Matthew 25: 31-46
This is probably one of my least favorite liturgical days, Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. The name of the day immediately conjures up images of royalty and power. We think of riches and privilege. We think of the distinctions between those who have power and those who have none.
I found a reading by Stanley Haurwas and William H. Williamson: “Imagine a sermon that begins: ‘Blesses are you poor. Blessed are those of you who are hungry. Blessed are those of you who are unemployed. Blessed are those going through marital separation. Blessed are those who are terminally ill.’”
These words echo Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. He spoke to those who had no sense of having been blessed by God. He spoke to those who thought that God had forgotten them.
Hauerwas and Williamson went on. “The congregation does a double take. What is this? In the kingdom of the world, if you are unemployed, people treat you as if you have some sort of social disease. In the world’s kingdom, terminally ill people become an embarrassment to our health-care system, people to be put away, out of sight. How can they be blessed?”
The world certainly does not see them as blessed. Our society does not see them as blessed. The unemployed are a drain on society’s assets. Isn’t that what we hear? And health care? Well, who wants to get into the midst of that debate? What is appropriate care? Should we treat at all costs? What if the medical experts can’t cure? Then what? Blessed are the sick? Blessed are the dying? And, what in the world does this have to do with remembering Christ the King?
Again, Hauerwas and Williamson wrote, “The preacher responds, ‘I’m sorry. I should have been more clear. I am not talking about the way of the world’s kingdom. I am talking about God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom, the poor are royalty, the sick are blessed. I was trying to get you to see something other than that to which you have become accustomed.’ …We can only act within a world we can see. Vision is the necessary prerequisite for ethics.”
“Vision is the necessary prerequisite for ethics.”
The problem with Christ the King Sunday is that our vision can be easily tainted by our worldly understanding of how a king relates to others in the world. Kings are, usually, set apart, distant from the most vulnerable. When we think of kings or queens, we think of those set apart, those untouched by the harsh realities that so many face. Even those who work on behalf of the vulnerable go home, at night, to palaces or places of safety. They live with the knowledge that their needs will be met.
It’s interesting that the Christian Church has a Sunday called Christ the King Sunday. We have to remember that when Israel wanted a king, God was reluctant. Why? Because kings — and those in positions of power — can so easily abuse the privilege that they have. But,Israel wanted a king because the other nations had kings. So, God relented. They were given kings.
The image God lifted up for them, however, was the image of the shepherd. Shepherds were among the lowliest of the society — far from kings. But God used the image of the shepherd to describe the role of kings — and, even, to describe God’s own role. This morning’s passage in Ezekiel speaks of God’s work as the True Shepherd. “I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them…I will feed them with good pasture…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”
This assertion of what God, the true shepherd will do, followed a critique of the leaders whose focus was self-serving. “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?...You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought out the lost.”
We hear a lot in our society about the privilege that the Christian Church and its people have lost. My fear is that we have taken the idea of Christ the King and understood that to mean that we are to be given a place of prestige and privilege in this world. Christians are the “kings” in our society. We have been granted seats of power. Society was organized around our calendar. So, as our nation goes through change, becoming more multi-cultural and religiously diverse, we want our rights protected. We want our attitudes and morals given the weight of law. We want society’s calendar to honor our sacred times. We want the language of the marketplace to call attention to our holidays. We want to be the royalty in our own society, reaping all the benefits thereof.
When that is our goal, we become the shepherds who are concerned only with themselves. We are blind to the most vulnerable. Isn’t it noteworthy that Jesus never qualified his sermons saying, “Blessed are the poor — who believe as you do? Blessed are the meek — who believe as you do?” Another pastor was on call when a family traveling through our town sought help. I called him to ask that he respond. He said, “Are they Christian? I’ll only help them if they’re Christian.” His compassion had limits. And they didn’t fit within those limits. I don’t see those limits in Jesus’ ministry. He ministered to those within his community and to outsiders: lepers, Gentiles, and even Romans.
Perhaps it’s hard to get it out of our heads that the very thing we crave, as God’s church, public success and prestige, doesn’t matter to God. What matters to God is how we’ve taken on the role of shepherd. Have we seen those in need? We forget that Jesus defined his own ministry using the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah that speak of the suffering servant’s job. We might remember that powerful Palm Sunday hymn that connects Jesus’ triumphal entry to his impending death. “Ride on, ride on in majesty, in lowly pomp ride on to die. O Christ, thou triumphs now begin o’er captive death and conquered sin.”
One of the challenges during Jesus’ lifetime was that his people were looking for a king and got a servant instead. He was the king who washed his disciples’ feet. He was the king who noticed the lepers, the tax collectors, the women, and the sinners — and invited them into his community. Many couldn’t see the Messiah in the person of Jesus.
Anna Carter Florence wrote of this Sunday: “Aren’t we supposed to be talking your life, and death, and all the places we’ve seen the risen Christ this past year? Well, forgive us, Lord—please don’t be upset—but we think we may have missed you!
We’ve done what you said: we’ve kept watch. We’ve been looking for you, day and night—I mean, when we weren’t busy with other things, like stocking the food pantry and the clothes closet and visiting the hospitals and the prisons and meeting with the support groups and the prayer groups—so, yes, we’ve been keeping watch, and keeping our lamps filled, but the days are just so busy and there are so many hurting people, and I’m sorry, Lord, but I think you must have slipped past us…
Please tell us, Lord. How did we miss you? Where were you? Then he will say to them,
I was hungry and you gave me food.
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
I was naked and you gave me clothing.
I was sick and you took care of me.
I was in prison and you visited me.
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
We didn’t miss him. He’s been here all along: our ragged, beloved King. He’s been in every single face. But you won’t find him if you go looking for the sparkly crown…”
We won’t find him if we look for the sparkly crown. We won’t find him claiming the places of power and privilege. On this Christ the King Sunday we celebrate the servant who kneels at our own feet and offers us his love — and in doing so, calls us to look beyond ourselves and offer his love to others.