November 26, 2017

Christ the King Year A

On this final Sunday of the church year, the feast of Christ the King, our Gospel looks to the future, and paints a picture of how it will be when Christ returns in glory.

Jesus presents this picture sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph. He is teaching in the temple as the day of his death approaches.

The scene he describes is marked by surprise. Both the righteous and the unrighteous are shocked to discover that the needy people they helped or they ignored are regarded by Christ the King as his sisters and brothers, members of his family. What’s done for them he takes as done for him. Where they are neglected, he regards himself as neglected. And what the righteous do and the unrighteous fail to do turn out to have eternal ramifications. Humanity will be divided into two groups. The king will function as a herdsman who sends the sheep in one direction and the goats in another.

Consider for a moment the criteria for this judgment. They are deeds of mercy: food, drink, welcome, clothing, nursing care, visitation.

But today let’s talk about the surprise in this story. Notice that those who have been gathered up at the right hand of the Lord – those who are called blessed of the father, the ones we want to be – have only one thing to say to Jesus. They say, “Lord, when?” “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” “When?” That’s it; that’s all they have to say. They are clueless about what they have done.

This is a surprise. These folks, the sheep, the good guys, they did all of the right things, but they missed the greatest joy of it. They missed seeing Jesus. They overlooked the hidden presence of God in the faces of those they served.

One of the reasons we have this parable may be to help us avoid that loss, to remind us what reaching out and caring and serving can be about at the level of greatest depth. Because it’s very clear: No matter how right you are, no matter how much you serve the presence of Christ in others, if you don’t pay attention, if you don’t look for Jesus in those you serve, then, like the sheep in the parable, you won’t see him.

After all, reaching out in love to the presence of Christ in others, especially in both “the least of these” and in those closest to us, this can quite often be a great big pain. It takes a lot of time and effort, and there’s almost never any guarantee that anything of lasting benefit has happened.

What’s more, “the least of these” usually don’t look or act the way we imagine Jesus should. So, doing good, reaching out to feed, clothe, visit, heal and otherwise minister to “the least of these” may frustrate us, and we might even get burned out.

But much the same sort of thing can happen when the ones we reach out to are not some distant “them,” but are, instead, the people we live with and around, the people closest to us, maybe those we spent Thanksgiving with this week. One would think that actually serving Christ shouldn’t be as hard as it often is. After all, just because we’re doing something for good reasons doesn’t mean that, all by itself, whatever we’re doing will look or feel good or that it will affect us in a particularly good way.

Cleaning up after someone is still cleaning up after someone. Being nice to a difficult person because you are convinced that Jesus wants you to is still being nice to a difficult person. Spending time or money or energy out of Christian conviction still means that you no longer have that time or that money or that energy.

Jesus calls us to serve him, in our neighbors, in our brothers and sisters, in the least of these, and – often the most challenging – in those closest to us. That call is real; there are no excuses. But Jesus also calls us to see him in the face of our neighbors, and of our brother and sister, and in the least of these. This is a spiritual call, a call to discernment as much as it is a call to action and to service. There’s not a secret or mysterious way to do this.

This parable is an important reminder that what we do with our lives matters. God’s grace and love are given freely to everyone and there is nothing we can do to earn them, but that does not mean we can forget to care for the least among us. In fact, Jesus insists that our care for the least is caring for Jesus himself.

Notice again that the people did not realize that it was Jesus for whom they were caring or failing to care. When the judge condemns the goats for their lack of care and commends the sheep for doing acts of mercy, both respond “When? When, Lord?”  Neither recognized Jesus in the needy. The righteous cared for those in need because they saw the need and did something to try to help, the unrighteous saw the need and failed to act.

The righteous didn’t serve their neighbor in hopes of reaping some kind of reward or avoiding some kind of punishment, they served because they loved the other. They had no idea they were serving Jesus. That’s the great surprise of this story. And it’s also the point. Because those who have experienced the compassion and love of God in Christ will also reach out to others in compassion and love.

We cannot separate our relation with God from our relation with people. To experience the compassion of God makes one a medium of God’s compassion, and in the needs of others we encounter our own relation to God.

This story of judgment is more than a call to serve. It’s more than a call to do the right thing. It’s also a call to look, to notice, to devote our days and our lives in the search for the face of God in all that we do. It’s a call, above all, to live lives of mercy and compassion, and in so doing we will know that we are serving Jesus.