Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year A – Christ the King Sunday
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – November 26, 2017
“When was it that you saw Jesus?” Was it when there were hungry people in your midst? Or when the thirsty cried out for a drink? Was it when a stranger looked at you with world-weary eyes, longing for a place to lay his head? Or when the woman shivering in threadbare clothes asked for help? Was it caring for the child who was feverish or the elderly parent who could no longer get around on his own? Or was it visiting the woman in prison, lonely and longing for a friendly voice? “When was it that you saw Jesus?”
This reading for this morning packs a punch. It reminds me of all those times when I might have missed Jesus in my neighbor. I read that list and I think, “how many times, O Lord, have I ignored you or turned my back on you and you were right there in front of me?” The needs of the world are so great and there is always so much that could be done. How are any of us supposed to care for all of those who need help? It feels overwhelming and impossible. If it were all dependent on me living out this list – on any of us living out this list! – well, it would not be good.
But that’s not the whole story. Because the king we follow and worship is not one who rules with tyranny or cruelty. No, God’s power is that of a shepherd king as described in Ezekiel: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks …, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…” This is a king who seeks the lost, feeds his sheep with good pasture, grants them rest, binds up the injured, strengthens the weak, and saves the flock from the ravages of a sometimes downright brutal world. Likewise in Matthew, it is the Son of Man, Christ himself who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. He is the king whose power comes from the humiliating cross.
This is a God and king who is deeply invested in the well-being of his people. So much so, that he takes on fragile humanity in order to forgive and reconcile us to himself. As Bruce Epperly writes, “when we speak of the Living God, our images of power must be defined by – and subordinate to – love. In a world of pain and suffering, of power dynamics revealed in both acts of healing and reconciliation and acts of sexual, economic, and military exploitation, how we understand God’s power shapes our faith and our political and relational involvement. Though we are tempted to create God in our image, we need to take seriously the images of the loving power, power that heals… Indeed, our images of God may be a matter of life and death, of affirmation and exclusion, of love and hate. God’s power is aimed at wholeness and healing, not coercion and domination. God rules by wisdom and love, gaining our worship by God’s character not destructive threat.”
We’ve been working through Matthew’s Gospel all year and on this, the last Sunday of the church year, we have a beautiful description of who Christ is and what his kingship looks like. This is Emmanuel, God with us, encountered in a simple birth in Bethlehem. This is the One who said that where two or three were gathered in his name, he would be present. And this is the One who reminds the disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection that he is with them always, to the end of the age. This is a God who in great and selfless love has bound himself to us once and for all in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
But this text confronts us and forces us to ask ourselves, if that is the case and Jesus is always among us, how do we see him? How do we respond to him? Do we look for Jesus’ presence in everyday life? Do we look for him in the least of these? And maybe most difficult, do we really believe that he is with us always?
This text reveals much about who Jesus is as our Lord and king, but it also reveals a great deal about us. If Jesus is king, that means we live as citizens in his kingdom. Which means we are called to live in a way that reflects our citizenship under the one who himself cares for the least of these – the other members of his family. It is an invitation and, indeed, a responsibility to live in such a way that we serve Christ in our neighbor.
Astonishingly, the people in both groups of this story – the sheep and the goats – were completely surprised to find out that the king was present in the least of these. Because each person we encounter is made in God’s image and bears Christ. The question is whether or not we notice it. Each person can be seen as an icon or image of the living Christ, challenging us to serve and to love in the name of the king we follow. And very often leading us to experience him and his incredible grace in humble service.
We don’t often like to think this way because it is far easier to make a judgment about someone or to avoid serving because we are nervous, afraid, busy, or cannot be bothered. But we are still called to loving service because we have been forgiven and freed by the Loving Servant. I don’t know about you, but seeing Christ in the other can be super hard. We experience that here when people come for help. We always want to err on the side of grace and mercy, but we also don’t want our kindness abused or misused. I have a framed drawing on my wall of a homeless man on the NYC subway who is sleeping under a sign that says, “Look Closer.” This was an actual scene the artist sketched in New York. It reminds me to see with my heart and not just my eyes. Still, it can be quite a task to see Christ in the difficult people, or even our enemies. How do we see them as people whom Christ also loves and for whom he has died? As Dorothy Day put it, “I really only love God as much as the one I love the least.”
On the other hand, we may struggle because we find that we are the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned ones, desperate for someone to reach out and be Christ to us. Whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually, we may need people to care for us – to be the face of Christ to us. And if we are used to being caregivers, it can be extremely challenging to allow others to take care of us.
On either side of this equation, we may resist because we are not comfortable serving or being served. Both deal with what we see as our own power, agency, and control in the world. And so we fight and resist because we want to be enthroned. Instead we are called to enthrone Christ in our hearts. To worship him as humble shepherd king instead of the powerful false idols we might be tempted to follow. Remembering always that he is not only enthroned in heaven, but in us. That we see him not only in heavenly glory, but in each other.
This story, so vivid in its imagery and so shocking to our sensibilities with its threat of judgment, has so many layers. At any point in our lives, we are those who serve and care, and those who ignore and walk away. We are those who are in need and are served, and those who are brushed aside and ignored. Like the Beatitudes, this is comforting for all of us in times of need; our shepherd king Jesus Christ dwells among us caring for, healing, forgiving, and reconciling us to God and neighbor. But it is also a challenge to serve in the humble and loving way our Lord served.
As I said earlier, the needs of the world can feel so pressing and so great that we do not know where to begin, but as the Talmud reminds us, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Every hungry person who receives a morsel from your hand. Every thirsty person who receives a cup of cold water. Every stranger whom you welcome with a smile and open arms. Every naked person you clothe and sick person you care for. Every prisoner you visit and pray for. To those people, you have made a world of difference, not because it will make you right with God, but because you know the abundant and ever flowing love of God and long to share it.
So as you go out, still full of gratitude from Thanksgiving, I pray that this question might go with you being a holy agitation: “when is it that you see Jesus?” May Christ, the shepherd king, open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to see him in our family, friends, neighbors, those who care for us, and even our enemies. Amen.