Reign of Christ Sunday
November 26, 2017
In addition to my sermon below, if you have time for a podcast, check out the Nov. 26 rebroadcast of On Being’s interview of Fr. Greg Boyle. Though today’s gospel reading is mentioned specifically at the end, it echoes throughout the entire interview.
Listen to the gospel reading and sermon here:
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then 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; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then 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? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And 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.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-46
The sheep and the goats, though it is a parable of judgment, is one that we tend to love. It gets quoted often in social justice circles to bolster the work of caring for our neighbors. We tend to like to think of ourselves, of course, as sheep who, despite having heard the parable, will feign surprise at the day of judgment, “Oh?! That was you, Jesus? I never would have recognized you!” We serve our “least of these” neighbor, recognize their humanity and even the presence of Jesus in them, and we are glad to have been a part of such an interaction.
And I am grateful for this parable’s strong and clear call to care for the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned. It has galvanized whole movements within the church to create social service agencies, advocate for change, and develop one-on-one ministries with individuals who are very much hurting and in need. I don’t remember exactly if and when it has been articulated, but this passage has almost certainly been a part of the influence on our own congregation’s commitment to care for others through the Survival Center, the Cot Shelter, Cathedral in the Night, refugee and immigrant support and much more. At last Tuesday’s interfaith Thanksgiving service all the faith traditions talked with gratitude for one another, for a community that makes room for one another, for people who come together to serve others. Wednesday we again hosted the Amherst Survival Center Thanksgiving dinner, where the parish hall was filled with young and old, people from many countries speaking several languages, people as far as I know across the socioeconomic spectrum. It was a holy feast.
But I am feeling cautious this week in reading the parable, because I am aware that I tend to read this parable just that one way. I put myself in the place of the sheep, or more rarely when I’m feeling a little less magnanimous toward myself and the world I might worryingly put myself in the place of the goats. But I tend not to put myself in the place of the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned. And I’m not eager, frankly, to find myself in one of those positions.
All too often the church has seen itself this way, too, casually tossing around the phrase “the least of these” with tremendous pity and with the assumption that these people are not already part of the church. I, at least, am too often guilty of setting up an “us and them” mindset when it comes to people in need. On the one hand this speaks to my own position of power and privilege, which this passage calls me to use in service of others. But I am uncomfortable with the idea that I am reluctant to do that to the extent that it puts me in the place of the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned. I have not and frankly likely will not go willingly to the place that Jesus lives. I will visit. I will visit with nourishing meals and bread and wine from this table. I will visit with prayers and conversation. I will visit with support and care. But at least until now I have mostly been a visitor.
I know that some of you, many of you even, have had a different experience. That you have found yourself in the place of profound vulnerability and need. Some of you have known the presence of Jesus in that place with you. Some of you have known the companionship of sheep through those times. Some of you have not. But I believe what Jesus says, even though he says it in parable form, that as much as we wonder about Jesus’ absence from this world, that Jesus is present in those in need. Present in a way that transforms, renews, and resurrects, but which also demands the love and care of those who are able in any way to provide assistance.
But what are we sheep to do? First, clearly, if we find ourselves with any resources that meet the needs of others to offer them, and to expect Jesus to show up in that relationship. We continue to do this with respect and dignity, constantly challenging ourselves to set aside our “us vs. them” mentality that creeps into all of our minds.
But this is Christ the King Sunday, when we celebrate not only the upside down reign of God from the place of the vulnerable ones, but also our citizenship in that kingdom. If Jesus, our leader and ruler, is in the thirsty, hungry, naked, sick, and imprisoned, then we are invited to seek God there rather than in the usual ways of power, money, and success. We are invited into the kingdom of thirsty, hungry, naked, sick, and imprisoned. We are invited to become them. We who bear the name of Christ are called into a way of life that embodies God’s rule in this world, living in vulnerability and entering a place not given much privilege by the world around us. It is a call not simply to carry what is needed to people who need it, but a call to enter into profound and life-altering kinship with those who have been othered by us and by society. It is a call to live with constant and profound awe for one another. For that is God’s kingdom on earth, ruled from the cross, God’s throne in disguise, gathering in the beloved community to a place where brokenness and need is transformed by God’s presence into a community of kinship, relationship, and unity.
It isn’t easy to enter this kinship fully on earth. It is impossible to enter it with the completeness and openheartedness of Christ. But we try as the church. We eat a meal together welcoming everyone to the table. We seek not just to serve meals and hold food drives, but to build relationships with members of our community to discover what we have to learn about God in them. Last weekend some of us from this congregation traveled to Christ the King in Gladwin, MI, to build relationships with people who live in a different place, to serve with them, to worship with them, to become community across geographical and other differences. We have a healing ministry team, some of whom will take communion kits at the end of the service today for members of our community who cannot come to church. Members of that team lead all of us in seeking to accompany the members of our own community who are struggling: not necessarily to cure illness or disease, but to enter into relationship, to enter at least for a time, to the extent it is possible, the realm of the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned. And in each of those places to find ourselves sitting at the feet of Jesus, the great shepherd of sheep and goats, of hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned, of you and me, and all creation.
And there at the feet of Jesus, like both the sheep and the goats, we will look back with utter shock to discover Christ hidden among us in the most surprising places, not just in the people we identify as in need, not just the people we label as other, not just the people we have served intentionally, but in that day of making things clear and right, we will discover Christ in those we didn’t realize we had served, the people we didn’t realize were in need of the gifts God gave to us, the people we met and talked to everyday. And I suspect it will be revealed to us then, too, all the ways Christ has been present in us in moments we never understood or thought it possible that God could enter with us. All this revealed to us in the presence of the one born among us, the one who lived hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned, the one who goes to the cross and the grave – to hell itself and back again – to raise us up to the life that really is life.
-Pastor Steven Wilco