November 26, 2017 Christ the King Sunday Matthew 25: 31-46
Prayer: Dear Lord, We end this church year by proclaiming you Christ the King. And yet you insist that we will find you among the hungry and naked and sick and imprisoned. Help us to live within these parameters you have set. Amen.
A Career in Sales
Vince is a sucker for the children selling things in our neighborhood. Most recently, a trio of little girls caught him in the front yard.
A 7-year-old was apparently their VP of sales.
“Just out of curiosity,” she asked him, “are you a Clemson fan?”
Not really, he told her.
She chatted on for a moment, then asked, “Well, then just out of curiosity, are you a Gamecock fan?”
She had her patter down. “Just out of curiosity,” she persisted, “what’s your favorite color?”
It turned out she was selling bracelets made from colored rubber bands. Finally, just out of curiosity, Vince admitted he was a Furman fan. And so he ordered a purple and white bracelet.
A few days later, she delivered a bracelet made of mostly purple rubber bands with a few white ones thrown in. It was attached to a note that read, “If you want more white in this bracelet, return it to me and I’ll fix it. For FREE!”
The kid’s got a career in sales ahead of her.
For many of us, that’s the last career we’d choose. We don’t have confidence in our ability to persuade anyone to buy anything.
But I’m not sure there are many careers that don’t contain some measure of sales. I sell books. I usually speak outside the church at least once a week, and I’m trying to sell Triune. I’m trying to convince people that the work the Mercy Center is doing is worth funding.
And on some level, aren’t all preachers and evangelists attempting to sell the gospel?
But Jesus doesn’t make it easy on his sales force. Today is Christ the King Sunday. You might think, Now there’s an idea we can sell. Christ as the reigning monarch. A king we can point to as our protector, our benefactor, our royal highness.
That’s certainly what his disciples wanted. It’s what they thought they were getting.
But they weren’t. And neither were we.
This king refused to behave the way everybody thought he should.
And so on Christ the King Sunday, we read not about a monarch in a palace of gold and sapphires but about a king who lurks in the dirt and ditches, hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and alone. A hard sell indeed.
I probably allude to this parable more than any other. But we only read it in its entirety every three years. So here’s the famous Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, from which we take our marching orders.
Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 25: 31-46.
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for 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, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
40And the king will answer them, “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.”
41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”
45Then he will answer them, “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.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Just this week, The Greenville News ran a picture of an adorable goat. With the popularity of goat farms and goat cheese, we’d probably choose goats over sheep these days.
But in ancient Palestine, the sheep were the preferred herd animal. We’re going to have to go with that.
Over the past few Sundays, we have been talking about parables in Matthew’s gospel about Judgment Day or the end of the time. He includes some that we don’t find anywhere else.
For instance, Jesus talks about the wheat and the tares, or weeds. All will grow together in this world. The wise farmer knows they cannot be separated until after the harvest.
Jesus talks about gathering a net full of fish. The net will collect good and bad fish. The wise fisherman knows they cannot be separated until he gets them ashore.
Jesus talks about a messianic banquet to which all are invited, both good and bad. Only when the king arrives will he separate them by who is dressed in wedding clothes.
And now, finally, we come to the passage about how that separation will occur. Why that separation will occur. On what basis that separation will occur.
And it comes as a great surprise to the characters in the story. For while the acts of mercy – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, welcoming the stranger – are bedrock Christian acts, Jesus claims he was the recipient. Or not.
And so we have this intriguing idea of Jesus as a spy, hidden in the masses of hurting and marginalized people, living in solidarity with hurting and marginalized people.
It’s an idea we celebrate in art. We’ve talked a lot in here about Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz’s Homeless Jesus on park benches from Davidson, North Carolina, to Dublin to Rome.
Closer to home, Owen Robertson in this congregation painted a caricature of some of my sermons pictured on a stained glass window. Homeless Jesus is right there, with nail holes in his hands and feet.
And of course, Charles Anderson’s Homeless Madonna will mean that a homeless Jesus will be born in just a few weeks’ time.
Both the righteous and unrighteous people in the parable are surprised to find Jesus where he claims he was. We never saw you, they cried, good and bad alike. We never knew you were here.
We cannot claim that. For it’s right here in our Scripture. While we might not recognize him, he tells us he’s right here.
I use the words “simile” and “metaphor” a lot, especially when talking about Jesus’ parables. Because he says “the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea.” (Mt. 13: 47) That’s a simile.
Or “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” (Mt. 22 :2) That becomes an extended metaphor. I’m not making a theological statement. Matthew uses the language of simile and metaphor.
But there’s no such introductory language in the parable of the sheep and goats. In fact, some scholars say it’s not even a parable. It’s an explanatory story.
And Jesus says very specifically, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Not “AS IF” you did it to me. “You did it to me.”
This is powerful language. And you can see how it is even disconcerting language.
I am convinced that it leads to a lot of ministries appearing in our parking lot, handing out meals when we’re feeding inside, giving out sleeping bags and shoes and new coats that end up in crack houses.
There’s a story on the front page of The Greenville News today talking about a new video campaign by the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office to cut down on panhandling. They are encouraging people to give instead to the churches and agencies who are offering real ways out of homelessness.
The spokesperson on the video is our partner Lauren Stephens from the Salvation Army. Lauren is probably the biggest hearted person in Greenville, the person who takes Jesus’s words as seriously as anyone in this town.
And yet she tells people not to give to panhandlers. How does that square with today’s parable?
It’s a matter of doing our homework. It’s a matter of finding the best way to feed and clothe and visit and welcome, without doing harm. Because providing things that are sold or traded for drugs isn’t helping anyone. Providing things that make someone more comfortable in his homelessness isn’t helping anyone.
Last Sunday night, there was so much food being given out in this neighborhood that very few people came to our 5 PM dinner. We’ve been serving a 5 o’clock dinner for 28 years in the same spot.
And the serving church, who had bought groceries, cooked and served, were upset by the low attendance. It wouldn’t surprise me if they pull out. So when all these pop-up servers disappear, we may be left without a meal at all.
I wish these folks would cooperate with ministries who are already in a neighborhood. I wish they would heed Lauren and the Sheriff’s Office advice that panhandling is not the answer.
But I know why they think they’re doing a good thing. They are taking this passage in Matthew quite literally.
The passage of the sheep and the goats is pivotal in Christian theology. We quote it on our brochure. Sojourners magazine asks its readers to sign the Matthew 25 Pledge to protect vulnerable people threatened by deportation and loss of healthcare.
I think we have to take this passage seriously, and take Jesus at his word. When we serve those in poverty, we serve him.
But for the church’s sales department, you can see the problem. A king is usually above the fray. He’s clean and dressed in fine silks and jewels, not hungry and naked and sick in the palace courtyard.
It’s not a desirable come-on, is it? Come join us and worship our king who lurks about with the hungry and the naked and the sick and the imprisoned.
I had a seminary professor who used to say that’s how he knew the Christian gospel was true. If people were going to make it up, he said, they’d make up something more appealing.
We follow a king who was born among unclean shepherds and stands with the unclean to this day. Just out of curiosity, would you buy that?
Sometimes, however, I believe Jesus, or perhaps more accurately the Holy Spirit, takes pity on the sales force. She steps in to help us out.
I meet once a year with a man from one of our partner churches. He likes to catch up on what we are doing. After that meeting, he always gives us $1,000.
But this year he emailed first and asked what we needed. I told him our ice machine was on its last leg. The repairman told us it did not have another repair left in it. The estimate to replace it was $2,500. I wrote that he certainly didn’t have to cover the whole cost, but he might want to contribute to it.
He wrote back and said, “So this is funny. I was sitting in church yesterday and I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t mailed the $1,000 to you. And a voice popped into my head and said, ‘$2,500. ’ ”
So there he sat in one of our big-steeple churches, glancing around, trying to insist on $1,000 as an equally insistent voice asserted $2,500. He didn’t know what was going on.
But when he got my email about a $2,500 ice machine, he said, “I’m pretty sure that’s God’s work, and I don’t think I can ignore it!” He sent $2,500.
Twelve years ago, I would’ve heard that story and said, “Yeah, right.”
But if I’ve heard it once here, I’ve heard it 100 times.
So now instead of saying, “Yeah, right,” I say, “Thanks, Holy Spirit.” ‘Cause I’m telling you, she is all up in our business.
There is some other tweaking that’s gone on in my thinking during my time in this place. I preached the parable of the sheep and goats in my very first sermon as pastor of this church, in August of 2005.
In the sermon I imagined Jesus coming to our service entrance on Stone Avenue as a stranger. I imagined him grizzled and dirty and homeless. I imagined the ministry as one-way, from economically advantaged people to economically disenfranchised ones.
I don’t think that way anymore.
For while I do believe this passage is about standing in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, being Jesus, serving Jesus, is not simply a matter of economics.
We can be Jesus to someone, we can serve Jesus in someone, without it being a transaction between advantaged and disadvantaged.
I see this when a man shares the last $10 on his food stamp card.
I see it when a community of campers in the woods welcomes newcomers.
I see it when Dwight washes laundry all weekend, and Douglas carries trays, and Ken serves tea, and Teresa and Scotty wipe tables, and Pete and Sippio and countless others carry bag after bag after bag of trash to the dumpster.
The poor and the homeless can be Christ to each other – and to the rest of us -- as surely as the advantaged can welcome Jesus in the impoverished stranger.
In a very real sense, we can be Christ, we must be Christ, to each other. Whether the need is hunger or thirst or nakedness, or it’s depression and despair and loneliness, we serve Jesus when we minister to each other.
That might not sell nearly as well as eternal life or streets of gold or a bejeweled king on a throne.
But it’s truth in advertising.