Last Sunday after Pentecost – November 22, 2020
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, it’s essentially a liturgical hinge between the long “Season After Pentecost,” and the beginning of the season of Advent. So, we pause this week to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s reign over the Church, the world, and our lives. What kind of king is Jesus? What does his rule look and feel like? What does it mean to live and thrive under his kingship?
And to explore those questions, we’re given a challenging gospel today — 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, well, those persons just didn’t 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 worldly 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? As Jan Richardson writes: 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.
Christ chooses these places, inhabits these spaces, waits for us to show up. Waits, too, for us to recognize those places in ourselves. He knows that if we haven’t recognized the poverty within our own souls, and how he dwells there, it’s hard to see him and serve him in others without being patronizing.
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 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 her 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 church 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. This is about relationship…our relationship with Christ and with each other. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind – and love your neighbor as yourself. Sound familiar? I hope that we can take the time to see, to pay attention, to look for Christ’s presence in our lives.
Hope. Hope is not always comforting or comfortable. Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. It calls us to keep breathing when beloved lives have left us, to turn toward one another when we might prefer to turn away. Hope draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future but propels us also into the present, where Christ waits for us to work with him toward a more whole world now. Christ is here now. I leave you with a:
Blessing of Hope by Jan Richardson
So may we know
that is not just
but for this day—
in this moment
that opens to us:
hope not made
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,
hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
hope that raises us
from the dead—
but this day,