Christ Episcopal Church
Last Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 29a
November 26, 2017
This is the last Sunday of the Church Year. We begin each year by celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace and we conclude today with the Feast of Christ the King.
The Gospel is taken from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, which is a story about the last judgment. The King is sitting on his heavenly throne and all peoples and nations of the earth are gathered before him. Like a shepherd, the king begins to separate the sheep and the goats. The sheep are placed to the right of the King, while the goats go to the left. (That’s not a political metaphor.)
The sheep are told that they’re blessed and will inherit the kingdom of God: “ . . . for 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, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
The goats are cursed and told to depart for the fiery place reserved for the devil and his angels . . . because they did not feed, did not share a drink, didn’t welcome, did not clothe — take care of – or visit him when he was in prison.
Neither the sheep nor the goats have any idea of when they responded to — or didn’t respond to — the king’s need. Both sheep and goats ask: “When was it that we saw you hungry or naked or thirsty?” “We don’t remember ever seeing you, O great King, in any of those dire circumstances?”
And the King answers them with those memorable words, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it – or didn’t do it – to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it – or didn’t do it — to me.”
Just when we think we may have this religion business figured out, Jesus tells a story like this. Here are all the nations and peoples of the earth gathered in front of the great Judgment Seat of the King of Heaven . . . all the people, not just the Christians, not just the Israelites, but everyone else, too: imagine Mexicans, Egyptians, Kenyans, Koreans . . . all the people and nations.
And folk are being divvied up for eternity – not on account of their interpretation of Scripture, not on account of what they’ve done for church or synagogue or mosque, not even on the basis of their beliefs about the divinity of Jesus. No! The criterion for the great divide is how they’ve treated their neighbors – especially the vulnerable ones.
Neither group is aware of when they’ve met or served the King. There’s no calculation here, no sense that if I visit this guy in prison or volunteer at the food pantry that I’ll go to heaven. It’s all based on how humane one is, without cunning, without calculation, without guile.
In biblical literature this type of story is known as an apocalyptic story – that is, it’s supposedly about the end of time, the end of history, the end of the world. But although these stories purport to be prophecies of the end, the authors actually used them as vehicles for talking about the present.
The behaviors that are raised up by Jesus as critical in the present aren’t spectacular. They’re simple, everyday tasks that one can do to make the life of another more comfortable, more whole, and more endurable. These tasks represent the values of Jesus: that how we take care of one another in the human family is eternally significant.
The vision of Christ the King calls to mind a majestic figure – draped in the finest robes, sitting on a golden throne, wearing a jeweled crown of gold. But let’s not forget that the Jesus of history – the real Jesus – had a crown of thorns, and that his throne was a cross on which he hung and died. He was thirsty, and they gave him vinegar. He was naked, and they cast lots for his clothing.
Which raises the question about what it means to possess power. On the one hand the king separates sheep and goats. He hands out rewards and punishments. But Jesus gives us a lesson in how to wield power in a very different way—another way to be king. God’s power is not in military might—not in bombs, violence, and guns. His kingship isn’t a Game of Thrones kind of royalty.
Ironically, his power comes from a willingness to give up traditional forms of power by reigning from a cross. It’s a moral power where might does not make right—but right makes right. It’s the kind of power that non-violence wields in the face of violence. There is strength in being weak and vulnerable—showing up the violent as ultimately powerless.
We are facing a crisis of morality in this land. Symptoms of that crisis are the revelations in recent weeks of the abuse of power: in entertainment, government, politics, education. It has certainly occurred in the church—it happens in all walks of life and among folk all along the political spectrum. I’m talking about the abuse of women and children.
It is also the immorality that is willing to throw others under the bus. Deporting people who have no home to return to or a mom who is the primary care giver of a Down’s Syndrome son; abusing prisoners in the Montgomery County Jail; exposing folk to poisoned air and toxic water because it’s good for some distant investor’s bottom line; and on and on and on.
Today we bring two beautiful little girls into our community of faith—the Christian Church. We baptize them in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If there is one thing that I hope their parents, families, and faith community bequeath to them it is that they see the divine presence in every other human being and understand that God’s great creation is sacred. If they can have that kind of vision, then they will use whatever power they will one day have to do right: loving their neighbors as themselves and being stewards of the earth—knowing that this is Jesus’ claim upon their lives.
May God grant them and us the ability to embrace the other. And may what breaks the heart of Jesus, break their and our hearts as well.