The Rev'd Canon Michael Rawson, Interim Dean
The Interim Dean's sermon preached on the Feast of Christ the King.
Those of you who enjoy pottering around medieval churches will know what a doom picture looks like. In essence it’s a depiction of the gospel reading we’ve just heard. Christ can be seen in the centre as a stern monarch, reigning from his throne of judgement. Most medieval churches would have had a huge painting over the chancel arch to remind parishioners they had a choice to make in life and those decisions would have implications in the next life. There are wonderful examples of such paintings in St Thomas, Salisbury and at Holy Trinity, Coventry. I have to admit that I don't find it a particularly helpful image, nor does it sit particularly comfortably with my belief in a vulnerable, compassionate God who reaches out to us in love and humility.
After all when you think of a king reigning from a throne of judgement, do you imagine him being born in a stable? Not the stables we recreate in church at Christmas with cosy, warm, clean straw. But a real stable full of sweaty, smelly animals, complete with all the dirt, stench and squalor of the farmyard. Then remember the same king who stripped off his robes and washed his friends' feet, taking on the most menial task we can imagine. Ours is a king who was rejected by those he came to save, who was humiliated and put to death in a most cruel and degrading way. He was then buried in a stranger's tomb.
It's hard to keep these two contrasting images in balance. On the one hand, the glorified Christ who rules over and judges the nations; and on the other, the servant who washes his friends' feet, and dies for love of them. But no matter how hard it is, we have to keep the two images together. For the risen and glorified Christ who reigns from his throne bears the imprints of the nails in his hands and feet. The Christ we proclaim at Christmas in the Incarnation was born in the shadow of the cross and you can't have one without the other.
Our first reading points to a God who searches for the sheep to seek them out, binding up the injured and giving strength to the weak. Jesus takes this further in our gospel reading. He’s asked, ‘when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?’ and he replies that ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Jesus did not qualify his words by adding that he is talking about the deserving poor, or that the homeless have made a lifestyle choice or those who have the correct qualifications to be welcomed into our country. No, he challenges his followers and us to see his face in the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. It is so easy in the complex world we live in to imagine that it’s not our problem but someone else’s. It’s not about us but about them, the other. Then we can overlook and ignore the needs of those on our streets, those without a voice or who are crossing the Channel. We can feel utterly overwhelmed by the suffering of others, by acts of violence and terror and that can lead to compassion fatigue. What can I do in the face of such overwhelming misery and suffering?
Our readings this morning remind us that we believe in a God who is with us, who laid aside divine glory to take on our humanity and to share our joys and sorrows, sharing the mess of our world and our lives. God is not remote but here in our very midst, feeding us at the altar and nourishing and encouraging us on our journey through life. Our vocation as a Christian community is to seek out the face of Christ in those around us, so often in the most unlikely people and situations. For that is where we will truly find God. That is why our commitment to the Robes Project is so important as we put the words of the gospel into practical action. All of us can play our part in this by supporting the SleepOut (especially our wonderful friends in Youth Xpress) or by volunteering to help at the night shelter run by the Cathedral in January. ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Not only is it about our practical care of others, but about reshaping and transforming our attitudes – about ‘them’, the other. Many people are feeling bruised and battered by the Living in Love and Faith debate at General Synod the other week. In the life of the Christian community it is easy to demonise the other and to take the moral highground, believing that I have the answers and they are wrong. All too easily we can believe that we have a monopoly on holiness and righteousness and that God blesses our endeavours. Jesus’ words are clear that to be followers of his is not about matters of theology or orthodoxy but rather seeing the face of God in our neighbour.
Mother Teresa reimagined today’s gospel reading for our own day and our own situation. She wrote this:
'Many today are starving for ordinary bread.
But there is another kind of hunger;
the hunger to be wanted, to be loved, to be recognised.
Nakedness too is not just the want of clothes,
but also about loss of dignity, purity, and self‑respect.
And homelessness is not just want of a house;
there is the homelessness of being rejected,
of being unwanted in a throwaway society.'
She went on to say,
'The biggest disease in the world today
is the feeling of being unwanted and uncared for.
The greatest evil in the world is lack of love,
the terrible indifference towards one's neighbour.'
This is a real challenge to us as a Cathedral community as we celebrate our patronal festival and seek to live out the good news we proclaim. May we enthrone Christ in our lives by loving God and our neighbour, being set free from our desire to protect our self interests and seeing the other as just that. Christ’s kingdom is not a world of power and status and pomp, but a kingdom of vulnerability, and service and love. It's a kingdom in which we are called to follow the example of our servant king in taking up the towel of humility and washing our neighbour's feet in loving service. That's what makes our king different from the rest. Gathering around the table of the Lord to which all are welcome, may we be strengthened and sustained by the Bread of Life to seek out and serve Christ in those around us.