Monday, November 21, 2005

Christ the King

Christ the King
November 20, 2005
Matthew 25.31-46

I read about a party game.
I’ve never played it but reading about it
I can imagine how it might play out.
The setting could be any kind of party,
maybe a pot-luck,
maybe one of the many Christmas parties
that will be happening in the next month.
To play the game, you set up for a party
with punch bowls, finger foods, hors d’oeuvres, and so on.
Every person in the room gets a sign taped to his or her back,
reading "monarch," "courtier," "servant," or "beggar."
Once everyone has their sign you start the party.
The game is to try to guess what sign is on your back,
and try to help others guess what’s on their backs,
by treating each other
as you think someone of their status should be treated.
It also depends on what you think might be on your back.
If your sign says "monarch,"
the vast majority of guests are going to flatter you
and offer you treats.
If the sign on your back says "beggar,"
you’re probably going to be treated like trash—
especially if you have the nerve to act
as if you were equal to others with higher status.
It’s a game that can also teach you something.
You can discuss how it felt to be treated a certain way,
or how it felt having to treat others
according to the signs on their backs.

But what would it be like to live in a community,
to live in a world, where everyone,
even the beggars
who get spit on by the high and mighty in our world,
everyone were treated
as if the sign on their back said "monarch."

Today, on Christ the King Sunday,
we hear this strange and difficult parable-like story
of the final judgment.
It’s a story that can make us uncomfortable.
According to Jesus, one day we will stand
before the King of the Universe
and hear his judgment on our lives.
He’ll sort us into two groups—goats to the left and sheep to the right,
the goats to be punished forever
and the sheep to have eternal life.
What do we do with a story like that?
Do we review our lists?
Read it carefully.
You need at least one hungry person, one thirsty one,
one stranger, one naked person,
one sick person, and one prisoner
so that you can supply food, drink,
a warm welcome, some clothes,
a hospital visit, and a prison visit.
So does that mean that you’ll be one of the sheep
and not one of the goats?

I have a book called Good Goats.
In it the writer relates the following:
A few years ago, we made a presentation
to a group of elderly retired Roman Catholic nuns.
One sister raised her hand and asked,
"What about the story of the sheep and the goats?
It says right there that the sheep go to heaven
and the goats go to hell."

The presenter responded by asking the whole group,
"How many of you, even once in your life,
have done what Jesus asks at the beginning of that passage
and fed a hungry person, clothed a naked person
or visited a person in prison?"
All the sisters raised their hands.
He said, "That’s wonderful! You’re all sheep."
Then he asked, "How many of you, even once in your life,
have walked by a hungry person,
failed to clothe a naked person,
or not visited someone in prison?"
Slowly, all the sisters raised their hands.
He said, "That’s too bad. You’re all goats."

The sisters looked worried and perplexed.
Then suddenly one very old sister’s hand shot up.
She blurted out, "I get it! We’re all good goats!"

If you listen carefully to the sheep and the goats in the gospel reading
you’ll discover something. Listen to the sheep:
"When did we give you something to eat or drink?
When did we welcome you as a stranger
or give you clothes to wear
or visit you while you were sick or in jail?"
And listen to the goats:
"Lord, when did we fail to help you
when you were hungry or thirsty or a stranger
or naked or sick or in jail?"
Do you notice that both the sheep and the goats
are surprised to hear
that they did or didn’t do those things for Jesus?
It’s not about checking off one hungry person, one thirsty one,
one sick one, and one in prison as if it’s a scavenger hunt list.
It’s not about tossing a quarter or a loonie into a panhandler’s cup
and calling it done.
"There! There’s my good deed for the day,
my ticket to eternity with the sheep!"
That would be using people for your own gain.
And then what about those days when you walk by,
maybe because you’re in a hurry
or because you don’t have any change
or because you’re in a foul mood
and don’t feel like helping.
Then do you end up being a goat?
Are you back at square one?

I don’t know if this story was meant to scare us,
to make us worry about which side we’ll be on.
Are we sheep or are we goats?
Are we going to be sent away to eternal punishment
or to eternal life?
Well, the story might scare us or make us worry
but there’s good news in the story too.
Jesus is here.
How many of you have ever met a king or a queen,
a prime minister or a president?
Whatever we might think of our leaders,
I think it would be an honour.
How many of you have ever met the King of kings,
the Son of God?
Well, he’s with you every day.
Jesus is present in every single person whose path crosses ours,
and particularly in the least ones, the lost ones,
the last ones we would ever have expected.
So how do we live, knowing that?
Now maybe that makes us more afraid
or more worried than before.
Some Christians talk about
"a personal relationship with your Lord and Saviour."
Well, where do we find a relationship like that?
Jesus is so present with us,
that we’ve got unlimited opportunities
to have a relationship like that,
opportunities to meet him and to serve him.
We forget, or maybe we don’t even understand,
that everything we do or don’t do
affects our relationship with our Lord.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
"The only way to tell if they are really Jesus’ eyes
is to look into them,
to risk that moment of recognition that may break your heart,
or change your mind, or make you mad,
or make you amend your life.
Whatever effect it has on you,
that seems to be one thing the sheep know how to do
that the goats have never tried:
to look, to see, to seek Christ
in the last, the lost, the least.
The food, the drink, the welcome, the visit—
all those things will follow in their own good time.
They are necessary for life;
they are not optional,
but by themselves they are just quarters in a cup.
Charity is no substitute for kinship.
We are not called to be philanthropists or social workers,
but brothers and sisters.
We are called into relationship,
even when that relationship is unlikely, momentary, or sad.
We are called to look at each other and see Christ,
who promises to be there where our eyes meet,
and in that glance
to teach us something we need to know."

What we need to do is look, look into the eyes of Jesus.
Why are the goats in this story condemned?
They’re not condemned for doing bad things, remember,
but for doing nothing.
They didn’t kick the beggar in the street.
They didn’t spit on the lonely stranger.
They didn’t curse at the homeless person.
They simply didn’t see any relationship between their lives
and the lives of the least.
If we have faith, if we are people of faith
then we claim to have a relationship with our Lord and Saviour.
It’s up to us to decide what we’re going to do about it.

If we look into the eyes of Christ in our neighbour,
in the eyes of the least,
then we might just find out that we are one of them.
We all have a sign on our backs that says "beggar."
Our problem is when we see "beggar" on someone else’s back
and we assume our sign says "courtier" or "monarch"
and we feel like we’re at some higher station than they are.
If we truly look into the eyes of Christ in our neighbour
we’ll see that they’re not so different from us,
or rather, that we’re not so different from them.
Martin Luther’s last written words were
"It’s true. We’re beggars."

But our gospel reading today teaches us another thing.
They ask "When did we give you something to eat or drink?
When did we welcome you as a stranger
or give you clothes to wear
or visit you while you were sick or in jail?"
The king will answer,
"When ever you did it for any of my people,
no matter how unimportant they seemed,
you did it for me."
All those beggars out there,
including you and me,
we all have a "monarch" sign taped to our backs.
When we look into the eyes of our neighbour in need
we see our Lord, our King.

We’ve come to the end of our church year,
a cycle we’ll begin again next Sunday.
Throughout the year we’ve found God in a manger,
among lepers and the blind,
in strange stories with unexpected twists,
hanging on a cross,
and missing from a vacated tomb!
"When did we see you Lord?"
Squint hard and stare
at the most God-forsaken person you can find.
Then offer a cup of water,
a gentle and assuring pat on the back,
a handshake of welcome.
Greet your hidden Lord!
Amen

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Great sermon, Tom! Great minds DO think alike...kgp