by Cara Ellen Modisett
VTS Middler, Cara Ellen Modisett, a frequent contributor to Music, Liturgy, and the Arts, shares a sermon she wrote for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King, Sunday. While it was written for a specific Sunday, we found it to be appropriate on any day.
The city where I live, Roanoke, Va., contains an entire mountain within its corporate limits – Mill Mountain. On the top of Mill Mountain is a giant neon star, more than 88 feet tall, 100 feet tall including its support structure, built on the mountainside one Christmas season back in the late 1940s. The mountain also holds hiking trails, two overlooks, a zoo, a nature center and roads that lead up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a popular place for sightseers, wedding proposals and senior pictures. From the overlooks, you can see for miles, not just the highways and the office buildings of the city below but the ridges of the mountains beyond, mountains that are as much as a billion years old, worn down by the elements over millennia.
It’s November, and it’s getting colder, and we’re expecting rain to the point of flooding in the next few days as another storm hurtles into the states south of us, so I have a small window of time to spend with this text outdoors – because of the pandemic, an indoor public space is not an option for me, 30-some years spent with a rebuilt heart.
So on this particular late fall afternoon, I take my notebook and my mask and my cell phone and drive downtown, past the baseball fields and the hospital and over the river, and I take a right turn and head up the mountain when rain clouds are just starting to gather, the colors on the trees fading with the higher the elevation, and Daylight Saving Time is already turning the afternoon to evening.
And on the top of the mountain, even with the zoo and the neon star and occasional wedding proposals, there’s a lot of open space, slopes tilting down from the peak to the treeline, boulders holding down the earth, walking paths through the rhododendron. And on this particular late afternoon I find that others have come up to be in the cooler air as well – a family with young children whose Spanish-speaking voices bubble up through the trees. A couple in their thirties, a couple navigating with a walker, a middle-aged man barreling up a sidewalk in his mechanized wheelchair, a father in a biker’s leather vest who’s parked his motorcycle and is clambering on the playground equipment with his young son. A young woman on a bicycle. A man holding a hiking stick, sitting and watching the sun and shadows across the valley, never turning to look back, for the entire time I am there. A squirrel annoyed with my presence, but not annoyed enough to stop rooting through a trash can.
And it’s warm enough, so I sit on the grass with my phone open to Lectionary Page dot net and my legal pad and my pen and I write. And I’m writing about the scripture for Christ the King Sunday, the Sunday right before Advent. It’s a Sunday that’s a bit of a made-up feast day, first created in 1925, and not even by the Episcopal Church but by the Catholic Pope, Pius XI. It’s been celebrated on the last Sunday before Advent since 1970. To be honest, it’s a feast day I have some trouble with. The idea of Christ as a King, as part of a hierarchical, rather outdated, often male-dominated system of government, is hard to square with the idea of Christ as vulnerable, human, itinerant, rebellious. And in this year’s lectionary, the idea of Christ as judgmental, sorting among the goats and the sheep at the end of the world, is hard to square with a God of grace and love.
So here I am, on top of a mountain, exchanging socially distanced hellos with the Spanish-speaking family and the woman on the bicycle, trying not to disturb the man sitting in his solitude, finding myself smiling at the motorcycle dude following his son down the slide. I hear an ambulance. The bare trees, ready for the temporary death of winter, don’t hide the ugliness of the city anymore, and the rooftops of big box stores and gas stations have replaced the forests that once filled the valley. And it’s all beautiful anyway.
On this mountain, I feel a bit the way I feel at church on a pre-pandemic Sunday. Not just that the mountain is vast, sacred ground, beautiful and soaring and old. This year, we are missing that experience of church, coming together and being together in one building, sharing the Eucharist, taking in the body of Christ, nourished and fed by him, imperfect and not beautiful and beautiful, all of us in God’s grace, sharing the table and being loved by our creator, then going back out again into the world to do God’s work. There’s a point in the Eucharist I particularly love, after I’ve already received and I’m sitting down again, and watching the others who walk up to the table, then return again – young and old, strong and struggling, family and solitary – and I love each one of them as they walk past. It’s a thin moment, a time when the walls between us and God, and us and each other, disappear briefly, a time when God speaks to us, forgives us, reconciles us to each other, feeds us and sends us back out into the world to work toward the promise of God’s Kingdom.
This afternoon, this mountain feels like the Eucharist to me. It holds God, a nourishing, loving, reconciling and eternal God, a God repeating the Great Commandment week after week, to love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love neighbor as you love yourself; and it is a Jesus repeating the Great Commission week after week – go into the world and tell the good news, make disciples of all the people and be reconciled to one another. The mountain, like the Eucharist, holds all of us together – the young and the old, the strong and the struggling, the family and the solitary, a mix of voices and languages and views – and we are nourished here, fed by God’s creation, a different form of Christ’s incarnation. We may not all even know it. This mountain is a thin place, where the walls between us and God, and us and each other, disappear briefly.
And all of this does all connect with Christ the King Sunday, and helps work past the contradictions we try to hold together. For today’s scripture, like the Eucharist, holds all of God incarnate in Christ the King: God is the shepherd who leads us into the safety of mountain pastures, as we read in Ezekiel. God is the eternal creator who made the caverns of the earth and the heights of the hills also, as we sing in the Psalms. God And most importantly for our time, he is the God who judges us, and tells us that in loving each other we love him, as we hear in the Gospel.
As storm clouds gather and an uncertain winter comes, it is good for us to remember that God will not desert us, that God is there with us through this strange and anxious wilderness of pandemic and politics. It is also good for us to remember that God asks for something in return –reminding us that those who share the mountaintop with us are members of the family of God, and that in loving them we love our creator who first loved us – that is Christ the King’s commandment for us. And on this mountain, I see the created and the creator, the ageless world where God lives and loves, and the ever-changing world of humanity where we live and love. For now, this is our Eucharist.