Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Sheep and Goats, Kings and Queens

What's the only state flag in the United States that incorporates the Union Flag of Great Britain into its design? Hawaii. I suppose the thirteen colonies were still too upset about taxation without representation to include evidence of their former identity in their state standards. Hawaii, on the other hand, became a state in 1959, sixty or so years after representatives of the United States had helped orchestrate the overthrow of Hawaii's ruling queen, which led to annexation. Almost two hundred years earlier, British explorer James Cook had landed on Hawaii, bringing to the islands both the unrelenting attention of Europeans and their deadly diseases. Still, the link between Hawaii and England was fashioned and preserved for generations.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, when the man who would become King Kamehameha IV was a fifteen-year-old prince, he took a government sponsored trip to England, where he experienced the richness of the Anglican tradition. Five years after his trip, his uncle died, and Kamehameha became king at a time when American political and economic influence in his nation was growing rapidly. As much a political decision as a religious one, Kamehameha petitioned the Bishop of Oxford to send missionaries from the Church of England to Hawaii to moderate the other American Christian influences that had taken hold on the island. Within a month of the arrival of missionary bishop Thomas Staley and two priests, the Kamehameha and Emma, the queen, were confirmed, and Kamehameha began translating the Book of Common Prayer and hymnal from English into Hawaiian.

Anglicanism may have been a politically expedient affiliation, but Kamehameha and Emma's devotion to the Christian faith were unquestioned. They traveled through the islands, listening to the needs of their people. Smallpox had ravaged the kingdom, and they personally solicited money from the entire population--rich and poor--to raise funds to build a hospital, which to this day remains the largest civilian hospital in Hawaii. One year after their four-year-old son died tragically of chronic asthma, Kamehameha died, reportedly of grief. Emma was unsuccessful in her attempt to retain the throne, but her role in public life did not diminish. She continued to build schools, particularly for girls, and support the charitable efforts that she and her husband had founded. She died at the age of 49, after suffering several strokes.

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory...all nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats...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...' 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 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."

Today, as we celebrate the feast of Kamehameha and Emma and use their lives to help us understand what it means to be a chosen vessel through which the Holy Spirit acts, I am drawn into the sense of timing and surprise contained in Jesus' parable about judgment. Notice how the king introduces the inheritance to the righteous ones: "the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." It is as if the appointed place has been appointed and preserved long before those to whom it will be given were born or did anything to deserve it. The inheritance itself was determined before the inheritors were around. And notice how surprised the righteous ones are when they hear that they have cared for the king personally--"When was it...," they ask. I wonder whether Kamehameha and Emma, when they stand before the Son of Man, will be surprised when he says to them, "When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat." I sense that they might reply, "Lord, we were just doing our jobs. We were caring for our people."

The parable Jesus uses hinges on that sense of timing and surprise. The message isn't simply, "Go out and try harder to do nice things for all people because, in so doing, you will care for me." It's nice to do nice things in the name of Jesus, but that isn't what separates the sheep from the goats. All are surprised to discover the connection between their actions and their identity. The righteous ones do the right thing because it is who they are. It is their identity. It is not an act of the will but a reflection of their very being. Likewise, the unrighteous, whose fate we skip in the reading for today, are equally surprised. Of course they would have cared for the king if they had only known. But that's the point. It's not about knowing or seeing or choosing. The parable's sense of surprise shows us that it's deeper than that. It portrays righteous (or unrighteous) acts as a reflection of an identity, and it's that identity that we celebrate in the lives of all the saints, including Kamehameha and Emma.

You are one of God's sheep, a righteous one, a saint, not because of the good things you've done but because that's who God has made you, that's how God has formed you. The righteous acts will flow from that identity whether we are conscious of them or not. You can't charity your way into righteousness. You can't earn your way into being one of the sheep. That's already decided. It's been decided since the foundation of the world. Your job is to celebrate it. Your calling is to become conscious of it. You are to become a fuller and fuller vehicle through which the Holy Spirit, which already dwells within you, acts in this broken world--not so that you can be a child of God but because you already are a child of God. Our first turn, therefore, is not outward but inward. We look within to discover God's truth about who we are so that then we can look outward and see beyond ourselves and become God's hands and feet in the world.

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