, reinforces this separation, creating “us” and “other,” particularly when it claims to do so with the eyes of God, it sins.
It is this differentiation that causes so much pain and suffering. We don’t recognize Jesus in another because we’re too busy differentiating, claiming our own identities, needs, wants, wounds. Judging some people more or less worthy than others.
Seen this way, the Gospel invites us to understand eternal life as the wisdom of knowing that Jesus is there in the bread we give and the bread we receive; that when we feed another we are being fed, that anything we withhold from another is withheld from ourselves, and withheld from the sacred household that is all life. Through all of this, the good, the bad and the tragic, we are reminded that living water still flows. Jesus asks us to love each other as he loves us, “and to share bread and wine together as an open channel of that interabiding love” that unites all of us. May it be so. Amen.