Several years ago I sent my then First Assistant Priest, Fr. Charleston Wilson, who is now the Rector of my former parish, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I wanted him to go because it enriches one’s ministry in countless ways. I have been blessed to go several times, taking a group of pilgrims each time.
When Fr. Charleston got back, he told me that a question he asked a Hasidic Jew was whether they have Jews from the Reform tradition of Judaism in Israel. Hasidic Jews are orthodox Jews to the Nth degree. The Hasidic Jew’s dismissive reply was, “Reform Jews are of no consequence. You know, they’re kind of like Episcopalians in the Christian faith. They don’t believe anything.”
Of course, he didn’t know he was talking to an Episcopalian. What an inaccurate picture of Episcopalians he had! Or did he? I cringe inside when someone calls us “Catholic Lite.” “Lite” is good when referring to calories; when speaking of our faith it’s a terrible indictment.
This is the last Sunday of the Church Year. On this day, the year comes to a dramatic close as we celebrate Christ as King. King of what? King of Christians? King of heaven? King of creation?—King of all that is or ever will be, King of the universe. King of kings and Lord of lords. I can’t ever hear that verse from Revelation without thinking of Handel’s immortal setting of that text: King of kings and Lord of lords.
The designation of Christ as King is a curious one for us Americans. Our picture of kings is not altogether flattering. One might even say that we have an innate distrust of kings. While we enjoy watching the royal family in England, a monarchy in America is unthinkable. Thomas Jefferson said of monarchy, “There’s not a single crowned head in Europe whose talents or merits would entitle him to be elected a vestryman by the people of any parish in America.” Jefferson was speaking of Episcopalians, by the way! Mark Twain expressed American distrust of monarchy even more concisely in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “All kings is mostly rapscallions.”
But the real problem lies not in the concept of kingship, but in the inability of most kings to be what a king should be. To quote another famous American, William Penn, “Kings…should imitate God; their mercy should be above all their works.” God is the model for kings, and Christ is King of kings.
In the today’s Gospel we have a vision of Christ coming in glory at the end of time. He’s seated on a glorious throne, surrounded by throngs of angels, and all people from throughout the ages, from every nation on earth, are gathered before him. It’s Judgment Day. He separates them into two groups, the sheep and the goats, the sheep destined for heaven, and the goats destined for everlasting punishment. Every time we say the Nicene Creed, we say Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Yet this picture of the King Jesus as a stern judge, actually sending some people to eternal punishment is unsettling. We want the Jesus who’s merciful, infinitely loving and forgiving. This picture of Jesus shows a point of no return, that what we do here on earth matters eternally.
What’s the criterion for deciding whether one is a sheep or a goat? The showing of mercy to those who come to us in need. Not only that, Jesus tells us that in showing mercy to the needy we’re actually showing mercy to him; and in withholding mercy to the needy, we withhold mercy to him. Even as you feed the least of the hungry, give drink to the least of the thirsty, visit the lowliest of prisoners, you’ve done it to Jesus.
It seems so simple. Our eternal destiny rests on such a simple thing. We’ve experienced mercy ourselves—our sins have been forgiven through the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross. St. Paul states that “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” We have accepted him as Savior and Lord. Now we must live our lives with mercy as our prime directive. Our lives are to show the love of Christ, and as we show that love of Christ we actually meet him.
St. Francis of Assisi was riding his horse on his way home one day. Struggling with God and the call on his life, yet still enjoying the benefits of being a rich man’s son, he felt his horse shy under him. He looked up to see the most feared sight in the 12th century world—a leper.
Fighting down his fear and loathing, Francis dismounted, went to the leper, and put some money in his hand. Then, impelled by what he regarded as the unseen power of Christ, he took the leper’s hand and kissed it, putting his lips to the leper’s rotting flesh. The leper took hold of him and gave him the kiss of peace in return. Francis reciprocated, then got back on his horse and rode home.
From that day he began to visit the lepers, bringing them gifts and kissing their hands. In his will, Francis wrote, “The Lord led me among them, and I showed mercy to them, and when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of body and soul.
As this Christian Year comes to a close, we do well to reflect on what we mean when we call Christ King. Let this part of the Episcopal Church, the only part that we can really influence, be known for our great faithfulness, our devotion to following our Lord Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords, our generosity to the mission of Christ in this place, and our devotion to serving the poor.
When I was a child we sang a song in Sunday School that went like this: “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning. Give me oil in my lamp, I pray. Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning, keep me burning to the break of day.”
That song refers to the parable of the wise and foolish maidens, which we just heard in today’s Gospel. Weddings in the days when Jesus walked the earth lasted an entire week. All regular activities were suspended. Religious obligations were dispensed with by law. It was to be a celebration from start to finish.
The highlight of the week was when the bridegroom went to the home of the bride and took her in procession to his home. No one knew when he would come. It was always at night, and he’d try to arrive after the bride and her ten bridesmaids had gone to sleep. So the groom would make his surprise arrival, wake up the ladies in the middle of the night, and they’d make their way to the bridegroom’s house, lighting the way with their lamps. Once they had arrived, they would go into the house and have more partying. The doors would be closed and barred so that beggars and thieves couldn’t get in. Wouldn’t it have been fun to attend a wedding like that?!
Jesus was comparing life with him with a wedding. He’s the bridegroom; the Church is the bride. We’re the ones who are at the celebration. Is Jesus implying that if you’re a part of the Church life is one big party? I don’t think that’s his point. I do believe that he’s saying that no matter what’s going on in your life, if you’re living in him and with him you’ll have a kind of joy that cannot be extinguished. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Robert Louis Stevenson had it right when he said, “To miss the joy is to miss all.” That applies whether we’re talking about experiencing the birth of your first child, or a baptism, or the first day of school, or, of course, a wedding; whether we’re speaking of a serious illness, or losing a job, or experiencing the failure of a marriage. It applies even when we go through the valley of the shadow of death. No matter what, good or bad, happy or sad, Jesus wants to be present with us and in us to give us greater understanding, to guide us, to comfort and console us.
As is his custom, though, Jesus puts a twist into the parable that’s uncomfortable. When the bridegroom arrives, unexpectedly, five of the bridesmaids’ lamps have gone out because they didn’t bring extra oil. They try to borrow some from the wise maidens who had prepared, but they don’t have enough for themselves and for others. So the five foolish maidens go out to buy more oil. By the time they arrive at the groom’s house the door has been shut and barred and they can’t get in.
You may be a part of the Church, a believer in Christ, a part of the wedding party, yet find yourself outside, wanting to get in but unable to do so. Tennyson, in “The Idylls of the King,” captures this moment in life poignantly:
Late, late, so late! And dark the night and chill!
Late, late, so late! But we can enter still.
Too late, too late! Ye cannot enter now.
No light had we: for this we do repent;
And learning this, the bridegroom will relent.
Too late, too late! Ye cannot enter now.
No light: So late! And dark and chill the night!
Too late, too late! Ye cannot enter now.
Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet?
O let us in, tho’ late, to kiss his feet!
No, no, too late! Ye cannot enter now.
Our faith is that Jesus will come again, at the end of time, to judge the living and the dead. But that’s not the only time Jesus will come. He comes at unexpected times as well. He wants to be with us in our day to day activities. He wants to be able to help us through the crises of our life. Yet for him to be able to do that, we must prepare a place for him in our hearts. As Phillips Brooks said, “Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” In other words, we need oil in our lamps for the light of Christ to burn within us. If we’re going to be prepared for him when he comes again in glory, we need to be prepared for him in the ordinary and extraordinary times in our lives.
How do we prepare? Receive Holy Communion. Read, mark, and learn Holy Scripture. Regularly examine your life and make your confession. Give generously of your time, talent, and treasure for God’s work. These things are oil for our lamps and prepare us for the coming of the Bridegroom.
The whole point of the parable is that it’s not yet too late for us. Will you be prepared when the Bridegroom comes? When he does, we want to be able to sing Hosanna at that time. Remember how the song ends? “Sing, Hosanna, sing, Hosanna, sing Hosanna to the King of kings. Sing, Hosanna, sing Hosanna, sing Hosanna to the King.”
Just as the days are getting shorter and the air is getting cooler, our world grows darker, human feeling grows colder, and people from every tribe, tongue, and nation brace themselves for whatever it is that will happen next.
At this time of year, we close our doors. Pull our blinds against the chill of autumn. The temptation is to do the same with our hearts. When history is unfolding at such a break-neck pace, how could we not? Humans are wired for survival. We excel at detecting threats. And now, they’re everywhere we look. After all, the war in the Gaza Strip, the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Myanmar, the battles stretching across Africa — they’re not simply overseas. Each one is playing out in our back pockets.
And so it is that it’s that much more important, that much more providential that today, now, at the turn of the seasons, when the harvest is over and the plants have died, when sunlight is scarce and the winds of change drive us indoors, that the Church flips on the lights and cries with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb.”
Much as we might believe that what we see is all there is; much as we might fear that evil will triumph even if good wins, the reality of our life, of our world, of all history is summed up in the shout of the saints. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have come before us, who stand even now in the throne room of God — and they will not let us forget the truth.
The saints, our brothers and sisters in Christ, are people throughout the centuries who have shown us what it means to live a life totally devoted to Christ. The saints saw Empires rise and Empires fall. Some fought against heresy. Others fought against demons. But they all weathered the same catastrophes, the same hatreds, the same fears as we do today.
Gathered at the tombs of the martyrs, the early Christians would meditate on their witness and come to believe that they, too, could persevere, even amidst great suffering. “If they can do it, so can I.” And so it has gone from person to person, saint to saint from the earliest days of the church until now. Whether a martyr of third century Rome or a wealthy merchant’s son of 12th century Italy or an expatriate nun in 20th century Paris, the diverse and different people of God speak as though with one voice. “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb.”
These are the words the saints must cry, the witness they must give, the good news that bursts forth from them because they know with their whole being that the One who makes the hills to dance, who brings rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, who names the stars and knows each sparrow as it falls — He is the one to whom the worst has already happened and been repaired (St. Julian of Norwich), and he is beside us every step of the way .
Salvation belongs to him. It is in God’s nature to save, to heal, to love past the point of death itself. In God alone is our hope — and we see that embodied, incarnate, in the communion of saints. When faced with famine, pestilence, war, and death, the saints knew that no one and nothing could offer them shelter but God. The things of this earth will always fail. Money can’t always buy us out of our troubles; family can’t always love us back. Power, passion, pleasure: They all pass away in the end. Only God remains and remains the same. And only he can give that which the world cannot take away.
Dwelling within us, the Lord reworks our hearts and reshapes our wills, turning earthenware pots into precious vessels of His mercy and fine instruments of his peace, never doubting or departing from us as he removes the scales from our eyes.
Step by step, moment by moment, the Lord works, and in the light of his presence, we see the truth (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross [Edith Stein]): God is everywhere we look, in all things and in every place. In the good and in the bad, in the garden and on the cross — we learn to see Christ in all that is (Alexander Schmemann). This is what the saints teach us. It’s how each one of them lived. And it is the wisdom we need so desperately today.
Because anger and hatred and violence breed darkness; and in the fading light, the temptation to take the very weapons of our enemies and recast them as the sacred servants of justice is deeply attractive. Even the best people can be corrupted by the desire for vengeance. Even the holiest, in her own strength, can forget the image of God in her neighbor. The saints teach us to not be numbed or hardened by the cruelty we behold (Etty Hillesum) but to go on seeing, even if it causes us pain — because when forgiveness, when mercy, when love disappear, the best of the human dies, and what we are left with is weeping and the gnashing of teeth.
The saints knew this. They knew, more than most, the depths to which humankind can sink — but nevertheless be redeemed. Holiness does not mean perfection. It means becoming whole. Holiness is a process. A path. A long obedience in the same direction (Eugene Peterson). When we follow our Lord on his way, we dare to risk our life — which doesn’t usually happen in an arena, surrounded by wild beasts, but in the hidden, secret death of dying to our own desires, deliberately sacrificing our own ego, for the sake of Christ and our neighbor.
And yet, in losing our life, we shall find it. Paradoxical as it may sound, what we learn from our teachers the saints is what Jesus was saying all along: We must hate the world so that God can teach us to love it aright (St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalyvia).
This is the constant conversion our lives in Christ will take: Turning, always turning, away from the things of this world toward the love that knows no end, the foolish love of God (St. Nicholas Cabasilas), that changes the world by changing us.
Even the smallest among us — the youngest in terms of age or in terms of faith — can do this good work. Take courage, the saints say, for the most insignificant act done in pure love makes visible the grace of God (St. John of the Cross and Brother Lawrence). That witness to the truth makes present the One who holds us in his hand, who has promised to bring great good even out of great evil, and who has done it in the resurrection of his Son.
To act in such a way may smart from time to time. It may cost us our pride or our self-righteousness, but what we gain vastly outweighs whatever we lose; for with every act of love, with every step on the path of life we come more fully awake to the fact that we live and move and breath in a world charged with the grandeur of God (Gerard Manley Hopkins). We walk amongst a great cloud of witnesses, who sing with endless praise, who know the truth and that truth has set them free, to take what they were given — the good and the bad — and give it back to God with thanksgiving for this miracle that is life now.
Even now, when the world is dark, when the days are short. God speaks in his Word and in his saints. He calls us to persevere in our faith, to imitate the ones who came before us, who are praying for us that we might see what they see and taste what they taste — for they know that all things pass away; God never changes (St. Teresa of Ávila). And those who have God lack nothing because Christ is everything: Joy and life and light, transforming every moment of every day into a foretaste of his kingdom (St. Porphyrios Kafsokalyvia and Alexander Men). This is ours, even now, as we open our hands to pick up our cross and join the great crowd, the numerous throng, in singing “Salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb.” Despite what the world might say and what we might fear, it is finished. Truly, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (St. Julian of Norwich) for those who cling to Christ. AMEN.