The Rev. Dr. William Heisley
Lessons: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
St. Gregory the Great served as the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, from 590 to 604 AD. He wrote more than any other Roman bishop before him and is remembered as the father of the direction our liturgy has taken ever since. In the midst of his prolific writing there is a story that is at once quaint and holy and precious and challenging.
Gregory told the story of a monk called Martyrius who set out to visit a monastery ruled over by a holy abbot. On his way he met a leper, whose limbs were horribly afflicted. The leper was trying to return to his hovel but didn’t have the energy to do it. But he told Martyrius that it was on the way to the monastery. So Man of God Martyrius spread his own cloak on the ground and wrapped the leper securely in it. Then he lifted him upon his shoulders and they set out on their journey.
As they approached the monastery the abbot shouted, “Hurry, hurry, run quickly and open the gates. Brother Martyrius is coming, and bringing the Lord with him.” As Martyrius reached the entrance of the monastery the leper leaped down from his shoulders, and Jesus Christ, true God and true man, appearing in the form in which he was known on earth, returned to heaven before the eyes of Martyrius. As he was ascending he said to him, “Martyrius, you were not ashamed of me on earth; I shall not be ashamed of you in heaven.”
When he entered the monastery, the abbot said, “Brother Martyrius, where is he you were carrying?” He answered, “Had I known who it was, I would have held him by the feet.” Then he said that while he carried him he felt no weight.
Gregory continues, “For what in human flesh is more sublime than the body of Christ, which was exalted above the angels? And what in human flesh is more abject than the body of a leper, filled with running sores and giving off repulsive smells? But see how he appeared in a leper’s flesh. Why is this, if not that he might teach us who are slower of understanding that whosoever is eager to come before him who is in heaven not refuse to be humble on earth, nor have compassion on those who are abject or despised?”
So that’s how it works. Jesus is among us in a broad spectrum of guises, hiding, deceiving, and suddenly jumping out and saying, “Surprise! It was me all along!” And we are bowled over by the fact that we’ve had such a close encounter with the King of the Universe. “If I’d only known I would have been even nicer, even kinder, even more generous.”
Today’s gospel story from the 25th chapter of St. Matthew is not a parable, the likes of which we’ve been reading for the last few weeks. Instead, it’s a narrative, a simple narrative of the Last Judgment. The scene is majestic. Jesus, sitting upon a throne. Angels surrounding him. Gold and light and opulence everywhere. All the beauty imaginable in any sphere, there in one flashing moment. Every person who ever lived stands in front of him. A throng whose beginning and ending you cannot see or know or believe.
And Jesus sorts. Sorts the sheep from the goats. The good from the bad. The righteous from the unrighteous. Let’s see: I was hungry and you gave me food. Go over there. I was thirsty and you ignored me. Go over there. I was a stranger and you opened the door of your home to me. You’re in. I was freezing with no clothing and you walked right by me. You’re out. So far out. And we think, this is a lesson on how things are going to be at the last day and how Jesus will measure us. If we don’t measure up, then we will, well, we will go down, down for all of eternity.
It’s true that this story is telling us, begging us, to do right at all times. But it is not condemning us. In the story Christ is still the King and he gets to make the decisions. And Christ is a King of compassion and love. Look at the story not as a piece about condemnation but as a diagnostic tool. It’s in the Bible. So we have access to it over and over. We can return to it like we return to the doctor, to the clinic, to blood tests and wires and monitors and interviews and things poking and prodding at us, all to let us know how well we are. How well our bodies are holding up. How well we are taking care of them.
Jesus is monitoring us, poking us and prodding us and challenging us to do better. That man on the back of the holy man called Martyrius? Remember him, Jesus might say? I was that man visiting Martyrius to let him know that his actions in the world are holy, good. But more. I was that man using Martyrius to let the world know that I am a God of compassion and mercy. One who lives in and with and through not only you, but the least of these. Those who suffer. Those who smell bad. Those who are rude. Those who turn against me. Those in whom you would never think to find a bit of the godly. A bit of me. But there I am. There it is.
It’s very difficult for us to learn that we’ve been operating under false assumptions. Martyrius assumed that the man he carried was near death, not that he had died and now lived as salvation there on the road to the monastery. But he was surprised. Surprises are not always fun, not always easy.
There was recently a news story about a man in a culture in which marriages are pre-arranged and the couple doesn’t meet until the wedding. During the wedding the bride’s face is uncovered, is seen by her husband for the first time. The story goes that there was such a wedding recently and when the bride’s face was revealed the groom found her so repulsive that he immediately announced divorce and left the ceremony.
Surprises, even when they are built into our culture, into the ways in which we think about things, into our religion, surprises are difficult.
Jesus today sorts sheep from goats, good from bad, righteous from unrighteous not to frighten us. But to tell us that we have today and tomorrow and every tomorrow of our lives to be open to his presence in the world. For he is here. To be open to other people. For he is in them. To be open to living lives of love. For his love surrounds the hearts of those who love. Love that bubbles up in our spirits, and spills over into our actions, and flows across all whom we meet.
As Jesus’ righteousness cleanses us of our unrighteousness, we surround the throne of Christ the King – eternally. Amen.