Sunday, November 23rd, 2014 – Christ the King Sunday
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46
Hymns: “Shall We Gather at the River”, “How Great Is Our God”, “Make Me a Servant”, “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations”
It’s not often that you’ll hear a Disciples of Christ pastor talk about a Catholic priest, let alone give a sermon about one. After all, we are the denomination for whom the original reformation that split off the various Protestant traditions in the 16th century was not good enough, and we had to have another one of our own in the 1820s. But in spite of the difference between the Disciples of Christ as a Protestant tradition and the centuries-old traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, from time to time you come across an individual whose faith and ministry transcend denominational bounds and serves as a shining exemplar of the presence of Christ on earth.
Vincent Robert Capodanno was one such person. Born on February 13th, 1929, a mere seven and a half months before the stock market crash that plunged America into the Great Depression, he grew up in a large Italian-American family on Staten Island, in New York. It couldn’t have been a more appropriate family in a more appropriate place, especially seeing as they were a Catholic family. It was as if they had come straight out of a movie script.
As Vincent grew up, the Great Depression defined his childhood, and World War II his adolescence. Three of his brothers served in the United States armed forces during the war, instilling a sense of patriotism and service into Vincent that would manifest itself more thoroughly in his later years.
After Vincent graduated high school, he went to the Bronx, on the other end of New York City, to attend Fordham University. Fordham is run by one of the Catholic orders, the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. Though Vincent attended Fordham out of a desire to receive the excellent education for which the Jesuits hold a well-deserved reputation, it was while there that he began to publicly acknowledge a particular calling on his life.
It’s common among young men and women who recognize a calling to ministry that they do so while in college, and it was no different for Vincent Capodanno. As he was nearing the end of his time in college, he applied to the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, better known as the Maryknolls. Vincent wanted the opportunity to minister to people in less prosperous parts of the world, and the Maryknolls – colloquially referred to as the Marines of the Catholic Church for their propensity for doing work in the roughest corners of the world – would afford him that chance.
After graduating from Fordham, Vincent attended the Maryknoll Seminary in Ossining, New York. He was ordained into ministry in 1958, and was shortly thereafter dispatched into the mission field. Vincent arrived in Taiwan in 1959, and his priestly career began.
Vincent went into ministry out of a desire to serve the “least of these” among God’s children. And indeed, the calling he felt was one to which we are specifically called by Christ.
In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25, we hear a story that has been used again and again as an illustration for a large part of the mission of the Church of Christ on earth – we are called to go into all the world and make disciples, but we are also called to be the presence of Christ to all persons, including the “least of these”.
When Jesus provided this illustration to his disciples and those who had gathered to hear him speak, he was very much using an idea that should have been familiar to all of them. In Deuteronomy 10, God says to Israel, “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“When I was hungry, you fed me; when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink; when I was naked, you clothed me; when I was in prison, you visited me; when I was sick, you cared for me.” In this story, Jesus combines multiple theological perspectives. First of all, you have his echoing of the passage from Deuteronomy, where the people of Israel are commanded to love the stranger and care for the orphan and the widow, as God has done so before them. Secondly, you have the implied reiteration of an idea from the VERY BEGINNING OF THE BIBLE – man and woman have been created in the image of God, they have had life breathed into them by God, and how you treat one of these members of the body of Christ dictates how you treat Christ Himself.
The thing is, the sheep in this story don’t know what Jesus is talking about. You see, they weren’t consciously trying to score points from God – they were just trying to be good people, working for the good of those around them. And really, that is in large part a summation of everything that had been taught to Jesus’ followers up to that point in his ministry – be good people, working for the good of those around you. It’s a practical interpretation of the text from Matthew 22, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” and it led to this command from the author of the book of Hebrews: “Remember to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
To be sure, when Father Vincent joined the Maryknoll Society, he must have had this story from Matthew 25 in mind: one does not join a group joking referred to as “Marines” without realizing that you really will be serving the least of these. But in 1959, when his ministry began, he could not have possibly realized just where it would take him.
As Father Vincent’s ministry in Taiwan began, he lived out the ideal of service to the least of these to the letter. He did his best to learn the complex Hakka dialect that the Chinese residents of Taiwan spoke. He administered the sacraments of Catholic worship, and distributed food and medicine to the hungry and sick. Within a year of his arrival, he had established a youth hostel with the specific intention of giving young Chinese men a place to prepare for college entrance exams and not be distracted by the cares of the world. Spiritually speaking, this was an incredibly important task, as competition for entrance into colleges in China makes getting into an American college look like a walk in the park. The competition would often lead to depression and sometimes suicide among the applicants, and Father Vincent poured himself into those young men, to keep their spirits healthy.
In 1965, Father Vincent returned to New York on a six month furlough, and felt a calling to a different direction in his ministerial vocation. He saw another group of young men in southeast Asia who existed in a highly intense environment, who were among the highest at risk for depression and suicide. Recognizing the population in need, Father Vincent went to his religious order to seek permission to change his ministry to serve the United States Marine Corps.
The order approved the change in ministry, and on January 16th, 1966, Father Vincent reported to the US Navy’s Officer Training Command in Newport, Rhode Island, to attend the Naval Chaplaincy School. He graduated on April 8th – Good Friday – and reported to the 7th Marine Division, in Vietnam.
For the next year and a half, Father Vincent developed a reputation that would lead to the Marines with whom he served affectionately calling the “Grunt Padre”. Marine infantrymen are commonly referred to as “grunts”; other personnel, including staff officers such as chaplains, are referred to as “POGs” – People Other than Grunts. For the Marines to so fully accept Father Vincent as one of their own is indicative to the level of commitment he demonstrated to them. He made sure that the Marines with whom he was deployed always had the opportunity to worship; he helped them make connections with the Vietnamese people; he helped boost morale; he was always available to tend to the spiritual needs of his Marines.
On September 4th, 1967, following the crash of a helicopter that was expected to extract the company of Marines with whom Father Vincent had gone into the field, a much larger North Vietnamese regiment attacked the Marine company. Hours of heavy fighting led to severe casualties among the Marines, with Father Vincent himself sustaining wounds to his face and left hand.
During previous engagements, the North Vietnamese Army had usually been careful to avoid targeting the medical and religious personnel deployed with the various American units. However, in this particular engagement, one machine gunner either didn’t know, or just didn’t care. He fired on the unit corpsman, wounding him, and then keeping him pinned on the ground with machine gun fire. Father Vincent, seeing that the corpsman had gone down, immediately moved toward him – without the unit’s corpsman, further injuries to the Marines could spell serious trouble. Upon reaching the corpsman, however, as Father Vincent administered first aid and pastoral care, the machine gunner turned on Father Vincent.
He was hit 27 times. Sixteen months later, President Lyndon Johnson posthumously awarded him the Medal of Honor.
When Father Vincent stood before the Lord, it is unlikely that he was told that he had ministered to the least of God’s children – he already knew. However, it is equally unlikely that there were any so-called “goats” nearby who were about to be admonished and condemned for NOT carrying out such ministry.
You see, like any other of Jesus’ stories, this was meant to be a model of how we should conduct our lives as followers of Christ. An individual who fails to be as Christ to one of the least of these will obviously not be banished immediately to eternal punishment, as were the goats. Even the most perfect of individuals is a sinful person, and will at some point fail in this endeavor. Jesus’ point here is that we are to put our utmost effort into making sure that we do NOT fail.
The real kicker about this story, though, is not whether it is meant to be an admonition or a condemnation. No, the thing you must understand is that this was Jesus’ last public sermon. This was Thursday morning. That night, he would be betrayed, the next day, crucified. After his resurrection, he would appear only to small groups of people at a time. Never again would Jesus hold a discourse before a large group of people like he did here in Matthew 25.
We have to understand, then, the significance and the importance of this part of the living ministry of the body of Christ. The very last thing that the bulk of Jesus’ contemporary followers ever heard from him was that when they saw somebody less fortunate, they were commanded to minister to that person as though that person were Jesus Christ himself. It’s a commandment that Father Vincent Capodanno took very seriously, all the way to the grave.
This is Lieutenant Father Vincent Capodanno, Chaplain Corps, United States Navy. This particular portrait of him hangs in the command passageway on the second deck of the Naval Chaplaincy School and Center at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina. The way it is positioned means that it can be very visibly seen from one particular seat in the primary Basic Leadership Course classroom – the seat in which I sat for most of the last eight weeks.
The first time I noticed the portrait in my peripheral vision, I thought that somebody was actually looking through the classroom window. Of course, as soon as I looked up, I realized that it was the painting of Father Vincent. But it seemed almost alive, as though he were consistently looking in at me. Even when the motion-detecting lights in the hallway turned off, his face was still just barely visible.
I mentioned this early on to one of my classmates, a Greek Orthodox priest from Chicago. “In my tradition, that’s how icons are supposed to be,” he told me. “You’re supposed to feel like they’re almost alive, like the subjects of the paintings are actually watching over you.”
I kept that in the back of my head throughout Chaplain School. There I was, unhappy about being separated from Caitie and from this church for seven and a half weeks, but the reason I was there was because I was in training to properly provide ministry to the least of God’s children. Yes, I’m a Reservist, but I will still interact with Sailors and Marines who are, at times, in the lowest places in their lives.
So each day, whenever I would grow bored, or frustrated, or irritated with a classmate, or unhappy about being away from home, I would look out the window. I would remember that this minister from New York, one who held the same rank and position that I do, gave of himself without consideration for personal desires to the least of God’s children.
I would look at him, and think of that, and then remember that I was there that I might do the same – to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, care for the sick.
Indeed, may we all do the same.