Next Sunday, November 23rd begins the final week of the liturgical year. This Last Sunday after Pentecost is a Feast Day in celebration of Christ’s Kingship. Its proper collect, the community prayer, offered just before the reading of the first of the scripture lessons foreshadows the theme of the Gospel, Matthew 25:31-46, by praying that all “the peoples of the earth …may be … brought together under [Jesus’] most gracious rule”. This Feast confronts us with the reality that if we treat others as if they were Christ, then we are assured of our readiness for that final day’s audience with the king in his majesty at the end of our time toward which all of our daily moments are drawn.
A quirky little Spanish proverb says “God is a good worker, …. but God loves to be helped”. Now what has that to do with the twinge of anxiety that comes from images of the day of final endings, when the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 are separated for once and for all? We know that this prophecy of our Lord in this upcoming Gospel includes us; but as members of one of the so-called “mainline” denominations, we might prefer to ignore this imagery because of its frequent associations with the rants of uneducated, fanatical sectarians. Be that as it may, as the liturgical year ends, we would nevertheless do well to look at our hope to be united with the King, and pray for the grace to be comfortable with how we have two kinds of “ends”: The first end, of course, is the fact that our lives will end physically, probably followed by a funeral or memorial service. The second kind of end is God’s intention or design for us. God hopes that we will all be made ready to embrace our perfect entry into eternal life.
The world around us appears to have no concern about such matters as the King’s advent. Instead, the holiday stuff of retailers has begun to appear in Walmart, Home Depot, and other such places. As with every year I can remember, much of the manufactured glitter has already shown their buds as early as mid October, and then the store tinsel starts to bloom following the first sunrise after Hallowe’en — like, for example, the stacks of Wreaths at Michael’s Craft Store I saw the other day while hearing those old recordings of Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett in the background. My reaction? Typically Episcopal, I guess: We, who strive to live by the liturgical calendar, are familiar with the premature labor pains of Christmas in our culture. Occasionally I wonder: Is this all a conspiracy by people with no real interest in the incarnation of God? With several Sundays yet to go with the green vestments after Pentecost still in our Churches, we also see accumulations of artificial greenery outside the church. May God forbid that we be distracted from the quieter messages, the jewels of Advent, by this plastic of consumerism!
Does the familiar stuff of the shopping season have anything to do with the final day Jesus teaches about in the Gospel? It does not seem so, as the lesson from Matthew is a very powerful prophecy by Jesus from his momentous week in Jerusalem toward not Christmas, but Good Friday. The season we are living in now is the carrier of Black Friday. Some of us may need to be reminded that the Gospel lesson coming up is of Jesus during Holy Week in Jerusalem; he was there at the climax of his ministry.
Now during these November days, We should take notice of numerous symbols, and get them sorted out. The silver bells and sidewalk clutter of this time of the year are really the kind of stuff that will become the ashes of a different season later on toward winter’s end. I speak, of course, of the ashes put on our foreheads for the start of Lent. They remind us that everything glamorous now is vanity, and it all will one day be the fossils of forgotten memories left by all the departed, including us. So then, the gaudy mall decorations growing in our midst have no more value than the weeds in an untended garden. The funny thing is, though, that if these weeds disappeared, I would in some way miss them. After all, don’t the lights of our main streets lift our spirits during these longer nights, or are they simply the bad stuff, put up by the “goats” who worship their idols of self-centered acquisitiveness? To that question, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and some of the anabaptist groups (the Old Order Mennonites, and the Amish) would say that the whole thing leading up to the 25th of December has nothing to do with the New Testament Faith. Perhaps they have a point, but I cannot help but think that Jesus would be more inclined to smile at the lighted trees of the night than at the fruitless fig he saw in the broad daylight before he was betrayed. After all, which of the two signifies fecundity, abundance, and hope — even if some of trees are neither fig nor fir, but plastic?
There is an exceptional tree that is already up, and in the process of being decorated. It appears every year before the middle of November. Once again an eighty-foot tall Norway Spruce on a three-axle flatbed has been delivered to its place of my happy childhood memories, Rockefeller Center in New York. Upon seeing it, My cynicism began to melt as sixty-year-old memories came to mind: My happy parents, my brothers, and me piling into a 1951 woody station wagon, and heading through the Lincoln Tunnel to visit the magical windows of Fifth Avenue, the skating rink, and then behold the tree after going to the Radio City Music Hall matinee.
This year the tree came from Central Pennsylvania. It will be lit with the usual fanfare. I have visited New York during about half of the Decembers in my adulthood. Funny thing about these more recent visits: The tree and the skating rink seem to be so much smaller than the way I remember them. But spiritually, there is something rather large about this year’s tree: It will continue to live on after its January death as it becomes the walls and floorboards of Habitat for Humanity homes on the same Pennsylvania soil that nurtured the tree from seedlinghood. So on that note, I delight in letting the tree in New York, be for me a symbol that compliments well the Gospel themes of these late Sundays after Pentecost: The themes of the parables are about readiness for the end of our time which could happen at any moment so that the last moment of our temporal life, whenever that may be, can be a meaningful denouement, rather than a bloody amputation without holy significance. Maybe the best way to sum up what the iconic tree in New York can be for us, who live in Christ, is that it was delivered to New York during the days near Martinmas. On that day, also Veterans Day, the Church remembers Martin of Tours, the fourth century soldier who ministered to a homeless man about to die of hypothermia by tearing off and giving him half of his cloak. The legend tells of how, in a dream, the night after his encounter with the man, it was revealed to Martin that the naked beggar was Jesus Christ. In a Martin-like sort of way then, the tree at Rockefeller Center with its splendor now will be a source shelter to families that might otherwise be homeless in the cold.
No doubt the tree will be seen by both pragmatic retailers and grumpy cynics as a public relations stunt and stimulant to get people out with their Black Friday money. But this year’s back story of the spruce can prime us to read, mark, and so inwardly digest this coming Sunday’s Gospel lesson about how we are called to offer ourselves, like the wood of the tree, to be of help to homeless people because it is just simply the right(eous) thing to do, not something done with the expectation of any favor in return. I wonder if that kind compassion-in-action eases the suffering of Christ, our God of love and shepherd king. If that is the case, and I believe it is, the Christmas tree In New York is a life-giving symbol to keep our souls ever green.
So back to the question: Is God really a good worker? Oh yes indeed! God also loves to be helped. Saints through the ages, both before and after Martin, have pleasured God with their helpfulness. All saints have continued to do that from Martin’s time through the preceding generations down to the people that sponsored us into our baptisms. They have been God’s helpers, continuing God’s healing presence in the creation. All this defines the importance we have to honor our calling to live out our creeds with the kind of faith that leads to Christ-like deeds. This is an interpersonal and community- building process that starts every day with at least two, people like you and me, and then somebody else comes into the picture. And who is that? whoever it is that is transformed by the example of love between the first two. That is a type of trinity mustard seed that continues to grow the Church during the green season of our time, a season of meaningful work because we look forward to the harvest of our righteous faith. Such helpers of God hallow our present time and space, and fertilize the movement that is the body of Christ so that it will grow in ways more important than statistics alone can tell — until we all become the great togetherness in the world to come —which, like Christmas, … is just around the corner. God is indeed a good worker —because God trusts us, his people to help him, and by and large…. they do, and they, as they hear the Gospel proclaimed next week, will be assured that God will know them when God appears to define once and for all, the purpose of our time.