The Rev. Peter M. Carey – Diocese of Virginia Region XV Council Meeting at Emmanuel, Greenwood – Eucharist – Sermon – 19 November 2009
We have heard Matthew 25 before. Sometimes, we may find it hard to hear the words of the Bible anew, as these readings roll through the Sunday lectionary and the Daily Office, and today in the Daily Eucharistic Lectionary. These commonly quoted readings can become pillars that support our faith, but over time, they may not sound like the living and breathing Word. When Karl Barth began serving as a working pastor after working solely as a scholar, he remarked that he wanted to enter “the strange new world in the Bible.” And what a strange world it is, Christ as King, but nothing like any king we know, Christ as the hungry and thirsty, Christ as a stranger, Christ naked, sick and in prison. What a strange new world this is.
In order to enter into this world, we have to do some clearing. We may have some well-worn tire tracks that need to be smoothed out, like the dirt roads in my home state of Vermont. We nearly have to develop what the Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” so that we might encounter the scripture anew.
Today is the feast day of Elizabeth of Hungary. She was a princess and was married at 14, and that she was pious. She spent her money and time among the poor, the sick, and the needy. When her husband died, she lived the life of a third order Franciscan – giving away all that she had, and living as a follower of Christ among the poor in the model of St. Francis. Her work was so radical, her life so dramatic, her practice so selfless that though she died at 24, many hospitals around the world are named after her to this day.
We have this challenging reading from Matthew, and we have this life of Elizabeth, which set a high mark, indeed, for the Christian life. I don’t know about you, but I wonder whether I can do this work of charity – caritas – and love. We know that actions speak louder than words, but we also know that actions are costlier and can appear more difficult.
However “good” she was, Elizabeth did not do all this out of mere generosity, she did not do this out of noblesse oblige. This was not a tithe, this was her life. Elizabeth encountered Christ in those she served. Jesus has turned it all on its head, not only doing unto others “as you would like to have done to you,” but also doing unto others because in that encounter, one encounters Christ. This is beyond pragmatic “good works,” beyond a narrow view of charity. Archbishop William Temple famously said, “The Church is the only organization dedicated to the betterment of those who are not members.” And this dedication is based on the reality that in these interactions of compassion we might know Christ.
When I think of St. Elizabeth’s, I think of interviewing for a CPE site, and I visited St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for a day along with my friend Charles. St. Elizabeth’s is the mental hospital in the South East neighborhood of DC. Though I had spent time working with needy populations in cities, I was nervous to be at “St. E’s”. I was preoccupied with stupid things like what I was wearing, and how I might be perceived. At one point, we were separated from our guide and temporarily locked in a waiting area along with some patients. I could feel the redness come into my neck and head. I could feel the nervousness and anxiety wash over me. By contrast, Charles had sat down on a folding chair next to one patient, and took the opportunity to get to know him a bit. Charles didn’t have any magic words, and didn’t have any special training. But he was open enough, and relaxed enough to recognize the gift of the person he sat with on those metal folding chairs. They chatted about this and that until the door was unlocked. Not only did Charles recognize Christ in the patient, but also was able to invite me into the conversation so that I, too could enjoy this gift. We may not be able to be Elizabeth, and we may not even be able to be Charles, but we can be who we are, and we can strive to live so that we might also be transformed by the interactions of compassion.
In “Where God Happens,” Rowan Williams notes that “each living being in the world rests upon a unique creative act of God . . . Every being has at its heart its own word, its own “logos.” A truthful relation to anything is an uncovering of that word.”
A truthful relation to anything is an uncovering of that word; that Christ within them. So today, we remember Elizabeth of Hungary, who in her short 24 years certainly did the work of Christ in the world, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and giving shelter to the needy. But she also offers us a challenging and encouraging image of someone who did these things out of Joy, who was transformed by them, who encountered Christ in these children of God. May we also live out our faith so that we might do the work of Christ, and meet Christ in one another.