Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reminders to be Mindful

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 23, 2008

Year A: The Last Sunday after Pentecost – Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
(Ephesians 1:15-23)
Matthew 25:31-46

Reminders to be Mindful

Since lately life has been really busy, I’ve been making an extra effort to live mindfully. I’ve been trying to live more in the present and not be so concerned with the future – or so concerned with the past for that matter.

I’ve been trying to pay extra attention to what’s going on around me. And I’ve been trying to notice and give thanks for the simple joys of life – a quiet dinner with Sue, a good laugh with friends and colleagues. I’ve been trying to be mindful, but, to be honest, it’s not easy.

Living a life of mindfulness – a life of really paying attention to the present moment – is not easy under the best of circumstances. And, of course, many of us are not living in the best of circumstances right now. Many of us have watched with astonishment as so much wealth seems to have evaporated. There’s a lot of anxiety about the future and probably some regret about the choices made in the past.

Anxiety about the future and regret about the past – a bad combination and not very helpful to living mindfully in the moment.

And, unfortunately, sometimes even church doesn’t help us live mindfully. Even the church is affected by the anxieties of the world – will we be able to afford all that we hope to do? What will stewardship look like this year? If we need to, where will we cut the budget?

And sometimes even the Sunday Scripture lessons don’t seem to offer much help with living mindfully. I was very glad that Dan Lawson and Tim Barrett were given the assignment last Sunday of preaching on the parable of the talents – a parable that isn’t really very clear and, in some interpretations, a parable that is downright disturbing. And, it’s a parable that, at least for me, is not much help with lessening my anxieties and living mindfully in the present.

And then today we come to the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of the church year, the Sunday that we honor Christ the King.

Can “Christ the King” help us live more mindfully – to lessen our anxieties – to open our eyes to the blessings and opportunities that are all around us?

There’s some irony in the title Christ the King, isn’t there? After all, Jesus was not exactly the kind of king that the world expected in the first century – or, I guess, not even the type of king the world expects today.

Back in the First Century there were lots of ideas about the Messiah-King but one of the most popular, naturally enough, was the expectation of a king who would defeat the Romans and restore the mighty Jewish kingdom of David. Christ the King didn’t fulfill that expectation at all.

And today in the 21st Century, we still have kings. I guess most are viewed as romantic or nostalgic or tabloid fodder or just foolish and expensive holdovers from an earlier era. Have any of you been watching the series “Monarchy,” the series about the British royal family, on PBS? It’s interesting and well done and I admit to a soft spot for Queen Elizabeth – I mean, she’s been doing the same job since 1952 and shows no signs of slowing down! But I wonder how being royalty affects a person’s psyche? What’s it like having people bow to you, or curtsey or address you as “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness?” I don’t know whether it’s true but I’ve read stories that Prince Charles has someone squeeze toothpaste onto his toothbrush – imagine having that job! And imagine being used to that kind of luxury and service!

So, by the extravagant standard of 21st Century monarchy, Christ the King isn’t much of a king at all.

So, just what kind of king is Christ the King? Jesus lays it out very clearly in today’s gospel. Christ the King is the king who stands with those who hunger and thirst. Christ the King is the king who stands with the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Christ the King is the king who stands with the nobodies. Christ the King is the king who stands with those who are easy to ignore, those who are easy for society to throw away.

Christ the King stands so closely with the least and the lowly that when we serve them we serve him.

And the Evangelist Matthew is very clear: we’ll be judged - we’ll be held accountable - on how well we have served the poor, how much we have sacrificed for the “nobodies”, for the “disposable people”.

The Rev. James Forbes, former pastor of the Riverside Church in New York (and Lauren Ackland’s preaching professor!) sums all this up with a great line, “No one gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

“No one gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

A lot of us have been going to church for a long time, yet, it’s easy for us to forget this essential truth. Especially if we’re wrapped up in our own anxieties and regrets, it’s hard to be mindful – it’s hard to see the gifts we have been given and it’s all too easy to miss the opportunities all around us to serve Christ the King by serving others.

We know that we are called to serve others. We know that we are expected to serve others. We know all this but we need to be reminded. We need reminders to be mindful.

Maybe because I’ve been trying to be particularly mindful, this week I received three powerful reminders of our call to serve others.

One of the best parts of working at Grace Church is that we have at least one service every day. And, as I’ve mentioned before, that means that we commemorate all the so-called “lesser feasts” – the days when the Church honors the great Christian women and men of the past. And if a lesser feast falls on a day when we have the Eucharist, then either Lauren or I are privileged to preach about these faithful people.

Sometimes that means I have to do a little research, like I did to get ready for Wednesday when we honored Elizabeth of Hungary. Before Wednesday I knew only one thing about Elizabeth; I knew that the College of St. Elizabeth just up the road at Convent Station is named in her honor.

I discovered that Elizabeth was born into the Hungarian royal family in 1207. So she grew up in castles and palaces. I’m not sure if there was any toothpaste or if they had toothbrushes back then – but nevertheless certainly she lived a life of great privilege and relative comfort. Yet from an early age this princess, inspired by the example of Francis of Assisi, was deeply committed to her faith and deeply committed to serving the poor and the sick.

She married Ludwig, a German prince, and her faith and service continued to deepen. In 1226, while Ludwig was away in Italy, their land was hit by floods and the plague. Elizabeth opened a hospital below their castle, and gave away much of the royal clothing and many royal possessions.

I also learned a wonderful story about Elizabeth. The story goes that one night Elizabeth gave a leper her place in the royal bed. As you might imagine, when Ludwig awoke at first he was terrified to find a leper next to him! But then, the story continues, Ludwig’s “eyes were opened” and he saw that in fact the leper was the Crucified Christ.

Elizabeth of Hungary offers a powerful example of “I was sick and you took care of me.” Elizabeth of Hungary offers a powerful reminder to be mindful.

My second reminder to be mindful came on Wednesday night at Plaza Lanes, the bowling alley on Main Street. I was there with some of the Drew campus ministry students for a night of bowling that we call “EpiscoBowl”. When I got there I saw that a couple Grace Church parishioners were there, bowling in their Wednesday night league. I said hello, we talked for a few minutes and then we all got busy bowling.

A little while later I heard an announcement about the winner of a raffle, who received a $25 Stop’n Shop gift card. Since I hadn’t bought a ticket, I didn’t pay much attention.

A few minutes later one of our parishioners came over saying that her friend – not someone who goes to this church, not someone I’d ever met – was the winner and wanted to donate the gift card to the church for one someone comes by asking for food. IN this time when we’re all watching our budgets very carefully, this woman could have put the gift card to good use for herself and her family. Instead she gave it away.

I went over to say thank you and it was clear she wasn’t interested in gratitude or any attention for her kindness and generosity.

This woman at the bowling alley offers a powerful example of “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.” This woman at the bowling alley offers a powerful reminder to be mindful.

One last story and one last reminder to be mindful. Last weekend we received a call here at church from a woman – not a member of the parish - who said that she had been violently abused by her husband and was trying to find a place to stay. She had tried the battered women’s shelter in Morristown but it was full. That’s a horrifying fact and something worth thinking and praying about. Then she had looked at a homeless shelter but she was afraid to stay there. She asked if there was some way that we could help her.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I told the story to Mary Lea and she suggested a parishioner who was knowledgeable about these kinds of situations – maybe she’d have some ideas. When I called her this parishioner stunned me when she said, “She can stay with me and my family.” I was stunned by the kindness, generosity and hospitality.

And that’s exactly what happened. This frightened and lost woman was given a safe, comfortable - and comforting - place to stay.

Our parishioner offers a powerful example of “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Our parishioner offers a powerful reminder to be mindful.

So, we’ve come to the end of the church year. Today we honor Christ the King – the king who stands with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Christ the King stands so close with these people that when we serve them we serve him.

And we are called to be mindful – to pay attention – and not miss the opportunities to serve that are all around us. And if we’re mindful, if we serve, then, God willing, we will all receive our letter of recommendation from the poor.