November 26, 2023. The last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King. Sermon preached by Rev. Andree Appel

Christ the King                                           November 26, 2023

Gospel Hymn: The King of Love My Shepherd Is

This morning, we have come to the end of Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel- The Judgement of Nations. You might think thatan event as momentous as the final judgement might be recounted throughout the New Testament- but Matthew’s is the the only description of the final judgment in the New Testament.

It seems a fitting end to the readings the Revised Common Lectionary has given us over the past few weeks- a series of parables that described what the Kingdom of Heaven, the Divine Kingdom is like, and where the people, presumably intending to be partakers- instead completely miss the mark:

the ungrateful wedding guests, the greedy tenants, the foolish bridesmaids, and the fearful servant….

I can’t help but feel kind of sorry for them- haven’t we all been ungrateful, greedy, foolish or fearful at some point in our lives?

They just seemed clueless- as though they did not realize what was at stake.

And then today, we are given what seems like a very dire vision of what awaits us at the Judgement, at Christ’s Second Coming,

being separated “one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” 33 , the sheep at Jesus’ right hand and the goats at his left, those who are blessed and those who are accursed, the Righteous and the Unrighteous, ALL seemingly on the basis of their good works…

It feels like a lot of judgement.

And, of course, you can’t help but wonder- would I be a sheep?

But as I began to explore the text a bit more, a different message began to emerge for me- one that began to feel like more of a wake-up call from a loving God who, rather than wanting to make us feel inadequate, invites our full participation in “the coming of the divine reign — the dream of God”.

Imagine….God…..inviting us to be active participants in God’s Kingdom as we await Jesus’ coming again in glory.

Jesus, whom we celebrate today as Christ the King.  

I don’t particularly like that terminology……

When I hear King, I think of someone with a vast fortune at their disposal, living a life quite removed from “life as it really is”, and wielding a disproportionate amount of influence and power- the embodiment of a very unequal power dynamic.

And yet, we know, Jesus’ kingship does not function like a typical Kingdom.  Jesus came into our world as a humble servant to bring a message of God’s unconditional love for all people. Jesus, our King……of Love…..

In the parables of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is giving us one example after another of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  Jesus is showing us how to (and how not to) respond to God’s invitation, how to participate in God’s dream of love and justice for all.  Jesus calls us to be awake to the presence of God, alert to the needs of our neighbors, and fearless in our response to God’s invitation to love.  He is telling us how to be in right relation to God, “righteous”.

Those, Jesus says, will be the inheritors of Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.

So where does that leave us?  Who are we in this story? We are told that the Righteous are those who have shown compassion to “the least of these”.

The Unrighteous, by contrast, have not and Jesus does not mince words,  ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life.”  

The stakes are high……..

Surprisingly though, both the Righteous and the Unrighteous are similarly clueless…neither remembers what they did, or did not do, for those in distress.  

But therein, I believe,  lies the key to understanding the Judgement.

The Righteous did not do what they did as “good works”-

that is, they clearly were not wondering if God was taking note of their kindness and compassion. No, in fact, they were completely caught off guard by Jesus’ recounting of their kindnesses.

It is not good deeds that bring the blessing of eternal life to the Righteous, but their faithfulness to God and God’s dream, as proved by the practical love they showed to others.  

Matthew is not saying that we earn favor or credit with God by our actions but rather that our actions, not our feelings or intentions, are the real evidence for faith.

Nor are our good works the price of entry into the divine Kingdom- but rather proof that we are already at work in the Kingdom which is at hand, putting our faith into action, following the King of Love.

Of course, we cannot meet every need- but I think the point is that we see those at the margins and treat them lovingly, in whatever way we can.

But apart from all the talk of Judgement, what really stands out to me in today’s Gospel reading is not so much who is saved and who isn’t but how explicitly Jesus, our King, identifies with the least of humanity-

Jesus deliberately and unequivocally puts himself in their shoes.

And, in calling our attention to the people at the margins of society, Jesus is not saying that we should care for them because they are so dear to Him.

He is saying they ARE Him. He is there, among them, one of them.

So how do we serve Christ our King?

Christ our King who is naked, Christ our King who is thirsty, Christ our King who is ignored, overlooked, dismissed or derided by the mainstream of society?

It would be wonderful if our first impulse was always to be compassionate and loving, even at the expense of our own convenience and comfort?   

Or if we always remembered our Baptismal covenant to seek and serve Jesus in all people?   But it is hard and despite our good intentions we are often clueless…unable to see Jesus in the people and places where we don’t expect to find Him.

Thank God that we are not left alone to try- as we have been reminded in several recent sermons. We are not left to our own, often clueless devices, to be “the eyes of love” in our encounters with others.

We are joining Jesus in the work of the Kingdom, here and now, alongside Him. He is with us always.

When we turn to God in humility, submit our wills to God, ask Jesus and the Holy Spirit to be with us- then, our hearts can be transformed- and what might have seemed too difficult or even impossible to do-  to love our neighbors as though they are Jesus, without exception, is possible. And not just possible, but a source of deep joy.

I believe this is what discipleship is- following the example of Christ our King- not in the hope that we will be found among the sheep at the Day of Judgement- but so that we can be participants in the divine Kingdom that God offers us, now– and into eternity.

I know that my good intentions (and they are legion!) are not enough- my biases, my prejudices, my own comfort and often my fears, just like the people in the parables, can get in the way of my ability to step into the not-so-comfortable shoes of another, as Jesus did.

This has been brought home to me many times, in many ways-

through my work with patients at the Oasis Free Clinic, and with the immigrant community- but also very powerfullythrough my participation in the Sacred Ground program. 

Sacred Ground has brought me face to face with my cluelessness- sothat I have had to ask myself repeatedly, How is it that I could have reached my age, come this far on my spiritual journey, and still be so clueless??

Not just about our history but clueless about the many opportunities I had to learn about, stand up for and love my neighbors, especially the ones who did not look like me- and did not. I had no idea, I say, I didn’t know……I was clueless.

So let us not be overly concerned about who’ll be a sheep and who’ll be a goat and focus instead not just on setting a good intention to see Jesus in our neighbors…

but praying about how we are going to live more faithfully, in right relation with God and each other, so that we can see and love Jesus in our neighbors, no matter who they are.  

Let us live ever more deeply and prayerfully into our faith, the faith of Jesus, participating more fully and fearlessly, as Jesus did, with God in God’s dream of a just and peaceable Kingdom, here, now- and ever more.