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Christ the King (A/RCL) Nov. 25 & 26: "The Incognito King: Matthew 25:40"

Christ the King (A/RCL): “The Incognito King: Matthew 25:40”

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Matthew 25:31-46

November 25-26, 2017

            I LIKE royal language!  I prefer to sing “All Creatures of Our God and King” rather than “All Creatures Worship God Most High,” the updated lyric in our ELW.   We sang “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” at Mark’s and my wedding.  There’s also a new version called “Praise, My Soul, the God of Heaven.”  And the Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision” is one of my favorites.  It’s retained its name but some of the poetry has changed.  We used to sing,

Riches I heed not, nor vain, empty praise,

thou mine inheritance now and always;

thou and thou only, first in my heart,

highking of heaven, my treasure thou art.

Now we sing, “great God of heaven, my treasure thou art.”

            These changes came about, as I recall, to be more gender-neutral, since the title king is masculine and God is spirit, neither male nor female.  Also, the language of monarchy is seen as irrelevant to modern-day democracy, out-of-touch with today’s reality, anachronistic – unless you’re from Great Britain, Monaco, Sweden, Saudi Arabia….  Plus, monarchy has been associated with abuse of power – “lording it over” others in a less-than-positive way.  Truth be told, Hebrew Scripture is full of prophets voicing the Lord’s condemnation of the people’s dependence on Israel’s kings -- rather than on Israel’s God.

            Regardless, this weekend’s festival of “Christ the King” has survived the onslaught of time!  The last weekend of every church year, right before Advent begins, we celebrate our Christ the King.

            Can you think of times in Scripture when Jesus refers to Himself as a king or when others do?

·         In St. Matthew’s Gospel the wise men from the East come to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  (Matthew 2:2)

·         In St. Luke’s Gospel the disciples threw their cloaks on the road as a royal runner for the triumphal entry and cry out, echoing the words of Psalm 118, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  (Luke 19:38)

·         After Jesus’ trial before the high priest, Pilate asks Him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” and He answers, “You say so.”  (Luke 23:3)

·         Pilate presents whipped and scorned Jesus to the people, announcing, “Here is your King!”  They shout, “Away with him!  Away with him!”  He asks, “’Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’  Then [Pilate] handed him over…  to be crucified.”  (John 19:14-16)

·         Pilate ordered this reason for Jesus’ execution to be posted over His head as He was hanging on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”  (John 19:19).  The religious leaders wanted that changed to read, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.’  Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’”  (John 19:21-22)

·         In the Book of Revelation we read about One on whose robe and thigh are inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”  (Revelation 12:16)

In today’s Gospel our Lord tells a story in which He, the Son of Man, sits as a king in judgment, separating sheep from goats.  BTW: I’ve always thought this parable gives goats a bad rap.  Kind of like left-handed people getting a bad rap.  Remember?  The goats are shunted off to the left, in Latin the sinistra [hence “sinister”] side – not a good thing!  (And we say people are either right or – wrong!  Right?)  I was glad to read that real life shepherds did at times have to separate sheep from goats, and not because the sheep were being good and the goats were being bad; there’s no need for a goat anti-defamation league.  Sheep do fine in the great out-of-doors at night; goats need shelter.  Sheep sometimes need to be separated out for shearing; female goats need to be separated out to be milked. It wouldn’t take a zoologist to tell the two species apart: in those days most Palestinian sheep were white and most Palestinian goats were black. 

Of all Jesus’ parables, this is certainly one of the best known.  You know the punch line, Matthew 25:40:

“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.”

I can’t hear this parable without remembering a sermon Pastor Bruce Davidson preached here 10 or 15 years ago.  His text was the beatitudes and he pointed out, “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Blessed are the deserving poor.’”   Today we could add that Jesus doesn’t talk about the deserving hungry, strangers, naked, sick, imprisoned. He casts a wide net.  He tells us, “If you take care of any of them, you take care of Me.”  And the compassionate ones in the story are shocked.  “When?”  “When?” “When?” they ask, three times.  They didn’t do it because they’d recognized Christ the King in those who needed what they had to give.  They simply did it “because.”  They didn’t realize they were doing anything special.  They weren’t consciously earning brownie points.  They weren’t trying to earn heaven (which would be impossible). God’s grace compelled them to reach out spontaneously in love.

            Jesus lives in each member of the human family, regardless of religion, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, legal status.  What does Genesis teach us?  Each one of us is made in the image of God.  No exceptions. Someday Christ the King will reign over all hearts.  That’s the day when the church will become obsolete because the Kingdom will have come.  Meanwhile, our Lord’s kingdom is “already but not yet.”  He deputizes us as agents of mercy, sets us apart as earth angels to do His bidding.   We are blessed to do that by supporting the food pantry, sponsoring the coat drive, participating in Family Promise, running the Furniture Bank, becoming involved in refugee resettlement by fund-raising and eventually helping in more hands-on ways. 

            Anyone who benefits from government assistance or who has unsuccessfully applied knows that the existence of government programs doesn’t get any faith community off the hook for helping to meet people’s basic human needs.  I was with the synod clergy last week when our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton told us that Lutheran Services in America is the largest non-profit social service agency in the U.S.  Lutheran Christians are committed to ministering to the hungry, the homeless, the ill and the imprisoned; we are in the forefront, welcoming refugees and immigrants.  With the Holy Spirit’s help we can see mirrored in every human being the image of God.  By God’s grace we are able, at least sometimes, to recognize our incognito Christ the King in “the least of these who are members of [His] family.” 

            The first lesson from Ezekiel is an interesting go-along with today’s parable of the final judgment.  The God who ultimately sent our Lord Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the great shepherd of the sheep, announces, “I will shepherd my sheep.”  We find out why earlier in the chapter.  Human shepherds, that is, religious leaders, including kings (remember, Israel was a theocracy) were bad, faithless shepherds, alternately fleecing the flock, eating members of the flock, and ignoring the flock so that many went astray.  The shepherds now represent pastors, elected officials, teachers, coaches, Scout leaders, anyone in public service, entrusted with the well-being of the community. 

            Bishop Eaton reminded us about Luther’s two kingdom theory.  He pointed out we are part of two kingdoms: a spiritual kingdom governed by God and a civic kingdom governed in his time by emperor, kings, princes, magistrates, and in our time by elected officials.  He was part of the Holy Roman Empire; we are part of the United States of America.  In his explanation to the 4th commandment Luther emphasized that the baptized have a holy responsibility to obey duly appointed civil authorities. We may part ways with Luther because not many or not any of us believe every elected official is a divine instrument appointed by God as well as the people, but we can agree that we have a holy duty to hold their feet to the fire so that God’s kingdom may come more and more fully among us.   This is why we have a Lutheran/Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of NJ, taking the Gospel mandate to care for the poor to the halls of power.  This is why we not only fill shopping carts with food but lobby our legislators about feeding programs.  It’s why we not only offer temporarily homeless families shelter in a nearby church basement but lobby our legislators for affordable housing.

            The blessing of living in our nation is that we have a vote and a voice to determine how we are governed and how our society provides for and protects the most vulnerable.  Christ our King most often travels in disguise.  He dwells within the last, the lost, the least. 

“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.”

Amen.

Rev. Mary Virginia Farnham