Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King – November 26, 2017
This is Christ the King Sunday on our church calendar. The last Sunday in Year A. And we’re given a challenging gospel — it is one that stretches us. Jesus is separating people as sheep from the goats. He speaks of those who recognize him and minister to him, and those who don’t. When was it that we saw you? Notice that both groups of people ask the same question. When was it that we saw you? Neither noticed God in their midst.
Perhaps this passage is telling us that God regularly shows up in those places and persons we least expect God to be. Both groups, remember, gave next to no thought to their treatment of “the least of these” and are surprised to discover that their actions (or lack of actions) matter simply because it never crossed their mind that God was present. They gave next to no thought to their behavior or disposition toward “the least of these” because those persons just did not matter. And so along these lines, another way to think about “the least of these” is “those of no account,” “those who do not matter,” “those to whom we give little thought,” perhaps even “those whom we disdain.”
God regularly, even relentlessly, shows up just where we least expect God to be. Not in Jerusalem or Rome, but in backwater Bethlehem. Not in armor but in the vulnerable flesh of a babe. Not in conquest but in crucifixion. Not in power but in weakness. Again and again, God in Jesus shows up where we least expect God to be to surprise us, disarm us, overturn our expectations and judgments, all in order to invite us to give up our attempts to redeem ourselves – or even just to go it alone –instead relenting to God’s redemptive, surprising, and uncontrollable love.
When was it that we saw you? Jesus gets awfully specific in telling us where we can find him. Each of the habitations he lists here is marked by lack: lack of food, lack of water, lack of hospitality, lack of clothing, lack of health, lack of freedom. Christ comes not in the form of those who visit the imprisoned, but in the imprisoned being cared for; Christ’s presence is not embodied in those who feed the hungry, but Christ’s presence is in the hungry being fed; Christ does not come to us as the poor and hungry, because as anyone for whom the poor are not an abstraction but actual flesh and blood people knows, the poor and hungry and imprisoned are not a romantic special class of Christlike people. And those who meet their needs are not a special class of Christlike people. We all are equally as sinful and saintly as the other. Christ comes to us in the needs of the poor and hungry, needs that are met by another so that the gleaming redemption of God might be known.
No one gets to play Jesus. But we do get to experience Jesus in that holy place where we meet others’ needs and have our own needs met. We are all the needy and the ones who meet needs. To place ourselves or anyone else in only one category is to lie to ourselves.
When was it that we saw you? Both the sets of people ask. Who is left out of the reign of God? Or, perhaps more to the point just now, who might we be leaving out of the reign of God’s love? There is judgment in this parable, without question. But it is ultimately God’s judgment, a judgment we do not control, a judgment rendered by God in and through the Son of Man who in the very next verses will be handed over in vulnerability and weakness to be crucified by those he came to save.
Shane Claiborne is an extraordinary man who founded the Simple Way in Philadelphia and has tried to take seriously what Jesus said in our Gospel lesson. He has tried seriously to feed the hungry and to take mercy and generosity to the “mean streets.” In his book, The Irresistable Revolution, he tells of some of his experiences. He tells of a crowd that had packed tightly around a late-night food van–and a woman who was struggling–trying to move to the front where she could get some food. When it became possible, he asked whether it was really worth the fight to get some food. She responded:
“Oh yes, but I don’t eat them myself.
I get them for another homeless lady–
an elderly woman around the corner
who can’t fight for a meal.”
This Sunday is the last in Ordinary Time. It’s Christ the King Sunday, the liturgical calendar tells us. As we prepare to cross the threshold into Advent, we wonder what Christ, who came in such a ragged, radical guise, has in store for the season to come. How he’ll show up. Where he’ll invite us to see him. All we have is a promise, a promise that our needs are holy to God. A promise that Jesus is present in the meeting of needs and that his kingdom is here. In the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber, being part of Christ’s bizarre kingdom looks more like being thirsty and having someone you don’t even like give you water than it looks like polishing your own crown. It looks more like giving my three extra coats to the trinity of junkies on the corner than it looks like ermine-trimmed robes.
That is the surprising scandal of the kingdom: it looks like the same crappy mess that bumps us out of our unconscious addiction to being good, so that we can look at Jesus as he approaches us on the street and says, Man, you look like you could use a good meal.
Becca Stevens has a prayer for Mercy in her book Love Heals:
In Your spirit of mercy, as solid as the ground upon which we make our stand, help us recall when we were hungry, afraid, sick or imprisoned by bonds and burdens. May that mercy be forged into compassion that loves the whole world without judgment. Forgive us again when we fail to show mercy or come into Your temple for solace and not for strength. Pardon our blindness when we didn’t see You in the person we called our enemy. Help us let go of tired bitterness passed on by generations who forgot the freedom of forgiveness. Unite us in the truth that love is the most powerful force for change, and teach us to preach love in action, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.