Last Sunday of Pentecost, Year A (Christ the King)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church: Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic
November 22, 2020
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Sometimes Christ the King looks like a short, hunched-over woman with wildly cut hair, sipping sweet tea with lemon, savoring the last bite of cake while mumbling and singing to herself.
Perhaps I should explain a bit more…
In the Fall of 1989, I began the first of many internships that would be a part of my preparation to be a practicing social worker. I had just transferred between schools and so, I was a little late to the registration process. And as sometimes happens, I didn’t get my first pick of placements. I didn’t even get my second or third pick. It seemed to me that the powers that be had gotten things completely mixed up: I planned to be an administrator and community organizer so I was hoping for a high power, influential internship that would land me a great, lucrative…well, as lucrative as social work can be…post-graduation job. Instead, I learned that I would be placed in a community board and care home which offered long-term shelter to deinstitutionalized adults with mental health challenges who had spent most of their lives in the local psychiatric hospital. This shelter, a transitional housing facility operated by the YWCA, sprang into being when deinstutionalization was a political cost-saving measure, not a humanitarian best practice. People were released from inpatient care without community living skills. There were no safe spaces for people with long-term psychiatric disabilities to live and homelessness became visible: a chronic and deadly problem in the harsh, Buffalo winters. The old boarding house-turned-transitional shelter had peeling paint and dirty old carpets and very minimal staffing. My first day on the job I thought: I don’t know if I can do this. But, I heard a voice in my soul saying, “People live here; You can work here.” That became my motto.
After a few weeks of required training and shadowing staff and volunteers through support groups and recreational outings, I was given a choice. I could continue to work scheduled hours with these group activities as part of the staff team, or become an individual support volunteer with some of the more challenging residents and work my own hours. My supervisor hinted that they had plenty of students helping with the groups, but what they really needed were people who were willing to spend that quality 1:1 time with people who weren’t able or willing to be a part of group activities. I had classes, and worked another paid job and really craved the freedom of setting my own hours. I heard my lips saying yes while my brain was shouting “No, what are you doing!” But my yes had been said, and that meant I was now on my own. Very quickly, I was handed a name and room number. “Your job,” said my supervisor, “is to get Ruthie engaged. She used to go out all the time, but she hasn’t left her room in weeks, except when we tell her she has to bathe.” Great, I thought, a very promising first client. As I headed down the hall toward the residential corridor, she added, “Oh, and don’t take it personally if she swears at you!”
My first visit with Ruthie lasted exactly 10 seconds. I knocked on her door. She uttered several non-sermon-appropriate words followed by “Go Away!”
I lingered by her door long enough to tell her my name, that I was a social work intern, and that I could come back to visit her again another day. I heard her shuffling toward the door which gave me hope, and then I heard her promptly lock it. She yelled, “Go away!” then in a quieter voice mumbled what sounded to me like, “come back a different day.” And so, I did. The next visit was largely the same, and the visit after that. After a few more tries and frankly, as I was about to give up and ask for a different client, I knocked on her door and announced myself one more time and heard her shuffling around inside. This time, Ruthie cracked her door open and looked me up and down. “Come back tomorrow” she said, “Bring fifty cents and we’ll have coffee.”
The next day I came back with a few quarters in my pocket. Fifty cents meant I had to dip into my laundry money; my own budget was very stretched in those meager days of student living. When I knocked this time, she shuffled to the door and opened it. A tiny, bent over woman emerged, this time wearing a coat and two hats tied onto her head with a scarf. “We’lll go now” she said, “I’ll show you.”
Against my better judgement, I followed her down the hallway, through the main living area and past the front desk. I looked up at the receptionist with eyes that probably looked like a deer in headlights. She was admittedly surprised to see us but waved us through, asking me to sign the register book with the time we were leaving and where we were going. “Coffee” said Ruthie. “We are going for coffee.” I had no idea how much learning I was in for.
What I was in for was week after week of walking with Ruthie through the back streets of downtown Buffalo, hearing about the people who used to live there: her Russian immigrant family, her neighbors, the unheard history of a city I thought I knew. She knew every place to get a cheap cup of coffee to warm her tired hands. She would mutter and curse and tell me about growing up during the Great Depression, about her best memories and her worst ones, too. I grew fond of her stories, even though she often repeated herself. Her life had been a very, very hard one. She knew first hand about poverty, grief and feeling cast-out. I began to marvel that she trusted me…a stranger she barely knew…with the wealth of her stories. She taught me more about listening and being present than any textbook could ever convey.
A few weeks later, during one of our walks, Ruthie told me the next day was her birthday. “I wish I could have a cake” she said, “a white cake, with white icing.” She paused. “And sweet tea, with lemon. Very sweet. With sugar. But not too much lemon.”
I managed to scrounge up enough money that night to buy a cake mix, white frosting, two lemons, and some birthday candles. With what I had in my apartment, I made a two-tier round cake and frosted it. I brewed tea and added much more sugar than I thought should be in it, and sliced up lemons to float in it for flavor. I also found a sweater in my closet that I didn’t wear all that much but that I thought she would like, and I wrapped it up.
I showed up the next day, and found Ruthie sitting in the lounge. She was wearing all her usual attire, topped by a birthday crown from a local fast-food restaurant. “Free coffee today” she said, with a mischievous smile. Of course. Then she saw the cake, and the tea, and the present. “My Birthday?!” she exclaimed. And I said, “Yes, Ruthie, it’s your day!”
Recluse Ruthie stood up and shuffled around, gathering up all her friends in the lounge and scooting everyone to the sun porch. She was singing, “It’s my party; come to my party!” In the hour that followed, I watched her move from a reclusive outcast to the beloved guest at the center of this birthday feast.
“I myself will search for my sheep” says the Lord God. “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture. I will feed them with justice.” Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
It can be so easy for us to assume we know the difference between the sheep and the goats. Of course, we want to think of ourselves as the sheep of the Good Shepherd, so it’s natural to look around and see God in faces of those who are familiar to us. But what about the unfamiliar, reclusive, muttering and swearing, triple-hat wearing people whose stories force us to see the familiar through different eyes? What about the times when seeking and serving Christ in the other brings us into full awareness of all that we would rather ignore about this world in which we live: poverty, mental illness, addiction, confinement. Like me, the skeptical student, we become blinded to joy which lies hidden in unlikely places and hardened by all the faces in this world that make us afraid, or don’t look like we expect them to.
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
But when did we see you, Lord?
“And the king will answer them, ‘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.’ “ Matthew 25:31-46
The Good News we need to hear today isn’t a pat on the back for our good works. No, my friends. The Good News is that this Realm of Christ about which we read is also right here, and right now. Christ the King and our Good Shepherd feeds us, clothes us, nurtures us, sustains us. We recognize our residence in this realm of divine generosity when we reach out to do the same to those in this world who come to us hungry, thirsty, wounded, and vulnerable.
I am reminded that every time there has been a knock on the door to my heart and I have said, “Go Away” our Good Shepherd has returned with patience and persistence, until I have been ready to crack open the door. I am reminded that I am the one who has been fed at the unexpected banquet of mercy and grace, sometimes in ways so ridiculously simple and beautiful that they have transformed the ordinary into a divine banquet. I realize that every time I think I’m helping someone else, it is at that moment that I am able to see all that has been lavished upon me and upon each and every one of us by God who loves us beyond all measure of understanding.
We are all sheep in the pasture of the Good Shepherd, and citizens in the Realm of God. The taste of that heavenly banquet is not just a fabled story or an afterlife dream. It can taste like warm coffee on a cold day, or birthday cake joyfully shared in community. We are invited, constantly, to become God’s hands and feet in the world so that in our openness to serving others with love and without judgement, we can come to see and know and experience a taste of the abundance of God’s realm. We see and experience that in our love and service to our neighbors and each other. It is in those faces…every single one of them…that God is revealed.
Perhaps that’s why each and every time that I close my eyes to pray with this Gospel, it is Ruthie’s face that I see.
“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” Ephesians 1:15-23
So yes: sometimes Christ the King looks like a short, hunched-over women with wildly cut hair, sipping sweet tea with lemon, savoring the last morsels of birthday cake while mumbling and singing to herself, “It’s my party…come to my party.”
Be known to us, Lord Jesus, as we meet you in each and every face that we see.
Thank you for this story that touched my heart and opened my eyes ice again. The icon was also a fitting illustration