This Sunday we celebrate this very unique church holiday, Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday, in which we celebrate that our true ruler is the one God sent to us. And this coming Thursday is a national holiday, Thanksgiving. Which, though it has religious overtones, is not a celebration of the church calendar.
But I was thinking about what might link these two holidays of this week right before we turn to Advent, the time of waiting and hoping in God, and I thought about how every eucharistic prayer- that’s the prayer leading up to Holy communion, is a thanksgiving. Every time we gather to share the Lord’s table we give thanks.
Just like saying grace around the table for Thanksgiving or any meal, we thank God first for what has been provided, when it is Holy Communion, what we feast on, is on Christ’s on body and blood mysteriously present through bread and cup. So we thank God first for Jesus, and how he emptied himself, how he became low and walked among us and gave his life, so we could know God and know how God saves. And we could know how we can participate in God’s salvation, because of God’s gift in Jesus Christ.
So that is on my mind as we reflect on what it means to call the same Jesus Christ our King, and especially as this passage from Matthew talks about a king so different from what we are used to, a king who is present in the least of these. In the words of Episcopal theologian Fleming Rutledge, Jesus’ kind of royalty is the “royalty that stoops” a king who stoops. Who comes low, bends down to be among us. Hungry, naked, sick, imprisoned, thirsty.
When we read this passage from Matthew 25, I think for many of us, myself included, we get to that last line and take it as a threat. Will you be counted as a sheep or a goat? Will your eternity consist of punishment or life? I better get busy being more sheep like!
But reading it over again, I think while spurring us toward ways of living full of mercy and compassion is good, that isn’t the main point. Because in the story, neither the sheep nor the goats quite realize what is going on. And the big surprise is not where the sheep or goats go off to, the big surprise is what they missed that was right in front of them: it was the king they could have- or did- attend to, feed, water, dress, cared for, spent time with.
Within those very needy people was no less than the one they looked to as King, as Lord, as judge as glorious one on a glorious throne. They had a chance to experience the One, God in flesh- in people around them.
We had at our Grace Group this week the question- is Christ real for you? and each one answered, and there is never a right or wrong answer to these questions. I talked about how that question has changed for me many times through my journey of faith so far. And that right now, when I hear about people helping others, people doing their best to make the world a better place, living out compassion and justice, striving for peace, that there is where Christ is real for me.
But as true as an answer as that is for me, I realized reading this passage that is not quite the perspective of this story. It isn’t that the king was present in the sheep, the ones feeding and caring, etc. the king was present in the one in need of something, food, water, clothes, company and care. Jesus, according to Matthew 25, is most real in other people, and not the idea of people we usually want to become, or sometimes even associate with.
And isn’t that, if you think about it, completely counter to most of what is around us in our society today? I have not heard preachers say, make sure you are needy so that God will dwell in you. When we hear of the American Dream people are not talking about having to wait in line for foodboxes or having their clean water taken away. Our nation’s goals are built around prosperity and independence- not needing anything or anybody. A constant reaching up, not much about bending low like the God we worship.
In the time of the Coronavirus Pandemic, these situations that Jesus names, are real for more and more people. More of us than in a long, long time do not have enough to eat. Those who get sick cannot receive visitors, and the prisoners are some of those most at risk for the virus and least cared for. The recent gutting of the Clean Water Act means there are more of our fellow Americans that don’t have access to clean drinking water than before. We have not welcomed strangers who have come to our border seeking asylum or refuge from violence and chaos, but told them we are all full.
And yes there were those then, like there are those today, who like to think they can measure God’s favor with material things. Or even happiness. That if you have a lot of stuff it must be because God likes you better. Or if things are going your way you are favored by God. This description of judgment that Jesus lays out reverses all of those expectations. The King of Kings is present in the one in need, the one who is suffering.
In so much suffering, so much need, maybe we could say Christ the King, the king who stoops, is more present than ever… and there is a comfort in this passage that when we suffer God is with us in a special way.
But beloved, in our national discourse we are still demonizing each other, looking to blame and dehumanize, rather than looking to serve our king and experience our Lord in one another. What we lack is a true sense of solidarity, of understanding that “we’re all in this together” isn’t just a cliché to make us obey the orders- that our lives are inextricably woven together. I will read a little quote I found this week I found to be moving, from Reverend Jacqui Lewis, about the work still needing to be done in our nation, and really, in ourselves, she says:
“We’re not finished until we understand that we are really actually inextricably connected one to the other. That when a child in Appalachia is hungry, my stomach growls. That when a child in Detroit still doesn’t have clean water to drink, you’re thirsty. That when a queer couple is harassed just for being in love with one another, that all of us feel heartbroken.” That is the sense of true solidarity that is at the heart of the kingdom of God that Jesus announced and lived.
Read together with the whole gospel of Matthew, where Jesus has talked about the kingdom of God, I think what he’s saying here is: there is a true king, again so different of how we think of kings- and you could be living in his kingdom and not even know it, living out all that he has taught about how God wants things to be, and this reality can be true even if it’s not seen. At the end of all things it will be revealed, how our actions match up with God’s way that Jesus was announcing, or not.
Last week we had a confirmation service, and we concentrated a lot on the words. To put our belief in God, our rejection of the evil of this world, into words, and say it out loud. This passage indicates nothing of who you believe in or what you believe about them, only actions of compassion and mercy really count for the eternal reality. But looking closer again, more than the actions, it seems it is the perspective – unknowingly, the perspective of how to treat a fellow human, the sense of solidarity, that is the difference between eternal punishment and eternal life.
And while this is a judgment scene for that time at the end of time, we could make the case that it has already begun- seeing someone with a different opinion as your enemy, well isn’t that a touch of hell on earth? While being able to serve someone, to say yes you deserve this, even if the way of the world is to say, you don’t deserve this- in a way that changes their life for the better, isn’t that a taste of heaven? Isn’t that the meaning of living out grace?
And being reoriented to that perspective, and the way of grace can happen in our gathering of the faith community. Our perspective can be readjusted hearing the great thanksgiving, the holy communion prayer that remembers how God has stooped low, has come near. Worshiping God on Sundays together, however we can, praying, all of these things are good- but we must always keep first the living out of our faith. While we are giving thanks to God on a certain day this week, remember to thank God for stooping, for getting low and coming near, in Jesus. Remember to give thanks for the hungry ones who provided our food, and then be led to share it. Remember to give thanks for the imprisoned ones who haven’t celebrated a holiday with family in years or decades, and be led to visit, or better yet to work for the world where no one is imprisoned because no one lacks and needs to resort to crime. Where no one needs to be quarantined because everyone cares so much about everybody else that we do what is necessary to really curtail this virus. Where the bottom line isn’t dollars but lives, and lives in solidarity, in interwoven connection, in yes truly loving our neighbor as ourselves. Seeing in the eyes of the person before us, a glimmer of our Savior and King, the royalty that stoops. Then we won’t have to wonder if we’ve done enough to escape the punishment, we will have already experienced God made flesh, and it shall be glorious, and we can give thanks all over again.