It’s over – well, nearly – the church year that is. Did you catch the gospel – the ultimate year-end clearance – final jeopardy; Judgment Day – time to see who’s been naughty or nice. Today is Christ the King, or Reign of Christ Sunday – your preference.
Not all churches will celebrate this day. They don’t need to. Each week they play a drumbeat of doom, judgment, and threaten you with Jesus’ imminent return, and this time he’s going to be mad. They think fear opens sinners to God – their last chance. I once saw a bumper sticker, “Jesus is coming soon. Look busy.” Today’s story tells us what we better look busy doing.
What if I ask all the sheep here today to raise your hands? And then I ask the goats to do the same. For a touch of drama I’d have the sheep move to the right; the goats to the left side. To be funny – you figure if mean my right or yours. In Jesus’ day, the favorable side was the right. Some of you will like that.
Years ago a convent of nuns invited speakers to lead a workshop based on this text. They ask, “Nuns, which are you – sheep or goat?” The women went silent, either humble or unsure. They’d lived all their lives serving and caring for others. One older, crusty nun suddenly jumps up, “I know. We’re all good goats.” I think Jesus would like that.
Are we really one or the other all the time? In the story, neither the sheep nor the goats know what’s going on. Some get dealt the compassion gene: “Jesus when did we see you this way?” Some miss it: “Jesus, if I’d known it was you, I would have helped.” Yeah, right. Is this Jesus’ way of saying we must we earn a divine seal of approval? Or is how we treat others an outcome of trusting the divine seal God has marked us with in Christ the King? The image of God you carry inside you matters to what you’ll answer. If we strive for divine favor, we negate trust in God’s grace. God unconditionally loves us, not because we are special, but to change and equip us to do good in this world, exercise care and compassion for what matters to God, give ourselves away because that’s what God does. Those who are self-concerned, isolated, caring only for themselves create their own punishments of eternal proportion. Sometimes we do the right thing. Sometimes we don’t.
A famous rabbi named the patterns of giving and caring he observed. At a first level, a person will grudgingly help another when pressed, then want thanks and recognition. A church men’s club decides to collect used clothes for a Rescue Mission. As they deliver and unload them, the homeless quietly watch. One of the wives later tells me, “Not one needy guy said ‘thank you’ after all my husband and the others did for them – not a shred of gratitude. They’ll never do that again.” “Yeah, obviously, those homeless guys didn’t see Jesus in your husband,” I said. She agreed. I think she missed my point. At another level, one gives for the sheer joy – of giving. And at the highest level, one gives anonymously. The recipient will not know who gave, or the giver who received. Regardless of the motive, isn’t it better to bless than do nothing?
What do you think God wants of us? God wants us to co-create with him. By creating good, we bring God’s reign on earth with our good thoughts, good acts, good words. Being nice isn’t enough. Creating good pushes back against the kingdoms of earth that harm the least; that prevent the sick from being healed; that keep others imprisoned in need and want. When our lives center in God, we passionately love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength so that we can love our neighbors, the least, those in need around us, and act for them. Quietly, bearing the life of God’s spirit, we embody the life of the King so that others see who rules our lives and hearts. We create good toward others, even if we can’t do anything to change their conditions. We do this for all, regardless of whether they know or love God back. If Christ is King, that doesn’t matter. They just don’t know their King yet, so care for them anyway. Is that not the highest level of love and care? Remember, the King enthroned over all, is the Good Shepherd who brings home the lost, Christian or not – good goats and bad ones. If you realize you aren’t seeing Jesus’ presence in others, remember the Good Shepherd. None stay lost.
You do make resolutions each New Year, right? You are very quiet. Made any for the new church year? When you make your pledge you have. Christ the King Sunday falls on “Return Your Pledge Card By Today” Sunday. I just made that title up. You and God know what you have and can do. Think of all we do as the Body of Christ here – visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing people, tutoring children, checking on foreclosed houses, listening to the homeless, helping the least with their bills. I think the final exam is like this: It’s not first that God wants your money, time and talents. The question is: “Have first we given God our wholehearted love?” Give God that, and everything else falls into place nicely. In demonstrating compassion to others, we show the level of love we have for God. Now that’s heavy. I didn’t just make that up. Jesus says it.
Benedictine spirituality teaches that hospitality is more than giving food, clothes, a bed, a few bucks. That’s nice and creates good. What’s harder is to do the good that gives full attention, love and presence to the stranger, the least, the other in front of you – taking time for others. That’s how we respect the dignity of everyone, like we promise at baptism. Do that and you may see in the least likely God’s power at work to love and save you, me and us all. When we see each other through God’s eyes of love – well, I think you get it.
“Jesus, if I’d known it was you” – well it isn’t. It’s Jesus’ beloved sister or brother, God’s beloved child – one he loves and gives himself for. Now you know. And we do want to live like Jesus – right?