Sermon for The Last Sunday After Pentecost, November 22, 2020 150 150 johnpaddock

Sermon for The Last Sunday After Pentecost, November 22, 2020

Always Aim for the Center

This is Christ the King Sunday. Actually, that title is a designation that was adopted in the 1925 by Pope Pious XI.  The Episcopal name for today is The Last Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost. But since the collect for today refers to Christ as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”, and this morning’s Gospel refers to the Son of Man sitting upon his heavenly throne—It’s been very easy to adopt the Roman Catholic term. 

The Good Friday image, of course, has Jesus wearing a crown—it’s made not of jewels and gold, but of thorns. His kingly robes are stripped from him and he reigns from a throne of wood in the shape of a cross. And on the cross is a sign naming him “King of the Jews”.

But the title of “King” still rankles in our context with its suggestion of royalty and wealth, earthly power and empire. It even spills over into our liturgical life where our bishops wear the trappings of royalty with their purple shirts, copes, and miters. 

Libby Howe, a pastor in our partner denomination, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, recently wrote the following: 

At least in the United States, Christ the King has become a triumphalist and militaristic image of Ameri-canity bearing no resemblance to the ethic of compassion envisioned in Matthew 25. Because of this perversion, I along with other church leaders, grumble about Christ the King Sunday every year. Can we just not do Christ the King Sunday? Can we skip over the Sunday where we feel compelled to proclaim Jesus as king but use our theological scalpels to detach him from everything associated with kingship and consumer culture like wealth, conquest, victory, supremacy, and nationalism? The grumbling about Christ the King Sunday has become as much a part of the script as the holiday itself, not unlike the annual Feast of Complaining about Commercialization that accompanies Christmas. You know, right before we all go out and buy stuff.” Howe then goes on “to imagine Christ the King Sunday as Christ the Center Sunday.”[1]

Now that’s an intriguing idea. It is immediately stripped of thoughts of hierarchy and power, and it focuses us on what should really be the center, the heart of it all. Another writer, Audrey West, who teaches New Testament at the Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, shares this story of a short video about archery. 

It begins with a young man gently tossing a six-inch wooden disk into the air above his head. Seconds later an arrow speeds its way into the face of the disk, fracturing the wood into pieces that scatter on the ground beside the man’s feet. A high-speed camera, replayed in slow motion, captures the arrow’s impact nearly dead center in the disk. 

The next target is a two-and-a-half-inch plastic ball. Again, the arrow launches toward its target and hits it nearly on center. Whether viewed in real time or in slow motion, the evidence is clear.

The archer’s arrow flies three more times, each time into an ever-smaller target, a golf ball, then Life Saver candy, and finally an aspirin tablet. In each case the arrow goes straight to the mark, even when the target is not larger than the diameter of the arrow itself. 

When the show’s host asks how it’s possible to shoot an arrow so accurately using a handmade bow, especially when the target seems so small, the archer replies, “The center of an aspirin is exactly the same size as the center of a beach ball. Always aim for the center.[2]

Christ as the center of our lives: our worship, our prayers, our work, our play. Christ the center. 

I was thinking about this parable of the sheep and goats. What’s striking about them is that neither the sheep nor the goats were aware of what they were doing or not doing that would earn them eternal life with God. Both groups asked, “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, in prison?” 

The difference between the sheep and the goats was that the sheep were focused on doing right and caring for others—especially the weak and the poor and the vulnerable. They had the same values as Jesus. Like a laser they are those who are centered on the love of neighbor. And in this parable Jesus is saying that loving and caring for the neighbor is the same as loving God and God’s Son. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

So here we are today, marking the end the Church year, and poised to begin a new one next week on the First Sunday of Advent. The year ending has been one of great difficulty, struggle, and grief. The year to come promises to be similar—at least until late spring or summer—in terms of the Pandemic. We’re hopeful that there will be vaccines and treatments that will be broadly available by mid-year. But both years—and all years are years of the Lord—time marked with Christ at the center . . . at the center of our devotion, the center of our ethics, the center of our behavior. 

One of my favorite hymns is St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and my favorite verse goes like this:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Always aim for the center.


[1] Christian Century, November 4, 2020: Reflections on the Lectionary p. 23

[2] Christian Century, October 7, 2020: Reflections on the Lectionary p. 21