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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Signs of the Kingdom (Matthew 25:31-46)


31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45  Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46  And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

 

In Disney’s The Lion King, young Simba dreams about what it will be like when he is king.  Doing whatever he wants, everyone listening to him, running the show, being in charge, giving orders.  This is what life is like for the king, is it not?

 

My first grade class put on a play called The Trial of Mother Goose.  Old King Cole, played by yours truly, brought Mother Goose up on charges for spreading lies about the subjects in my kingdom in her latest, scandalous, tabloid of “Fairy Tales” – Georgie Pordgie, Jack Spratt, Little Miss Muffett, and the Old Woman who technically took residence in a boot, not a shoe.  As King Cole, one of the stories I really objected to was Humpty-Dumpty, as Mother Goose insinuated that all my horses and all my men were incompetent and incapable of putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again after the whole falling off the wall incident.  I also took issue with her description of me as “Old King Cole,” when I was only 39, and I was not a “merry old soul,” but was, as it turned out, quite grumpy.

 

My costume consisted of a long purple robe with fur trim around the edges and a Burger King crown, with tin foil strategically positioned over the logo as if no one could figure out where it came from.  I took to wearing that costume around the house both before and after the play.  When I put that costume on, I became the king, and let me tell you – it was good to be king, as I gave orders to my parents and my older sisters, and would bark things like “Off with their heads” when they failed to comply with my fickle commands.  I’ll let you guess how well that went over with my family.

 

There is more to being the king than simply giving orders and getting one’s one way all the time.  Yes, the king is in charge and has authority, but how they use their authority tells us what sort of king they really are, what sort of kingdom they rule.  Some kings use their authority selfishly – amassing wealth and power and prestige for themselves, their families, and their friends; others use their authority for the good and betterment of all.  May we pray.

 

Today is Christ the King Sunday, on which the Church remembers and celebrates the all-inclusive authority of Christ as Lord over all that is, ever has been, and ever shall be.

 

Today’s Gospel lesson comes from a very late section in Matthew’s Gospel – final teachings from Jesus in the days leading up to his passion and crucifixion.  The scene shows Christ in glory sitting upon his heavenly throne, separating the multitudes into one of two categories – sheep or goats.

 

Part of the message here is fairly clear and straightforward.  Obviously, it is better to be counted among the sheep in this passage than the goats.  Better to be on the right than the left – that’s not a political statement – better to be headed toward life than punishment, better to be a sheep than a goat.

 

Yet, to get caught up in whether we are a sheep or a goat is to miss the point entirely, as are speculations about the sheepishness or goatiness of others, such as the man who spent every Communion service carefully watching the people going forward, trying to determine for himself who were, in his words, “the real Christians and the fakers.”

 

Friends, that job has already been filled.  Christ is upon the throne, not us.  The seat of judgment is not yours or mine.  Jesus will sort it all out, which means we don’t have to, and thank God, because I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that responsibility.

 

That’s a hard job, one above my paygrade, partly because the world is not so neatly divided between good and evil as we might prefer.  It’s not as easy as we might think to separate the good people from the bad people, for the reality is that forces of good and forces of evil swirl around within each of us constantly.  One of the puzzles of humanity is that we can be quite noble, or we can be the deadliest and most destructive force on the planet, and each of us are capable of both.

 

At the end of time, Jesus, not us, will separate the sheep from the goats, but in the meantime?  A quick Google search on sheep and goats will show them living together as one herd, eating the same grass, led by the same shepherd, subject to the same weather, giving birth in the same peril, dying under the same conditions.

 

We’ve always known we live together in a very mixed herd.  Every Thanksgiving table holds what Garrison Keillor calls the family who are unhappy to be there, the rock-ribbed conservatives and the dedicated liberals, meat-eaters and vegans, the elder brothers and the prodigals, the prosperous and the unemployed, the ornery and the addled.

 

The sheep and goats live together, presented with the same opportunities, challenges, and temptations. 

 

Lest we still feel the need to rush to separate the sheep from the goats ourselves, notice in the passage that both the sheep and the goats are surprised to be counted where they are.  The sheep don’t know they’re sheep!  The goats don’t know they’re goats!  The sheep say, “Lord, when did we . . .?” and the goats say, “Lord, when didn’t we . . .?”  Both capture surprise and, shock, even, when Jesus commends or condemns their behavior.

 

The kingdom of God is full of surprises.  But what exactly are they surprised by? That they acted either in a righteous way by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned or, on the other hand, in an unrighteous way by neglecting to do the same? Interestingly, no. Neither group denies their behavior. Rather, they are surprised by their failure to recognize Jesus. Or, more to the point, they are surprised by where Jesus, the King, hangs out.

 

Neither the sheep nor the goats expect to see Jesus in the faces of the poor, the outcast, the marginalized.  No one was looking for the King of Kings to be among the weakest, most vulnerable, and needy in society.  Who looks for the Lord of Lords among the least of these?

 

Surprising, except that’s where Jesus has been showing up from the beginning.  If we’ve been paying attention to the Jesus story, that theme has been there all along.  His willful choice to leave the splendor of heaven and enter into human existence.  His birth in the barn.  His preference to eat with sinners.  His humble entrance into Jerusalem.  His message of love and service.  His execution as a common criminal, his burial in a borrowed tomb.  It’s all there, and I don’t know which is more surprising: that Jesus identifies with the lowest of the low, or that we, who have read the story, are surprised when we find him there, despite the fact that that’s where he’s been all along.

 

Sure, I would prefer Jesus to espouse values of power, and privilege, and prestige, and prosperity, because such a worldview would be much more conducive to my own comforts and convenience.  But friends, that’s not the Gospel.

 

We live in a world that sends us the constant message, “If you’re not first, you’re last.”  The Gospel of Jesus invites us into a different reality, where strength is made perfect in weakness, and where the road to life is paved with self-sacrifice.  Living under the Lordship of Christ challenges our preoccupation with being the first, the best, or the most – such superlatives are the places we are least likely to find Jesus.  No longer can we equate material prosperity with evidence of God’s presence; this passage undermines our tendency to look for God in places of power and prominence.

 

Those who have given yourselves in Christian service, whether down at Greensboro Urban Ministry or across the state or halfway around the world, can testify that Jesus is found most fully in the places of greatest need.  It is foolish for us to think when we go to serve that we are taking Jesus somewhere – how typically ego-centric of us!  I remember the first mission trip I went on, arrogantly thinking that I was about to take Jesus somewhere, only to discover that Jesus was already alive and well before long before I got there, and that the people I thought I was going to serve seemed to know Jesus far better than I did.

 

When we love and serve our neighbor, whether that neighbor lives around the corner or around the world, we are not trying to be Jesus; we are trying to see Jesus.

 

If we want to experience God’s presence fully, deeply, and truly, then let us go to the places of greatest need, including our own.  Because Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the one who is enthroned above, in whom all things on earth receive their frame, who is the Alpha and Omega, the one who has all, and is all: Jesus has chosen to humble himself among the lowest of the low.

 

Yes, it is true that Jesus is all-powerful, all-just, all-wise, all-knowing and all that.  It is easy and tempting to get lost in the vast cosmos of those descriptions and lift Christ to so lofty and distant a throne that we fail to remember God’s kingdom is realized in the smallest and practically imperceptible acts of kindness and compassion.

 

Someone much wiser than I said that a society’s greatness can be measured by how it treats its weakest members.  Whatsoever we do unto the least of these, we do unto Christ.

 

That might surprise you, but Jesus has been in the habit lately of surprising us and showing up where we weren’t expecting him, just like the sheep who said, “Lord, when did we see you in need and help you?”

 

They had no idea that their good deeds meant that they were inheriting the Kingdom prepared for them. They weren’t trying to earn God’s favor.  The sheep weren’t fending for themselves, desperately trying to avoid punishment and earn eternal rewards for themselves.

 

This is what loving our neighbor as ourselves is about.  We might try to have it both ways, looking out for ourselves and loving our neighbor at the same time.  Many of us can identify with the little boy who was given two dollar bills, one to buy candy and one to put in the church's offering plate. He ran down the street and in his enthusiasm he lost a dollar down the storm drain. Standing there, he was heard to say, "Well Lord, there goes your dollar." It is rarely the convenient or easy thing to help the least, the last, and the lost.  It will cost us in time, money, and worry, and so be it.  Discipleship is costly.  Such will be the cost of following our King, serving and loving him as we serve and love our neighbor.

 

The sheep just saw people in need, and they served them. They were just living their lives of faith the way that they always did. They were living their lives focused on God and the needs of others instead on themselves and their own needs.

 

Our King – the creator of the cosmos and the author of life – invites us to meet and be met by God, not in places of power, but among the lowest we can find.  Our King takes us by surprise, upsets our expectations, and disrupts our plans.

 

Following King Jesus invites us into a life that isn’t motivated out of the fear of Hell or the hope of heaven.  Our King is calling us to a life driven by an authentic, selfless, sacrificial love.

 

The life of compassion inherits the kingdom, and the kingdom isn’t as far away as we so often think.  It’s as close as the face of the next person in need.

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