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Over and Out
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
November 26, 2017
Audio not available.
A reading from Matthew:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 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.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
In 1969, the infamous social psychologist, Stanley Milgram conducted the following experiment. On a busy New York City intersection, they placed a paid actor with instructions to stand there and stare up at the empty sky. And so of course as the frenzied New Yorkers would walk past on the sidewalk, a few of them would stop and take note. What is he staring at? What could be up there? What am I missing? And a few of them, of course, would stop alongside, and crane their necks upward, hoping to get in on whatever the action was. But then Milgram ratcheted up the stakes. The next time, he sent five actors out on the street-corner, and sure enough, the group had a much more profound impact — now four times as many pedestrians interrupted their flow, took their eyes off the people around them, and lifted them up into the empty blue. And then of course on round three, the psychologist put fifteen men on the street corner, a whole gaggle of expectant stargazers, and at that point enough traffic stops that eventually almost the entire sidewalk community has joined into the vigil. Looking up, it turns out, is contagious.
Now, what we do with this experiment depends a lot on our preconception. At first pass, it seems like one of those experiments that simply proves the power of peer pressure: the larger the crowd of up-lookers, the greater its pull among the passersby — nobody wants to miss out on the action. On the other hand, economist James Surowiecki argued later on that this experiment proves something about the wisdom of crowds: namely, that it’s entirely reasonable to assume that a large crowd looking at something has in fact found something at which to look. But I want to suggest my own small addition to the stream of explanations for this group phenomenon, doing so with no formal background in social psychology or really any kind of intellectual permission for coming anywhere near this conversation, but nonetheless, it seems to me that part of the basic psychology of this experiment is that people like looking up. I mean, there’s something primal about looking at the sky. There’s something primal about gazing into the heavens. It seems not inconsequential that Milgram’s paid actors weren’t staring into an open sewer grate or perhaps directly into the back of a stop sign. They were looking up.
Up feels hard-wired. Up comes with imagination, and expectation. For all of human history, poets and scientists and priests and scholars, all of us have stared up with wonder: at the clouds, at the planets, at the stars, at all the forces of the cosmos more powerful than we are. Up is the domain of kings and queens and, even more so, in the basic cosmology of religions all over the globe, up is the domain of gods themselves, and so it is with little surprise on this Reign of Christ Sunday that we should find ourselves once more staring up.
Reign of Christ Sunday — once known as Christ the King Sunday — is the last Sunday in our liturgical year; next Sunday we will start again with the first Sunday of Advent, but Reign of Christ asks us to imagine our God Jesus Christ not as newborn infant lying in the manger, but rather as king on the throne of all creation, and to do that, you almost have to look up. Unread in our lectionary assignments for today is a section from Ephesians 1 featuring Christ “raised from the dead and seated in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…” In other years, the New Testament turns towards Revelation, with prophecies of Jesus’s arrival, “Lo, he comes on clouds descending.” Speaking of which, even our own hymnal betrays us: there have not been, so to speak, discrete hymns for Reign of Christ Sunday; the practice as long as I can remember is that you simply double-back to your options for Ascension Sunday and then pick your favorites. Anything with vertical language will do nicely. After all, that’s the point on this Reign of Christ Sunday, that Jesus is up there, and we’re down here. People like looking up.
The problem is that the Gospel readings for Reign of Christ Sunday undercut this assumption at every turn. After all, the other New Testament writers are much more inclined to place Jesus in the firmament than he himself is. In some years, this Sunday brings us Jesus’s encounter with Pilate in John’s Gospel, where Jesus won’t even confess to being a king in the first place. Last year, we heard Luke’s account of Jesus on the cross, with “King of the Jews” as his infamous caption, hardly the symbol of power and might that kingship is supposed to convey. Only this year in Matthew do we get any kind of imagery of a king sitting somewhere up high, the Son of Man sitting on a throne at the end of time, separating the sheep and the goats. But as many of you have undoubtedly seen coming — after all, this is one of the load-bearing scriptures of the Christian faith — even here in Matthew, this high-up Jesus is a bit of a red herring. The king says to those favored: “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you, 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.” We have met before, the king says, in words so ritualized for us that it’s hard to hear them with fresh ears. We have met before. Not up here in the throne room. But out there. In the kingdom.
The king who hides among the people. It’s a trope as old as storytelling itself. You may know this one from fairy tales. You may know it from any of the real historical rulers who have found their disguised way into the world from time to time. I know this trope from the opening act of Disney’s Aladdin, wherein Princess Jasmine sneaks into the marketplace with peasant clothes instead of some fancy dresses because the pressures and protocols of court are just too much. The point of all of these stories is of course that the relationship between monarch and subject can sometimes get in the way of doing the right thing or finding out the truth. The kings learn something about their people and it makes them better, or the queen learns some lesson that she’d never be able to learn if everybody spent all their time down on one knee. Sometimes to get to the truth, you have to cut against the barrier that separates the queen from her subjects. You have to convince people to look each other in the eye. To stand on the same level. To share common ground. You have to convince folks to stop looking up. Because at the end of the day, these stories aren’t about kings and queens ruling from on high. They’re about how we treat each other. You and me. Down here on the ground.
So, with all due respect to Princess Jasmine, the real animated hero we need this morning is Carl, the aging protagonist of Pixar’s 2010 film, appropriately titled for the morning, Up. As you may recall, Carl is something of an unusual hero for a Disney movie. He’s not a young hero off to save the world. He’s an older man living alone in the house that he and his wife shared for years before her passing. And the house is quickly becoming surrounded, with high-rises coming in on all sides, and so Carl has nothing to do with the world outside his door. He doesn’t want to sell his house — of course, it’s the home that he and his wife built together — but it’s getting harder and harder to engage the outside world. When a young Wilderness Explorer named Russell comes to Carl’s house to see if he needs a hand, Carl pushes him away. Instead, he looks up, dreaming of the exotic vacation that he and his wife never took, long-dormant plans to visit a corner of the South American jungle. And then he finally make the decision to go after those dreams: in the film’s most stunning sequence, Carl makes his escape: he unfurls thousands of balloons, rigged to the house itself, which pull the entire structure into the air, where he can fly it, James-and-the-Giant-Peach style, all the way to the rain forest of the Southern Hemisphere.
But going up doesn’t fix everything. Of course there’s something primally satisfying about watching Carl’s old house whip through the air held aloft only by some improbable number of balloons, but even for Carl, this is only brief respite. Eventually, he makes a rough landfall, alongside Russell the Wilderness Explorer, who has tagged along for the trip, and now can nag Carl all the way through the jungle. And of course Carl carries that house as far as he can — he’s got it strapped to his back, held up by balloons, floating behind him like some leaden kite, and pretty soon it’s clear that the house is weighing him down as much as it is holding him aloft. Even when he’s walking alongside it, even when he’s halfway across the world from its foundation, it’s pretty clear that even though Carl has gone up into the air he’s never quite gotten out the door. Not until the end, when Carl can finally let the house go, when Carl can finally connect with this new child in his life, when Carl can finally open himself to the relationships all around him, not until the end does Carl really finish the journey. Because it was never just about going up. It was also about getting out.
“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.” Here at the end of our Christian calendar, here at the end of our Christian journey, here at the day we proclaim the kingship of Jesus Christ over and above all things, here at the end, the journey isn’t over until we remember to look out. Not just up. Out. After all, churches are great at looking up. Looking up is hard-wired. Find a corner. Look up into the heavens. Watch the crowd grow — wherever two or three are gathered. But none of our work is done until we look out. None of our worship is done until we go out. Out beyond these walls. Out beyond these doors. Out beyond ourselves. Out into the world where Jesus is, the world where Jesus waits, the world where Jesus hungers, the world where Jesus thirsts. Our worship isn’t done when I say the benediction and Keith plays the postlude. Our worship isn’t done until the doors of UPLift open on Tuesday morning. Our worship isn’t done until the doors of Micah 6 open on Thursday night. Our worship isn’t done until the Street Youth ministry comes through on Monday afternoon. Our worship isn’t done as long as we stand here staring up.
So here’s the good news, as we prepare to green this sanctuary and get ourselves ready for the Advent. Advent is, of course, a time of looking up: “Lo, he comes on the clouds descending,” indeed. And maybe you like the anticipation. Advent is a tease, and maybe you like the build-up. But if you just can’t wait. If you just can’t wait for Christmas. If you get tired of watching the clock. If you get tired of crossing off the dates on the calendar. If you can’t wait for Joy to the World and Angels We Have Heard and O Little Town of Bethlehem. The good news is, Christ is already here. He has been. He always has been, just, in the face of someone we don’t want to look at. We’ve ignored him in the alley. We’ve crossed the street to avoid him. We don’t even like going to his part of town. But nonetheless, in this waiting season, in this expectant season, in this pregnant season, he has been here from the foundations of the earth, if we just remember where to look. Seek, and ye shall find him. Go into the world, and ye shall find him. Get beyond these doors, and ye shall find him, hungry, and thirsty, a stranger, who rules the world with truth and grace, and he shall reign forever and ever. Amen.